Hong Kong protests one year on: The students and the medic

HONG KONG: Ryan used to be on the front lines during Hong Kong's protests. But a year on he has left the streets, fearful of arrest, wracked with guilt over his departure and despondent for the city's future.

"I wanted to get away from the political environment," the 20-year-old bespectacled student told AFP, adding that he has not logged on to the encrypted messaging apps used by protesters for several months now.

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Ryan, who used to be on the frontlines during Hong Kong protests, posing on a pavement near the government headquarters on Jun 2, 2020 and (bottom) a file photo taken on Aug 31, 2019 shows Ryan warding off tear gas with fellow protesters at a similar location. (Photo: AFP/Anthony WALLACE)

When AFP first met Ryan last summer he was a self-declared "charge boy", one of the frontline protesters forming shield walls against riot police in the weekly battles that swept through a once stable finance hub chafing at Beijing's rule.

Like many Hong Kongers, he joined the mass movement after witnessing police use rubber bullets and tear gas in early June against demonstrators outside the city's legislature who were trying to stop a widely loathed bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China's opaque, Communist Party-controlled courts.

READ: Hong Kong seethes one year on, but protesters on the back foot

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Hundreds of thousands marched in record-breaking rallies that continued for seven straight months and often descended into clashes with police.

Ryan described his embrace of confrontational tactics in unapologetic terms, saying he was "burning with anger" against the police and felt years of peaceful rallies had achieve little in stopping Beijing's steady erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms.

During one confrontation, Ryan hobbled away from the streets after he was struck in the leg by a rubber bullet. But he kept coming back out, his parents unaware of what he was up to.

Months later the 20-year-old university freshman cuts a very different figure, saying he can "no longer be a frontline protester".

BRUSH WITH THE LAW

In October, Ryan was arrested on a slew of charges including participating in an illegal assembly and assaulting police.

He alleges a group of police officers slapped and kicked him during his detention. Many other protesters have made similar claims but the police have rejected all accusations of abuse or excessive force.

The charges were eventually dropped after a series of court hearings.

But the experience rattled Ryan and he felt like a marked man.

In this picture taken on Jun 2, 2020, 20-year-old Ryan, who used to be on the frontlines during Hong Kongprotests, poses on a footbridge over Harcourt Road, near the government headquarters in Hong Kong.

"There's no way for me to have a catharsis … It only left me with a sense of loss. It also makes me want to give up on this movement," he explained, asking for just his first name to be used.

Over the last year about 9,000 people have been arrested for taking part in Hong Kong's protests, with more than 1,700 charged, and the courts are now jammed with prosecutions.

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Many of those going to jail are youngsters like Ryan, who now often sits in the public gallery.

"I want to show encouragement and support to those who have been arrested and those who have to go through court proceedings. Because I've been through it myself, I understand how you really need the support and care of others," he said.

"FAIRY TALE"

During a recent visit to the city's legislature Ryan's eyes welled up as he looked at a building now surrounded in barriers after it was breached and trashed by protesters in early July.

Last week the partially elected legislature, which is weighted to deliver a pro-Beijing majority, passed a law banning insults to China's national anthem.

Beijing has also announced plans for a sweeping new national security law to be imposed on Hong Kong, bypassing the legislature entirely.

Ryan's backpack sported a key-chain with a popular protest slogan: "Meet again under the drum."

The drum is the circular chamber where the legislature sits and over the years protesters have held sit-ins outside.

But Ryan finds it hard to imagine a future where similar protests are allowed, especially as anti-coronavirus measures currently restrict more than eight people gathering in public.

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"That's a fairy tale," he said. "Right now, it's a problem even if we just want to meet on the streets. Meeting under the drum is just too good to think about but it might become something that will never happen again."

Ryan knows some fellow protesters will judge him for leaving the movement and he struggles with guilt and doubt.

"I blame myself for selfishness and cowardice," he said. "I turned silent after being battered. I feel apologetic from my head to my toes. But I just couldn't do it."

Yet he also can envisage a time when he might hit the streets once more.

"You could say the temporary drop-out is to prepare for the future."

"MY HEAD WOULDN'T STOP BLEEDING"

Hong Kong high school student Joseph says he needed 14 stitches to close a head wound caused by police batons during last year's protests, an experience that fuelled his desire to become a lawyer as he tries to sue the force.

The 18-year-old's injury came from one of the most polarising nights of the protest movement.

On Aug 31, after hours of clashes with protesters, riot police stormed a train at Prince Edward subway station and repeatedly clubbed those inside.

In this picture taken on Oct 23, 2019, then-17-year old high-school student Joseph poses on a platform at the Prince Edward underground train station in Hong Kong, where on the evening of Aug 31 he and others were allegedly clubbed repeatedly with batons inside a waiting train after a team of riot police stormed into station, causing him to need 14-stitches to close a head wound. (Photo: AFP/Yan Zhao)

Police said protesters were using the station to change out of their black "protest uniforms" to escape being identified.

But the images of terrified people being repeatedly struck were captured on video and fuelled hostility towards the police.

"My head wouldn't stop bleeding," Joseph said, recalling how he was arrested and then spent 48 hours handcuffed to a hospital gurney while being treated.

He was never charged with any offence.

In this picture taken on Jun 2, 2020, 18-year old high-school student Joseph poses in front of a "Lennon Wall" at a local university in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Yan Zhao)

"I thought police brutality was something on the news or Facebook Live. I'd never imagined that would happen to me, and that the injustices in society would affect me directly," said Joseph, asking only his first name be used.

He described himself as a moderate protester who attended peaceful marches and eschewed violence, adding that he was making his way home on the subway that night when police rushed in.

Images of the incident often flash through his mind, he said, and when he talks about what happened his heartbeat quickens.

The scars on his head are now hidden by hair, but they serve as a constant reminder.

CIVIL SUIT

With the help of legal aid and sympathetic lawyers, Joseph has launched a civil suit against the police to claim damages, but has made little headway.

The identities of the officers involved have not been revealed, and the coronavirus outbreak delayed proceedings as courts closed down.

No police officer has faced sanction for their actions that night inside the station – despite images and video circulating widely on the internet.

Police reject allegations of brutality, saying officers deployed appropriate force to meet the tactics of protesters who were becoming increasingly violent after months of clashes.

But rights groups disagree, saying multiple instances of excessive force have been documented against non-violent protesters or people who had stopped being a threat.

One core demand of the movement has been an independent inquiry into police tactics, something both Beijing and Hong Kong's leaders have repeatedly rejected.

Last month, the city's police watchdog cleared the force of any misconduct and no officers have faced major sanction or reprimand over the protests.

Joseph's experience has since given him a career focus – he has just finished university entrance exams and now hopes to study law.

"After experiencing the movement, I felt like I could do more for society," he said.

"One year on … police still haven't been sanctioned and held responsible, but we shouldn't blot out the possibility that justice can be upheld."

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