Once a city of protest, Hong Kong has become a city of fear.
The ABC’s China correspondent Bill Birtles reported on the tumultuous Hong Kong pro-democracy protests throughout 2019-2020, before his abrupt return home when China-Australia relations blew up.
Now Birtles brings us the final chapter of the Hong Kong rebellion, as Beijing exerts an iron grip on the once liberal outpost, snuffing out the last breaths of democracy.
He tells the story of Max, a young Hong Kong activist, who must decide if he should stay and fight for democracy, risking jail, or flee and continue to campaign from outside.
“The atmosphere is different. It’s a lot grimmer. And it’s become a lot harder to hold on to hope,” says Max.
We follow Max as he moves carefully around the city, building networks with those committed to staying and pondering a future in exile where he has freedom but no family.
We speak with protest leader Joshua Wong, on trial for organising protests.
“Now is not the time for us to kow-tow to Beijing and surrender!” declares a defiant Wong. Days after our interview, Wong is jailed.
We join pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo as she packs up her office in the Legislative Council, having resigned in protest at China’s squeeze on who can run for office.
“I was quite happy to call it a day but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up the democracy fight in Hong Kong,” says Mo, but she concedes it’s a losing battle.
“On the surface, Hong Kong is still quite so glamorous, quite so prosperous looking, but then deep down it’s rotting.”
Some locals – like Australian educated, pro-government politician Nixie Lam – welcome an end to the chaos of protest and the return of law and order.
“Just don’t say you want Hong Kong independent…or accept foreign monies to try to promote things like that. Then you’ll be totally fine,” says Lam, denouncing the protest leaders as traitors.
As Max prepares to depart, Beijing orders a wave of arrests, sending a thousand police across the city to detain the remaining pro-democracy leadership. Claudia Mo is on the list.
“I never imagined Hong Kong would have come to this,” she says.
Reporter: Bill Birtles
Producer: Mark Corcoran
Watch ‘City of Fear’ on Foreign Correspondent, Tuesday 9 February at 8pm on ABC TV + iview. You can catch replays on ABC News channel Thursday at 12:30am, Saturdays at 9:30pm and Sundays at 6:30pm.