“The first time I threw a Molotov cocktail, my whole body was shaking. I don’t think any Hong Konger would have imagined having to throw a Molotov cocktail in their lifetime. But when you were pushed into a corner, you didn’t really have no choice,” said one of the young activists from Hong Kong’s fight for freedom (BBC Two), which convincingly documented the pro-democracy protests that began in 2019.
These were not hardened activists, but young people who feared that the freedoms they once enjoyed were being threatened by the Chinese government. In order to protect their identity, the program used artificial intelligence to digitally alter their faces. The stakes here are high. This first of two episodes ended with news footage from a Beijing spokesperson, who issued a chilling warning: “Don’t confuse restraint with weakness. Those who play with fire will get burned. The punishment will come and they will perish.
We are all guilty of signing off from news bulletins, or skimming the pages of the newspaper, or thinking that these events are happening far away and do not concern us directly. Here is a documentary that very simply and clearly exposed the issues, from the point of view of the demonstrators.
The catalyst for the protests was a proposed legal amendment that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China. Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor, provided the context. “What you have to realize about Hong Kongers is that two-thirds or more of them were refugees, or refugee families, who fled the terrible events in Communist China. They swam, climbed barbed wire, lined up in boats, to get to this haven of peace from British colonialism.
The show’s officials also spoke with Western journalists and – in a nod to poise – with Regina Ip, adviser to the Hong Kong authorities. But the news reports of the time and the shaky cellphone images were the most compelling aspects. A woman shouted in the face of a policeman in riot gear: “You are one of us! We are all Hong Kongers.
The storming of the legislative building was a powerful moment, captured by news cameras. Citizen journalists later recorded the attack in Yuen Long, when a mob dressed in white T-shirts attacked protesters and civilians. Police took their time getting to the scene despite multiple emergency calls. Authorities have denied any prior knowledge of the event. It was a tipping point. A second episode, which airs next week, will cover Beijing’s response.