By the time Grace¹ arrived at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019, she had forgotten the date and the day of the week—the longer she spent protesting, the more time seemed to fray around the edges. She was battle hardened and exhausted. Hong Kong’s police were employing increasingly authoritarian tactics against pro-democracy protesters like her. She had become accustomed to the smell of tear gas and the sound of canisters squealing as they arced overhead. She knew the feel of protective gear on her face and the heft of flame-resistant gloves on her hands. Compared with those things, the date didn’t matter.
Grace is in her early twenties, a political-science student. She first joined the protests, hopeful and bold, in June 2019, during the annual candlelight vigil that takes place in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. She was intoxicated by the idea of the movement, the feeling of bodies united together in a cause. A swelling in the chest, a sense of hope and desperation—she had never experienced anything like it.
Months of sustained protest followed, and Hong Kong was haunted by scenes of violence in the streets, at the airport, and on the MTR (the city’s metro). Protesters initially had set out to derail an extradition bill that would allow the government to transport accused criminals to mainland China, but as law enforcement cracked down and videos of brutality spread, the movement’s focus shifted to ending police violence and demanding that all Hong Kongers be able to vote for the city’s highest-ranking officials. Despite those progressive goals, there was an end-of-days feeling to the protests. A disquieting thought hung in the back of Grace’s mind: Hong Kong was dying, and she was helping it make one last stand.
Huge marches were followed by smaller actions. Protesters broke up into leaderless pods. Years of arrests and kidnappings had made putting anyone in charge too risky. Protesters developed a strategy, embodied in the slogan “be water”—assemble for an instant, then drain through the surrounding streets—allowing them to clash with police and avoid arrest. It was inevitable, in retrospect, that the strategy would sometimes fail. That the water would pool and become trapped.
PolyU was a hive of activity when Grace arrived on what turned out to be November 14. Protesters had occupied the school and were using it as a base of operations. PolyU students who had joined the demonstrations prepared meals and set up a supply room full of clothes, gas masks, and first-aid materials. They put sleeping mats in the gym. Older protesters took younger ones under their wing. Some demonstrators set up lookouts on the roofs of school buildings, arming themselves with bows and arrows. In the student-government headquarters, a group gathered to discuss an action intended to stymie nearby traffic, bringing a busy part of Hong Kong to a standstill.
Over the previous five months, Grace had become an efficient, unflappable protester—a far cry from the person she had been before, someone unpolitical and naive. “I was just a normal girl in Hong Kong,” she said of her life before the movement. At PolyU, she knew how to keep calm, proceed from task to task, ready herself to face the police.
Looking back, she can’t remember the exact moment when law enforcement reached the campus—she only knows that the atmosphere changed. The bustle of preparation turned to confrontation and then panic. A protester watched from a rooftop as armored vehicles lined up below. As an opening salvo, police in SWAT gear shot canisters of tear gas into the building where the protester was perched. “I didn’t have any mask. I didn’t have anything on me,” the protester later said. “From that moment, I just thought, Oh God, they want us all to die.”
A normal Hong Kong girl, according to Grace and other protesters, is a student who wears a uniform, works hard, and occasionally goes out to buy bubble tea with her friends. “In Hong Kong, children are scared of the sun,” a protester who goes by the alias V told me, only half joking. “They don’t like walking, and they don’t like running.” They study. They go to school. They come home. They don’t spend much time thinking about politics.
That was Grace growing up. She was born too late to remember a time when Hong Kong wasn’t part of the People’s Republic of China. The handover happened in 1997, after more than a decade of negotiations between Great Britain and the PRC. The new constitution, called the Basic Law, established the policy of “one country, two systems”—Hong Kong could govern itself for 50 years, during which Mainland China’s laws would not extend to the city. Still, the PRC held sway. The Basic Law, for instance, promised freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, but it gave the National People’s Congress in Beijing the power to interpret those rights. Hong Kong was not a democracy, but citizens held on dearly to the idea that it was at least autonomous.
During Grace’s childhood, Hong Kong had an independent judiciary and a freewheeling economy, with few of the controls that limited capital flows in the mainland. And as China’s economy gradually opened up, it offered substantial opportunities for Hong Kong’s elites, whom Beijing actively courted. In Hong Kong, business and governance are directly connected. Only half the seats in the city’s governing body, the Legislative Council (or LegCo), are elected by the people. The other half are reserved for so-called functional constituencies, industry-based voting blocs that effectively allow corporations to shape policy. As the businesses that formed those constituencies cozied up to mainland China, their interests aligned more and more with Beijing’s.
In 2003, a proposed national-security law that would have limited free speech and introduced the crimes of subversion, secession, and sedition—all of which are invoked to punish dissidents in the mainland—was scrapped after 500,000 people took to the streets in protest. (Organizers estimated the crowd at that size; police put the number at 350,000.) In 2010, people demonstrated again, calling for universal suffrage and protesting the arrest of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and activist from the mainland.
