The newspaper headlines that have bracketed my summer trip to Hong Kong have been dark. In mid-July the city, once a British colony and now a Chinese Special Administrative Region, was mourning Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner and Nobel Laureate who died of cancer under custody. At the same time, a local Hong Kong court disqualified four elected lawmakers from the Legislative Council, their oaths of office deemed disrespectful of Beijing’s sovereignty.
On the eve of my departure one month later, three young leaders of Hong Kong’s democratic movement—Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong—have been sentenced to prison for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Then college and high school students demanding the direct election of the next Chief Executive, they led a charge on the government’s Civic Square that set off seventy-nine days of street protests, the largest Hong Kong has ever seen. For this they have been found guilty of illegal assembly and incitement, with sentences ranging from six to eight months.
Though only in their twenties, each of the three students has had a storied political career. Alex Chow, 27, was a leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and helped organize Occupy Central, a campaign which preceded the more broad-based Umbrella Movement. Another university leader, Nathan Law, 24, became the chairman of Demosisto, a political party founded in the wake of Umbrella. In 2016, Law was elected Hong Kong’s youngest-ever legislator, only to be one of the four removed this July. Joshua Wong, 20, began his activism at the tender age of fourteen as the founder of Scholarism, which led a protest against Hong Kong’s proposed national education. The secretary-general of Demosisto, he is perhaps the most recognized face of the pro-democracy movement.
Despite the photos of Joshua Wong on Friday’s covers of Chinese and English newspapers, nothing else looks amiss. The Hong Kong summer is as hot and humid as ever, the sky a brilliant shade of blue. During rush hour the subway is thronged with people and in the evening the shopping centers fill up with families out for dinner. Schoolchildren have just started classes again this week, the girls’ uniforms much the same as those of my mother’s generation: dresses with mandarin collars, white socks with Mary Janes.
As my taxi speeds from the central business district to the university out in the New Territories, the driver speaks of the Umbrella Movement as a thing of the past. His college-age daughter participated and he and his wife had worried. They supported her, he says, but hoped she would not stand too close to the front. But had there been bullets, “Hong Kong people would have flooded the streets. We would have rushed out too; after all, our daughter was out there.”
Who can blame the cab driver for his initial reticence and eventual relief? He is concerned for his daughter’s future, and rightly so. Hong Kong is one of the most unequal societies in the world. The new minimum wage is $4.40 U.S. (34.50 HKD), and almost half of the population lives in housing projects. Lucky to be among the one in five high school graduates in a public four-year university, on graduation the daughter will make an average of $1,877 U.S. (14, 685 HKD) per month in the world’s second-most expensive city. Young people may never be able to afford to have their own family, much less buy a home.
In many ways current conditions are more insidious than the bloodshed feared three years ago. The space for civil society has tightened, the prison sentences for the three young men following the similarly revised sentences of thirteen charged in protesting a government development project. From academia to the media, free speech has come under attack, from flagrant cases like the kidnapping of booksellers to the quiet self-censorship of teachers and journalists.
China may suggest that the persistence of street demonstrations in Hong Kong—such as the annual July 1 march—evince its freedom of assembly and speech, but this rings hollow in face of the prison sentences, pursued by the government after the three had already been sentenced to community service and a suspended three-week jail term. Legal scholars argue that this move by Hong Kong’s Department of Justice is deeply political. According to Human Rights Watch, for Law and Wong to receive a new sentence after completing their community service may violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
However, the average Hong Konger cannot afford to make such cases his primary concern. Unlike the elite of the city or of mainland China, he holds no foreign passport. Unlike the poor even in China, he cannot move to a place where the cost of living is lower or where he can find a better job. He needs to “wan sihk,” to make a living, where he stands. And so the government will focus on making sure there is bread and, if that is not enough, then there are circuses—whether they be local media sensations or American scandals that no longer surprise.
Those who have made Hong Kong’s future their main occupation pay a heavy price. They and their families meet with harassment and intimidation. While ordinary participants worry about their job prospects, student leaders are blacklisted. With their prison sentences, Chow, Law, and Wong are blocked from standing for office for another five years. Thus the prosecutors sought not only jail time, but also a high-profile, individual form of the political disenfranchisement that brought protesters to the streets during the Umbrella Movement.
On Sunday, over 20,000 people took to the streets to oppose the sentencing, which Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, insists is not political. People of Hong Kong, those students who stood at the front are your children too. Their disinheritance belongs to us all.
Denise Y. Ho is assistant professor of history at Yale University.