Fearing punishment for being interviewed on politically sensitive topics, the topics in this story spoke to NBC News on the condition that their full identities would not be disclosed, so only their middle names are used.
HONG KONG – Like love stories around the world, they started with a chance meeting.
Ying saw someone she thought was a famous figure on a motorcycle near her Hong Kong home and motioned the person over for a chat. When the man took off his helmet, she realized it wasn’t her boyfriend. But the two began to talk, and an embarrassing mistake turned into a delightful surprise.
Over the course of days and weeks, Ying learned that the man, Chung, was nice. She liked that he tried to warn older people in their village about potential scammers. Chung, whose calm intensity contrasts with Ying’s fizz, was drawn to her creativity.
Now, 10 years later, Ying and Chung share an apartment with Sum, their 9-year-old daughter, a gray parrot, a white cat and a palm-sized hamster. Yet despite the memories, creatures and obligations that bind them, their marriage is torn apart by the same forces that divide Hong Kong.
Ying, 46, has had enough: she is determined to leave and bring her family.
Since June 2019, she has participated in almost every large-scale anti-government demonstration to paralyze the city. On the other hand, Chung, 49, sees protesting the governments of Hong Kong and China as a “betrayal.”
“Our mindset and political stances are very different, causing a lot of arguments,” says Ying, dressed stylishly in black.
With a cup of black coffee in hand, she speaks in the living room of the couple’s 400-square-foot apartment in one of Hong Kong’s busiest areas. Her frustration is palpable and she returns to the subject time and time again.
“He’s a former police officer, so he refused to point the finger at them,” she says, referring to allegations of brutality the police have followed in tackling protesters. What happens to the family after that has everything to do with politics.
Beijing recently tightened its grip on Hong Kong, a former British colony that became part of China again in 1997 in an agreement that promised it could retain its unique freedoms for 50 years. But since 2019, massive protests against the government have paralyzed the territory, and a highly controversial national security law was implemented in July, allowing Beijing to imprison those it viewed as subversive and inflammatory.
The issue has fueled the geopolitical struggle between the United States and China, with Washington repeatedly putting Beijing to the test for its treatment of protesters.
The pro-democracy movement has witnessed frequent clashes between the police and protesters. Protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and destroyed subway stations, while police responded with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and sometimes even live rounds.
On November 11, almost all pro-democracy lawmakers resigned in protest after the mainland believed four of them were a threat to national security. That led to the massive resignation of the opposition bloc, effectively creating a legislature. The US subsequently imposed sanctions on leading figures in the Hong Kong government and related Chinese administrations.
Initially, the conflict made Ying even more determined to fight for the area’s dying freedoms. Meanwhile, Chung’s loyalty to China remains strong.
‘Son of China’
Chung, who is now an engineer, is less talkative than his wife and generally reluctant to share his thoughts for fear that they will provoke any of their common arguments.
Neither talks about these sensitive issues when the other is in the room, but when Ying walks away for a moment, he speaks.
“Democracy is not real – can you tell me which country in the world could achieve real democracy?” Chung says. “Each system has its pros and cons, so I don’t see how other governments are better than those in Hong Kong or China.”
“I am a Chinese Hong Konger, and we should be under Chinese rules,” he says. “Hong Kong is like China’s son.”
Chung weaves into another argument why it is better to obey the authorities regardless of people’s individual opinions.
“If God allows someone to run a city or country and he or she makes mistakes, God will have his judgment,” he says. “I don’t dare become someone to judge the manager because I am not God.”
After saying his piece, Chung leaves to practice the saxophone. Peaceful music soon fills the apartment.
Ying returns, plops down in the dining room chair, and talks about her love for Hong Kong and China and why it motivated her to protest with millions.
“We love it and want to improve the system, so we criticize it,” she says.
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A successful entrepreneur, Ying has attended multiple demonstrations and hearings to show support for arrested protesters. But it hasn’t been that long since she was on the other end of the political spectrum.
“In 2014, I was on par with my husband, blaming the pro-democracy protesters for creating chaos,” she says.
But that year, the so-called umbrella movement sparked much debate with its younger cousins. And that opened her eyes, she says.
Ying tells how, during a 2019 protest on Hong Kong Island, she helped a young female protester evade police inspection during a collision by holding her hand and pretending they hadn’t been at the demonstration. It helped that people of Ying’s age are generally pro-Beijing, or at least politically apathetic, she says.
“I could feel her sweat in the palm of her hand and how she was shaking a little,” she says. “I knew I had to protect her.”
Values ’taken away’
Although she still supports the protesters, Ying is starting to get desperate and recently decided to put the family’s apartment up for sale and leave Hong Kong – likely to the UK.
“The city is no longer what it used to be – our values are gradually being taken away by the mainland. Hong Kong is now not the Hong Kong of the past, especially in terms of the rule of law and our legal system,” she says.
She is most concerned about her daughter’s education. In October, a schoolteacher was deregistered for professional misconduct after being caught using teaching materials with pro-independence activists, fueling her fear.
“I want her to think critically,” Ying says of Sum. “I’ve sometimes taken her to protests so she can decide for herself what’s right and wrong.”
And that kind of “critical thinking” is not encouraged in the new Hong Kong, she says.
“If she stays here, she will either get very frustrated in a pro-Chinese environment or be brainwashed by schools to be blindly patriotic,” Ying says. “She won’t be happy anyway.”
Although he disagrees with his wife on politics, Chung says he is willing to give up anything to seek a better education for Sum. After all, the family comes first, he says.
“We are a family and we stick together no matter what,” he says.
Ying later says her husband hopes they will stop fighting for politics after their move.
When asked where the family wants to go, a bustling Sum shouts from her room: “The UK of course!”
Indeed, the UK is one of their best choices for emigration as they have some relatives in the country. The family, along with about 350,000 other Hong Kongers, hold British Overseas National Passports, which enable holders to find a path to British citizenship by allowing them to reside in the UK for five years with the option of working or studying . The UK has had a massive increase in passport applications, fueling fears of mass migration from its former territory.
But even as Ying and Chung make plans to leave as soon as possible, possibly next year, she remains torn.
“If it wasn’t for Sum, I’d like to stay,” she said. “I’m not sure I can really abandon the young people who are fighting so hard for their future.”