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Inside the Hong Kong Protests at the Center of the NBA-China Firestorm

Samson Huang

Tensions between the NBA and China have touched off an international firestorm. They’ve also shined a light on the fight for human rights in Hong Kong—and the frontliners at the center of the movement.

It’s early afternoon on Sunday, October 20, in Hong Kong, and the air has not yet filled with gas. No fires yet burn in the streets. No one is running afraid, nor screaming in pain. The city is gorgeous, the sky clear. Cars roll past and music plays from a loudspeaker as the first of a few hundred thousand people are gathering for a protest that will begin here at Salisbury Garden, in the neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui, and among them there’s a young man who’s happy to talk about why he’s here.

“We have our freedom,” he says. “We will fight to keep it.” He does not give a name, preferring instead to go by his online handle, Poplar584. He is small, with a gentle voice, wearing a mask and dressed all in black. I ask what he expects to happen.

“The police will use force again,” he says. “Of course they will.”

I ask whether he’s afraid.

“No.” He shakes his head as if almost offended by the question. “Hong Kong people are strong. We will stay strong. We aren’t afraid of the police. We aren’t afraid of China.” And yet, he admits, he understands why fear may be warranted.

“We just have umbrellas,” he says, and then he shrugs.

“They have weapons.”

Three hours later, the mood has changed. The gas masks go on one at a time, protester by protester, around each head and over each mouth, tightened until secure. Some of the assembled put on goggles, to help protect against tear gas, and a few fasten helmets, helpful when police batons swing and rubber bullets fly. After what began as a peaceful protest, the demonstrators are now preparing for the inevitable moment when the peace will end.

We’re on Nathan Road, a popular shopping street in Kowloon, the northern area of the city. The shops are all closed, but in the middle of the street gather the most radical of Hong Kong’s protesters, the young men and women known as the “frontliners.” They are dressed all in black. They carry umbrellas in their hands and letters to their families in their backpacks. The umbrellas to protect against police. The letters in case they fail.


Jordan Ritter Conn

Some are here on Nathan Road. Others are down the cross street, crouching together beneath an overpass. Somewhere among them is Poplar584, along with several others I met throughout the afternoon. There’s one, who wears a black shirt and black pants and a black Golden State Warriors cap, who says he loves the NBA—“everyone except LeBron James.” And there is the man who introduces himself as Mr. Chen, who wears all black and waves an American flag. “All we want,” he says, “is freedom of speech and human rights.”

Hundreds of men and women—some journalists and medics, but mostly everyday Hong Kongers—look on from alleys and street corners. Floating around the perimeter, there is Stephanie Chan. She started in this movement as a protester, but she got tired of arguing with her parents about the dangers, so now she works as a photojournalist, capturing her city’s strength and its fear. Everyone watches as the frontliners move together down the street, toward Mong Kok Police Station, where officers are gathered on the balcony of their building, all hidden underneath their own gas masks and helmets, some in full body armor and holding shields.

The protest is illegal. The Hong Kong Civil Human Rights Front applied for a permit, but authorities denied the application, as they do so many others these days in Hong Kong. Now, anyone participating in the protest, in any form, can be arrested. So officers look down from their balcony, ready to break up the crowds.

The street goes quiet. The protesters crouch and face the police together, remaining still. They open their umbrellas and hold them aloft. Seconds later, the explosions begin.

I came to Hong Kong to spend time with the movement behind the story that has rocked the NBA. If you’re reading this, then by now you’re likely familiar: In early October, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image of words chanted by so many protesters: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Almost instantly, the tweet touched off an international firestorm, pitting the NBA against a country estimated to account for at least 10 percent of the league’s revenue. In China, the league faced backlash for tolerating Morey’s comment. In the United States, it faced criticism for not more stridently defending his right to say it.

But what about in Hong Kong? Here, at the site of the conflict addressed in the tweet, much of the city watched the controversy, devouring every piece of news, thrilled that NBA figures were talking about their movement but frustrated by much of what they said.

