This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Four years after millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets in peaceful mass protests against plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China, the city is a very different place.
Since Beijing imposed a national security law banning public opposition and dissent in the city, blaming “hostile foreign forces” for the protests, hundreds of thousands have voted with their feet amid plummeting human rights rankings, shrinking press freedom and widespread government propaganda in schools.
Some fled to the United Kingdom on the British National Overseas visa program, while others have made their homes anew in the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany.
They are now involved in projects from political lobbying to joining rallies and marches, to community welfare schemes and support for the arts and cultural expression.
Anna Kwok, executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington D.C., is engaged in political lobbying for Hong Kong’s future at the heart of American politics.
“We mainly hope to get some laws passed that can really help Hong Kongers, and some that could help the city to return to its [previous state of] autonomy,” Kwok told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview.
“We need to pay attention to that as the political situation in the United States is changing,” she said, adding that her group’s campaigning is hampered by the relatively small number of Hong Kong currently in the United States.
Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, now living in Australia, is also trying to raise the loss of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms to the status of an issue for Australian politicians.
“Hong Kong isn’t a big issue in Australian politics, while China policy and trade are very important to Australians,” Hui said. “They are also very concerned about regional security and China’s soft-power infiltration.”
Hui said he is trying to show Australians how the struggle of the Hong Kong people for freedom and democracy is closely bound up with Australia’s China policy.
“[We want] to show people the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party through the lens of Hong Kong’s situation, and to get Australians to bear that in mind when doing trade or building relationships with China,” he said.
Sky Fung, secretary-general of the Taiwan-based exile group Hong Kong Outlanders, there has been a similar need to link the suppression of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong with the potential loss of Taiwan’s democratic way of life, should China step up its infiltration efforts, blockade or even invade.
“There has been a long process of conversion here since 2019, when Hong Kong’s local politics gradually shifted people’s focus to Taiwan’s domestic politics,” Fung said.
“Our organization doesn’t just explain what happened in Hong Kong in the past but has shifted into focusing on Taiwan’s policies as they relate to Hong Kong.”
Some Hong Kongers in Taiwan are taking the threat of a Chinese invasion very seriously.
Taiwan-based activist Fu Tong recently formed a civil defense brigade to support the official war effort in case the People’s Liberation Army does invade.
“Civilians don’t have to stand completely idle” if that happens, he said. “For example, we can act as support for people with light injuries or people who are panicking.”
“If we are trained, we can reduce the burden on the government. We also need to be able to take care of ourselves,” he said.
“I think it’s a normal civic responsibility, and the price [we Hong Kongers] pay for living here.”
Meanwhile, U.K.-based former democratic district councilor Carmen Lau, is turning to arts and cultural activities to show the rest of the world what it means to be a Hong Konger.
“Because the United Kingdom is a mature democracy, British people of this generation may not care so much about politics, and their will to vote may even be lower than that of Taiwanese and Hong Kongers,” Lau said. “If we approach the issues directly, nobody will pay us any attention.”
Instead, Lau decided to “package” Hong Kong’s political issues in the form of a cultural festival.
“It’s intended to be leisure-focused and cultural, so local people and non-Hong Kongers would welcome it more,” she said.
“We want to highlight this Hong Kong identity in a number of different ways, and we want to be recognized as Hong Kongers in the international community and by the people of different countries,” she said.
But there is a deeper pull created by the need for Hong Kongers to remember who they are, she said.
“Everything we do is to go home,” Lau said. “If we can’t forge an identity for ourselves that is distinct from a Chinese or an Asian identity, then everything we do will have been in vain.”
Social worker Hui Lai-ming founded community group Re-Water in Sheffield, England, and has come to a similar conclusion.
“We often say that politics and life are the same thing,” Hui said. “We organized a meeting of 61 Hong Kongers in London awhile back, and everyone reached the very clear consensus that the two things should be done together.”
“Issues we run into in our daily lives go hand-in-hand with political issues,” she said. “It’s not all about turning out on the streets, about demonstrations. The key point is that we can’t win this fight just by demonstrating.”
Community memory and identity is just as important for Hui and her project, she said.
“We have to inherit and pass down our history. And all of that lies in the details of our lives, all of it, in our experiences and our beliefs,” she said.
“We need to undergo our own process of reflection, then take part in the resistance movement.”
Taiwan-based art student Jijai turns up regularly, dressed like a 2019 frontline protester, to commemorate key events during the protest movement against the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms.
“I always insist on dressing like this. June 12 is particularly special to me because it is the first time I really fought on the front line,” defending peaceful protesters from riot police.
“It reminds me that you can still do something, that you can still remember [Hong Kong as it was], no matter where you are,” he said. “We who can still do something do what we can.”
His actions are far more than just “putting on a show,” Jijai said. Rather, they are about reconnecting with the spirit of Hong Kong as it once was.
“Right now, we need more than ever just to feel a connection, and for people to remember what happened in Hong Kong,” he said.