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Saturday, April 13, 2024

‘How Are They Weapons? That’s Only a Flashlight!’

On the morning of August 6, 2019, merchants along Apliu Street unbolted the padlocks to their metal stalls and heaved open the heavy gates to their stores. They had resumed their place in the solar system of Hong Kong’s local economy—selling everyday items at bargain prices. At the far end of the street, a saleswoman fussed with her stock of flashlights and laser pointers. Throughout the day, the street hummed with pedestrians. That evening, Keith Fong, a 20-year-old college student at Hong Kong Baptist University, arrived to peruse the wares. It was boiling hot, and Fong was dressed in the uniform of the young: untucked dark tee, black shorts, and sneakers.

If the merchants had remained closed that day, no one would have blamed them. The day before, the city had shuddered to a halt as citizens set off the biggest labor strike in half a century. They had organized to fight a proposed amendment to Hong Kong’s extradition law. That change, citizens feared, would give China the chance to further meddle with the city's criminal justice system. Hong Kongers blocked roads with metal barriers and trash. Young people sprawled across the entrances of subway cars, jamming doors open and stopping entire train lines. Teachers skipped school; lifeguards and construction workers called in sick. Hong Kong International Airport grounded more than 200 flights, as many air traffic controllers failed to show up to work.

This anger had simmered for decades. Since July 1, 1997, when Britain transferred its colony of Hong Kong to China, the central government in Beijing has eroded boundaries and protections designed to safeguard Hong Kong’s government, which operated, ostensibly, as part of “one country, two systems.” Beijing refused to grant democratic elections that many citizens felt had been promised in the constitution.

Keith Fong was an activist and the leader of one of the student unions in the city. As a child, he had lived in the Sham Shui Po district, amid the dense warren of crumbling cement tenements, where families from Pakistan squeezed into 200-square-foot apartments next door to refugees from Nigeria. Fong was quick, intense, and driven. Students elected him to the post as a freshman. Now, about to start his second year, he was preparing to recruit new blood to the union’s various councils, executive committees, and editorial offices.

Fong stopped at the booth on Apliu Street that sold flashlights and lasers and talked with the saleswoman about the features and strengths of various models. He bought 10 laser pointers the size of handheld flashlights. Each beamed a vivid blue. Fong would later say that he went to Apliu Street to prepare for a student orientation activity. The laser pointers, he would insist, were meant to help new students gaze at the stars.

With his purchases secured in a white plastic bag, Fong headed toward a nearby 7-Eleven to buy cigarettes. When he was just outside the shop, a man in plain clothes flashed an ID. “Police. Stop.”

Most of the world remembers images from Hong Kong in the summer of 2019: the young people in black packed into streets as Molotov cocktails flew overhead, the police smashing their batons, the clouds of blinding tear gas. Today, three years after the protests, Hong Kong is a city suppressed. During the Covid pandemic, government orders kept people home and gave police incentive to stop and search anyone not wearing a mask properly. After Omicron ripped through nursing homes earlier this year, the government continued to ban groups larger than four from gathering in public places.

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Much of this was due to an unprecedented new security law that Beijing imposed on the city in June 2020. Its broad provisions and unpredictable enforcement gutted the city’s democracy movement, and the richness of civic life vanished. Once-frequent rallies, public debates, open forums, and large campus meetings about opposition politics are no more. Most human rights and democracy groups have closed down. No journalist, academic, or artist who works with words feels completely secure. Documentaries that officials say could endanger national security interests, including those about 2019, are banned. Public libraries have locked up books by activists, as well as journalists’ accounts of the protests. The city’s broadcaster, RTHK, has scrubbed its website of most reports from that time. Gone are the official archives of Apple Daily, Stand News, and Citizen News, after arrests and threats forced the media companies to close.

By spring 2020, Hong Kong police had arrested 10,270 people and no doubt detained more, in what the government euphemistically refers to as the “social unrest.” Prosecutors brought charges against a fourth of those arrested. Since the imposition of the new security law, more than 160 people have been arrested, including many prominent activists.

The “social unrest” still lingers, at least in the court system. As of February, the government had brought charges against 2,800 people, about half of whom were found guilty or signed orders to obey the law. Hundreds of people arrested during the protests are serving terms in prison and juvenile detention centers. Each day, in courthouses all over the city, magistrates and judges oversee cases of public disorder, assault, weapons, and riot. Protest nights play out inside courtrooms, as prosecutors show video snippets of black-clad youngsters at barricades, sometimes throwing bricks and smashing windows. The prosecutors portray the protesters in the videos—which are stripped of context and background, with almost no views of police actions—as violent offenders. New cases begin in court all the time; most crimes in city ordinances carry no deadlines for filing charges. A person who was accused by police of unauthorized assembly in 2019 could wind up charged months or even years later. Hong Kong’s young are a generation in limbo waiting for this era to end.