“You guys fought so hard to get the First Amendment so that you could say what you want in your own country. And now a foreign country is dictating what you can and can’t say on your own soil.” —Wilson Leung, Hong Kong Progressive Lawyers Group

The NBA figure who has drawn the most ire here is neither Morey nor the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, but rather its most famous player, LeBron James. When asked this month about the controversy, James said, “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl. But I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke, and so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.” He later tweeted that he was only referring to Morey’s lack of “consideration for the consequences” of the tweet, not to the substance of the original message.

In Hong Kong, protesters have burned James’s jersey and worn masks of his face, just as they wear those of their hated politicians, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. When I mention the NBA around Hong Kong, almost everyone brings up James’s comments. There is the frontliner in the Warriors cap who says he loves everyone in the NBA but James. There is the woman who refers to James as a “dipshit,” but says she was delighted to see his comments.

Regardless of what he said, if one of the world’s most famous athletes is talking about Hong Kong, she says, “a lot of people are going to ask, ‘What’s going on? What’s this big thing that everyone is discussing?’”


Samson Huang

On Wednesday, three days after the protests in Kowloon, I get lunch with Wilson Leung, a local attorney and a founding member of the Hong Kong Progressive Lawyers Group. Leung is 37, handsome and sharply dressed, and in between bites of vegetarian dim sum and questions about American college football—“No one watches the G League, right? So why do they watch college football?”—he explains how the movement in Hong Kong began.

Hong Kong’s protests started in late March, small at first, in opposition to a bill that would allow Chinese authorities to extradite suspected criminals from the city. The legislation was proposed after a Hong Konger confessed to killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. Hong Kong is part of China but maintains a degree of autonomy, guaranteed in 1997 when it was “handed over” to China by the British, and the city has long been more open to the West and more democratic than the rest of China. The extradition bill, citizens feared, could erode their freedoms, allowing China to detain political dissidents and human rights advocates in Hong Kong, just as it does on the mainland.

On June 9, Hong Kong residents staged a massive protest against the bill (organizers put the turnout at a million residents; police said it was 240,000). Three days later, the bill was stalled, but police responded to a smaller protest with tear gas and rubber bullets. Even with the bill in limbo, Hong Kongers took that violence as yet another example of a threat to their freedom of speech, and so days later, an even bigger protest ensued (2 million, according to protesters; 338,000, according to police).

In the months since, the movement has coalesced around the “five demands.” One is the full withdrawal of the extradition bill, which was granted this past Wednesday. Another calls for “universal suffrage,” allowing Hong Kong’s people to elect all of their leaders, rather than the current Byzantine system under which many are chosen by largely pro-Beijing committees. “Our system is really hard to understand,” Leung says. “That’s how they want it.” The other three demands revolve around freedom to protest without threat of state violence.

More broadly, the five demands represent Hong Kongers’ desire to retain their autonomy inside the world’s largest authoritarian regime. The Chinese government ranks among the world’s worst human rights offenders. The regime controls the country’s internet, suppresses freedom of speech and of the press, and arrests many who voice criticism of its policies. It has been estimated to hold as many as 1 million Uighur Muslims in internment camps in Xinjiang province.

Hong Kong is a city of 7 million, granted freedoms that don’t exist in the rest of a country of 1.4 billion. The protesters worry, though, about those freedoms eroding. “We know it’s much worse in the mainland,” says Leung. “People feel like they’re fighting for their lives.”

The explosions in Kowloon continue, loud and angry, tear gas canisters flying from the police-station balcony and into the crowd. I rush a block away from the epicenter of the conflict, where I pause to catch my breath. When I start down an alley, back in the direction of the blasts, a man comes running.

“Stop!” he yells. “Tear gas!”

And so I stop. He slows down, then keeps walking toward me, collecting his own breath. He studies my bright yellow vest and my yellow helmet with the word “PRESS” scrawled across it in black marker, the unofficial uniform of reporters in Hong Kong. “You know,” says the man, “I’m a journalist too.”

But today, he’s not wearing the yellow uniform. He’s in a collared shirt and jeans.

“It’s my day off,” he says. “But I still wanted to be here.”

