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Thousands of students and young people were detained during Hong Kong's democracy protests in 2019. Now with criminal records, many are struggling to re-integrating into a changed society
HONG KONG — Shortly after his release from the Detention Center, Ah Tao received a phone call from his secondary school headmaster. The headmaster told the Hong Kong teenager that it might not be a good idea for him to continue his studies, and that there were some barista courses outside school he might as well try.
Tao did not respond to the suggestion, and hung up after a few pleasantries.
Back when he was arrested on the street in 2019, Tao had completed his third year, and the school promised to hold his place. However, they stated that if he committed any offenses again, he could be expelled. Tao was already prepared for such a phone call. At that moment, he felt strongly that he was just a young person who had broken the law, and even his school did not want him anymore.
In 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed an amendment bill on extradition that would allow the transfer of fugitives from between Mainland China and Hong Kong. The bill received widespread criticism, with fears it would hamper political dissent in Hong Kong and led to large-scale protests.
In the three years since, the Hong Kong police have arrested 10,278 people, of whom 2,850 have been prosecuted for allegedly participating in riots, unlawful assembly, wounding people, etc. Of these, about 765 have been charged with rioting. Of those arrested, 4,010 were students, of whom 1,150 were prosecuted.
These 4,000 blurred faces include junior high school students who were kicked out of their schools, who graduated while in prison, and university graduates who went to job interviews with a criminal record. How have the lawsuits and convictions affected their academic and career paths, and what are the ups and downs of their lives from these three years?
Shunned by society
“The trial finally came after three years.” On a hot June day, Tao, who is about to turn 18, wipes the sweat from his forehead. He looks like any other teenager his age, with his short hair, plain white shirt, sweatpants and sneakers. He was arrested in 2019 and 2020, and sentenced to a probation order for over a year for arson.
He was sentenced to a center for re-education.
At his first sentencing, the judge of the court described Tao as a "good child." But in the Court of Appeal, three other judges examined his personality, behavior and background, and eventually ruled that he was not particularly good or at the top of his class, which overturned that description. "They said I was average, just mediocre, not that noble," he said.
Tao was sentenced to a center for re-education. The center's emphasis is on strict discipline and labor work, which for a short period of time can have an impact on the inmates and remind them not to commit crimes. He said that the main activities in the reformatory were classes, sports and chatting with social workers, which was similar to school. But the correctional center also requires inmates to do drills and physical exercise, which made him feel very nervous and restrained.
Of those arrested for social movements, about 1,754 were young people under the age of 18, of whom 1,255 were male and 499 were female. Of these, 511 were prosecuted. There have been several cases of these teenagers who could not integrate well with their old school after release. In one case, during his arrest and bail, a juvenile was repeatedly told about his arrest by his former school teacher and his classmates rejected him. Even when the teen was so emotionally disturbed that he wanted to change schools, the school was unwilling to make a referral. Such cases are not singular, and many arrested university students are also facing similar dilemmas. For them, it is like a “dual punishment” in re-integrating into society and going back to campus, as it was very difficult to continue their studies in prison.
Life with a criminal record
The prison term is over, but the release from prison is another hurdle, and ex-prisoners have to face the reality of finding a job.
Chelsea had just completed a job interview. "You have to report all your circumstances when you renew your license, and many organizations already ask you to write a criminal record on their application forms.” Chelsea, who is in her 20s, was studying at university when she was arrested for illegal gatherings during her graduation season. After being sentenced to prison, she was disqualified from her profession and only recently got her license back after an appeal. In recent months, she has been interviewed for about 10 jobs, but has not yet heard back.
Many times, the interview had a good atmosphere, but the moment the gap in her resume was mentioned, it took a turn for the worse. At that point, Chelsea would answer directly that she was in prison for a social movement case. "Some interviewers change their attitudes when they hear that you were in court, and you can tell... that they're immediately concerned." She said that in such cases, many interviewers would ask her a few questions: Have you gained anything since you were imprisoned? Have your values changed at all?
