Stevie Cortez, Fordham College at Lincoln Center ’21, is majoring in political science and minoring in philosophy and journalism. She writes for opinions and features, focusing on international politics and the perspective of the American working class. Stevie hopes to one day work as a foreign correspondent.
My Experience Studying Abroad During the Hong Kong Protests
September 23, 2020
As I lay bleeding on a smoke-filled street in Hong Kong, with Molotov cocktails and unidentified projectiles whizzing over my head, I wondered if this was really how my study abroad experience was going to end. Although I was in pain, I didn’t want to go home yet; my friends were still on the front lines. Who would tell their story if they were arrested, or killed?
Since the beginning of the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong, millions have risked their lives to protest against the Chinese government. They believe their freedoms are being encroached upon by a government whose ultimate goal is to control Hong Kong.
In the fall of 2019, I studied abroad at the City University of Hong Kong. The resulting semester was perhaps the most valuable in my life, but not because of academics: I was able to attend and document the pro-democracy movement alongside my fellow students.
During this time spent interviewing protesters in the pro-democracy movement, I realized that people are ready and willing to die for their freedom, and that Hong Kong’s story is absolutely worth telling. It’s a classic fight between good and evil with an underdog, a seemingly unbeatable enemy and lots of heroes. I know because I was lucky enough to meet them.
For those unaware, Hong Kong is not a city. It’s a Special Administrative Region of China. This means that while it is technically part of China, an agreement made in 1997 allows Hong Kong to have a separate governmental system. The common slogan for this arrangement is “One Country, Two Systems.”
It is an arrangement that Hong Kong’s protesters believe is dissolving every day as China grasps at control of the region. Before 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony. This aspect of its history contributes to a special cultural identity, one that enjoys a high degree of freedom of expression and embraces many Western values.
Furthermore, Hong Kong has a free market economy and boasts a successful international financial market. The region has its own currency, language, social media sites, celebrities, music, movies and public school curriculum. In fact, fewer than one in 10 Hong Kongers identify as primarily Chinese, according to survey data from June 2019.
Its uniqueness alone, however, is not the reason why Hong Kong has captivated news cycles around the world for almost two years. It has held the global spotlight because it is the battleground of a vigorous fight for freedom, free speech and autonomy against one of the richest and most powerful governments the world has ever seen.
The catalyst for the initial protests was the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill in 2019, which would make it legal for Hong Kongers to be extradited to China. China has a 99.9% conviction rate.
Read that again. 99.9%.
It requires no stretch of the imagination to wonder why Hong Kongers fear the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill. Couple the statistics with the fact that Hong Kongers are especially vulnerable to being ill-favored by the Chinese government, and it’s easy to see why this bill was so hotly contested.
My first encounters with the protests weren’t the famous marches, but rather small shows of unity in my neighborhood. The mall nearest my university was particularly busy with demonstrations. Fliers posted on the university campus and its surrounding parks announced protest times and locations in both English and Cantonese with eye-catching student-designed art. I remember reading a flier for a “music protest” and deciding to attend out of curiosity. Participants were urged to bring any instrument they played and to be prepared to play “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of the protests. That day, musicians young and old played in the mall while shoppers gathered to sing along.
It was powerful, and it made me feel like I was witnessing something extremely important, something pure. I decided I was going to see more.
The first march I attended was with a friend born in Hong Kong. Jack, like most protesters, was polite yet adamant that I leave his name and pictures out of my writing. Fear of government surveillance, facial recognition software and retaliation is the norm. I was lucky to have Jack, since he clearly knew the geography of the city and could help give me insight into the mindset of someone fully invested in the fight. He told me how China has been slowly chipping away at Hong Kong’s government, trying to control more and more aspects of Hong Kongers’ lives. We laughed about the nicknames for police and protesters and at protest-related memes.
Before we set out to join the march, we waited in a restaurant for Jack’s other friends. When they joined us we ate and talked the way people our age would at any meeting. No one acted as if we were about to advocate for, or even risk, our lives. It wasn’t a heavy moment. This was life in Hong Kong, marked by duality.
The first part of the march was like any other protest, perhaps even like one you might encounter in New York City. It was raining; people were walking together, carrying signs and chanting slogans like “Reclaim Hong Kong” or “Hong Kongers, Add Oil.” “Add oil” means to keep fighting, to persist. It’s a common saying turned political by the protesters. Another surprisingly common rallying cry was “Do You Hear the People Sing?” a song from “Les Misérables” about the French Revolution. We marched for hours, and as the sun grew low in the sky, the police emerged.
Most of the larger marches have permits from the government approving their activities and specifying a start-stop time and route. Most protesters leave before the deadline, but it isn’t easy to fully disperse thousands of people in a small area. As soon as the clock strikes on the stop time, police become combative.
On the walk home from the protest, the streets filled up again with people going in the same direction, likely toward their own neighborhoods. Suddenly we heard shouting, and as I turned around I saw a projectile fly through the air. This was the harbinger of Hong Kong police: tear gas.
All I know is that whatever broke my leg that night and left me with a scar was fired by the Hong Kong police.
I remember running with the crowd and being confused. I didn’t understand what had prompted this attack. I was overcome with stimuli: shouting, the pounding of my Doc Marten boots on the cobblestone, the passing of streets I didn’t recognize and then the smell. I smelled fireworks, but more sour.
Even thinking about this smell brings me back to the streets of Hong Kong. Tear gas attacks your mucous membranes: your eyes, nose, throat, lungs. I couldn’t stop coughing, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was angry: No one had attacked, no one had provoked and there were children here! How could they use this poison?
Time would reveal how much more brutal things would get.
The brutality soon sparked a wildfire, and protesters began to mobilize. These people weren’t the peaceful marchers I had seen earlier, but a new breed wearing helmets and gas masks. They set up barriers between themselves and police and threw rocks and bricks to keep the police at bay. I couldn’t believe the demonstration had become an exchange of violence so quickly. The police were trying to silence the dissenters, but it was clear they would not go out without a fight.
Protests continued through the fall semester almost nonstop, but in early November, a breaking point was reached, and the ensuing chaos changed the lives of millions. A general strike was announced for Nov. 11, and demonstrations were planned throughout the city. In order to get people to stay home from work and school, protesters disrupted traffic and the train systems. Police quickly set out to clear the blockages but were met with firm resistance by protesters.
The environment on campus promptly changed. Classes were canceled, graffiti was sprayed inside the buildings and security cameras were ripped out of the ceilings. Suddenly every student was a protester, every day-to-day activity halted. A turning point from which there was no return had been reached. It was obvious that the students at City University had chosen their side in the conflict. This alliance made them a target; it was rumored that police were moving in on the universities to arrest students suspected of protest-related activities.
In response to these rumors, students began fortifying the residence hall areas and the campus. The night of Nov. 11 was the first night of many I would spend wide awake, listening for the sounds of advancing riot police officers.
The next morning I woke to the smell of tear gas drifting through the windows of my dorm room. Police gathered on the street outside the residence hall were launching tear gas inside the gated residence area. I was shocked: Our campus was being invaded.
At this point, other international students began to leave. I was disappointed with their decision to abandon the local students we had befriended throughout the semester, who had told us their hopes, dreams and fears for Hong Kong. I wondered who would tell their story if the international community left. There were no CNN cameras here, but this campus was where history was unfolding.
I was lucky enough to find someone who spoke Cantonese to help me conduct interviews of protesters, and from then on I lived to capture the story of Hong Kong. I was granted exclusive access to besieged campuses in the height of their crises, using secret entrances blocked off by protesters guarding their schools. I operated on no sleep for days. I saw blood on the same streets I had walked through weeks before.
On the night of Nov. 17, as I tried to reenter the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong, I was caught up in a standoff between protesters and police. Tear gas clouded my vision, and the fine mist of a nearby water cannon hung in the air. Protesters used umbrellas in a Spartan-style formation to hold a line opposite to the police. They crept forward and were pushed back by the police and their weapons. I crouched to the far side of the commotion, in the area where the press and medics gathered in their brightly colored vests. I assumed this skirmish would disperse eventually, and I’d be on my way. I was wrong. Luckily, my GoPro and iPhone were rolling.
Above the chaos, I heard a boom and then felt a heavy impact on my left leg. I knew immediately that something had happened, but all I could do was turn and run with the rest of the crowd as they retreated. As I regrouped with my translator in a safer area I began to feel pain, the wetness of blood and the warmth of swelling. Volunteer medics (truly selfless heroes) cleaned and dressed my wound. I suspect I was shot with a tear gas canister; however, these weapons are not intended to be shot straight into a crowd, but rather in an arc trajectory. A tear gas canister to the face can kill.
All I know is that whatever broke my leg that night and left me with a scar was fired by the Hong Kong police. As the anniversary of the November university siege approaches, I reflect not on my experience but the experiences of those who suffered worse fates. My inability to check on the well-being of the people I interviewed haunts me; my admiration and concern for them was infinite even in the small time we interacted. I’ll never know if they’re OK or if they were arrested or critically injured.
Newly implemented government restrictions have slowed the momentum of the movement, but I know Hong Kongers won’t give up. I also know that the trauma faced by the young people of Hong Kong won’t disappear, or at least it hasn’t for me. Occasionally when a door slams I feel my adrenaline surge, undoubtedly from the long nights spent on high alert. I despair at the way Hong Kong’s fight for freedom has dwindled in the news because the world has so much to learn from the courage of its tireless protesters. I am certainly thankful for my time with them, despite the mental and physical costs. I know one day I will return to Hong Kong. Hopefully, I will see it set free.