Grace, still in grade school at the time, was only vaguely aware of these events. She knew that her parents voted for pro-democracy candidates in LegCo elections, and she knew about the annual Tiananmen vigil, where people wearing white—a mourning color—lit candles and sang songs. Her perspective began to change in 2012, when the city’s National Education Services Center moved to instate a pro-China “moral and national education” curriculum in schools. Pamphlets promoting the curriculum were distributed throughout the city, emphasizing the need to build a national identity and criticizing multiparty systems for causing “malignant party struggle” in the United States and elsewhere. “We will never be independent,” the head of the National Education Services Center told CNN, “so we should learn to think the same way as China.”
That July, some 90,000 people, many of them students Grace’s age, took to the streets to protest what they saw as a brainwashing effort. (Police again put the turnout much lower, at around 32,000.) There was a hunger strike and an occupation of legislative offices. Grace didn’t join the demonstrations—her parents opposed them—but then the pro-China headmaster at her school instructed a group of students to circulate a petition in favor of the new education regime. Her peers asked Grace to add her name. “They weren’t mean about it,” she said. “They just wanted to get the signatures as fast as possible so they could get it over with.”
The petition prompted Grace to think about the ideas raised by the new curriculum and about her own cultural identity. Hong Kong was not mainland China, and she was not mainland Chinese. She was a Hong Konger. She found it annoying that the headmaster had foisted the petition on students. Grace refused to sign. It was the beginning of her political awakening.
She wasn’t alone. Across Hong Kong, there were teenagers who increasingly spent time estimating the value of the freedoms they enjoyed and guessing at Beijing’s intentions. Among them was V, an aspiring musician, whose sister also wanted to fight for democracy. Terra was another, a science student at Hong Kong Chinese University with an excellent GPA. Yet another, Jack, took cues from famous resistance leaders, reading Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon. All these young people would eventually wind up at PolyU when protesters occupied it. Like Grace, they later shared their stories with me.
First, though, came the Umbrella Revolution.
In 2014, Beijing proposed changes to how Hong Kong chose its most powerful official, the chief executive. Traditionally, the chief executive had been selected by a committee of electors, many of them loyal to Beijing. China’s new plan would allow Hong Kongers themselves to vote for their leader—so long as Beijing approved the candidates.
Thousands of citizens, led primarily by students, mounted a resistance. Grace joined a student strike, boycotting her classes. Other young people marched in front of then chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s home and outside the legislative building, where LegCo was required to approve China’s plan for it to go into effect. They erected tents along a stretch of highway next to the building and built a camp, a progressive community where art projects were scattered among supply caches and sleeping bags. Protesters set up barriers, distributed protective goggles, and organized first-aid teams. They established supply lines so they wouldn’t have to leave their positions; they could maintain the pressure day and night. There was even a study tent where students could go to keep up with their schoolwork.
Police in Hong Kong had dealt with large-scale protests for decades, but their response in 2014 was uncommonly aggressive. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. The police used tear gas for the first time since 2005, when they launched it into crowds protesting a World Trade Organization meeting. Law enforcement threw 87 canisters at the LegCo protesters, who carried umbrellas to shield themselves. Nineteen days into the 79-day protest, a TV news crew caught seven plainclothes police officers beating a protester named Ken Tsang on video and broadcast the footage to the city. Many Hong Kongers were outraged.
Despite police violence, the pro-democracy movement intended to remain peaceful. Johnson Yeung, a former leader of Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, an organization that represents student unions at Hong Kong’s universities, told me that protesters wanted to believe that their adversaries were rational actors. The thought was, as Yeung explained it, “If you provide some room for an authoritarian regime to coexist with you, then they will give you some allowances.”
As the protests stretched on, Grace became more and more interested in what was happening. Her father was moving in the opposite direction. “My dad thinks Hong Kong is free enough,” she said. He considered the protests disruptive. There were clashes with police in a residential neighborhood called Mong Kok. Traffic in the city often ground to a halt. Grace’s father didn’t see the ragtag beauty in the protest camp. “My dad wants a stable society and doesn’t want a ruin in the place where he lives,” Grace said.
The protests ended in December 2014 when a court ordered the camp outside LegCo cleared. Protesters dispersed largely without incident; by the time police showed up, many people had already left. Still, approximately 200 pro-democracy legislators and activists staged a sit-in. They were arrested one by one, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.
The following June, the legislature voted against Beijing’s revised election plan. But it was a hollow victory—no other reforms were put forward, which meant that the chief executive would continue to be selected by committee.
Following the protest, the situation in Hong Kong worsened. In mainland China, a crackdown on lawyers and dissidents was underway, and Beijing’s harder line was increasingly felt in the city. Late in 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers who stocked books banned by Beijing were kidnapped and taken to mainland China; they subsequently resurfaced in videos admitting to crimes like “illegal book trading.” One of the accused confessed to involvement in a fatal drunk-driving incident. He was eventually convicted of “providing intelligence overseas.” (Since then, only one of the booksellers has been released; he fled to Taiwan.)
