Hong Kong protesters are leaving prison as pariahs under China’s tight grip

The protester was 17 when he was jailed for possession of a Molotov cocktail. Partially held in solitary confinement for nearly two years, he saw his world reduced to a stainless steel toilet, the harsh lights of security cameras and harsh winter evenings numbing his limbs.

When he was released last year, he entered a city that was suddenly moving faster than he remembered. He had trouble hailing buses and taxis and ordering food from a menu. While his friends were graduating and moving on with their lives, he was sent back to high school – a disaffected 20-year-old rebel among teenagers preoccupied with math problems and dating.

He doesn’t know where he fits into this new Hong Kong and there have been times when he locked himself in his room and wished he was behind bars again.

Police officers in riot gear hold demonstrators

Police arrest protesters in Hong Kong on September 29, 2019.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“Life in prison was easier. People make all the decisions for you,” said Alex, who, like other formerly detained protesters who spoke to The Times, only gave his first name for fear of retribution. “It’s ridiculous. People won’t understand, but when I got released I felt like I belonged in prison.”

Three years after Hong Kong descended into violent riots over calls to curb China’s power, the city’s jailed protesters, who leave an indelible image in their yellow hard hats, gas masks and black clothing, have begun to seep back into a society teeming with freedoms apply they fought to preserve them are gone.

Confused and disillusioned, they struggle to reintegrate into a city transformed by a two-year-old national security law that has eliminated political dissent and made people like Alex pariahs for once daring to challenge Beijing’s authority. The city that once offered them hope has lost its unabashed cosmopolitan panache – much of it fueled by a globally connected young generation – under the ever-expansive eye of the communist state.

“After I got out, I found out that my friends were either in jail or had left Hong Kong,” said another recently released protester named Oliver. “I thought we’d see each other again, but gatherings have turned into FaceTime calls.”

A silhouette of a man near a window

Oliver, who has served two years in prison, sits in an apartment in Hong Kong on May 20, 2022.

(Hsuiwen Liu / For Time)

Careers and academic opportunities for former protesters have shrunk. Friends and family have fled to other countries. Plans for democracy were scratched. For many recently released protesters, just staying in school or keeping a job is a victory, especially in the face of the pandemic, slowing economic growth and rising inflation.

“Your release from prison is just the beginning of a long journey to finding closure,” said John Mak, a co-director of a social service group called Project Change, which provides legal support and counseling services to young protesters. “There’s a lot of emotional distress when the people around them move on. They’re still trying to understand the cost of their criminal records.”

A man is sitting on a park bench

“Your release from prison is just the beginning of a long journey to finding closure,” said John Mak, a co-director of a social services group called Project Change, which provides legal support and counseling services to formerly incarcerated young protesters.

(Hsuiwen Liu / For Time)

More than 10,000 Hong Kongers have been arrested after protests, which started peacefully in 2019 in response to a proposed extradition law with China, spiraled out of control when calls for more autonomy were met with tear gas, police batons and an intransigent Chinese government under authoritarian ruler Xi Jinping.

Among those arrested, 2,850 were prosecuted on charges including rioting, unlawful assembly and possession of firearms. official figures Show. So far, 1,172 have been sentenced to prison terms, most of them high school and university students. They were later joined by household names like media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in a raid last year.

Most prison sentences are between three and four years, which is why many former protesters have been released in recent months.

Her ability to start her life anew could prove to be a litmus test of how the city of 7.5 million, which is under international pressure over human rights abuses, intends to deal with the protest generation and heal its civil wounds. Evidence suggests that China has abandoned them and is directing its energies to indoctrinating the next generation with patriotic education and weekly flag ceremonies.

The pledge of allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party would have been highly unusual not so long ago, when Hong Kong boasted opposition lawmakers, lively independent media and a stable of human rights lawyers. As part of a surrender agreement with Britain, which administered Hong Kong as a colony until 1997, China granted the city special autonomy for 50 years. The protests gave Beijing an excuse to overturn that deal – wiping out many of the city’s freedoms and exposing the West’s inability to rein in an increasingly courageous and repressive Chinese regime.

