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Hong Kong’s Muzzled Generation Cries Out

How China Silenced a Movement for Democracy—Until It Couldn’t Anymore

Protesters demonstrate against the extradition bill in July 2019 Tyrone Siu / REUTERS

As cars idled bumper to bumper on one of Hong Kong’s busiest highways, a gaggle of young people clad in black darted into traffic. Cars swerved. Buses braked. Hundreds, then thousands, of teens and 20-somethings flooded the streets, their yellow construction helmets bobbing past red Toyota taxis. Like nimble spiders, a few dozen men used plastic ties to knit metal stanchions into road barriers. On nearby roads, other crews did the same. In roughly 20 minutes, demonstrators had choked off Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the city’s quasi-parliament, and ignited one of the largest protests since Britain returned this former colony to China in 1997.

On June 12, lawmakers were poised to debate a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China. The city’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the law would prevent fugitives from taking refuge in the territory. Her critics feared it would erode Hong Kong’s autonomy, enabling greater interference from Beijing. Under the draft version of the bill, virtually anyone in Hong Kong—business owners, religious figures, members of the political opposition—could be transferred to the People’s Republic, where they would face an opaque and politicized legal system notoriously heedless of due process. Chinese prosecutors, many Hong Kongers feared, could easily dredge up past infractions or craft new charges to ensnare businesspeople or dissidents.

For months, opposition to the bill had mounted. Its potential sweep galvanized lawyers, students, civil rights groups, and even businesses and some foreign governments. In April, an estimated 130,000 people marched against the draft law. By early June, when a vote seemed imminent, protest organizers claimed that more than a million people had mobilized. But June 12 was a turning point. In an afternoon that shocked the city, thousands of police officers in black riot helmets fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds into the crowd. More than 80 people reported injuries; many of those who sought medical care were arrested at hospitals.

The brutal

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