Even though the question could be the same, Chelsea could perceive two intentions: some ask it provocatively, and others ask it out of curiosity and with a desire to understand. In the former case, "I answered that I have grown in both my mentality and my approach to life, and that I understand that there is no absolute right or wrong in anything. But it seems like they just want to hear me say that I've changed."
Mentioning these experiences, Chelsea said, "I was a little frustrated, but I understand.”
Chelsea doesn't turn the other cheek when it comes to her record. She feels that no matter what one did, people wear the same uniform in prison, and she is not particularly noble for her acts. "It's a lifetime of having a criminal record, and you have to answer yes when someone asks you about it. It's not easy, and it's not the glory of being in prison for a social movement case that everyone says. Every time someone mentions it, you will remember: ah, you are just a 'prisoner'."
Life in the "new Hong Kong"
Protesters defending themselves from pepper spray and tear gas during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong over an extradition bill.
After the social movements and the introduction of national security law, Hong Kong has undergone a radical change. In the correctional institutions, authorities said that they will continue to manage young prisoners in two major directions, "punishment" and "education," to help them rehabilitate. In recent years, a number of measures have been implemented, such as developing a rehabilitation program with clinical psychologists. A "Youth Lab" was established in 2020 to "conduct psychological rehabilitation and re-building, adjust their mode of thinking and enhance their law-abiding awareness (for the youth)."
On the other hand, Hong Kong Correctional Services have also launched the "Understanding History is the Beginning of Knowledge" education campaign, which aims to “assist young persons in custody to learn history, enhance their sense of national identity, help them reflect on the meaning of life and guide them back on the right track.” Under the change of education curriculum, the department also emphasizes the strengthening of “education of values” in subjects such as Chinese History in junior high schools, including moral and civic education, education on the Basic Law and the National Security Law, etc.
"In the past three years, Hong Kong has undergone great changes because of the National Security Law and the new Chief Executive. There is less space for people to breathe.” After Tao was released from prison, he felt that many people were burdened with the emotions of the past three years and wanted to get out of politics and turn away from the news, which he said was understandable. "We all start to work hard for a living and a job, or to migrate and start a new life. The spirit of Hong Kong people is able to bend and stretch, and currently, the only way is to go with the policy.”
The only thing that hasn't changed since getting out of prison is that she still gets nightmares.
Chelsea has felt that she has more to face after her release. "Although it sounds like a cliché, there was really peace and quietness that I have never felt before in prison,” she said.
The only thing that hasn't changed since getting out of prison is that she still gets nightmares, and in severe cases, the nightmares last for days. “I could wake my inmates by screaming and shouting in the middle of the night.”
She didn't want to read sensational reports or watch documentaries about the protests. And when it comes to going to a counselor, she said, "I knew the process would be painful and I wasn't ready to deal with it.”
Learning from loss
Tao is now going to a different school. He sees his old classmates from time to time, but he doesn't say hello. He thinks to himself, "They are happy, they have a youthful life, a high school life. I'm a different person with a different life.”
His family went to the UK first, thinking that he would leave after completing his lawsuit, but he refused: "I really want to stay here, even if it's a bit hard. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and I still have feelings for the city, so I would stay on.”
Reading the court news and seeing his friends going to prison were his most emotional times. At this time, he would walk from home to the Star Ferry Pier, the iconic Hong Kong landmark. Looking back on the past three years, he has new thoughts."We are not doing this for Hong Kong, but for our own hearts — because if we don't, we won't be able to live with it,” he said.
He put his palms together and then parted his hands to illustrate the thickness of life. "Imprisonment gives me more experience in life and broadens the horizon. Of course, I would rather not go to prison, but maybe that's why I know how to take each step of my life right now.” Angus, a released university student, has a similar mentality. "I would still choose the person I am now. The whole year 2019 was an experience. Of course, Hong Kong has lost a lot, but I think a lot of people have learned a lot from these losses," Angus said.
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