In 1984, when Britain agreed to relinquish the colony of Hong Kong, Beijing officials promised that when China took over, the city’s government would have “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs.” By the time the transfer happened, at midnight on July 1, 1997, it became clear that autonomy had notable asterisks. Hong Kong would exist as a special part of China—with its own rights, legislature, and legal system—until 2047. Yet the final interpretation of the city’s constitution would lie not with Hong Kong’s courts, but with China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

Soon, China’s involvement extended into Hong Kong's economy and development. Since SARS rocked the city’s economy in 2003, Chinese state-controlled companies poured money into the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Such companies supply much of the city’s food, develop transportation and commercial real estate, and wield enormous influence over the territory’s politics.

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The public’s unease with China’s growing influence erupted in February 2019, when Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, proposed amending the city’s extradition law to allow criminal suspects to be transferred for trial to other jurisdictions, including Taiwan and the mainland. The amendment’s trigger, she insisted, had been the murder in Taiwan of a young, pregnant Hong Kong woman. After her boyfriend ditched her body and fled to Hong Kong, where he confessed to police, authorities could arrest him only for using his girlfriend’s credit cards. With no extradition treaty in place, Hong Kong could not legally return him to Taiwan for trial. The prospect of forced transfers to the mainland—where secret prisons and closed trials ensure a near-perfect conviction rate—didn’t just anger Hong Kong citizens. It frightened them. Critics saw the move as carte blanche for the authoritarian government to undermine Hong Kong’s Common Law legal system, a legacy of the city’s British colonial past. Dissidents, human rights attorneys, clerics, businesspeople, and expatriates—everyone would be vulnerable.

On June 9 of that year, an estimated 1 million residents marched through the city, days before lawmakers were scheduled to discuss the extradition amendment. Three days later, tens of thousands of people jammed the streets that surrounded the legislature, preventing members from entering the building and winning a short break in the proceedings. On June 16, nearly 2 million packed the streets, demanding that the bill be killed and Carrie Lam step down.

The participants’ resolve surged into a broader campaign for democracy. The cause electrified college campuses and high school assemblies, public hospitals and government offices. Millions of citizens rearranged their lives to devote their free time to the protest's almost daily actions. Some rallies were long and silly, as when young people twice besieged the police headquarters, tossing eggs at the building. Others protests were long and scary, as when Molotovs arced overhead as riot police pounded the crowd with rubber bullets and swung their batons at protesters.

On the street, Hong Kong protests were remarkable not just for their tenacity, but also for their creative use of hardware store merchandise to thwart police. Protesters could not match the firepower of law enforcement—guns are tightly regulated in the city. Hong Kongers fashioned their defenses out of everyday objects. Aluminum plates and plastic traffic cones snuffed out tear gas shells. Open umbrellas deflected rubber rounds. Silicone goggles lined with tin foil warded off bright lights and offered cover from street cameras.

At one point, someone figured out that blasting police with strong green or blue laser beams made it difficult for officers to video the scene and identify protesters. When thousands of protesters besieged police headquarters in June, many people outside waved laser lights at the windows as employees fumed inside. After enduring bean bag rounds and rubber bullets—in several cases police fired directly at people’s heads—protesters believed that lasers were a clever response.

For years, the government had tried to discourage protests and control their size with a stringent permit process. If a participant veered off route or ignored police directions, at most they might get fined for violating a minor assembly offense. Frustrated that citizens were ignoring police orders, Lam’s government sought a tactical way to suppress crowds and punish participants. Prosecutors under justice secretary Teresa Cheng realized that the protesters' implements could be used as evidence of potential crimes. After police tackled protesters, officers logged the items inside their backpacks: scissors, wire cutters, slingshots, plastic zip ties, Allen wrenches, heat-resistant gloves, cigarette lighters, aerosol cans, goggles, respirators, wooden boards, aluminum poles, and laser lights.

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In court, some of the items protesters had carried became evidence of criminal intent. Mostly, the objects themselves weren’t illegal. But at a protest, prosecutors implied, these tools possessed more sinister powers, especially when carried by a young person wearing black clothes and a face mask, standing amid a chanting crowd. (The Hong Kong Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.)

