Despite having final exams the next day, Jessica Ho and Heulwen Leung still took to the streets of Los Angeles on June 9 to call for the preservation of democracy in their home city of Hong Kong.
This would be the first of many protests that Ho, a rising fourth-year sociology student, and Leung, a rising third-year political science student, would participate in as they joined hundreds of thousands of people worldwide in protesting a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong.
The extradition bill would allow criminal suspects from Hong Kong to be handed over to the jurisdiction of places it does not have formal extradition agreements with, such as Taiwan and mainland China.
Hong Kong citizens suspected of committing crimes in such places are currently unable to stand trial in those places or in Hong Kong, and proponents of the bill argue the legislation is a way to bring justice to criminal suspects caught in such a limbo, according to the New York Times.
However, opponents have expressed concern the bill would become a tool for political persecution by allowing the Chinese government to target critics of the Chinese Communist Party. Many view this as an attempt to encroach on Hong Kong’s democratic rights and political and legal independence, Leung said.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is backed by the Chinese government, first introduced the bill in April, drawing immense local and international opposition that culminated in a wave of mass protests in Hong Kong and around the world throughout June and July as people called for the withdrawal of the bill.
After news of the first mass protest in Hong Kong broke June 9, Ho and Leung participated in a solidarity rally in Downtown Los Angeles the same day. The rally was organized by Hong Kong Forum, Los Angeles, an organization that advocates for democratic development in Hong Kong, said Gabriel Law, a UCLA alumnus and spokesperson for the organization.
At least 800 people participated in the rally, during which protesters chanted slogans like “No extradition to China” and gave short speeches, said Law, who graduated from UCLA in 1995. Several of the speakers broke down crying on stage, he added.
“It was very emotional to some of them because what is happening in Hong Kong is something that we never imagined would be happening, where we truly have to fear for our way of life, about the imminent possibility of loss of freedom, about how insensitive the government is to our demands,” Law said.
Ho had not planned to return to Hong Kong until later in the summer. However, after she saw videos of violent confrontations between Hong Kong police and peaceful protesters during the June 12 protests, she immediately booked a last-minute flight to Hong Kong and flew over on June 15 to take part in the movement.
Ho landed just in time to participate in the June 16 protest, which was the third mass protest and largest against the extradition bill. Hundreds of thousands of people spilled onto and shut down several streets, which became so congested that Ho was stuck for four hours in an area she would normally have been able to walk through in 10 minutes.
Protestors called for the withdrawal of the extradition bill and for Lam to resign from her position as chief executive, in addition to denouncing the violent actions of the Hong Kong police during the June 12 protest, Ho said.
Leung also flew back to Hong Kong just in time to participate in the June 16 protest. She landed in Hong Kong at 7 p.m. the day of the protest, and began marching only two hours later until 1 a.m.
She said she was shocked to see how packed the streets and bridges remained, even at such late hours, and was touched to see the demonstration remain peaceful, despite its massive size.
“Two million of us showed up, but not a single window was broken,” she said. “The whole protest was as peaceful as you can imagine. I was really surprised and touched that Hong Kongers can manage to behave such peacefully when we want to … force the government to respond to us.”
In addition to the massive crowds, Ho said she was astounded to see people of all ages take to the streets.
She recalled seeing a woman who seemed to be around six months pregnant, carrying a foldable chair and marching on the street in all black. Ho also saw many parents carrying infants while marching and toddlers sitting in strollers or walking with their parents.
Ho said witnessing this diversity among the participants was striking because it contrasted greatly with the demographics of the protests in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, which she had also participated in.
The Umbrella Movement consisted of a series of protests from September to December 2014, in which pro-democracy protesters called for the Chinese government to follow through on its promise to allow the people of Hong Kong to nominate and directly elect their head of government.
The movement was mostly driven by young students and faced criticism and opposition from older generations who did not agree with their methods or ideals, Ho said. However, she said she thinks the Umbrella Movement helped people become more politically aware, which helped foster greater unity among Hong Kong citizens across all generations in the anti-extradition movement.
“That’s a powerful moment to me because I feel like it’s not just me anymore,” Ho said. “Like it’s not just a scholarly, intellectual conversation anymore, and it’s more like a conversation that every person would have with their families and friends in Hong Kong. As long as you’re still living in Hong Kong, (the extradition bill) is an immediate concern.”
Lam announced Tuesday that the extradition bill is dead, but has refused to declare a formal withdrawal of the bill, leading to continued protests and rallies.
Law said Hong Kong Forum, Los Angeles, will continue efforts to raise awareness of the issue in the United States. Both Ho and Leung have continued to actively protest in Hong Kong, and said this experience has helped shape their academic and professional aspirations.
Ho had been conducting research on the politicization and mobilization of youth in the Umbrella Movement prior to the anti-extradition protests, but has decided to pivot the focus of her research to the increased cross-generational collaboration she witnessed in the current movement.
“I think it’s this kind of cooperation that makes me feel amazed about how people are connected this time in this movement, rather than diverted … compared to five years ago,” Ho said. “And this is probably going to be my research from now on.”
Leung said participating in the protests has reaffirmed her passion for politics and inspired her to pursue a career in international relations and diplomacy to help foster democratic development in Hong Kong.
“I think, as a political science major, politics is the most impactful and direct means to change,” she said. “I really care about the democracy situation in Hong Kong, and I really want to do something to fight for it.”