“We have a phrase here: Everyone is climbing the same mountain, but we each have our own way.” —Maggie, Hong Kong protester

He sees his identity as a reporter and his identity as a Hong Konger as bound up, inextricable. He can operate as a member of a free press only because of Hong Kong’s unique status within the Chinese state. “They are trying to restrict the press,” he says. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has called the police treatment of reporters “aggressive and obstructive.” Media are often targeted with tear gas. An Indonesian reporter went blind in one eye after being hit by a rubber bullet. “We’re being attacked,” he says. So, on a Sunday when he wasn’t working, he came to protest.

“I have to be here,” he says. “They are infringing on freedom of expression. As a journalist, I have to support this movement.”

We talk a bit longer, and then we head in opposite directions. I return to Nathan Road, where the frontliners are still gathered, now barricaded behind construction fencing and a small fire, set by Molotov cocktail, that separates protesters from police.

The protesters stand and wait. I run down the sidewalk and back into the alley, and by the time the shots are fired and the gas clouds fill the streets, I’m well out of the way. A few reporters run away from the chaos, and a few medics run toward it, and in between, I look up to see another man, perhaps 60, wiry and bald, stumbling down the alley. He pauses and leans over, bracing himself against a building. He breathes heavily. He leans his head against his outstretched arm. Then he vomits. A second later he collects himself and takes a deep breath, looks at me and nods, and continues walking on.


Samson Huang

Hours earlier on Sunday, before the sun began to set and the tear gas began to spread, the streets are full of pride. Around noon, a lone protester stands in a park in the neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui, blasting the revolutionary anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables. A crowd begins to gather over the next hour, and a little after 1 p.m. they start to march and chant.

“Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!”

“Five demands! Not one less!”

The crowd is diverse—the young frontliners, sure, but also parents walking with children, groups of elderly men and women here for the start of the march before returning home. Many wear masks, flagrantly violating a ban passed earlier this month. A few protesters wave flags of foreign nations, with the intention of drawing their support. “We want to invite the U.S. Congress to help us,” says a young man who carries an American flag and asked to be identified as Mr. Chen. He is referring to the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, already passed by the House and awaiting a vote in the Senate. “They can help us guarantee our freedoms against China.” Just in front of him, there walks another protester, carrying a saxophone and playing a squeaky rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

I hear calls for Western support in many conversations I have in Hong Kong. “I think it’s really important for Americans to think about how China is affecting democratic countries in their own territories,” Leung, the attorney, says. “Think about it. Even the U.S., which is the most powerful democracy—the Chinese are having a huge impact on what Americans can say in America.” He points specifically to Morey. “I mean, he didn’t even say anything! He didn’t say anything about China. He didn’t say anything about the government. He just shared a poster.”

He cites other recent controversies, too. Marriott fired an employee who “wrongfully liked” a tweet supporting independence for Tibet. Apple removed an app, HKmap.live, that protesters had used to track police activity. The esports company Blizzard Entertainment punished a Hearthstone player and Hong Konger who showed support for the movement during a livestream. “You guys fought so hard to get the First Amendment so that you could say what you want in your own country,” he says. “And now a foreign country is dictating what you can and can’t say on your own soil.”

At the march, a few protesters walk together wearing Xi Jinping masks, one of them carrying a sign that says, “Like NBA We All love RMB”—the Chinese currency, renminbi—“so Are we Good now China?” When asked about the sign, its masked holder goes straight to LeBron James. “He needs to understand, what’s happening here is important for him, too,” he says. “This should be a wake-up call to the whole world.”

A couple of nights later, I meet members of this group for dinner. Here they are unmasked, but they request that I not use their real names. There is the sign holder, who asks to be called Leo, born in Malaysia but living in Hong Kong for the past 20 years, and his friend, whom I’ll call Joe, a born-and-raised Hong Konger. Both work in tech. Joe sits next to his wife, who asks to be called Maggie, a Hong Kong native who left home to go to college in the States, before returning to start her own company, in finance.

They explain the dynamics of the protests. There are the frontliners, the most visible members of the movement. And then there are those who don’t run when the protest turns violent but who try to stay out of the way, and those who march and go home early, and even those who are too afraid to march at all, but who offer support through social media posts or conversations with family and friends. “We have a phrase here,” says Maggie. “Everyone is climbing the same mountain, but we each have our own way.” As members of the professional class, the three of them support the youngest protesters by donating gas masks or helping those who lack support from their parents to pay for meals. They also drive what they call “the school bus,” shuttling young protesters to and from events after authorities have closed public transportation.