In the 2016 LegCo elections, six candidates were disqualified by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders for expressing support for the city’s independence. After the election, an additional six legislators were expelled from LegCo for the way they took the oath of office. Some coughed at key moments. Some mispronounced words—“People’s Republic of China” sounded more like “People’s Refucking of Jeena.” (The oath is recited in English.) Others shouted pro-democracy slogans, and one person spoke the words extremely slowly.
The following year, three of the Umbrella Revolution’s most vocal leaders were sentenced to several months in prison for their roles in the movement. Having a criminal record would prevent them from running for political office for five years.
By the time protests reignited in 2019, many young people felt that their strategy needed to change. “Beijing is writing the rules,” Yeung said. “It is hard to outcompete an opponent who is writing and breaking the rules whenever they want.” A consensus emerged that pacifism was not the only answer. “Through violence you recognize your own power,” said Jack. “You can stand up and oppose the government.” He considered Beijing a colonizer—and he was determined to fight back.
Grace didn’t want to go to her first demonstration alone. Her boyfriend, whom she met online before the protests started, wasn’t interested. While he supported the movement, he preferred to stay off the front lines. (He didn’t want to speak with me for this story.) Her older sister would join the protests, but not until later. Most of her friends were focused on their studies. They “didn’t have similar goals,” Grace said. “They would end up being soft protesters, rather than going to the front line.” Meanwhile, her father detested the protest movement more than ever; he thought Grace had been brainwashed by outside forces.
Grace had always considered herself an independent and self-sufficient person, but she worried about crowds and the potential for violence. So she called a friend, and on June 4 they made their way to the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.
The 2019 memorial was charged. That February, Hong Kong’s government had proposed the extradition bill, the piece of legislation that would make it legal for people who were wanted for crimes in China—Hong Kongers such as the booksellers—to be extradited to the mainland. Protesters had been active ever since. On the daily news, Grace had watched the pro-democracy crowds grow. She was in university by then, and studying revolutionary movements in her classes. She watched the movie version of Les Mis over and over.
At the vigil, she lit a candle and kept close by her friend. She was awed by the crowd and the people around her. “I felt I was in union, that we all had the same beliefs and thoughts,” she said. “I could feel hope and love from the crowd.” Grace knew she would be back. Five days later, she headed out again.
The second protest Grace attended drew nearly a million people, according to organizers. (Police put the number at around 240,000.) Grace was still nervous, so she again went with her friend. A sea of people wearing white and holding signs packed Hong Kong’s roads. Grace and her friend left the protest before nightfall, when law enforcement moved in. The police clashed with the remaining protesters on the road outside LegCo.
Grace watched on television as protesters toppled traffic barriers and the police responded with pepper spray. She was home safe, but she didn’t want to be, not anymore. She decided to join the next protest, scheduled for June 12, in a more official capacity.
Hong Kong protesters communicated with one another on the messaging service Telegram and a website called LIHKG. The latter, a threaded discussion forum similar to Reddit, restricts connections to Hong Kong ISPs, which made it more difficult for outsiders to infiltrate the movement. Both allow users to remain anonymous.
Protesters took care to protect their identities. “I would not use my real phone,” Jack said. Like many, he used burners so the police couldn’t track him. Whenever possible, he didn’t use a phone at all. “People prefer to meet in private spaces face-to-face and not leave any record,” he said. Online, people rarely shared personal information, only what was necessary to prove they weren’t police: a snapshot of an ID or a staff card indicating where they worked—proof, presumably, that they weren’t law enforcement. The images often remained available for only a short time.
People used digital platforms to organize into teams—protest cells tasked with performing a singular function. A team might run supplies, provide first aid, clean up after protests, or protect the walls of Post-it notes that had popped up all over the city, filled with messages of support for the movement. Everything was fluid. Teams might decide to change function mid-protest or plan their own actions, apart from the big events.
Grace answered a call on Telegram to join a supply team. She would help gather masks, helmets, water, and umbrellas—whatever protesters needed to protect themselves—and distribute them at the planned action on June 12. Grace arrived at a safe house the day before the protest. There were students and parents, wealthy people and workers. Veteran demonstrators taught her how to use gas masks and to protect fellow protesters. When returning to the safe house, for instance, she shouldn’t take a direct route, and she should never follow the same path twice. Some demonstrators changed clothes several times during a protest, to throw off anyone who might be following them.
The next day, more than 40,000 people gathered outside LegCo to protest the reading of the controversial extradition bill, the first step to its passage. Grace ran into the crowd, dropping off water and first-aid supplies. The reading was canceled, and a few hours later the police rushed the crowd. Grace fled. It was the first time she’d heard the smack of rubber bullets, the pop and whistle of tear-gas canisters. “I saw the movement of the crowd and grabbed my teammate’s hand,” she says. “We didn’t know where it would be safe to go.”
