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Hong Kong protests: “I’m witnessing the fall of the city I love”

Hong Kong protests: “I’m witnessing the fall of the city I love”

Having grown up in Shanghai, Minnie, a 34-year-old protester, has special cause to be worried about China’s growing influence over Hong Kong

Having grown up in Shanghai, Minnie, a 34-year-old protester, has special cause to be worried about China’s growing influence over Hong Kong

Caroline Carter | June 20th 2019

This month Hong Kongers have taken to the streets for some of the largest protests the city has ever seen. The initial demonstrations were against an extradition law the Hong Kong government wanted to pass that would allow, for the first time, suspected criminals to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party. One group of protesters, mainly women, went on hunger strike, planning to drink only water for 103 hours to represent the 1.3m people said to have marched on June 9th. They set up camp on a walkway overlooking Harcourt Road, a major thoroughfare where the government’s offices are based.

By the time I meet Minnie, a 34-year-old sociology lecturer with a pink streak in her hair, she hasn’t eaten for 56 hours. She’s striking because “I see the suffering of this city and I want to symbolise that suffering in an individual life.” Her stomach has started to ache and her hands are shaking. Dressed in black, she sits cross legged on the floor on top of sleeping bags and yoga mats. There are four other women and a male student when I visit, although the total number of hunger strikers is 24. We are outnumbered by armed policemen who surround the camp, keeping one eye on the strikers and one on the road below, where thousands of protesters had gathered the previous morning.

Minnie and her fellow strikers had been watching when violent clashes broke out between the protesters and the police, who used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. “We looked into each other’s eyes and said ‘we need to sit down.’” She passes me her phone to show me a photo of two lines of people sitting on the floor. One of the women, wearing pink, has her hands on her head. Another photo shows policemen looming over them holding huge plastic shields. “I was not sure whether I would be beaten.”

Protesters on Harcourt Road outside the Central Government Offices

The protesters come from a variety of backgrounds: students, young mothers and grandfathers marching alongside construction workers and lawyers. Minnie is unusual for being from mainland China – she moved here to study in 2008. When she was younger she was, she says, conservative and patriotic. “Back then I even admired the communists.” But at university in Shanghai she refused to join the Communist Party. Her dad tried to persuade her, but she asked him: “Why do I have to join the party to love my country?” She told him she wanted to be a libertarian.

Minnie’s family, most of whom are members of the Communist Party, still live in Shanghai. She says her father didn’t worry when she moved to Hong Kong. “In the mainland we always imagined that people in Hong Kong and Taiwan were all together, that we are all brothers and sisters. No way that they would not love their country!” But Chinese students are watched when they travel. During the Occupy Central pro-democracy protests in 2014, she wrote two Facebook posts praising the discussions at one of the camps. “Hardly anyone ‘liked’ them. But months later my father told me, ‘I know what you did in Hong Kong.’” Two national-security officers had visited his home and shown him the posts. They told him that she was producing propaganda as part of the core group of protesters. “I wasn’t, but he believed them over me.” Minnie says Shanghai has changed since her childhood: “In recent years the space for free speech is tightening.” Since Xi Jinping became president in 2012, the Communist Party has stepped up its campaign against liberal values, and many people suspected of dissent have been arrested.

This time she hasn’t told her family about the protests, although she has posted status updates on Facebook with images of the hunger strike. “I don’t want to make my family worried, and I don’t want to spend too much extra energy arguing with them.” Some of her old friends call her a traitor. “They say ‘don’t forget you are from the mainland.’ But in Hong Kong I am regarded as a brainwashed mainlander who has been civilised into Hong Kong ways!”

A protester faints during a clash with police

Her first impression of Hong Kong when she arrived in 2008 was that it was free and open, and that you could talk about you wanted “without fear”. A decade ago, she says, locals were friendlier to visitors from the mainland than they are today. Minnie’s new classmates invited her to join the annual vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the people killed in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. It was the first time she’d heard about the massacre. “I was very scared and worried.” But she was also “suspicious” about what her friends had told her: “Were they trying to brainwash me?”

“I tried to argue against everything I had heard. I didn’t believe that anyone had been killed and [presumed] that the students [killed in the protests] had been violent. But a voice inside me was asking ‘how did you know that?’ My mind was searching hard for the source of information. But I found nothing, and that really scared me.”

It provoked three years of intense reflection, during which she “restructured” what she knew about China, and herself. “It feels like the system in your body was totally toxic, you need to cleanse to get rid of the poison from your body…but you have no idea where that poison is.” She realised that she was “no longer a patriot” but wondered “who I am if I am not that kind of Chinese?”

After fasting for 85 hours, Minnie was hospitalised with low blood sugar and heat stroke. Before the end of the hunger strike the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced that she was suspending the bill. But protests are still going on; many Hong Kongers, believing that Lam has not gone far enough, want her to withdraw the bill and resign. Minnie was pessimistic about the future, worried that freedoms would be curtailed in the same way as they had been in Shanghai. “For the second time in my life I am witnessing the fall of the city I love.”