Growing up in Hong Kong, Joey Siu imagined she could become a high school teacher, but two years ago, as pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of the Chinese-ruled city, she found herself on a different path.
Siu joined the rallies as a student activist, but quickly took on a larger role in the movement, advocating for international aid and speaking regularly to the media.
Then, in June of last year, China imposed the National Security Act – broadly worded legislation was needed to fight secession, terrorism, subversion and “collusion with foreign powers”.
Overnight, social media accounts were shut down, pro-democracy groups shut down. The protests, already appeased by the coronavirus pandemic, have evaporated.
Some chose exile. Siu wondered for weeks what to do.
“I never really thought about leaving Hong Kong so early,” the 21-year-old told Al Jazeera from Washington, DC, where she finally settled in October last year. “I always thought that I would have a career in Hong Kong, a future and that it would be the city in which I would live permanently.
“[But] I realized that if I decided to leave Hong Kong, I could do more for Hong Kong. “
The tumultuous political developments on Chinese territory, Siu’s own growth as an activist, and the emotional toll of the protesters as they fight for the city they love are at the heart of Do Not Split, the 35-minute film from the Norwegian director Anders Hammer who is shortlisted for best documentary short at the Oscars on Sunday.
‘No way to defend ourselves’
Described by Variety as “visceral, up close and personal,” Hammer took to the streets to film alongside the protesters and capture not only the unpredictability of the protests, but their raw emotion.
From its opening with a group of black-clad protesters breaking into a Chinese-owned bank, to a group of police pushing a protester to the ground, flattening his cheek on the tarmac, his shirt ripped off and his stomach exposed, the film does not shy away from the increasing violence of the clashes between the police and the demonstrators.
Everywhere there are clouds of tear gas, jets of water cannons and the putt-putt of rubber bullets.
Siu recalls how the protesters struggled to cope with the growing police response.
“When the movement first broke out, most of the protesters, including myself, were new,” she said. “We didn’t know how to deal with tear gas, rubber bullets and everything.”
At first the police gave the crowd space to disperse and return home, but then their tactics changed, she recalls.
Protesters often found themselves locked in bursts of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Some protesters were fired with live ammunition.
The government had also made it clear that those arrested could be charged with rioting, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
“There really was no way to defend yourself except by also deploying a certain level of force,” Siu said.
Hammer arrived in Hong Kong in June 2019 and – aside from a quick trip back to Norway to collect more material – spent weeks in the field.
While some of the violence was disturbing, Hammer points out the confrontation with police at the besieged Chinese University of Hong Kong in November – it was the spirit and determination of the demonstrators that touched him the most.
“Seeing the stress, the desperation and the way the protesters were trying to hold on to hope even though it was getting harder and harder for them to protest and they could see very clear signs that Hong Kong was developing in the opposite way to that for which they were fighting. He told Al Jazeera.
“They wanted to protect and keep the city as they knew it and they were fighting against this closer relationship with Beijing. And they protested because they felt that their basic democratic rights were disappearing.
Hammer allows protesters to talk about their motives and their sense of betrayal.
“The British delivered us to China like a sack of potatoes,” it is said of the United Kingdom, which ruled Hong Kong as a colony until 1997.
Siu is shown grappling with the psychological impact of the unfolding events.
“When our own town is dilapidated, [and] collapse, ”she told Hammer. “What’s the point of thinking about our future.”
The 2019 protests began against a plan by the Hong Kong government to allow the sending of suspects to trial in mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
A million people walked the streets the city on June 9, and almost double the following week – the biggest protest in the territory’s history – but it wasn’t until September that CEO Carrie Lam withdrew the invoice.
The rallies did not come out of nowhere, however. Hong Kong people had long resented Beijing’s tightening grip.
During the handover, the leaders of the Communist Party of the country promised to respect the rights and freedoms of the territory – unknown on the continent – for at least 50 years.
Ahead of the 2019 protests, the territory’s largest protest took place 16 years earlier against plans to introduce a national security law, which were later scrapped by the government.
The demands for universal suffrage – a key demand of the 2019 protests – and the right to choose the leader of the city have periodically erupted into mass protests, most notably in 2014 when tens of thousands of people joined a peaceful 79-day sit-in in the heart of the city, after Beijing declared that the territory had no autonomy.
“I felt it was one of the most important events in international politics at the time,” Hammer said of why he decided to go to Hong Kong in 2019. “I still think that is the case.
The protests had already died down even before the National Security Law was imposed, but critics said the legislation had effectively criminalized even legitimate forms of political dissent.
In January, around 50 politicians, activists and academics arrested in police raids during a primary election they had organized in July 2020 to help the democratic camp choose the strongest candidates for an election to the Legislative Council which was later delayed.
Since then, Beijing has rewritten the territory’s election rules to ensure only “patriots” can hold office.
“I’m sorry for Hong Kong,” Hammer said, noting that two of those arrested were featured in his film. “These are dark times. The developments we cover in the documentary in that the place for democracy is shrinking have just continued.
The repression continues, who even ensnared veteran lawyer and politician Martin Lee who helped draft Hong Kong’s postcolonial constitution, has further deepened the divisions between China and Western democracies, including the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
China’s wrath at the Oscars
Unsurprisingly, the Oscar nomination for Do Not Split shocked Beijing.
An article in the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled tabloid, dismissed the film as a “bogus” documentary that “lacked artistry” and was “full of biased political positions.” The nomination of such a film would “hurt the feelings” of Chinese audiences, he said.
The Oscars will not be shown on the mainland, while Hong Kong broadcaster TVB has blamed “commercial” reasons for its decision not to air the ceremony for the first time in more than half a century.
“Our main goal in making this documentary was to draw attention to the critical situation in Hong Kong,” Hammer said. “Ironically, the censorship of the Oscars and the attention to our documentary has resulted in more stories about the plight in Hong Kong, so Beijing is helping us.
Siu now works for the international advocacy group Hong Kong Watch, where she has addressed politicians in the United States and further on the situation in Hong Kong, which she is convinced China wants to turn into “another ordinary city of mainland China ”.
She worries about where she was forced to flee, but finds solace in the new ways in which the people of Hong Kong are resisting and democratic governments seem increasingly willing to stand up and defend their values and their way of life.
“I am quite motivated and encouraged to see that here in the United States or in other countries, like in Europe, people are starting to realize that this strategy that we have been adopting for years is wrong and that we have to take a lot. a tougher and more comprehensive approach to dealing with China, ”she said.
It’s a far cry from the quiet life of a teacher.