Image of a protest in Hong Kong during the summer of 2019. (Studio Incendo | Wikimedia Commons)

For most of the Boston College community, the recent siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University by police pursuing pro-democracy protesters was a compelling news story glimpsed via TV, the Internet, or print media.

But “A,” a Hong Kong native studying at BC, did more than observe.

As police tightened their hold around the campus, some Hongkongers sought to slip in and bring to safety those trapped inside. Among the rescue parties were friends of A, who kept in contact by encrypted phone apps to help them avoid getting captured, or worse.

“I tried to let them know where the police might be coming from, what were the best escape routes—any information that might help,” said A, whose name is withheld here out of his concern for family members and friends.

Media reports of the stand-off, which lasted nearly two weeks, showed protesters escaping the campus by sewer tunnels or shimmying down ropes to board waiting motorbikes. No definitive numbers of successful escapees have been given. A said his friends were able to get in and out safely.

The improbable rebirth of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, five years after the “Umbrella Revolution” starkly revealed the territory’s tensions with mainland China—which administers the region—has been one of the year’s most gripping international developments. A has not lived full time in Hong Kong for several years—he has dual citizenship in the European country where he attended school—but he maintains strong ties there, not least because of his family members. He keeps in touch through social media and other means, follows news however he can, and maintains hope that Hong Kong can retain its legal and economic systems. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate, he says.

“If the movement stops, there is no second chance,” said A, interviewed late last month. “If we lose, the Chinese government can, and will, restrict our freedom. So for Hong Kong, and the young generation in particular, this is a fight for survival.”

A’s historical impression of Hong Kong during its 156 years as a British colony is of a place rife with racial inequality and corruption, but which improved beginning in the 1970s, when Murray MacLehose became governor and enacted a wide range of reforms. His Hong Kong memories are of a big, bustling city where pedestrians are impelled to move quickly across busy streets, its numerous shopping malls always packed. But hundreds of thousands emigrated after the Sino-British agreement paving the way for China to assume authority over Hong Kong in 1997, while guaranteeing its governmental and economic systems for 50 years.

A cites the Tiananmen Square massacre as a key flashpoint in Hongkongers’ concerns about life under Chinese administration: Many people, including members of his family, began obtaining dual-citizenship status in the United Kingdom and United States, as well as Canada, Australia, and other countries.

"So for Hong Kong, and the young generation in particular, this is a fight for survival."

--"A," a Boston College student from Hong Kong

A was abroad when the 2014 pro-democracy protests began, as Hongkongers expressed displeasure over electoral reforms they saw as allowing China to pre-screen candidates for the territory’s chief executive position. “China wouldn’t allow universal suffrage,” he explained. “They said, ‘We’ll let you vote, but we’ll choose the candidates you can vote for.’”

Protesters—many of whom carried umbrellas as protection from pepper spray and tear gas from police—occupied three districts, including one housing the government headquarters, for two months but were unsuccessful in wringing concessions from China.

“I knew many friends who were at the occupation for a day or two; everybody seemed to know someone who had taken part,” said A. “When the movement failed, there was a lot of despair and lost hope, and you would hear many people talk about emigrating.”

The protests that began back in June—over a proposal to extradite suspected criminals to the mainland, which opponents claim would result in suppression of activists and journalists—were a pleasant surprise for A. He believes the extradition bill was not so much the cause of the backlash but rather “the trigger” that rejuvenated the nascent pro-democracy elements in Hong Kong.

The scope of the protesters’ demands broadened beyond withdrawal of the extradition bill (which occurred in September) to include universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s legislative council and chief executive, an investigation into alleged police brutality, the release of arrested protesters, and a retraction of the official characterization of the protests as “riots.” The so-called “Five Demands” became the cornerstone of the democracy movement.

While Hongkongers studying abroad have not personally experienced the turmoil back home, they have concerns of their own. According to the Associated Press, Hongkongers at U.S. colleges have reported tensions, even clashes, with students from mainland China who view the pro-democracy movement as a threat to Chinese territorial integrity and rule of law.  

A, who makes no secret of being a Hongkonger, said he has not had any conflicts with Chinese students at BC. But shortly after arriving in Boston in August he took part in a pro-Hong Kong march that was met by Chinese counter-protesters shouting “Hong Kong will always be a part of China.” According to A, a middle-aged Chinese man approached one marcher with the apparent intent of physically attacking him; police intervened shortly thereafter (A did not witness whether an attack actually took place).

The pro-democracy movement was cheered recently by U.S. sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and the overwhelming triumph of pro-democracy candidates in the Hong Kong district council elections. But these events by themselves are widely viewed as unlikely to push China to change its hardline approach.  

Universal suffrage is more crucial for Hong Kong than ever, A believes. “China has already started taking away our freedom and trying to replace our rule of law by rule of man. It is now necessary for us to get democracy immediately as a tool to protect our freedom and the rule of law. If we don’t win now, Hong Kong will become a place where political dissidents are no longer safe to live in, just like China. Without the rule of law, who knows what the police and the Chinese government will do to people who get arrested in the mass prosecution that comes after the failure of the movement?

“So besides fighting for democracy and protecting our freedom, the movement is also a fight for literal survival.”


—Sean Smith, Univeristy Communications