Some of Grace’s team wanted to continue ferrying supplies; others ran toward the confrontation with police. Grace followed the chatter on Telegram and LIHKG from the safe house, where she’d made it unharmed. She sent updates on what police were doing—their location, where they were headed—so that her teammates could get out safely.
The police penned hundreds of protesters in the courtyard of the CITIC Tower, an office building across the street from LegCo, and fired tear gas into the crowd. Videos spread online of protesters trying to get into the tower even as smoke from the courtyard filled the lobby. The police beat people with batons and pelted them with rubber bullets. As avenues of escape opened and closed, Grace did her best to inform her teammates.
Once the police ended their assault, the demonstration dispersed. Four people were later arrested at a hospital while being treated for injuries. In the days that followed, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, justified the aggressive response by claiming that there had been a riot. The protesters talked on message boards: Had anyone seen a riot? Grace hadn’t. No one had.
The police violence on June 12 made the protesters feel more united than ever. They came up with a list of five demands: withdrawal of the extradition bill; Lam’s resignation; an investigation into police behavior; withdrawal of the designation of the protest as a riot; and release of all arrested demonstrators. Four days later, Grace joined roughly two million protesters in the streets. (Police estimated the crowd at 338,000.)
The protests became a gathering storm—more frequent, closer together. On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the British, organizers estimated that 550,000 people rallied in the city. (The police reported around 180,000.) That night, protesters broke into the LegCo building. They unfurled the flag of British colonial Hong Kong and graffitied messages on the walls. A photo of the words “It was you who taught me peaceful protests were useless” went viral. Within weeks there would be a social workers’ march, a march of the elderly, a march for mothers—all of them in solidarity with the student-led movement.
Grace was almost never home. Her world was the streets. Every time she went out, she crossed paths with people who were at once anonymous and somehow close to her. She ran through a number of positions on teams organized by friends of friends or people she’d met on Telegram. She served as a lookout. She helped post art and spray graffiti. Eventually, she specialized in neutralizing tear gas. Wearing flame-resistant gloves, sometimes carrying tongs and a big water bottle, she would toss canisters away from protesters or douse them until they sputtered out.
Grace had conviction, one of her teammates said. She believed the movement could succeed. And she was happy to be working alone, without friends or her boyfriend or sister along. She knew people who protested with family members or significant others—though rarely on the same team—and recognized how difficult it was for them. “I saw people hug or kiss and then split up,” she said. “The couples would cry and say, like, ‘You need to come back safely and I will be here waiting for you!’” Grace was relieved that she didn’t have to worry about her boyfriend.
Her father called her phone nonstop when she went out. He demanded that she come home. Whenever she left the house, he shouted after her, “Don’t fight with the police!”
At the end of June 2019, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong found that a record number of city residents identified as Hong Kongers rather than simply Chinese. Meanwhile, the number of respondents who felt proud of being Chinese had dropped to an all-time low. Support for the pro-democracy movement was mounting.
Lam pledged to withdraw the extradition bill, but the protests didn’t stop. Amnesty International released a report decrying the treatment of protesters in custody, which in some cases the organization claimed amounted to torture—beatings, delayed access to medical care, forcibly shining laser pointers into detainees’ eyes. Journalists wore helmets and goggles to press conferences to protest what they described as a deliberate attempt by police to target the press. Law enforcement remained defiant, defending every action.
On July 21, following a protest in one of Hong Kong’s business districts, hundreds of men appeared on the streets in Yuen Long, a neighborhood an hour from downtown by metro. They wore white T-shirts—by then protesters had begun wearing black, while supporters of Beijing had adopted white—and carried metal bars and wooden clubs. At 10:30 p.m., the men began attacking people. Around 100 of them descended on a metro station and set upon anyone wearing black. Others were caught up in the violence: a pregnant woman, a journalist, random subway passengers. Local law enforcement arrived at 11 p.m. but did nothing. By the time police showed up with riot gear, nearly three hours later, the attackers were gone.
The pro-democracy protesters grew suspicious. Using thugs to carry out orders from the state is common practice in mainland China. A video circulated showing police officers talking to the men in white instead of arresting them. Law enforcement would take 37 men into custody over the next few months, on suspicion that they were linked to local triads, or criminal gangs. Only seven were formally charged.
Everyone felt the antagonism building. Grace narrowly missed being hit in the head with a rubber bullet at a protest outside the Sham Shui Po police station. Terra, the science student, recalled an officer pointing his rifle at her and her friends while they captured the scene on their phones. On August 11, police disguised as protesters attacked a dispersing crowd, beating demonstrators and crushing one student’s head against the concrete. He begged for mercy and spit out teeth as he laid in a pool of blood.
On August 31, protesters defied a ban on demonstrations and used the metro to move around the city, popping up in one place, then quickly moving to another. At Prince Edward Station in Mong Kok, on a platform packed with families and commuters, an alarm went off, and the police swarmed. They ran through the crowds, pushing people aside, looking for anyone in black. Videos showed people on the ground, putting up no resistance as police beat them with batons; first-aid providers being turned away from a man who was apparently unconscious; a couple huddled next to a stopped train, crying out as the police showered them with pepper spray.
