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‘Mom Says Come Home’: Hong Kong Protests Divide Families


‘Mom Says Come Home’: Hong Kong Protests Divide Families

HONG KONG—Every weekend, thousands of families across the city say goodbye to loved ones heading into the fight.

They say goodbye to children dressed in black, some who hide helmets in their backpacks and—in case of arrest—have lawyers’ phone numbers stamped on their arms and coated with hair spray so the numbers don’t get smeared in the fray.

They say goodbye to policemen who, trained in a city where violent street crime is rare, will later don body armor and charge at protesters flinging bricks and Molotov cocktails into their lines.

And they worry as they sit down to watch the ubiquitous live streams that show the action in excruciating detail: the full-frame shots of teeth knocked out onto the pavement, of stumbling policemen pulling their guns in self-defense, of fires glowing through the tear gas.

Nearly four months of widespread street protests largely fueled by a younger generation demanding limits on China’s authority have disrupted daily life in the city and created a political crisis. It is also exacting a much more personal toll, causing turmoil at home and within families as the violence escalates.

Police attempted to arrest protesters at Hong Kong’s Prince Edward MTR Station, Aug. 31.


Ring Yu/Associated Press

Many parents, used to decades of peace and stability, worry about the safety and future of their children as they take to the streets. Some families are locked in arguments over the direction the protests have taken, including instances of arson and vandalism—or argue over the purpose of the protests altogether. Some parents are turning against the government and police as the city’s young protesters are violently arrested and blame officials for not doing enough to defuse the tensions.

This weekend saw some of the fiercest clashes yet, and on Monday, thousands of high school and university students boycotted classes. Organizers said an estimated 30,000 people attended a rally at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on the first day of term.

The Lius, a couple in their 50s, have a son in his 20s on the front lines. Mrs. Liu, who works as a caregiver at a nursing facility, fought with him when he first became involved in politics a few years ago. She initially pleaded with him to stay home this summer, but decided there’s no point getting into shouting matches.

The Lius suspect he is on the streets most of the time, though he is vague about his plans. When he is out, they stay up all night waiting for him to come home. Mr. Liu, a store manager, paces around the house asking his wife every few minutes whether he has texted. Their son is more likely to reply to her than to him.

They keep his social media accounts up, taking heart when his WhatsApp status says, “Online.” They have the TV on, and Mrs. Liu is on her phone and computer, too, constantly checking for news.

The Hong Kong media make it easy to follow the action. Dozens of yellow-vested reporters and camera operators position themselves in the most dangerous spots between the protesters and the police, broadcasting live video. Sometimes the Lius scan the live streams looking for their son. Every now and then they think they spot him, but with everyone covered in masks and helmets it can be hard to be sure.

Students gathered for anti-government protests at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Sept. 2.


LAUREL CHOR/EPA/Shutterstock

“We’re looking for him, but of course, in a way, we hope not to find him,” Mrs. Liu says. “My heart never stops racing until he’s home.”

Bad news came on July 14, when Mrs. Liu was out for dinner with her brothers and sisters. She discovered she had missed a dozen calls from her husband. Her son had been arrested. The police later came to search their house.

What really terrifies Mrs. Liu is that her son, now released and back home, will be injured in the worsening violence. Mrs. Liu says she has never been a political person, but the toughening police response and the government’s continued silence on addressing the protesters’ demands makes her and her husband more sympathetic to the young people’s cause.

More than 1,100 protesters, one just 12 years old, have been arrested in the past three months. Most are on bail awaiting to hear their charges, but could face yearslong sentences.

A law that would allow suspects to be extradited to China kicked off the dissent in Hong Kong on June 9. Early marches were large and mostly peaceful. On June 12, the police began using tear gas and rubber bullets during skirmishes with protesters, raising tensions. Days later, the government suspended the extradition bill—its only concession to date.

Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on protesters on June 12.


Gonzales/Avalon/Zuma Press

On July 1, residents watched in shock as protesters stormed the city’s legislature, breaking windows and vandalizing the chamber—one of the first real radical turns by protesters. This past weekend, the streams showed chanting protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and setting a number of fires.

Growing Wary

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The police have also become more aggressive. Last month, undercover police officers dressed in black made violent arrests in the shopping district of Causeway Bay. Live-stream cameras focused on one protester, pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee on his neck and his face covered with blood, screaming that his front tooth had been knocked out. Hong Kong has watched police charge into subway stations with batons and tear gas, chasing after suspects and, on Saturday, beating them in a train carriage. Water cannons have joined the fight, firing jets of blue-dyed water to mark protesters for future arrest.

Sunny, the wife of a police officer in her late 20s, says the two have been fighting for weeks about how the police have handled the protests. She often shows her husband video clips of police assailing protesters and has texted him while he’s on duty to say: “Hey. Please think before you act out there,” worried about what could happen in the heat of the moment.

A cleaner removed a sign while police stand before covered graffiti outside the police headquarters in Hong Kong, June 22.


isaac lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

The little time they’ve seen each other during the busy summer, it has been the only topic they discuss, she says. Her husband maintains that police are doing what is necessary to keep law and order, she says, while she’s upset that his job requires him to not take a political stance.

Sunny blames the government for failing to start talks and seek a political solution. There has been little dialogue between the government and the opposition as protests enter their 14th week.

“The government has thrown the police out there as a shield,” Sunny says. She supports an independent inquiry into police handling of the protests, a key demand of the protesters’ side. She says it might help heal the deep wounds between the two sides.

