From packed streets to silence: documenting the fall of Hong Kong

I had never seen so many people before in my life. On 9 June 2019, hundreds of thousands of people dressed in white marched slowly but steadily across Hong Kong island.

The heat and humidity were almost unbearable, but protesters from all walks of life came prepared with neck towels, folding fans, and umbrellas to shield the sun. It’s never easy to capture the scale of a crowd, but the intense, palpable energy emanating from the masses of people who had united for common values isn’t something a photograph could ever convey.

Extradition protests in Hong Kong on 9 June 2019.

They had gathered to protest against a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent to face trial in mainland China. At the time, it appeared to be one of the most serious affronts to “one country, two systems”, in which Hong Kong has been allowed to operate with relative autonomy, since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997. Organisers estimated that million people, or almost one in seven of the city’s population, had come out.

A few days later, the police fired teargas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds on thousands of young protesters who had surrounded the city’s legislature ahead of the bill’s second reading. I had just left Hong Kong for a conference halfway around the world, but I returned on the first flight I could take. Though the clouds of teargas had barely settled, I knew that I had to get home and do my job.

Riot police fire teargas during a demonstration in Sheung Wan district on 28 July 2019.

I arrived in time for another protest on 16 June. The million-person march on 9 June had defied expectations, but what was seen as an excessive use of violence by police galvanised even more to come out just a week later. This time, an estimated 2 million turned up. I knew I was where I belonged: documenting my home and my people as they rose up en masse for shared values.

Protests on 16 June 2019 when an estimated 2 million people turned out.

For those of us privileged to live under functioning governments, it’s easy to take for granted the institutions that form the pillars of an open, fair society. But in the months following those June protests I witnessed Hong Kong’s rapid and frightening descent into authoritarianism. The police force, which had long been seen as competent and trustworthy, acted with increasing impunity as it became clear that their higher-ups would not only condone but defend excessive use of violence and shockingly unprofessional behaviour, from the taunting of protesters and journalists, to beatings of arrested citizens.

Masked protesters stand behind a makeshift barricade during a demonstration in Sai Wan on 28 July 2019.

It seemed that with each passing day, the rule of law was being chipped away in barely perceptible increments. It was the realisation that the normal rules of urban existence no longer applied, as police fired rubber bullets and protesters threw bricks in normally crowded streets. It was seeing police officers become bolder and more and more violent while facing no repercussions. It was reading the news one year after the first extradition protests that Beijing had bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature to implement a sweeping national security law that all but criminalised dissent. The law, along with the Covid pandemic, effectively and indefinitely put an end to street protests.

I had photographed marches with hundreds of thousands of people, lunchtime rallies in the financial heart of the city, miles-long human chains, and countless arrests. I had spent a week inside Polytechnic University, which the police besieged after it had been taken over by protesters, and documented the movement’s violent climax with over a thousand arrested over 12 days. But by the middle of 2020, with the national security law possibly making even chanting a slogan punishable by life imprisonment, people were too afraid to speak up.

Above: An anti-government protester throws a petrol bomb during a clash with police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong in November 2019. Below: A woman shouts at police officers in the district of Yuen Long on July 27, 2019.

People protest against a government ban on face masks in Hong Kong on 4 October 2019.

With no protests left to photograph, it seemed a good idea to take a break and study for a masters in the UK. But it was with a heavy heart that I watched the situation continue to deteriorate from afar.

In January 2021, the authorities arrested dozens of activists under the national security law. In one fell swoop, it was as if the entire cast of characters in the story of Hong Kong’s democratic movement – one I had been covering for years – were arrested, in jail, or in exile. Just months after I arrived, the government announced a visa scheme for holders of British National (Overseas) passports, which were given to those born in colonial Hong Kong. Thousands immediately applied. With waves of exiles arriving in the UK, and no protests back home, I found myself photographing Hong Kongers protesting in Britain.

Protesters attend a rally for democracy in Hong Kong in Trafalgar Square in London on 12 June 2021.

On 4 June, hundreds gathered in London to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was surreal to be surrounded by Hong Kongers again, to hear the sound of Cantonese and the familiar chants that were ubiquitous across Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020 but were now banned under the national security law. Back home, thousands of police officers successfully prevented mass gatherings. A lawyer was arrested for encouraging people to protest.

Former Hong Kong lawmaker Nathan Law speaks at a rally for Hong Kong democracy in London.

A former Hong Kong lawmaker, Nathan Law, now granted asylum in the UK, spoke on the makeshift stage about the resilience of Hong Kong people. He was followed by a survivor from the Tiananmen Square massacre, then by a Uyghur woman whose family was detained in Xinjiang. At the edge of the crowd, a group of protesters from Myanmar held banners in support of the pro-democracy movement. The mood was sombre, but the conversations were comfortingly banal: we asked each other how long we had been here, what food we missed the most, and which local restaurants to try.

A person standing on the Chinese flag during the protest outside the Chinese Embassy in London on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The protest didn’t draw much attention, and the attendance of so many newly arrived Hong Kongers only highlighted how far the city’s political development had regressed. But whether or not the rally had an impact didn’t seem to matter. It was enough for the protesters just to find themselves together in a foreign land, their mere presence an act of hope and solidarity they could cling to while their city, 6,000 miles away, fell silent.