Terra was one stop away, in Yau Ma Tei station, when a train from Prince Edward pulled in. “Suddenly, I saw people screaming and crying, and a lot of blood and umbrellas. It was a mess,” she said. Terra was not on a first-aid team; her job was cleaning up after protests. So she started picking up discarded gas masks while others tried to help the injured. She didn’t realize that the police were on their way. When they appeared, Terra dropped her bags and ran toward the escalator. Officers grabbed at her arms. “I felt like I’m not prepared to fight back. I’m not strong enough to push away a police officer,” she said. But she made it out of the station.
There were other incidents, too many to list. By the end of the summer, it was all but impossible to keep track. For Grace, time was starting to blur. More and more, she found herself on the front lines, joining protesters like Jack whose job it was to clash with police directly.
Jack wielded an umbrella and wore a gas mask so he could hold his ground as long as possible when the police charged. That helped people behind him get away, flowing down side streets unharmed. Front-liners also began participating in the targeted destruction of property. “You started to have more clear goals as time went on,” Jack said. “It was a faster pace.” Protesters broke windows in government buildings and in shops associated with organized crime, which seemed to have joined forces with the police. They threw Molotov cocktails and set things on fire. “You just judge there is not a lot of police coming yet, you destroy a China Bank machine or whatever, and then you go,” Jack said.
In September, an Indonesian journalist was blinded in one eye after being hit with a rubber bullet fired by police. In October and early November, at least two protesters were shot with live rounds. Grace was determined but fatigued. She kept fighting, knowing that her side, while not outmanned, was certainly outgunned. “We don’t have what they have,” one protester told me, referring to the police. “They have no limits on hurting us.”
In the early hours of November 4, a student named Alex Chow fell from a parking garage as police used tear gas in a nearby clearance operation. He died four days later, and Hong Kong erupted with renewed vigor. Protesters launched a campaign they called “blossom everywhere,” which employed hit-and-run techniques intended to cause chaos. They appeared at night, stacking bricks in roads like mini Stonehenges, aiming to snarl traffic. Sometimes they strung together metal street barriers, connecting them with zip ties to make them harder to clear away. The actions were small, quick—multiple groups would engage at once in activities all over the city, then recede into the darkness. Anyone could join the protests, even for a moment, and then return to normal life. Office ladies in high heels, Yeung said, could make Molotov cocktails on their way to work.
When the “blossom everywhere” offensive launched, Hong Kong’s universities were logical places for protesters to congregate. Many are located on major thoroughfares and near the bridges and tunnels that connect parts of the city. Even as classes continued, schools became de facto protest headquarters. The police knew this was happening, and on November 11, they bombarded Hong Kong Chinese University (CUHK) and PolyU with tear gas—the start of what would become a protracted battle.
Grace started the week at CUHK. She still made it home on some nights, hitchhiking to her parents’ apartment. When she stayed on campus, she slept outside next to other students. They shivered as nighttime temperatures dropped. “Everyone was getting hypothermia,” Grace said.
CUHK seemed to become the center of the clashes. Students threw debris onto Tolo Highway, located below the hillside campus. When hundreds of police charged on a bridge over the highway, protesters fled under a torrent of tear gas. Outside CUHK, the police parked vans and set up a perimeter, blocking the main entrance while attempting to break through barriers the protesters were defending. Protesters formed human chains to transport supplies across campus. Terra opened the doors of a student-run co-op to the newly resident protesters. She made them cups of noodles.
On November 13, a Wednesday, the courts rejected an appeal from students to ban the police from entering campuses without a warrant. The same day, Grace left CUHK. Other protesters convinced her to head to PolyU, where students needed help. They wanted to block one of Hong Kong’s most important arteries, ratcheting up the chaos engulfing the city.
Hong Kong Polytechnic University is a fortress of red tile. It sits above the entrance of the cross-harbor tunnel, which allows commuters to move between the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, located off the city’s southern coast. Despite the campus’s centrality, its design separates students from the urban fray—the cluster of highways, train tracks, and tunnels that surround it. The school’s buildings, each designated by a letter of the English alphabet, form a linked perimeter punctuated by barrel-like turrets, which students call cores. The structures are so tightly connected that a person can wander from one end of campus to the other and only rarely set foot outside. Amid all the tile, on the northwest side of campus is a white building, designed by Zaha Hadid, that houses the university’s design school and resembles a giant cruise ship.
PolyU is accessible almost exclusively by pedestrian overpasses, bridges, and stairways. In some places, these pass below the elevated roads around campus; in others they’re perched above traffic. At first this layout seemed to protesters like an advantage. They could block access points with bricks and furniture, keeping the police at bay. They slept in a gym at night and sprawled in tiled courtyards during the day, their voices echoing off the towers around them. Someone made signs out of cardboard directing protesters to available showers. People practiced archery and made slingshots out of bamboo. Some practiced throwing Molotov cocktails into an empty pool, to refine their aim. They were getting ready for whatever came next.
