Often, she doesn’t return home until Monday morning. When her father asks her whereabouts, “I tell him I am working late,” she said.
Alexa is among the mostly young front-line protesters who have escalated their clashes with police in the former British colony, where Beijing is tightening its grip on local freedoms. Protests erupted in June over the Hong Kong government’s now-abandoned plans to allow extraditions to mainland China, but have morphed into a broader revolt encompassing calls for universal suffrage and an independent probe into police use of force.
With Hong Kong’s leadership refusing to budge on protesters’ demands, few hold hopes of a sustainable political settlement. Rather than leave Hong Kong, Alexa said she has decided to stay and fight — and, if necessary, die.
Alexa — not her real name — said she threw a petrol bomb once to cast off riot police who were pursuing protesters. Other times, she has used traffic cones to smother the choking fumes of tear-gas shells. Protesters’ fury has reached a boiling point, she said, as the police response has become increasingly heavy-handed.
Hong Kong’s government routinely condemns violence by protesters. Alexa characterizes the dissidents’ tactics as defensive actions against an unaccountable police force intent on inflicting physical harm on her and her friends.
For women, the front line can pose particular safety risks. Reports of demonstrators alleging sexual assault by police have contributed to a drop in the number of female protesters on the front lines in recent weeks, said Alexa, who uses the alias to avoid being tracked by authorities.
The police have denied the reports and say they have acted with reasonable force when dispersing crowds and detaining protesters. The government has said it is no longer using the San Uk Ling detention center, where some detainees allege they suffered abuse. A video of a protester describing, to a packed university hall, a sexual assault at the center was widely shared this month; police said they would investigate her allegations.
“Some male protesters asked me not to go that close to the police,” Alexa said. “But sometimes it feels so unfair — it would be so much better if I were a man.”
Though women account for a minority among front-line protesters, Alexa said it was critical for them to be there. “I can’t stop helping out there just because I am worried about being raped. Everyone has their fears,” she said.
Alexa shivers whenever she walks through the city’s Admiralty district, where large-scale protests and clashes with police have happened, and where she has narrowly dodged arrest.
Although Hong Kong has freedom of assembly, police must authorize public processions of more than 30 people, and often have withheld approval on public-safety grounds. Anyone who turns up to unapproved demonstrations faces arrest — and a lungful of tear gas. More than 2,600 people have been arrested in the uprising.
“Every morning, I wonder if I will be arrested, and how I should explain that to my father,” Alexa said. “I know what I am doing is technically illegal. But . . . I don’t want our future generation to spend their youth, like us, fighting for their freedoms.”
The stakes have risen as the unrest has intensified. An Amnesty International report last month alleged “reckless and indiscriminate” tactics by Hong Kong’s police.
In late July, Alexa watched riot police beat one of her friends, she said. She was seized by two officers who dragged her by her arms. Other protesters grabbed her feet and managed to free her. But a day later, she said, she was shot just below her collarbone with a rubber bullet.
“I thought I would die. Before that, I had always thought my last waking moment would be spent on missing my family and friends. But at that instant, I was only concerned about Hong Kong — I want to see true democracy in the city,” she said.
Then last month, Alexa was in the firing line again when protesters tried to breach a police cordon and officers countered with force. As she tried to aid wounded friends, Alexa felt pain in her legs. She had been shot with a beanbag round.
Alexa said her father didn’t notice her wounds, which she concealed beneath her clothing, because he was “usually exhausted from work” and she had hidden the medication she was using to treat her injuries.
The unrest has highlighted officials’ refusal to entertain political liberalization. Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, provides for the eventual introduction of universal suffrage following the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Yet when China’s government proposed electoral restructuring for Hong Kong in 2014, it offered the chance to elect only leaders preapproved by Beijing.
When protests against the decision fizzled out after 79 days without concessions from the authorities, Alexa, like many young people, felt hopeless and wanted to emigrate.
Not this time.
“I want to fight again,” she said. “I don’t want to leave for the rest of my life. If the city dies, I will die with the city. This is my home.”