“Hong Kong is rising from the ashes,” Xi declared during a recent visit to the city to mark the 25th anniversary of Britain’s handover, which doubled as a victory lap after crushing the last vestiges of government opposition in Asia’s financial hub.

The oppressive political climate has sent shivers down the city’s colleges and universities, where many former protesters have returned.

Derek Tai graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with first class honors but lost his chance for an exchange program in Germany when he was arrested in 2019 for unlawful assembly outside Hong Kong Legislative Council building.

A man in a protective mask looks over trees and bushes

Derek Tai, one of the first protesters to be arrested in 2019, on May 26, 2022 in Hong Kong.

(Hsuiwen Liu / For Time)

The 25-year-old philosophy student was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison. He thought life would return to normal after his release last year. Instead, he was summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the university and received two demerits for “damaging the school’s reputation.”

He wasn’t alone. All of Tai’s colleagues who were released from prison faced a jury of professors and students who decided whether they could continue their studies.

“Errors are the most common,” Tai said. “Some people will be suspended. Some are sent to community service. The worst thing is getting kicked out.”

Tai intends to apply for a PhD program abroad, but is unsure if the flaws on his transcript will spoil his chances of admission or scholarships.

“I have already paid a criminal price,” he said. “It’s a double punishment.”

While Hong Kong leaders have said so welcomed The idea of ​​giving young demonstrators a second chance is unlikely in the eyes of Beijing loyalists. Laws ensure that their arrest records will follow them for life.

Under Hong Kong’s stream Delinquent Rehabilitation OrdinanceFirst-time offenders sentenced to less than three months in prison or a fine of no more than HK$10,000 – about US$1,274 – can have their criminal records expunged as long as they do not commit another crime within three years.

But protesters accused of taking part in unlawful gatherings or riots, or possessing weapons – the three most common charges linked to the 2019 protests – faced much harsher penalties than the regulation allows.

“Even carrying a ‘gun,’ in most cases a laser pointer, resulted in six-month jail terms,” ​​said Sung Yun-wing, associate professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Project Change.

Sung, citing the major, called for more flexibility in the law Backlog in court cases in Hong Kong. A protester arrested as a minor in 2019 could face charges as an adult pending the final resolution of his case.

“If we really want to help them reintegrate into society and heal the wounds of 2019, it will take a long time and require the efforts of an entire village,” Sung said.

Until then, the former protesters must navigate life in a city that feels new, frightening and alien, even though they are viewed with suspicion.

A man stands at the bottom of a staircase

Kwan, a 27-year-old engineer, was released in February after serving 20 months in prison.

(Hsuiwen Liu / For Time)

A 27-year-old electronics engineer named Kwan, who has been behind bars for 20 months, said he has become more cautious in sharing his views. He will probably no longer take to the streets to protest.

He felt increasingly guilty because his mother spent hours commuting to his prison every day on public transport just to have a 15-minute conversation with him through a glass panel and a scratchy phone. Meanwhile, Kwan’s girlfriend took care of all his inquiries in prison, researching philosophical terms he had read in a book and lyrics of Cantopop songs on Google, and then printing out the results for him.

On June 4 this year, he briefly considered going to Causeway Bay, an area where Hong Kongers held an annual candlelight vigil to commemorate the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square, before gatherings were banned by authorities. Only the most steadfast die-hards still dared to go there. Kwan decided against it. He could not subject his loved ones to further arrest.

“I won’t make her wait for me again,” he said. “My family has suffered too much.”

Oliver, jailed for more than two years after being charged with crimes including rioting and gun possession, gave up a career as an engineer to return to prison, this time to help other protesters and their families.

The 26-year-old now visits prison facilities to deliver books, shampoo and snacks like pork jerky and M&Ms. He recently organized a group meeting for mothers whose children are in custody or in detention. He explained to them what prison life is like and how families can plan visits and write letters.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in prison, it’s that you can only live in the moment,” Oliver said. “If you cannot predict what will happen in the future, take care of each other, help others if you can. That alone is enough.”

Liu is a special correspondent. Times staffer David Pierson contributed to this report. This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-07-27/hong-kong-protesters-prison-release Hong Kong protesters are leaving prison as pariahs under China’s tight grip

Alley Einstein

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