As the pettiness of the charges increased, so did the volume of cases. One defendant went to prison for hauling chili pepper spray and two baseball bats in his car trunk on a night without protests. A videographer who was shooting footage of a university siege for a Taiwanese news station still faces charges of illegal assembly and possession of instruments fit for a crime. A reporter who collected street detritus was charged and convicted with possessing ammunition: 38 spent tear gas canisters, an empty rubber bullet cartridge, and the inert projectile from a sponge grenade. Prosecutors were building cases not only on what the protesters did, but on what the government feared they might do.

On July 28, 2019, a young bank teller named Ella and thousands of others in head-to-toe black clothing and helmets walked on Connaught Road West toward a police cordon. Ella has a sunny personality and a warm, open face. She is devoted to yoga and her cats and has large, geometric tattoos that peek out from beneath her shirt. She was a gentle presence in a good-hearted tribe of protest newbies who bonded over drinks and late dinners. In the movement’s early weeks, she had been convinced that the demonstrators should not destroy property; after protesters had smashed their way into the legislative chambers, she cried in frustration. Yet each week, she inched closer to the front line. She showed off a new tattoo, the Chinese characters for Hong Kongers’ favorite motivational cry: “Add oil!” (The phrase is derived from the Cantonese equivalent of “Go for it!”)

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That night, Ella and her friend crowded onto a narrow street, backing up people at the front line. At one point, some people tossed bricks and police fired off tear gas. With participants separated on side streets, it was possible to be in a peaceful throng, unaware of the chaos unfolding one block over.

Suddenly, men in black helmets and blue uniforms tore through the crowd. Tactical police, ones the protesters called “raptors,” grabbed for arms and legs. As an officer snatched a protester, Ella reached out and fell, according to video footage later presented at her trial. Standing a bit over 5 feet, she was an easy mark for police to snag. After she spent 46 hours in a cell, she was charged with the offense known as “riot.”

Hong Kong’s colonial government created the crime of riot after Maoist sympathizers planted bombs throughout the city, killing dozens of people in 1967 and 1968. The government rarely lodged a riot case again until 2016, when it charged several young people who clashed with police, including members of a group that favored independence from China. Hong Kong law defines riot as an illegal assembly of three or more individuals who breach the peace. The crime carries a potential prison sentence of 10 years. Starting in 2019, the government routinely brought riot cases against protesters, and 750 people have been charged. Several days after Ella was charged, she laughed about it over dinner. “It’s ridiculous,” she said. “We did nothing.”

Ella’s trial plodded on for 67 days, one of three trials linked to that night's events. Inside the courtroom, prosecutors showed videos of toughs in construction helmets on darkened streets, nothing like the scrubbed youngsters in the defense box. One defendant, prosecutors noted, held a megaphone that night. Another person had a walkie-talkie, and a third, plastic ties. One wore a motorcycle helmet. Ella wore swim goggles and carried a hiking pole. In the climate of that time, such a tool might have made a tiny woman feel safer.

In his ruling, the judge noted that Ella’s presence on the defense line strengthened the scale of the confrontation with police. He said that the hiking pole, which could have been wielded as an offensive weapon, proved she would “attack or resist the police with force if necessary.” Ella’s guilt was sealed with 34 paragraphs. The judge sentenced her to three years and four months in prison. Her boyfriend expects she’ll be free in late 2023.

On that sweltering August evening near Apliu Street, Keith Fong said he was distracted by his phone when the officer approached him. He initially thought that he was being mugged, so he bolted. The cop snagged Fong by his dark green T-shirt in a nearby alley. A video filmed by a passerby captured the confrontation. Three more officers appeared, fit men with close-cropped hair and plain dark shirts. They wrestled the student against a building. One held Fong’s arms and then shifted his hands to the base of Fong’s neck.

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“Stop moving,” one officer commanded. The group bickered as Fong asked questions. The officer restraining Fong moved his hands higher.

“Why are you clamping my neck?” Fong said.

“You were running,” the officer snapped.

“Calm down,” another cop ordered.

“You put your hands on me,” Fong said, his voice rising, his eyes wide and searching. “I’m scared.” Fong demanded to see the officer’s identity card.

The sergeant waved his ID and made a phone call.

“If you don’t cooperate,” one officer said, “I will arrest you for obstructing police.”

“Hey, hold on,” Fong shot back, “it’s you who’s clamping my neck.”

“Keep on, keep on resisting,” one officer said.

Fong followed orders to hand over the plastic bag with the 10 laser lights. The officer extracted one, slim and silver.

“What are these?” the officer barked.

“Flashlights,” Fong said. Asked again, he added “laser flashlights.”

“I think these are offensive weapons,” an officer said. “I am now arresting you for possessing weapons.”

Fong’s mouth hung open. “How are they weapons? That’s only a flashlight!”

“Save it for the judge,” the cop said.

As a crowd around them needled the officers, demanding that police let the young man go, Fong slumped to the ground. In the ambulance to a local hospital, Fong sat between officers holding his phone, which the police had warned him not to use.

He was released without charges two days later.

When police announced the arrest to reporters, officials referred to the flashlights as “laser guns that shot blue light” and said that such strong beams could “flash-burn” eyes. To prove it during a press conference, an officer picked up a device said to be Fong’s, that had been equipped with batteries. He trained the beam on a piece of paper about an arm’s length away. In seconds, a tangle of smoke rose from the paper.

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By late August, as the government continued to stonewall the protesters' growing demands, many young people became more desperate. They routinely relied on Molotovs, bonfires, bricks, lighter fluid, and anything metal to shatter windows. After one officer shot and wounded a young protester in the gut, a protester elsewhere lit a man afire. The tension grew.

In the neon-lit shopping district of Causeway Bay, Chan Chun-kit, a 33-year-old property manager, stepped into a crowd that had gathered near Victoria Park to drum up interest in an upcoming election. Officers ordered the group to move along. “Haak ging!” someone shouted, according to court documents. Black cops. It was a frequent taunt, rooted in the belief of many Hong Kongers that police had ties to organized crime.

Chan wore black clothes and a black face mask. Four weeks earlier, Carrie Lam had signed a decree banning face coverings during illegal assemblies. “Remove the face mask!” an officer commanded. Chan walked off but didn’t get far. Inside Chan’s bag, police found a helmet and gloves, a gas mask, and 48 six-inch plastic zip ties.

Plastic ties are legal to carry, then and now. But they offered new uses during the protests: to hang banners, create barricades, and in a few notable cases, to restrain people. Within this context, police made plastic ties evidence of a crime. Prosecutors charged Chan with possessing instruments fit for unlawful purpose, a petty offense created during British rule to thwart burglaries before they happened.

At trial, Chan’s friend testified that the two had planned to move furniture from an office and use the ties to secure everything in transport. The magistrate rejected the story. In the ruling, he inferred that the defendant intended to use the ties to create barricades and “further the unlawful purpose of using them in armed confrontations, fights, [and] inflicting injuries.” The court found Chan guilty in August 2020 and sentenced him to five and a half months in prison.

Chan appealed. Before the bench, his lawyer, Steven Kwan, argued that plastic ties did not fit the definition of an instrument fit for unlawful purpose. Hong Kong law prohibits specific restraints, such as handcuffs or finger cuffs that could subdue someone, along with devices like a skeleton key that could open a locked room. The appellate judges rejected the appeal but found there was an important legal question about the law and let Chan appeal to the city’s highest court. His petition is scheduled for June.

In prison, Chan met people who were serving similar sentences for carrying knives. The inmates, Kwan said, found the idea of plastic ties as weapons to be hilarious.

In June 2020, China’s legislature approved a national security law and lodged it in Hong Kong’s constitution. It listed four new crimes—secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces—and gave police seemingly unchecked powers to investigate, search, seize, and detain. It didn’t take long for people to see the law’s true intent. After police arrested Jimmy Lai, a newspaper publisher who advocated for foreign sanctions, the government targeted politicians who organized their own primary elections to seize the majority in the legislature, and activists who ran the annual vigil to honor people gunned down by Chinese soldiers in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Before long, civil society organizations and labor unions closed, fearing arrests.

Just after dawn on December 2, 2020, nearly two dozen officers banged on the door of Keith Fong’s family’s apartment. Armed with a search warrant, police then charged the student leader with carrying offensive weapons in public, as well as two new counts: obstructing justice and resisting police work. Sixteen months after his arrest on Apliu Street, Fong, then 22, faced years in prison.

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“In a normal country that has democracy and freedom and rule of law, my case would not go to court,” Fong said in our first conversation by phone in January 2021. He was riding in the passenger seat of his mother’s car on the afternoon of his weekly check-in at a local police station, one of his bail conditions. His voice trembled with nerves, perhaps anger. “They are going to destroy us mentally,” Fong said, sounding distracted and anxious. “Some people will tell us to be careful. But how can we be careful? We have no other choice.”