The police can deploy as many as 3,000 officers equipped with riot gear on the streets, with hundreds more able to be called up in reserve. More than 1,600 police officers and their family members have had their personal information made public, leading in some cases to death threats and abuse, the force has said.

Police officers faced off with protesters, Aug. 25.



Protesters have laid siege to police residences, including on Saturday at the married officers’ quarters in the far eastern neighborhood of Chai Wan. Sunny often can’t sleep for worry that their daughter, in elementary school, might be targeted. She doesn’t let her daughter run off to the park swings like she used to. Sunny says if their information were leaked, she would consider keeping her daughter at home from school.

“There is so much sadness, so much hate among our community right now,” she says. “We shouldn’t be divided into two sides.” Her husband declined to be interviewed.

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While protesters at the front lines of battles with police are mostly young, support of the opposition movement goes across generations. Public approval and trust of the government has dropped to record lows since China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997.

There are just over 2.6 million households in Hong Kong, official data shows. A rally on Aug. 18 drew an estimated 1.7 million people, almost a quarter of the city’s 7.4 million people. One on June 16 drew 2 million.

Protesters at an Aug. 18 rally.


Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Carmen Chan, a 39-year-old nonprofit worker, has found it difficult to explain the direction protests have taken to her 9-year-old daughter, whom she has brought to several of the larger peaceful marches. Mrs. Chan says she is against violent protests as well as against police officers’ use of force in arrests.

The two were so upset by a particularly brutal episode of violence they saw on TV one night, in which a mob attacked protesters, that they bumped into each other in the bathroom at 2 a.m., unable to sleep. They had a long, teary conversation right there.

“I didn’t know how to comfort her, because I don’t know how to deal with this either,” Mrs. Chan says.

After a 13-year-old and 15-year-old were arrested on the way home from an outdoor political movie screening Thursday, a local juvenile court ordered them to be immediately removed from their families’ care and placed in government care against the families’ wishes, according to their legal representatives. The magistrate said their parents couldn’t keep them in check, and a protection order was needed to keep them safe.

Edith, a 59-year-old janitor and single mother, learned as she was getting ready for bed on July 28 that her youngest daughter, Charlie, had been detained at a demonstration.

Edith worries about her daughter Charlie, who was arrested last month.


Anthony Kwan for The Wall Street Journal

Multiple live streams captured the images of police ripping off her mask and pinning her to the ground. Friends watching the footage peppered Charlie’s sister, Christine, with calls and WhatsApp messages. “I think…your sister was just arrested,” one read.

Christine frantically called Charlie, but her phone had been confiscated by police. She hesitated to worry their mom, thinking Charlie might be released shortly. A few hours later, she called her mother.

The family spent the whole night calling around police stations. They didn’t know it at the time, but in the course of her arrest Charlie had ticked a box instructing police not to alert her family for fear her mother would worry.

Protesters return tear gas on Aug. 25.


lillian suwanrumpha/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Police picked up more than 40 people in that episode, and many sat with Charlie through the early hours of the morning in a parking lot at the police station, waiting to be processed. By the time Charlie was allowed to make a phone call for legal assistance—to the number she had written on her arm before the demonstration—her family had found out where she was and arranged for representation.

Charlie faces one of the most serious charges brought against protesters—that of rioting, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 10 years. The charges were first brought a day after Beijing publicly pressured Hong Kong authorities for tougher treatment to quell the uprising.

Charlie’s arrest has largely been a taboo topic at home. At dinners, Edith’s daughters brush off her fears, telling her they can deal with a sentence when it comes, that maybe authorities will be lenient. When she is alone in her bedroom, Edith thinks of nothing else. She barely sleeps.

“She had her whole future ahead of her,” Edith said of Charlie, a university student who aspires to work in the arts. “I can’t begin to think what the future will be like for her now.”

A view of protesters from a tram, Aug. 28.



Previously someone who didn’t pay much attention to politics, Edith has becoming increasingly incensed on how authorities have ignored the protesters’ demands. She did eventually see the video of Charlie’s arrest and was horrified by the rough way the police tackled her to the ground.

In an interview, sobbing for the first time in front of her daughters since Charlie’s arrest, Edith questioned what she sees as the government’s indifference. “How can they not understand? Why have they driven their kids to this?”

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Jamie, an 18-year-old student, has had countless quarrels at home about her participation in the protests. She says her parents want to give her the freedom to do what she believes is right, but as the violence has escalated and the possible prison sentences have gone up, they are finding it harder to let her go.

On Aug. 11, a protester suffered a bad eye injury after being hit with some kind of projectile. Her face filled TV screens and blood soaked through her bandages as medics provided aid. Jamie’s father, who has business in China and doesn’t support the protests, asked, “If that was you, how could we go on?”

Jamie has learned how to hide where she’s going from her parents. She often discards her helmet and goggles before coming home and skips buying meals so she can afford new protective gear before the next clash.

Protesters on Aug. 25.


Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

On Aug. 5, as the city saw some of the worst clashes yet, her parents told her to come home immediately or don’t bother coming back. Jamie says she was determined to keep protesting, so stayed over with a friend.

At 3 a.m., her sister texted her. “Mom says come home,” she wrote. “Please. She just wants to see you.”

She went back. The next morning, her mother came in to her room to gather laundry, as she usually does.

“You will do what you will do,” Jamie says her mother, who doesn’t have a strong political stance but has grown weary on how authorities have handled the unrest, told her. “But please, always remember that your father and I will always be worrying about your safety. We just want to know that you’ll be OK.”

Write to Natasha Khan at

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