On the Thursday when Grace arrived at PolyU, protesters had already managed to block the cross-harbor tunnel, setting toll booths on fire and throwing down debris from an overpass they’d occupied. The campus felt chaotic, like the protesters were making it up as they went. There wasn’t enough food. “People were feeling distressed,” said Jack, who arrived at PolyU around the same time Grace did.
Grace volunteered to mix Molotov cocktails. To ensure she was getting the balance of gas and oil just right, she threw test explosives down an empty walkway and measured how close she could get before feeling the heat. (The farther away the better, to help keep the police at bay.) Grace wasn’t as effective as some others on the front lines. She wasn’t strong enough, for instance, to throw the Molotovs very far. Here was something she could do: test the heat of the bombs against her own skin.
On Friday, November 15, the police had yet to charge the barricades around PolyU. But the protesters knew this would happen at some point. It was hard not to think of Tiananmen Square. What if the police used live rounds? What if demonstrators were arrested and sent to mainland China, despite the extradition bill’s demise? The protesters decided to act preemptively. They piled debris in the roads closest to campus and set it on fire.
The roads burned for hours before the police came, on Saturday. They positioned water cannons and armored vehicles on the far side of a sea of bricks scattered across the asphalt at PolyU’s main entrance. Grace and Jack joined students gathering at the campus’s access points. Vans and officers approached from the south, spraying water and a blue liquid spiked with pepper spray. The protesters, some of whom assembled into a tightly packed testudo formation beneath umbrellas or scavenged pieces of debris, had amassed Molotov cocktails and boxes of bricks. They could throw them by hand or launch them from makeshift catapults. Some protesters held walkie-talkies, to pass along instructions and intel.
A standoff ensued—the police fired projectiles, and the lines of students fell back and then surged forward, hurling explosives and debris. Updates about police activity circulated throughout Saturday night via Telegram, walkie-talkies, a whiteboard in the campus canteen—any way the protesters could think of to get the word out. When reinforcements were needed at one entrance or another, Grace added her body to the crowd, holding an umbrella to deflect water and pepper spray. When the police threw tear gas, she did her best to put it out. The police shot the canisters parallel to the ground rather than in an overhead arc, aiming directly at the crowd.
News and rumors flew over Telegram and on LIHKG. The police announced that anyone who wanted to leave PolyU peacefully could exit via Y core, a building toward the northern end of campus. Some left, but many of them were arrested, including members of the media and first-aid groups. The remaining protesters knew that they couldn’t trust the police. They held their lines. At one point, the police retreated from the main intersection on the south side of campus long enough for protesters to retrieve bricks they’d thrown, to be used again.
On Sunday night, more than 24 hours into the siege, the police attempted to break through a group of protesters who had planted themselves on a bridge above the cross-harbor tunnel. Two armored trucks approached a line of open umbrellas; Molotov cocktails flew. When one of the police vehicles caught fire, a gasp went up from the protesters—a moment of surprise that soon turned into a cheer. The flaming car backed up and returned to the police cordon.
The protesters weren’t losing—not yet. But they were tired. They were frightened. They were hungry. When Grace heard that the police had threatened to use live bullets, she started to feel desperate. At CUHK, she knew how to get out and did so whenever she wanted. At PolyU, the police weren’t leaving—and they weren’t allowing anyone else to leave.
People began talking over how to escape. The protesters didn’t want to be arrested and charged with rioting, which can bring a penalty of up to ten years in prison. They didn’t want to be shot or injured. They just wanted to go home.
Word spread that some students were climbing a tree on the edge of campus, easing out onto the branches, and dropping down into the road to be picked up by passing cars—the city had grown so concerned about the protesters that strangers were offering them a ride. Grace ran to the tree and was waiting her turn to climb when her phone buzzed. She launched Telegram. A message said police had taken up a position just beyond the tree and were arresting people as they landed on the ground.
Grace heard about another escape route, but police discovered it before she could get there. Messages were hitting her phone constantly. Pictures of police with sniper rifles. Word of another clash. Early on Monday morning, her phone buzzed with a new rumor: The police were about to break through the barriers and storm the campus.
Grace joined a group of protesters in an empty classroom. They barricaded themselves in and went silent. The officers entered PolyU at 5:30 a.m., arresting people in a part of campus that had been set up to triage protesters with injuries. Then they withdrew. It wasn’t a raid, the police insisted—it was a “dispersal operation,” aimed at collecting explosives. They seemed to be shifting their tactics: Rather than an all-out assault, they were going to wait the protesters out.
Students who had hidden started to emerge. Grace and other protesters came out of the classroom and checked their phones. There was a new plan: The protesters would leave together, as one.
Hundreds of young people headed for a pedestrian bridge that led away from campus. Students wearing protective gear took it off so they could move faster. V, the musician, was walking with his sister, but she passed out when the tear gas, which the police kept firing from outside the barricades, became too thick. “I’m grabbing her, and her boyfriend is grabbing her as well,” V said. “She just can’t feel anything. She felt so heavy.”
Grace ran. A rubber bullet hit the helmet she was wearing. Then she saw people ahead of her running back—the police wouldn’t let them leave. She was disoriented by the smoke and the noise. She ran with a crowd until someone broke a window of the library. Grace climbed over the shattered glass to get inside.
She called her parents and told them that she couldn’t get out. Her father didn’t believe her. “He thought it was not a big deal. He thought his daughter could escape so easily,” Grace recalled. Her mother cried with her and said she was proud. Grace sent a message to her boyfriend, telling him that if she died, he should never forget who killed her: the police.
The plight of the trapped students captured Hong Kongers’ attention. People called for the protesters to be let out. On Monday, pro-democracy legislators declared the situation a humanitarian crisis. The popular singer Denise Ho took to Twitter to ask the world to help save Hong Kong’s students. Meanwhile, an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based publication, called for the police to fire live rounds.
On Monday night, many of the protesters at PolyU pinned their hopes on a group of marchers heading toward campus. There were thousands of people: parents, office workers, more students. Terra joined from CUHK. “The people next to me were wearing suits—they just got off work,” she recalled. The group hoped to draw police away from campus long enough for the students to escape. It didn’t work.
People who’d given up were slowly trickling off campus. Those who weren’t picked up by cars or motorbikes were arrested. Jack tried to escape through the sewers, but the map he had wasn’t right—he ended up at a dead end. He felt like a trapped animal. Beyond campus, the police were blasting songs by movie star and singer Jackie Chan and theme music from television shows, trying to prevent the protesters from getting any rest. “From time to time, they will make some announcement, ‘Oh, just come out and surrender, we will treat you good,’” Jack said. “Everyone knows they won’t treat you fairly.”
He heard that some people had cut the crash netting used to protect the campus from an elevated road. Protesters could climb up to the road, wait for the police to change shifts, and run when they had an opening. Jack hid in some bushes for several hours. When it was time, the protesters he was with went in groups of three. Jack’s group was the second to run. The police caught him. The other two protesters escaped.
Hundreds tried to get out via Z core, the last building in the chain of PolyU, connected to the rest by a sky bridge. The police were shooting tear gas from the road below, but then the wind changed direction, blowing the smoke back, forcing the cops to retreat. Protesters rappelled down from the bridge and were carted off by people on scooters waiting below.
This was her chance. Grace went.
The bridge stood about 20 feet over the street—a covered stretch of glass and steel with high railings on both sides. Just beyond the railings were rounded metal ledges where a person could stand, albeit precariously. There was one spot where someone had strung ropes that reached from the bridge all the way to the ground.
Grace slung herself over the railing and felt pain shoot through her arm. But she couldn’t turn back. She waited, balancing on the bridge’s metal lip. When it was her turn, Grace leaned out; she grasped a rope and jumped. Her injured arm couldn’t handle the weight of her body. She fell.
When Grace hit the pavement, pain shot up her leg and back. A group of strangers ran toward her. She couldn’t walk, so they picked her up and put her on a scooter. The ride from campus was a blur of agony. At some point, Grace lost consciousness. When she came to, she was in an apartment. She tried to get up but couldn’t. She wanted to call her boyfriend, but she couldn’t get her phone out of her pocket by herself. “I kept asking about the situation inside of PolyU,” she said. Grace learned that many protesters were still trapped.
Over the next few days, Grace was moved from safe house to safe house. A doctor came to examine her; she had multiple injuries, but she asked me not to describe them, since they could be used to track her down. She contacted her parents, and they came to see her. By then the injured had flooded the city’s hospitals. Soon after Grace escaped, Hong Kong’s medical authority reported that doctors had treated about 300 people from PolyU.
It took ten more days for the police to clear the campus. Finally, on November 29, the siege was over. The police had arrested more than 1,100 people. The authorities announced that they’d recovered 3,989 petrol bombs, 1,339 other “explosive items,” 601 bottles of corrosive liquids, and 573 weapons. The implication was clear: The police hadn’t done anything wrong—they were contending with dangerous people.
Grace went home to recover from her injuries. She monitored protests from her phone as they continued to flare up around the city. In late November, an election for Hong Kong’s district councils—local advisory bodies in charge of community activities and environmental improvements—handed democracy advocates an overwhelming victory, with 86 percent of the vote. Two weeks later, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to insist that China meet their demands for a freer city. Beijing made no concessions.
In December, the international members of a panel tasked with reviewing police behavior at PolyU stepped down in protest—the group had too little investigative power, they said. The same month, Hong Kong’s police chief cryptically thanked China’s public-security bureau for its “vigorous support and help.” Shortly after, a leaked use-of-force police manual showed that Hong Kong’s officers regularly broke their own rules. Again, there were no consequences.
