The images out of Hong Kong on Monday dominated news coverage worldwide: shattered glass, masked demonstrators, rows of riot police.
A small group of protesters broke into the Legislative Council building — and the act was enough to eclipse a record-breaking 550,000-person demonstration just blocks away. Many rushed to denounce the demonstrators for their radicalism. The group had splintered from the annual July 1 march, which this year marked the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to mainland China. But those pointing fingers are missing the point. Instead of echoing China’s language, critics should be asking why so many young Hongkongers felt compelled to take this desperate step in the first place.
Monday needs to be understood as what it was: a group of heartbroken yet determined individuals willing to give up everything for the survival of their home. The majority pro-Beijing legislature — whose job is to pass, amend or repeal proposed laws such as the controversial extradition bill that triggered this new wave of protests — has proved its inability to respond to the will of the people.
This was not the first time Hong Kong’s people brought their protest to the government’s threshold. In fact, it was not even the first time protesters stormed the complex, also known as LegCo. Having exhausted other options, Monday’s protesters sought another way to get their voices heard.
And they succeeded.
They captured domestic and international attention. Their message was clear: While China might continue ignoring the aspirations of Hong Kong, the city will not remain silent.
It’s true that the protesters’ defiance stood in stark contrast to the peaceful anti-extradition bill protests of recent weeks. But blindly condemning the “violence” of the protesters is to ignore the spirit of Hong Kong’s 30-year democracy movement — and this unique moment in that struggle.
Yes, a few protesters smashed glass doors and windows to get into the building, but they made sure to seal off the library, preserving Hong Kong’s historical documents. They took drinks from the cafeteria, but they left cash on the counter before leaving. Those stationed outside the complex stayed to protect their peers, passing forward water and other supplies while collecting recyclable materials for proper disposal.
The goal of Hong Kong’s protesters then and now is the same: They simply want to be heard. One moment can’t divide an otherwise unprecedentedly large and cohesive movement.
Millions have marched in recent weeks, trying to cling to a sense of hope. When the glass windows began to crack at 2 p.m. on Monday, the world watched as the hope gave way to an undercurrent of despair.
The protesters could face up to 10 years in prison. Many others have been sentenced for a lot less.
So far three young Hong Kongers have already given their lives for their home. While the first case might have been an accident, the other two were apparently suicides triggered by desperation. One of the girls, a local university student, was only 21 — the same age as me.
These sacrifices cannot be swept under the table.
Whether they’ve actively protested or stayed on the sidelines, each of the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants is caught in a fight for their future. As I and thousands of other children of Hong Kong watch the movement from afar, one question looms larger than any: Have we already said goodbye to the city that raised us?
As long as Hong Kong has the strength to beat against this relentless tide, there is hope. But with each passing day, the version of Hong Kong that so many of us grew up in moves further from our reach.
This is the fervor that has sparked a streak of fearlessness in so many young Hong Kongers, and this is what we cannot forget — even if we choose to condemn the violence.
We are not ready to say goodbye.