Everyone may have their roles, but only some of those roles sometimes turn violent. Since the police began using force in June, the most radical protesters have turned up their own aggression. They throw bricks at police vans and break windows of pro-Beijing shops. Some lob Molotov cocktails at officers. This is one reason why a significant minority in Hong Kong actually oppose the protests. An August poll by The Independent showed that 39.5 percent of respondents believed the protesters had used “excessive force.” David Chu, a forty-something marketing executive in Hong Kong, says, “Everyone wants democracy, but not like this.” In casual conversations around town, I hear others call the protesters “cockroaches” or “entitled millennials” with no jobs. Some seem to draw no distinction between the frontliners and the many thousands more who march alongside them.


Jordan Ritter Conn

Back at the table, I ask the group how they feel about the frontliners’ aggression. Here, Maggie says, she and her husband disagree. “My bottom line is, so long as it doesn’t endanger other peoples’ lives, I think it’s fine.”

During protests, some frontliners break traffic lights, while others scrawl graffiti—“Chinazi,” “Fuck the Popo”—or throw Molotov cocktails in the streets. All the while, others stand nearby, holding umbrellas to shield them from cameras and cops.

“Well,” she says. “I’m one of the ones who holds an umbrella.”

She explains why. “This is so against my human nature. Because whenever you see someone trying to damage something, vandalize something, your first impression or reaction must be, ‘Oh, this is not good. I’m really against something like this.’”

Now, though, she sees the vandalism as a necessary response to police violence.

“I really think it’s all right.”

She shrugs.

“Sorry!”

Joe offers his own dissent.

“You can sense the anger,” he says. “If you shout, you release your anger. The people on the other side can sense your anger. But if you keep silent, I think it’s actually a more effective way of conveying your anger.”

Maggie winces, unsure.

“Well,” she says. “Only under an assumption that the other side cares.”


Samson Huang

While so many march and cheer, others walk around the periphery of the protests, handing out water bottles and fast-food gift certificates to tired strangers. Sunday night, a group of medics walk together several blocks from the chaos, clearly exhausted but still upbeat, and one stops to put a plate of food in my face and a pair of chopsticks in my hands. “You have to try this chicken.”

Amid the chaos, there has emerged a degree of connectedness and care for strangers that Hong Kongers have rarely experienced. “Right now there’s a solidarity between people,” says Leung, “that we haven’t really had before.”

Hong Kongers have long carried a reputation as busy and career-obsessed, perhaps even a little individualistic. “Hong Kong is like a mini New York,” says Elyse Wong, a freelance photographer. “It’s a very stressful city. People care about their own sphere. What matters to them. And that’s it.” The movement, though, has inspired a togetherness among supporters that’s long been missing from the local culture. “We are like a watch, or a clock,” says Wong. “If we are missing any single part, we will break. We need them all.”

Wong takes me to the Hong Kong Museum of History, which tells the story of how Britain secured control of Hong Kong in 1841, as part of the First Opium War, and moves through more than a century of history, showing how, in the second half of the 19th century, Hong Kong grew from a small fishing town into a major international trade hub, eventually securing some measures of autonomy even while under British colonial rule.

Wong says her grandparents came to Hong Kong from a small village in southern China in the 1960s. “They were illegal immigrants,” she says. One morning, they awoke early, and her grandmother prepared buns for the journey, and together they slipped out of their village undetected, until they reached the coast and a small boat. They rowed to the island, bringing few possessions, and here her grandfather opened a handyman business and built a new life. “In China,” Wong says, “he knew that the rich man will always be rich, and the poor man will always be poor.” Here, because of the more open legal and economic structures, “they knew they would have more opportunity.”

Wong spent some time living in Italy, and when people asked her where she was from, she always said Hong Kong.

“Oh,” she remembers them saying. “China?”

“No,” she would respond. “Hong Kong.”

Now she shrugs. “Deep down,” she says, “I was always a little offended.”

