‘I went from chilled out Hong Kong student to battle-hardened protester contemplating suicide’

A year ago, I was just a normal, chilled out student, focused on my university grades and hoping for a lucrative career ahead. I considered myself as typical of my generation, idealistic, with peace-loving values that would never have let me contemplate using violence to achieve a political goal.  

I’m only 21, but I’m now unfazed when dodging rubber bullets and choking on tear gas on the streets of Hong Kong. Instead of writing my overdue thesis, I’ve faced stun grenades and seen horrific injuries on the front lines of terrifying clashes with the police that will haunt me for years to come.

China calls us “thugs” and “rioters” and the police taunt us as “cockroaches,” so I want to tell my story of how a studious Masters undergraduate like me, who barely had the nerve to speak to strangers, is now bold and infuriated enough to engage in street battles with heavily armoured riot cops.

The past few weeks have been particularly traumatic and have taken their toll, after two university campuses where I’ve studied and used to laugh, carefree, with friends, have been turned into war zones, literally burning land.

My sleep is now broken by fragmented nightmares about the bloodied faces and gruesome wounds of young people fighting with the police at the gates of Chinese University in mid-November. Some could no longer see and had to be guided back from the front lines.

There were so many of them that the scene imprinted on my mind, where it constantly replays and torments me.

A week later, I was one of hundreds of protesters trapped by the police when they besieged the Polytechnic University and I called my worried parents to prepare them for my possible arrest. If I had not escaped, I would have faced ten years in jail.

I never would have thought I was that guy. But my story is now one of fighting to regain a future that seems lost – not only my personal aspirations for my own family and career, but for the freedom of the city I love and grew up in, which is slowly suffocating under the tyranny of Chinese rule.

The protest movement has been condemned for throwing bricks and Molotovs, for trashing metro stations and torching Chinese banks. People have wrongly accused us of getting financial, or even sexual, benefits.

So I want the outside world to know the truth, that we’re not pursuing wanton destruction, that we’re struggling, in the best way we know how, and against an enemy that has the power to crush us, for democracy and the freedoms that the West takes for granted.

We’re fighting fear and depression as an oppressive darkness slowly engulfs our city, and it has involved much personal risk and sacrifice.

If you were denied the right to elect your own leader, or suffered police brutality but had no recourse to justice. If you faced jail or sanction for publicly expressing your beliefs and a future of escalating, forceful state control of your most fundamental freedoms. Ask yourself, what would you do?

I’ve been involved in the protests since June, operating alone, sometimes in the background simply handing out water, and other times at the burning barricades.

If I’m honest, I’m still really afraid of the riot police, but I think that standing up to them is the right thing to do. The first philosophy my parents ever taught me was to consider what is right and what is wrong.

I did not tolerate violence at the start of the movement, but I sadly realised early on that the use of force may be necessary to bring about change. I don’t believe it’s the only way, but I’m now convinced that peaceful sit-downs are not going pressure the government to respond to democratic demands that we’ve been making now for six months.

My own turning point was on July 21 when local gangsters attacked innocent members of the public in Yuen Long metro station, and the police were so slow to react. Many were badly hurt and it left us powerless and aggrieved, with nowhere to turn for justice. I don’t believe there is any debate that the police were not in collusion with the gang, and public trust was broken from that moment.

That’s when I knew that it was a movement that was much bigger than my own personal needs.

I believe that violent protests would fizzle if they did not have the support of the majority, but not everyone agrees that it can be justified. I’ve lost several friends, including someone I was very close to, as well as 6kg in weight due to stress.

My mental health hit rock bottom a few weeks ago when a young man, the same age as me, fell from a height in a car park during a protest and died. When I found out he didn’t make it, I was deeply upset.

At my lowest point I considered talking to a doctor as I was having suicidal thoughts and couldn’t focus on anything. There were clear symptoms that I needed help, but eventually I was able to pull myself out of it and heal.

I’ve somehow been driven to take more risks, stretching the limits of my courage.

When I saw the tense standoff developing at the Polytechnic University last week, I felt I needed to be there to support the other protesters. It was a complex situation, very emotional. People were angry, some afraid, but we were all very determined to on fight off the police water cannons.

The situation rapidly deteriorated by Sunday night and we underestimated the police force. By the time they had surrounded us, we were trapped and many people just want to leave. 

There was a lot of confusion and arguments about whether to stay or whether to leave by an exit that the police had indicated would be a safe passage. One group left and we believe they were immediately arrested.  

I was in the second group and was forced to run back inside. We tried to work out a solution with the police but about five to ten minutes later they threw a stun grenade at the entrance. The explosion hurt my eardrums and I was terrified, realising that the danger had dramatically escalated and expecting officers to storm inside.

I found a couple of companions and we ran to hide. I managed to call my parents and told them I might get arrested. I could hear the fear in their voices but I told them to remain calm as I needed their help.

We were in a secure hiding place but I didn’t sleep much that night. We were checking our phones and knew that there were huge crowds fighting from the outside to try to rescue us.  We were thankful but we knew deep inside that it might not work.

The police had so much more power than us, better weaponry, if they didn’t want us to leave we wouldn’t be able to. It was very depressing to realise that we were waiting to get arrested, like a long painful process.

But early on Monday morning we were presented with a chance to make a run for it and we took a leap of faith. I still have scratches on my arm where I clambered over a barbed wire fence, and my foot was badly injured although I didn’t realise it when I was making an adrenaline-fuelled dash to safety.

The police spotted us towards the end of our flight, and I think they shot something at us – my companion had holes in his backpack. But I didn’t look back. I got courage from members of the public who were waving their arms, encouraging us to keep sprinting, and I kept my focus on the finishing line. When we reached safety, I burst into tears.

After what I’ve experienced, I know my own life will never be the same. I’ve changed my ambitions, and now I want to pursue a career that will help others. As for the movement, I don’t know if it can keep up the current momentum, but the aftermath will last for decades.

The possibility of the government meeting our demands is very low. But I don’t believe we are protesting because we already have hope, we are protesting because we want to generate hope.

We can never surrender, even if we do not achieve all of our goals. There’s no going back now, it’s just too late.

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