I have never seen so many people before in my life. On June 9, 2019, hundreds of thousands of people dressed in white marched slowly but steadily across Hong Kong Island.
The heat and humidity were almost unbearable, but protesters from all walks of life arrived prepared with neck towels, folding fans and umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. It is never easy to capture the scale of a crowd, but the intense and palpable energy that emanates from the masses of people who had come together for common values is not something that a photograph can convey.
They had gathered to protest an extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent to trial in mainland China. At the time, it appeared to be one of the gravest insults to “one country, two systems,” in which Hong Kong was allowed to operate in relative autonomy, since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. Organizers estimated that Millions of people had left, or almost one in seven of the city’s population.
A few days later, the police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds at thousands of young protesters who had surrounded the city legislature before the second reading of the bill. I had just left Hong Kong to give a conference on the other side of the world, but returned on the first flight I was able to take. Although the tear gas clouds had barely settled, I knew I had to get home and do my job.
I was in time for another protest on June 16. The million-strong march on June 9 had defied expectations, but what was seen as excessive use of violence by police further prompted a week later to leave. This time, an estimated 2 million attended. I knew I was where I belonged: documenting my home and my people as they rose up en masse for shared values.
For those of us who are privileged to live under functioning governments, it is easy to take for granted the institutions that form the pillars of an open and just society. But in the months that followed those June protests, I witnessed Hong Kong’s rapid and terrifying descent into authoritarianism. The police force, long considered competent and trustworthy, acted with increasing impunity when it became clear that their superiors would not only condone but defend excessive use of violence and strikingly unprofessional behavior in the face of ridicule of protesters and journalists. beatings of detained citizens.
It seemed that with each passing day, the rule of law faded in barely perceptible increments. It was the realization that the normal rules of urban existence no longer applied, as the police fired rubber bullets and protesters threw bricks into normally crowded streets. It was watching police officers grow bolder and increasingly violent without facing repercussions. Reading the news a year after the first extradition protests, Beijing had bypassed the Hong Kong legislature to implement a sweeping national security law criminalizing dissent. The law, along with the Covid pandemic, effectively and indefinitely put an end to street protests.
He had photographed marches with hundreds of thousands of people, lunchtime demonstrations in the financial heart of the city, human chains miles long, and countless arrests. I had spent a week inside the Polytechnic University, which the police besieged after the protesters took control, and I documented the violent climax of the movement with more than a thousand detained over 12 days. But in mid-2020, with national security law possibly making even the chanting of a slogan punishable by life in prison, people were too afraid to speak up.
With no protests to photograph, it seemed like a good idea to take a break and study for a master’s degree in the UK. But it was with a heavy heart that I saw the situation continue to deteriorate from afar.
In January 2021, authorities arrested dozens of activists under the national security law. In one fell swoop, it was as if the entire cast of characters in the history of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, one that he had been covering for years, were arrested, in jail or in exile. Just a few months after my arrival, the government announced a visa scheme for passport holders of British nationality (abroad), which were issued to those born in colonial Hong Kong. Thousands applied immediately. With waves of exiles arriving in the UK and no protests at home, I found myself photographing Hong Kongers protesting in Britain.
On June 12, hundreds of people gathered in London to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was surreal to be surrounded by Hong Kongers again, hearing the sound of Cantonese and the familiar chants that were ubiquitous in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, but now prohibited by national security law. At home, thousands of policemen successfully prevented mass gatherings. A lawyer was arrested for encouraging people to protest.
A former Hong Kong legislator, Nathan Law, now asylum in the UK, spoke on the makeshift stage about the resilience of the Hong Kong people. He was followed by a survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre and then a Uighur woman whose family was detained in Xinjiang. At the edge of the crowd, a group of protesters from Myanmar held banners in support of the pro-democracy movement. The atmosphere was gloomy, but the conversations were comforting and banal: we wondered how long we had been here, what food we missed the most, and what local restaurants to try.
The protest did not attract much attention, and the attendance of so many newcomers Hong Kongers only highlighted the extent to which the political development of the city had regressed. But it didn’t seem to matter whether or not the demonstration had an impact. It was enough for the protesters to find themselves together in a foreign land, their mere presence was an act of hope and solidarity to which they could cling. while his city, 6,000 miles away, was silent.