Then, in January, everything came to a screeching halt—the protests, the press conferences, the arrests. The coronavirus pandemic shut down Hong Kong. For the first time in months, it was quiet.
During the lockdown, Grace texted with her boyfriend and started to think about her schoolwork again. She chatted online with friends. Still, her mind wandered. She couldn’t sleep well—she had nightmares. Every time she heard a siren, she jumped. It was strange to have been at PolyU and feel as if the world was ending, then see life go on, however quiet.
Terra had fought with her parents during the 2019 protests—they were pro-Beijing—and moved in with her boyfriend. Now she watched as friends stewed in their hatred of the police. “A lot of my friends are still stuck in those moments,” she said, referring to the violence of last year. “Even though we are staying at home, they are still making video clips about those battles.”
Terra tried to think about the future. She wanted to form an organization to help protesters who’d been arrested and were now facing criminal charges. She also joined Grace and other demonstrators in throwing herself behind the idea of the Yellow Economic Circle, a campaign to convince Hong Kongers to stop shopping at stores that supported the Chinese government, spending their money instead at businesses allied with the pro-democracy movement.
“Sometimes I feel passionate and determined and I want to change the world,” Terra said. “But when I feel uncomfortable I have another mindset, which is: Hide in a cave, hide in a mountain, hide in CUHK, get a research job and a comfortable position.” She could try to resurrect the normal Hong Kong girl.
As protesters like Grace and Terra used the pandemic lockdown to ponder protest tactics, strategize about local elections, and plot boycotts, Beijing changed the rules again. The national-security law that had been proposed and rejected in 2003 was resurrected. This time, Beijing announced that it would not need the approval of LegCo to enact the law. It exploited a loophole in Hong Kong’s constitution that allowed China to introduce certain laws by decree.
“The world is just disgusting,” Jack told me. “People who have capital will migrate and flee. The people who need to flee the most cannot really go—either they have no money, or they have a criminal record because of the protests.” He remained in the city, where his own legal case, the result of his arrest at PolyU, was pending.
The national-security law represented everything the protesters at PolyU feared might happen. It would introduce the crimes of subversion and secession, with a maximum penalty of life in prison. It would make damaging public transportation a crime tantamount to terrorism. It would enable Hong Kong’s chief executive to cherry-pick the judges who hear national-security cases, overriding the city’s prized independent judiciary, and allow some trials to happen behind closed doors. Beijing was coming for the protesters. And it was coming for Hong Kong’s freedoms.
The situation was grim, but the city’s pro-democracy forces persisted. “Before you get slaughtered,” Terra told me, “at least you should yell.” Demonstrators flooded the streets in May, despite a ban on gatherings because of the pandemic. The police came too, toting blue signs that read, “This meeting or procession is in breach of the law. Disperse or we may use force.” On June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the city prohibited the annual vigil for the first time. People came out anyway.
It didn’t matter. At the end of the month, Beijing made its next move: It approved the national-security law.
Without question, Grace knew that she would join the next battle for democracy. “I don’t want to leave Hong Kong,” she told me. “Hong Kong is my home. I will fight until it dies.” Having recovered from her injuries, she joined a protest on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The crowds were smaller than in years past. The police had already changed the wording on its posters: “You are displaying flags or banners/chanting slogans/or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offenses under the ‘HKSAR National Security Law.’ You may be arrested and prosecuted.”
When Grace returned home, she watched bystander videos making the rounds online. A journalist thrown sideways by a blast from a water cannon. An older woman pulled out of her car by police. Riot cops charging with batons. Around 370 people had been arrested, ten of them under the national-security law. Protesters circulated jokes about what they might be detained for: Loving Hong Kong too much? Or something Beijing hadn’t thought of yet?
Books critical of Beijing disappeared from Hong Kong’s libraries. The office of the Public Opinion Research Institute, which publishes polls about politics and local identity, was raided and threatened with the confiscation of its computers. As demonstrations continued, some protesters held up blank pieces of paper to signify that nothing was safe for them to say. The police arrested eight of them. In late July, four students were arrested for publishing “secessionist” social media posts.
Grace knows that her time might come. But she will keep protesting, whether that means detainment or worse. She has already written down everything she wants her friends and family to know if that happens. She wrote the message even before she knew if she would make it out of PolyU alive. It was a goodbye to the people she loved, and a testament to her conviction.
“Officials have forced the people to fight back, blood for blood,” she wrote. “In the face of occupation, of suppression and abuse, Hong Kong people must resist and never compromise. You, like me, might feel exhausted. You will inevitably feel powerless in the face of the Communist Party. But you should know that there are many people who will walk with you along this difficult path. And, although I am going to stop here, you will help me to continue on.”
“I would rather be ashes than dust,” Grace wrote, quoting Jack London. “I would rather die than live quietly.”