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"If they don’t change, we will burn with them": Meet the youngsters manning the frontline of the Hong Kong protests

At the forefront of the pro-democracy protests against Hong Kong's goverment – and China – are the "frontliners" engaged in an increasingly violent struggle with a repressive state. 

Paris, a 20-year-old former student, sits on the pavement next to a Hong Kong tram stop defaced with anti-government graffiti, surrounded by hundreds of protesters milling around. The crowd is trapped on all sides by police and many want to go home, but they will have to wait for volunteer drivers or take their chances changing out of their signature black clothes and dumping their gear.

Later, it will emerge that the police have shot a teenage protester with live ammunition, and the day, 1 October, will subsequently come to be remembered as one of the most violent since protests began in early June.

But now, despite the feeling of dread in the air, Paris says she feels the best she has in weeks after finally returning to the streets to protest today, on China’s National Day. 

“My anxiety has disappeared. I get anxious every single day. Even when I’m doing stuff like publicity [for the protests] it doesn’t go away,” she says. 

Paris has stayed away from the frontlines in recent weeks due to a combination of exhaustion and concern that the stakes have become increasingly high as arrests of protesters have pushed past 2,400. Violence has also escalated on both sides, while the former British colony has begun to take on a dystopian feel on protest days as shops are shuttered, streets emptied and pro-China businesses smashed amid fiery barricades, clouds of tear gas, and blue water cannon spray.

Rumours also continue to fly that police may have killed protesters or sexually assaulted them in detention, while Amnesty International has released a report that police have used unnecessary force in arrests and detention. 

Returning to the same chaos each weekend may seem like a strange and dangerous choice, but for frontline protesters like Paris, the endless dance with police appears almost impossible to stop despite the increasing stakes and personal toll. 

As a group of a few hundred leaderless young people in their teens to early thirties, "frontliners" are driven by a combination of political fatalism, anger and a romantic sense that they are taking part in Hong Kong’s last stand against an authoritarian future led by a pro-Beijing government and mainland authorities before its period of semi-autonomy from China ends in 2047.

While most frontline protesters were either children or not even born at the time of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, they nevertheless all grew up in the shadow of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests in Beijing, whose crackdown is commemorated each year with a massive memorial service. They have also watched as China, who many hoped would liberalise as it grew rich, has become an increasingly repressive place under the leadership of Xi Jinping. 

Closer to home, political liberties have been slipping since the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as pro-democracy leaders were sent to prison and others disqualified from political office. The city also saw its first political party banned since 1997 for calling for independence from China.  

As Hong Kong’s latest political crisis, sparked by a proposed legislative bill that would have changed the city’s extradition agreement with China, has escalated into an all-out offensive against the police and government, frontline protesters see their actions as the only thing keeping the city together, even as it appears from the outside to be falling apart. 

“If this time we lose, there is no hope because the [Communist Party] will keep controlling us in many ways,” says 24-year-old designer Anson, at a meeting a week earlier with Paris and Cat, a 20-year-old frontline medical volunteer.  

“Hong Kong is becoming a police state. It’s scarier than in 2014, because five years ago, I also participated in the Umbrella Movement. I saw the police just stood there and did nothing but now they want us all arrested and to sit in the police station for 48 hours for no reason,” he says. 

Anson, along with Paris is one of Hong Kong’s most controversial protesters. While Paris says weak arm strength has kept her from throwing much at police, although she has lit barricades on fire, Anson has taken part in throwing bricks and molotov cocktails at police lines. 

He claims it is a defensive tactic, to protect protesters behind the frontline from being charged by riot police, but it’s one that has been denounced by the government as an example of rioting by violent radicals. 

“I throw things – bricks, petrol bombs.  When we throw things it’s about buying time for less radical protesters to run away,” he says. “It’s scary but police guns are more scary.”

Anson is the most outspoken in the group about the Communist Party of China although similar refrains have been heard throughout the protest movement, which has gradually taken on a more anti-Communist bent in recent weeks. “Every problem in Hong Kong now right now does stem from the fundamental flaw of the Hong Kong government being under the CPC and under the Chinese government,” says Paris. “I would personally advocate for greater autonomy in Hong Kong.”

While protesters have had five key demands since June – one of which has been met by leader Carrie Lam with the withdrawal of the extradition bill – they have been joined by calls for democratic reform. The protests have shown many residents that Lam, who was chosen by a group of just 1,200 special electors, is beholden to Beijing in a way many may not anticipated despite the promises of the “one country, two systems” agreed between the UK and China.

“From the Hong Kong government’s point of view, they think it is an issue by issue situation. ‘You have a problem with the extradition law, so we retract that – you should be happy right? Why aren’t you happy?’” says Cat.

“But from our point of view, it’s the whole set up and the whole system of government. They don’t understand that really they’re the problem.” 

At the centre of these political fears, however, is how such changes will impact protesters themselves. Arrest and detention seem to be accepted with a stiff upper lip and a heart to heart with parents, but the future itself is more dark and hazy. 

“I can’t imagine [the future] really,” Paris says of Hong Kong’s full reintegration with China. “I guess, I’m mostly thinking about my future when I think about Hong Kong’s future. If the movement fails and Hong Kong becomes another Chinese city then I cannot really see my future.”

“We just seem united but we aren’t very united. We will keep separated into many parts because we have different opinions from many groups,” says Cat. “I think it’s OK that everyone is fighting for his or her own personal reason. I think it’s better than all saying, ‘I’m fighting for freedom.’ I think Hong Kong people are just saying the beautiful things and not saying the truth that ‘I’m just fighting for me’ or some more personal reason.”

Fighting for such personal causes has kept frontliners on the streets for 20 consecutive weeks. They have played a key role from the beginning of the protest movement, first clashing with police on a small scale on 9 June, the day a reported million people first took to the streets, and then with greater fury on 12 June when they surrounded the Hong Kong government complex.

Over the ensuing months, the excitement and adrenaline of those early days has faded into an angry determination as protesters have upgraded their gear and tactics to meet an evolving police response. Black t-shirts, a symbol of the protest movement, have become full black outfits often topped with body armour and homemade shields.

Tactics have changed as well, from simply building barricades with nearby debris, to lighting them on fire, to throwing Molotov cocktails at police lines and finally small homemade explosive devices. “Hong Kong Independence” banners and a new protest version of the Hong Kong flag in black and white have also appeared on the frontlines. Graffiti has turned from focusing on Lam and the police to including Xi and the Communist Party.

Once united in small groups or “cells,” these days most frontliners go out individually to protest, although they remain united over Telegram and Whats App. The risks are too great to bring friends so instead strangers meet up for a brief moment of unity before dispersing, although it can still end in feelings of futility, shame and guilt. 

“A lot of time, it’s just a one off,” Paris says of joining forces with other frontliners. “You see them, you don’t leave contact [contact information such as a phone number] and then maybe you see them again, but you still don’t leave contact. Then you see them the next time being arrested on livestream.”

“Most of the time, I go in alone, I meet a new bunch of people and they re-disburse afterwards. Even for people I only met once, sometimes I really think about them, even if it’s from July or August, now I wonder have they been arrested yet? How are they doing? I do want to know how they are doing but we don’t want to leave Telegram contact… but I’m still worried about people I don’t even know the names of.”

Anson and Cat have also worked primarily alone, particularly after Anson was arrested and forced to leave several protest Telegram groups. Cat, who has joined and left his share of groups, has stopped attending protests entirely after he developed post-traumatic stress disorder following a particularly violent incident.  

Yet when they are off the streets, the protests still take over much of their life. Cat said he frequently “feels bad” about not taking part while Anson said he “can’t stop watching news or live videos about the demonstrations”. Paris can’t sleep. None will see a social worker, afraid that the mandatory file could be used as evidence against them in a legal case. 

So they throw themselves back into the protests helping in whichever way the can: joining the frontlines, moderating telegram groups, translating statements for the media, designing posters and other promotional material. Paris is now a spokesperson at the Citizens Press Conference, a regular event organised by protesters to speak to the media. 

Without a central leader to arrest like during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Lam appears intent on letting the protests burn themselves out as she has dragged her feet on meeting demands. Her first community meeting with members of the public ended in disaster after the building was surrounded by protesters while she appeared almost intent on provoking protesters by using emergency powers to ban face masks at demonstrations. 

Rather than defuse the situation, she has isolated and radicalised a significant segment of Hong Kong youth. While frontliners may be the most extreme of Hong Kong protesters, they still appear to have some popular sympathy, offered help from strangers in the form of car rides, subway tickets, snacks and water and refuge in churches and apartment buildings. Fellow protesters attend their court proceedings and release from police detention, while they are depicted as heroes in protest posters and publicity materials. 

In recent weeks, as scaled-back subway services have prevented protesters from moving around, vandalism of pro-China businesses and subway stations has become the latest means of venting frustration. Mob violence has also been seen against pro-China bystanders or even police officers on some occasions. 

With nowhere to defuse their anger and frustration – and no political solution on the horizon – Hong Kong appears to be entering yet another new phase of scorched-earth protesting even as foreign media attention has begun to dim. It’s an anger that would be difficult for even a competent government to defuse.

“We may stop protesting but our government is beholden to the CPC so now I can see no future if the government is not voted in by us or is completely reformed,” says Anson. “There is no hope, no future. So we [scorch the earth]. If they don’t change, we will burn with them.” 

Erin Hale is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong