Photo courtesy of Charlie Fong.

Hong Kong’s Dying Democracy: Portraits of a City

As Hong Kong’s autonomy comes under threat with increased crackdowns on freedom of speech and expression, we speak to five Hong Kongers to understand what they think of their changing city.

May 2, 2021

“There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly,” former lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng pleaded to a court right before she was handed a suspended 12-month sentence on Apr. 16.
Ng, along with eight other democratic activists, was convicted of organizing and participating in an unauthorized assembly in August 2019. The activists were sentenced 8 to 18 months in prison for involvement in a peaceful march that attracted hundreds of thousands of people.
This is just one of many blows to the city’s autonomy in recent months. In March, China’s top legislative body overhauled the election system, decreasing the number of democratically elected seats and mandating that only “patriots” could compete for seats. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the act as a “continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong.”
The purportedly self-ruled city slipped to rank 80 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, where it formerly ranked 18th in 2002. Last week, journalist and producer Bao Choy was found guilty of making false statements to obtain vehicle ownership records while researching for an investigative documentary on the Yuen Long mob attacks that showed gang members violently beat up pro-democracy protesters.
Crowds chanted “Reporting is not a crime!” as Choy walked out of the courthouse. “I think the verdict was not only against me, but against all reporters in Hong Kong,” she lamented.
Amid this changing political landscape, we spoke to five Hong Kongers from different walks of life to understand their perspectives on what is happening to their city.
“I used to feel proud of calling myself a Hong Konger, now I just feel helpless.”
Szekei Tse is a student in her last year of secondary school. Born in Guangdong and raised in Hong Kong, she has been in the local school system all her life and now plans on studying architecture at the University of Hong Kong after her public exams.
“We tried to shake things up in 2019, yet the government not only refused to listen, they increased the crackdown on people’s voices,” she bemoaned, referring to the protests in 2019 that started in opposition to a controversial extradition bill and transformed into a wider pro-democracy movement. “They are trying to brainwash the next generation through national security education and putting up a farce that they’re benevolent. This is absolutely irresponsible and bizarre.”
The government implemented a national security education day on April 15 after a controversial national security law was enacted in the city. Students handled weapons and participated in other patriotic activities that day.
“Hong Kong seemed to have changed overnight. It felt like yesterday when we had a democratic electoral system and free speech,” she sighed. “Now, increasingly more people think that we’re just a part of China.”
“To me, this plant really represents Hong Kongers, it survived even when it didn’t have soil or water. We always say we have the ‘Lion Rock spirit’, which means never giving up and persevering through tough times. I am confident that even though we are continuously silenced, we will live through the cold winter and remain rooted in our ideals.”
Photo courtesy of Charlie Fong
“There is a brain drain due to a wave of emigration. Many of my friends are going abroad and have no intention of returning as well, as they fear what’s going to happen to the city,” Tse said.
“I’m staying mainly because of football. I’m a part of the Hong Kong futsal team and a football club that I call family, so I’d like to continue developing my skills here.” Tse added. “Yet this place is only a shadow of what it was before, I guess all I can do right now is to do my best and equip myself for the future.”
“Whether it makes history or simply keeps a record, there is value in photography.”
Paul Yeung is a freelance photojournalist who has worked for international news agencies such as Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg. He divides his time between working as a photographer and teaching photojournalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“In the past, we had the freedom to report on different issues, but now we definitely need to be careful of what we say and write,” he noted, referring to Choy’s conviction for investigating vehicle ownership records. In fact, Choy was Yeung’s student in his first year of teaching at the university.
“I was so shocked when I heard that [the authorities] arrested her for looking up license plates,” he recalled. “It was so absurd and I was furious, but there was nothing I could do except going to her court hearings to support her.”
Though Yeung acknowledges that press freedom in Hong Kong is under attack, he thinks that there is still room for independent media to thrive unless the government puts a complete ban on pro-democracy news outlets.
“We have to be more cautious, such as protecting our sources and being aware of potential legal traps that could land us in trouble,” he added.
“During the PolyU Siege, I saw several student protesters crawling out of a barbed wire fence. The police were on the other side so they couldn’t really see them, but if I raised my camera to take a photo, they would be alerted. I thought for a moment and ultimately decided not to photograph them, I think they were able to escape in the end. In the past I would take photos of everything, but now there are many ethical concerns and struggles I have to take into account.”
Photo courtesy of Charlie Fong
“I used to cover the conflicts and protests on the frontlines but I’ve stopped [doing] that due to health reasons,” Yeung explained. “I feel a bit guilty that I’m not able to stand right there with the people, but I hope that I can do my part by covering lesser known issues on the sidelines and other features.”
“Some of my students are passionate about a career in photojournalism and I try my best to help them get started,” he shared. “Other photojournalists say I shouldn’t encourage them because this field is so underappreciated here, but I think that young people should work hard to achieve their dreams. When I take photos, I take them for people five or 10 years down the line. I hope that one day they can see my photos and understand what went on in our day.”
“You can be a Hong Konger as long as you love Hong Kong.”
Maison Li is a student researcher at an international school. His recent project investigates the identities and sense of belonging among international school students in Hong Kong.
“There is very little research surrounding the implications of international schooling on students’ processes of identity, formation and belongingness,” he said about the genesis of his project. “It raises the question of what role does international school play in shaping a student’s identity and how that can be seen from a sociocultural perspective and even a developmental psychology perspective.”
Li noticed that ethnically Chinese Hong Kongers who attend international schools like to be seen as separate from mainland Chinese: “Imagine a scenario where they have to introduce themselves abroad, they put a great emphasis on being from Hong Kong and it can be [attributed] to political terminology and cultural nuances.”
While international school students are typically seen as apathetic towards local politics due to their privileged position, Li argued that there is an involuntary linguistic and cultural barrier that prevents them from connecting as passionately with current events: “These students are definitely sympathetic and sometimes even empathetic towards the causes, rationales and emotions of participants of political movements. It is only that they do not know… the role that they play or are allowed to play in Hong Kong societal affairs.”
“The term third culture kid can also be applied to [those] holding Hong Kong citizenship but orient themselves more with outside or western cultures,” he suggested. “There is this emergence of new identities and belongingness.”
“To be a Hong Konger you do not have to be from Hong Kong,,, nor do you actually have to live here. You can be a Hong Konger as long as you love Hong Kong.”
Photo courtesy of Charlie Fong
“My field of study is quite connected with service in less developed areas, so I may very well venture onto other places, but it doesn’t mean that I’ll be further away from Hong Kong,” he shared.
“It’s very difficult to define a Hong Konger. This form of identification can be drawn along so many lines [such as politically and culturally]... so I would avoid trying to subscribe to identification based on certain terminologies and just have a more unique identity surrounding my own experiences and beliefs.”
“In revolutions, there must be sacrifices to bring about glory.”
Victoria Ip is a first-year student at the University of Hong Kong studying law and politics. Although she did initially ponder leaving the city for further studies, she ultimately decided to stay because of the political crises in 2019 and 2020.
“I remember I was having my exams in 2019 when the protests happened. Me and some other friends who are passionate about politics and law immediately dashed to the protests Central and Admiralty after our exams,” she recalled. “We saw from a distance tear gas being fired and protesters getting beaten up by police. That moment was so heartbreaking.”
“One major reason that I ended up staying here for university is because I think there’s still hope in this city. I believe that there is still a group of people who will uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong,” she shared.
Ip admits that it might be a bit naïve to believe in hope when the city’s political climate looks rather bleak, but she is encouraged by lawyers such as Margaret Ng who sacrifice their lives and careers to fight for justice: “I’m impressed by how they tell us not to give up even though everything seems so hopeless. I don’t think I can give as much as they could, but I still feel very motivated by them.”
“What’s important is that many Hong Kongers haven’t given up fighting for democracy. Many of them are being imprisoned yet they tell us to keep going. These arrests are depressing, but the silver lining is that they haven’t lost heart. They still believe that they can come back in a few years time and work towards a better future.”
Photo courtesy of Charlie Fong
“We can see that the Chinese government has increasingly been using their authority to undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong such as through the enactment of the national security law,” she suggested. “It is rule by law rather than rule of law.”
“It’s rumored that the university will make all law students take Chinese law next year,” she bemoaned. “This is gonna catalyze the deterioration of our freedom and rights. The legal system that we value is gradually descending into a Chinese one.”
“The day I give up on hope is the day I’m no longer fit for my role.”
Chapman Fu is a pastor at an English-speaking church and recently became a father after getting married to a Singaporean. He lived through the British colonial period and the days after the handover to China. Though he was born and raised in Hong Kong, he sees himself as a third culture kid as he is very immersed in the international community.
“We used to look out for one another because even though we’re different in many ways, we’re still Hong Kongers. Now when we meet someone, we first look at their political [stance], like are you yellow (pro-democracy) or blue (pro-Beijing). We judge people by where their stand on certain political issues without getting to know their story,” he bemoaned.
“It’s not just what has changed that worries me, it’s also what has not changed,” he pointed out. “This is the place that still talks about money, this is the place where we still only care about [the] economy. The government thinks that if they give us money they can keep our mouths shut and this has not changed over the years.”
Fu noted that across the border in mainland China, many people are willing to sacrifice their freedoms for economic and social stability. He fears that Hong Kongers will eventually grow complacent in their fight for democracy as well and settle for a comfortable lifestyle.
“The common theme in Hong Kong right now is despair,” he shared. “Some people are willing to take mental drugs to numb the pain by turning to entertainment and vacations [and] other materialistic things.”
“As a Christian, we talk about values that transcend materialism. We talk about spiritual life, something that is way beyond. Being a pastor means that I’m an advocate for things that are intangible, I do hope I can share and model [the message] that there is still hope,” he added.
“Hope is part of my daughter’s Chinese name as it literally means hope for the dawn. If we already see the dawn then we don’t need to hope for it. Her English name is Meghan. It means pearl and a pearl is the product of perseverance. In the Bible it says that out of suffering there will be perseverance, out of perseverance there will be character and out of character hope.”
Photo courtesy of Charlie Fong
“I think there is still hope, although it might not look like what the majority in the city have been trying to fight for in the past two years. That ‘hope’ may not look like freedom or democracy, but there is still hope in that we can live life differently.”
“In order to see light, in order to see hope, you need a backdrop of darkness and despair. The Bible is full of stories of darkness and how light prevails or how people hold onto hope. I guess I have lived a comfortable life for the past thirty-ish years and now it is time for me to live a life that resembles what I’ve been reading in my Bible.”
Charlie Fong is News Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo