The protester was 17 years old when he was jailed for possession of a Molotov cocktail. After spending almost two years, partly in solitary confinement, he saw his world reduced to a stainless steel toilet, the glare of security cameras, and harsh winter evenings that numbed his limbs.
When he was released last year, he stepped into a city that was suddenly moving faster than he remembered. He had problems calling buses and taxis and ordering food from the menu. While his friends graduated from high school and moved on with their lives, he was sent back to high school – a disillusioned 20-year-old rebel among teenagers busy with math problems and dating.
He doesn’t know where he stands in this new Hong Kong, and there were times when he locked himself in his room and dreamed of being behind bars again.
“Life in prison was easier. People make all the decisions for you,” said Alex, who, like other former protesters who spoke to The Times, gave only his first name for fear of retribution. “It’s ridiculous. People won’t understand, but when I was released, I had the feeling that prison was my place.”
Three years after Hong Kong was engulfed in violent riots over calls to contain China’s encroachment, imprisoned protesters who made an indelible image in their yellow helmets, gas masks and black clothing began to seep back into a society where many of the freedoms they fought for saving, disappeared.
Confused and frustrated, they struggle to reintegrate into a city transformed by a two-year national security law that has eliminated political dissent and made people like Alex outcasts for daring to challenge Beijing’s authority. The city that once gave them hope has lost its unabashed cosmopolitan vibe, much of which is driven by a globally connected younger generation, under the watchful eye of a communist state.
“After I got out, I found out that my friends were either in jail or left Hong Kong,” said another recently released protester named Oliver. “I thought we’d meet again, but the meetings turned into FaceTime calls.”
Career and academic opportunities for former protesters have dwindled. Friends and relatives fled to other countries. Democracy plans were thwarted. For many recently released demonstrators, simply staying in school or staying at work is a win, especially against pandemic routineeconomic slowdown and rising inflation.
“Their release from prison is just the beginning of a long road to completion,” said John Mack, co-director of social services group Project Change, which offers legal support and counseling services to young protesters. “I get a lot of emotional stress seeing people around them leave. They are still trying to figure out the value of their convictions.”
More than 10,000 Hong Kongers have been arrested following protests that began peacefully in 2019 in response to China’s proposed extradition bill. Demonstrations spiraled out of control as calls for more autonomy were met with tear gas, police batons and an intransigent Chinese government led by authoritarian President Xi Jinping.
Among those arrested, 2,850 were prosecuted on charges such as riots, illegal gatherings and possession of weapons. official data show. So far, 1,172 people have been sentenced to prison, most of them high school and university students. They were later joined by big names such as media mogul Jimmy Lai, who was arrested last year in a crackdown.
Most prison terms are between three and four years, so many former protesters have been released in recent months.
Their ability to start life anew may be a litmus test of how a city of 7.5 million people, facing international pressure for human rights violations, is determined to fight a protesting generation and heal its civic wounds. By the looks of it, China has abandoned them, channeling its energy into instilling patriotic education and weekly flag-raising ceremonies into the next generation.
An oath of allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party would have been highly unusual not so long ago, when Hong Kong still had opposition legislators, active independent media and a stable of human rights lawyers. Under the agreement on the transfer of Hong Kong with the UK, which ruled Hong Kong as a colony until 1997, China granted special autonomy to the territory for 50 years. The protests gave Beijing an excuse to terminate the agreement, stripping the city of many of its freedoms and exposing the West’s inability to curb the growing bold as well as repressive Chinese regime.
“Hong Kong is rising from the ashes,” Xi said during a recent visit to the city to mark the 25th anniversary of the British takeover, which became a winning circle after Beijing crushed the last remnants of government opposition in the Asian financial hub.
The repressive political climate has brought chills to Hong Kong’s colleges and universities, where many former protesters have returned.
Derek Tai graduated summa cum laude from the Chinese University of Hong Kong but lost his chance to participate in an exchange program in Germany when he was arrested in 2019. for an illegal assembly near the Hong Kong Legislative Council building.
A 25-year-old philosophy student was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison. He thought life would return to normal after his release last year. Instead, he was summoned to the university for a disciplinary hearing and handed him two tickets for “damaging the reputation of the school”.
He was not alone. All of Tai’s peers released from prison were brought before a group of professors and students who decided whether they should be allowed to continue their studies.
“Flaws are the most common,” Tai said. “Some people are suspended. Some are sent to community service. The worst is exile.”
Tai intends to apply for a doctorate abroad, but he is unsure if flaws in his transcript will ruin his chances of admission or scholarships.
“I have already paid a criminal price,” he said. “It’s a double punishment.”
While government leaders in Hong Kong have said they welcome the idea of giving young protesters a second chance, redemption in the eyes of Beijing supporters, is unlikely. The laws guarantee that their arrest records will follow them for life.
Among the Hong Kong Ordinance on the rehabilitation of offendersfirst-time offenders sentenced to less than three months’ imprisonment or fined no more than HK$10,000 (approximately US$1,274) may have their conviction expunged if they do not commit a new offense within three years.
But protesters accused of participating in illegal gatherings or riots or possessing weapons – the three most common charges linked to the 2019 protests – are sentenced to far harsher sentences than the ruling allows.
“Even carrying a ‘weapon’, in most cases a laser pointer, resulted in a six-month prison sentence,” said Sung Yun-win, an associate professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Project Change.
Song called for more flexibility in the law, citing major arrears in lawsuits in Hong Kong. A protester arrested as a minor in 2019 could be charged as an adult by the time his case is finally heard.
“If we really want to help them reintegrate into society and heal the wounds of 2019, it will take a lot of time and effort from the entire village,” Sun said.
Until then, the former protesters must live in a city that feels new, scary and strange, even if they are viewed with suspicion.
After serving 20 months behind bars, a 27-year-old electronics engineer named Kwan said he has become more circumspect about his views. He probably won’t take to the streets to protest again.
He felt deeply guilty that his mother had to take public transport for hours every day to his prison just to chat with him for 15 minutes through a glass plate and a squeaky phone. Meanwhile, Kwan’s girlfriend followed up on his requests in prison, Googled the philosophical terms he had read in the book and the lyrics to Cantopop songs, and then printed out the results for him.
On June 4 this year, he briefly considered traveling to Causeway Bay, the area where Hong Kongers held annual candle-lighting pickets to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. banned by the authorities. Only the most steadfast die-hards still dared to go. Kwan chose not to. He could not subject his loved ones to another arrest.
“I won’t let them wait for me again,” he said. “My family suffered too much.”
Oliver, who spent more than two years in prison after being charged with crimes such as rioting and possession of weapons, gave up his career as an engineer to return to prison, this time to help other protesters and their families.
The 26-year-old now visits prisons to deliver books, shampoo and snacks such as jerky and M&Ms. He recently organized a group meeting for mothers whose children are imprisoned or imprisoned. He explained to them what life is like in prison and how families can plan dates and write letters.
“If I’ve learned anything while in prison, it’s that you can only live in the present moment,” Oliver said. “If you cannot predict what will happen in the future, take care of each other, help others whenever you can. That alone is enough.”
Liu is a special correspondent. The Times staff correspondent David Pearson from Singapore contributed to this report. This story was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.