“We are like a watch, or a clock. If we are missing any single part, we will break. We need them all.” —Elyse Wong, freelance photographer

Beijing has branded the protests as a separatist movement. (Nets owner Joseph Tsai has done the same, adding that the Chinese people “stand united” regarding the country’s “territorial integrity.”) “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi Jinping said this month in Nepal. Hong Kongers, though, insist that the movement is not about independence. They point to the five demands: Independence appears nowhere on the list.

There is, though, a growing sense of Hong Konger identity as something distinct from the rest of China. That issue comes up again and again in my conversations. Mary Yuen, a seminary professor, says she grew up loving Chinese literature and movies, and that she always thought of herself as both a Hong Konger and as Chinese. In mainland Chinese culture and history, she saw incredible stories of dissent, people like her who wanted to resist oppressors. “I really appreciate the courage and the virtues of those people,” she says.

At dinner, Joe, the tech worker, says: “I won’t say I’m not Chinese as an ethnicity. However, there are so many things, including the NBA incident, where it’s a shame for us to say that we’re Chinese.”

His wife, Maggie, speaks up. “You know, when we watch the Olympic Games, we always cheer for the Chinese team. I think we don’t really mind calling ourselves Chinese. But there are a lot of small things adding up that we think, you know, I don’t mind to be called Chinese, but it seems like China is the one that minds us.”

Back at the history museum, Wong continues the tour, walking past photos of hillside shacks like the one where her grandparents once lived, and an exhibit showing an American-style diner like the ones that became popular during British rule. We watch a short film explaining the 1997 handover from the British to the Chinese government. On the screen, there is Prince Charles standing next to Chinese president Jiang Zemin. At the shot of Jiang, Wong raises two middle fingers, just slightly, and she laughs.

Before leaving the museum, she pauses and looks around her. She hasn’t been here since she was a kid on a field trip. “Now,” she says, “I feel like I want to come every week.” She thinks back to her grandparents, to that morning they packed a few buns and hopped in a small boat to leave mainland China, hoping for a better life here. “I’m so thankful,” she says. “If they never did that, I don’t even know who I would be.”


Samson Huang

No one in Hong Kong knows how this movement will end. “We don’t ask what’s next,” says Joe. Often, the protests feel full of energy and life. Sometimes, though, they can feel hopeless. “They proved to us that whatever you try to do,” he continues, “it’s not going to be impactful.” This, he says, is why the protesters have tried so many tactics, from escalating violence to boycotting or vandalizing pro-Beijing businesses. “We are out of options, basically.”

There is an urgency to this moment, one that sometimes veers into despair. “Some people think if we don’t get any changes in the government, this is it,” says Leung. “This is our last chance. If we don’t get something this time, the government will know they can do whatever they want.”

On Sunday, as the night deepens, a group of protesters huddles close together. They erect their barricades and they light their fires and they move to the middle of the streets with their umbrellas, and they wait.

At one point, a group of officers stands together, shouting at each other, then walking aimlessly, as if confused. All around, people stand and watch, and it can be difficult to tell who counts as a pedestrian and who counts as a protester, because no one is chanting or marching but everyone seems to wish, desperately, that the police would go away. Then finally, the officers move quickly all together—not toward the protesters, but back to their vans. As they climb aboard, the crowds start cheering. Not only the black-clad protesters, but the pedestrians watching from the sides of the road.

But as one officer heads into the car, he throws a smoke grenade at a crowd of reporters and pedestrians. The grenade explodes—loud and vicious, clouds of smoke in all directions.

The scene is jarring. People rush to an alley, where medics crowd around a young boy, perhaps 15, who lies on the ground, dazed. He is small and thin, and he wears a black T-shirt and black pants, a black backpack and pink gas mask. The medics hold him gently, applying pressure to his neck. He lies still and quiet, alert but unmoving. The officers are gone, speeding away as their sirens blare. The politicians feel far away now, the conversations among NBA officials and coaches and players so much farther still.

Here in the alley, a man vomits, and just behind him, another man vomits too. The medics keep shouting instructions, and pedestrians rush in to help those who’ve not yet been treated, and they carry saline solution to pour into gassed eyes. Around a corner, two teenage girls in white polo shirts and long skirts and ponytails cling to each other, and both are shaking, and both are crying, and all up and down the alley people are shouting. It’s hard to tell who’s screaming in anger and who’s screaming in pain.

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