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Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom, review: a compelling account of Hong Kong’s battle for democracy

The first episode of this documentary covered Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, while next week's edition will cover Beijing's response

By Anita Singh, Arts and Entertainment Editor

November 14, 2022

Pro-democracy protesters react as police fire water cannons outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 15, 2019 CREDIT: Isaac Lawrence/AFP

The first time I threw a Molotov cocktail my whole body was shaking. I don’t think any Hongkonger would have imagined having to throw a Molotov cocktail in their lifetime. But when you have been pushed into a corner, you really don’t have a choice,” said one of the young activists in Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom (BBC Two), which compellingly documented the pro-democracy protests that began in 2019.

These were not hardened campaigners, but young people who feared that the freedoms they once enjoyed were under threat from the Chinese government. In order to protect their identities, the programme used artificial intelligence to digitally alter their faces. The stakes here are high. This first of two instalments ended with news footage of a Beijing spokesman, who issued a chilling warning: “Don’t mistake restraint for weakness. Those who play with fire will burn themselves. The punishment will come and they will perish.”

We are all guilty of tuning out during news bulletins, or skimming over pages in the newspaper, or thinking that these events are happening far away and don’t directly concern us. Here was a documentary which laid out the issues very simply and clearly, from the protesters’ point of view.

The catalyst for the protests was a proposed legal amendment which would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China. Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, provided context. “What you have got to realise about Hong Kongers is that two-thirds or more of them were refugees, or the families of refugees, who fled the awful events of Communist China. They swam, clambered over razor wire, stowed away in boats, to get to this safe haven of British colonialism.”

The programme-makers also spoke to Western journalists and – in a nod towards balance – to Regina Ip, an adviser to the Hong Kong authorities. But the news reports from the time, and shaky mobile phone footage, were the most compelling aspects. One woman yelled in the face of a police officer in riot gear: “You are one of us! We are all Hongkongers.”

The storming of the legislative building was a powerful moment, captured by the news cameras. Citizen journalists then recorded the attack at Yuen Long, when a mob dressed in white T-shirts attacked protesters and civilians. The police took their time arriving at the scene despite multiple emergency calls. The authorities denied any foreknowledge of the event. It was a tipping point. A second episode, to be shown next week, will cover Beijing’s response.

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