HONG KONG—The protester was 17 when he was jailed for possession of a Molotov cocktail. Held for nearly two years, partly in solitary confinement, he saw his world whittled to a stainless-steel toilet, the glare of security cameras and harsh winter evenings that numbed his limbs.
When he was released last year, he stepped into a city that suddenly moved faster than he remembered. He had trouble hailing buses and taxis and ordering food from a menu. While his friends graduated and moved on with their lives, he was sent back to high school—a disenchanted 20-year-old rebel among teenagers busy with math problems and dating.
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He doesn’t know where he fits into this new Hong Kong, and there have been times when he’s locked himself in his room and wished he was behind bars again.
“Life in prison was easier. People make all the decisions for you,” said Alex, who like other formerly imprisoned protesters who spoke to The Times provided only his first name for fear of retribution. “It’s ridiculous. People won’t understand, but when I was released, I had this feeling as if prison was where I belonged.”
Three years after Hong Kong was engulfed in violent unrest over calls to check China’s encroaching power, the city’s jailed protesters who cast an indelible image with their yellow hard hats, gas masks and black clothing have begun trickling back into a society where many of the freedoms they fought to preserve have vanished.
Bewildered and disillusioned, they struggle to reintegrate into a city transformed by a two-year-old national security law that’s eliminated political dissent and turned people such as Alex into pariahs for having dared to challenge Beijing’s authority. The city that once offered them hope has lost its unabashed cosmopolitan verve—much of it propelled by a globally connected young generation—under the ever-expansive eye of the communist state.
“After I came out, I learned my friends were either in jail or had left Hong Kong,” said another recently released protester named Oliver. “I thought we would meet again, but gatherings have become FaceTime calls.”
Careers and academic opportunities for former protesters have dwindled. Friends and family have fled to other countries. Plans for democracy have been scratched. For many recently released protesters, just staying in school or holding down a job is a victory, especially against the grind of the pandemic, slowing economic growth and rising inflation.
“Their release from prison is only the beginning of a long journey to find closure,” said John Mak, a co-director of a social service group called Project Change that offers legal support and counseling services to young protesters. “There’s a lot of emotional stress seeing people around them move on. They’re still trying to make sense of the cost of their criminal records.”
More than 10,000 Hong Kongers were arrested in the aftermath of the protests, which started peacefully in 2019 in response to a proposed extradition bill with China. The demonstrations spiraled out of control when calls for greater autonomy were met with tear gas, police batons and an intransigent Chinese government under authoritarian President Xi Jinping.
Among those arrested, 2,850 have been prosecuted on charges such as rioting, unlawful assembly and possession of weapons, official figures show. So far, 1,172 have been sentenced to prison, most of them high school and university students. They were later joined by well-known names such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in a crackdown last year.
Most prison terms range from three to four years, which is why many former protesters have been released in recent months.
Their ability to restart their lives could prove a litmus test for how the city of 7.5 million—facing international pressure on human rights abuses—intends to deal with the protest generation and heal its civic wounds. Signs suggest China has given up on them, directing its energy toward indoctrinating the next generation with patriotic education and weekly flag-raising ceremonies.
Pledging fealty to the Chinese Communist Party would have been highly unusual not too long ago when Hong Kong still boasted opposition lawmakers, a vibrant independent media and a stable of human rights lawyers. Under a handover agreement with Britain, which administered Hong Kong as a colony until 1997, China granted the territory special autonomy for 50 years. The protests gave Beijing a pretext to upend that agreement—wiping away many of the city’s freedoms and exposing the West’s inability to rein in an increasingly bold and repressive Chinese regime.
“Hong Kong rises from the ashes,” Xi declared during a recent visit to the city marking the 25th anniversary of the handover from Britain, which doubled as a victory lap after Beijing crushed the last vestiges of government opposition in the Asian financial center.
The oppressive political climate has sent a chill across the Hong Kong colleges and universities where many former protesters have returned.
Derek Tai graduated with first-class honors at the Chinese University of Hong Kong but lost his shot at an exchange program in Germany when he was arrested in 2019 for unlawful assembly outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building.
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 called into a disciplinary hearing by the university and handed two demerits for “damaging the school’s reputation.”
He wasn’t alone. All of Tai’s peers released from prison stood before a panel of professors and students that decided whether they should be allowed to continue their studies.
“Demerits are the most common,” Tai said. “Some people get suspended. Some are sent to do community service. The worst is getting expelled.”
Tai intends to apply for a PhD program abroad, but he’s not sure whether the demerits on his transcript will spoil his chance of admission or scholarships.
“I’ve already paid a criminal price,” he said. “This is a double punishment.”
Although government leaders in Hong Kong have said they welcome the idea that young protesters be given a second chance, redemption in the eyes of Beijing’s loyalists is unlikely. Laws ensure their arrest records will trail them for life.
Under Hong Kong’s Rehabilitation of Offenders Ordinance, first-time offenders sentenced to less than three months’ imprisonment, or fined no more than 10,000 Hong Kong dollars—about $1,274—can have their criminal records expunged as long as they don’t commit another crime within three years.
But protesters accused of taking part in unlawful assemblies or riots or possessing weapons—the three most common charges related to the 2019 protests—have faced sentences far harsher than the ordinance allows.
“Even carrying a ‘weapon,’ in most cases a laser pointer, resulted in sentences of six months,” said Sung Yun-wing, an adjunct economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a co-founder of Project Change.
Sung called for more flexibility in the law, citing the major backlog of court cases in Hong Kong. A protester arrested as a minor in 2019 could be charged as an adult by the time their case is finally heard.
“If we really want to help them reintegrate into society and mend the wounds of 2019, it will take a long time and a whole village’s effort,” Sung said.
Until then, the former protesters must navigate life in a city that feels new, scary and strange even as they are viewed with suspicion.
Having served 20 months behind bars, a 27-year-old electronics engineer named Kwan said he has become more circumspect in sharing his views. He will probably not take to the streets again in protest.
He felt deepening guilt over his mother having to travel for hours each day on public transport to his prison just to have a 15-minute chat with him through a plate of glass and a scratchy phone. Kwan’s girlfriend, meanwhile, tended to all of his requests in prison, researching on Google philosophical terms he’d read in a book and lyrics of Cantopop songs and then printing the results for him.
On June 4 this year, he briefly contemplated going to Causeway Bay, a neighborhood where Hong Kongers held an annual candlelight vigil to commemorate Beijing’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown before gatherings were banned by authorities. Only the staunchest die-hards still dared to go. Kwan chose not to. He couldn’t put his loved ones through another arrest.
“I won’t let them wait for me again,” he said. “My family suffered too much.”
Oliver, who was incarcerated for more than two years after he was charged with crimes such as rioting and weapons possession, gave up a career in engineering to return to prison, this time to help fellow protesters and their families.
The 26-year-old now visits prison facilities to deliver books, shampoo and snacks such as pork jerky and M&Ms. He recently organized a group gathering for mothers whose children are remanded or imprisoned. He explained to them what life is like in jail and how families can plan visits and write letters.
“If there’s one thing I learned from going to jail it is that you can only live in the moment,” Oliver said. “If you can’t predict what will happen in the future, take care of one another, help others when you can. This alone is enough.”
Liu is a special correspondent. Times staff writer David Pierson in Singapore contributed to this report. This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.