On Sunday afternoon outside the Massachusetts State House, a crowd of black-clad protestors wearing face masks gathered. There was an abundance of signage on the ground, most handmade, bearing messages such as “HK Police = Terrorists,” “No Extradition Bill,” and “Stand With Hong Kong.” On the opposite side of the street, a like-minded crowd gathered, waving neon signs above a sea of black clothes.
Moments later, pro-Hong Kong protesters were met by counterprotestors, many of who showed up on the scene dressed in red, easily identifiable by the Chinese flags they were carrying. The opposing groups faced each other for a silent moment, then launched into their respective chants.
Shouts of “One China” on the pro-China side were countered with the phrase “Two Systems” from the pro-Hong Kong side. This is in reference to the “One country, two systems” principle that allows Hong Kong to retain its own economic and administrative systems. Counterprotestors kept up their chants, and demonstrators fired back with a round of new slogans—“Free Hong Kong!” “Save Hong Kong!” “Protect Hong Kong!” To which the red-clad crowd responded with a rendition of the Chinese National Anthem, as well as scattered chants in Mandarin.
The two groups gathered in support or protest of a similar, though immensely larger, rally that is happening in Hong Kong. For the last two months, the city has been racked with constant demonstrations against a controversial extradition bill that would allow the transfer of suspects to mainland China for trial. However, for some, the protests have grown to represent something far larger—the disconnect between identifying as a Hong Konger and as Chinese.
The organizer of the “Boston Stands with HK, Power to the People March” event was Frances Hui, a journalism student at Emerson College. She made headlines in the Washington Post and elsewhere internationally for a column she penned earlier this year titled “I am from Hong Kong, not China.” For Hui, the issue extends beyond the extradition bill itself. As a student protestor, she was also involved in the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, during which protestors demanded reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system.
“I don’t think [the Chinese identity] represents me completely because if I say I’m Chinese, people will just assume [things],” Hui said. “We Hong Kongers see freedom and democracy as a core value—that’s something I’ve known since I was in elementary school. That’s what we learn—we know that we have the freedom to speak up.”
When Hui was just 10 years old, she learned about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and that moment began paying close attention to the news. Participating in the Umbrella Revolution has also shaped her identity as a Hong Konger and an activist. Since then, however, she’s learned a lot more about the ins and outs of being the face of a movement and the target of online harassment and threats.
The march wound down past Boston Common and through Chinatown, where it paused. The crowd surged around the Chinatown Gate, which acted like something of a boundary between the pro-Hong Kong protestors and pro-China counterprotestors. The ensuing standoff was similar to the exchange near the Statehouse, but with emotions running even higher the police posted up around and in between the opposing groups.
The chants continued, with volleys of insults and snippets of song sounding from both sides—until there was a loud commotion at the far edge of the pro-Hong Kong group. A man in burgundy circled the fringe yelling a single phrase in Mandarin, “Hong Kong belongs to China! Hong Kong belongs to China!” before he was escorted away by police. The heckler returned soon after, and as the rally drew to a close, he lingered nearby, closely watching Hui and her posse of volunteers and organizers. When she began to leave the scene, he stayed on her tail, continuing his shout, “Hong Kong belongs to China!”
He tailed her all the way from Chinatown back to her Emerson dorm, where he stood outside.
For all the backlash Hui has received since her column gained traction, she said it was the first time she felt physically threatened.
“There’s a lot of hateful comments online,” she said. “There’s one person at my school that has put out threatening statements on his Facebook [wall] regarding my column. One horrible thing that he said was, ‘Whoever opposes my great China must be executed.’”
In the days leading up to the rally, Hui said, she was made aware of gun threats from the counterprotestors, and alerted federal law enforcement. Additionally, information about her church fellowship group was leaked online, with further calls to ferret out more personal information. She has since filed multiple incident reports.
As a journalism student, Hui said she sometimes finds it hard to reconcile her dual obligations to report the unbiased truth and to speak out for what she believes in. Although she was initially an assistant arts editor at the Berkeley Beacon, an editor’s interest in Hui’s perspectives about Hong Kong started her on the path of becoming a columnist. She is currently committed to “speak[ing] out for Hong Kong” and organizing rallies, even at the cost of her former position. At this crucial junction after months of protests in Hong Kong, she noted the reason for timing the second rally of the summer this past weekend.
“Congress is going to resume very soon,” Hui said. “We want to let the world know that we support [the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act], and I think this is how we can blow it up.”