For two years, Fong’s defense team had tried to remain hopeful. He had not put batteries into the laser pointers, and when police stopped him he was nowhere near a protest. What's more, some defendants had beaten their laser-light charges, including a 19-year-old high school graduate named Parco Pang, who represented himself at trial after his attorney recommended he plead guilty. After his acquittal, Pang promptly sued the secretary of justice, accusing the government of withholding evidence from his defense.

As Fong’s case dragged on, friends felt he became more cautious and fretful, especially after police charged dozens of activists with security offenses. Fong wasn’t worried about himself, said an activist friend, but for others. When police arrested a few suspects under the security act, the friend staged a tongue-in-cheek protest action by handing out leaflets on the street to provide information about the law’s reach. Ten or so officers showed up to question him. After that, Fong asked the friend to stop. Fong knew many people in prison; he often visited one good friend serving time on the far end of Lantau Island. He didn’t want more to follow.

Keith Fong’s trial finally began in December 2021. Day after day, prosecutors hammered on about the power of the lasers that he carried that night. The lights were the strongest class, designed for military uses such as guiding weapons, overkill for a leisure pursuit. Green beams would have been more appropriate for pointing out Pegasus and other constellations. Clearly, the prosecutor asserted, Fong intended to damage the vision of unsuspecting officers, as other protesters had done. What’s more, prosecutors argued, Fong had chosen not to cooperate with law enforcement in a way that had been willful and deliberate. When police examined his phone they found it contained no instant messaging applications, contacts, or call records. Clearly, Fong had tampered with it, prosecutors said.

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Fong’s team argued that just because other people had used laser pens at other protests in a dangerous way did not mean Fong had the same intention. If Fong had resisted the police, why had they not charged him then, asked senior counsel Wong Ching-yu during his closing arguments. If police intended to confiscate the defendant's phone, why did they not seize it from the defendant in the ambulance or hospital? The prosecution, the attorney said, had not proved that Fong reset the phone or intended to obstruct the case. While they didn’t say so in court, Fong’s team wondered privately if police had added the second and third charges to justify the arrest 16 months later.

After the new year, the parties gathered in Judge Douglas Yau’s cramped courtroom to hear the verdict. Reading from the bench, Yau said he believed Fong had lied about stargazing and pointed out that Fong wasn’t a member of any astronomy club and owned no books on the subject. However, the judge said that merely carrying laser lights, without any clear goal to create or cause harm, was not a crime. The government needed to prove that Fong planned to blast the officers with the bright beams, and it had not. The judge found Fong not guilty on the weapons charge.

Fong’s struggle with police on Apliu Street, however, was another issue. The judge sided with the prosecution’s claim that Fong had removed the phone’s SIM card and reset his password while at the hospital. The only reasonable conclusion, the judge ruled, was that Fong had deleted the device’s information to hinder the police investigation into the 10 laser pens.

In the Plexiglas defense box, Fong leaned his head against the wall in resignation. The verdict was neither victory nor defeat. He was sent to a detention center until sentencing, leaving his tearful mother to accept condolences from supporters.

For more than two decades, judges in Hong Kong have walked a perilous tightrope as they serve two governments, the local one and the central government in Beijing. In recent years, verdicts in protest cases have often portrayed acts of civil disobedience as potential threats to society. Since the summer of 2019, nearly every judge who presides over such cases speaks of a need to deter criminal acts, even when little mayhem or violence took place. This deterrence language crept into Fong’s ruling as well.

On April 7, Fong’s defense counsel presented letters in support of their client’s character, along with admission offers from two universities in Great Britain. The court, Wong said, should consider Fong’s promise. The young man had a strong sense of justice, Wong told the judge. “He is not a criminal.” Two months in custody, the lawyer argued, had been punishment enough. The judge sentenced Fong to nine months in prison.

Outside the court, his friends said the sentence could have been much worse. Still, Fong’s life, and that of his family’s, had been turned inside out since his arrest in August 2019. His single mother juggled work and her son’s court hearings. Fong suspended his studies and couldn’t find much work. By the time he is released, likely late this summer, the case will have consumed three years of his life.

Today, many protesters charged with riot are still waiting for their trials to start. Some cases are scheduled for late 2023, or even 2024. The justice system is not equipped to quickly move hundreds of defendants in complex cases swiftly through trial. As the protesters wait, Hong Kong has moved from a liberal society to a security state. On July 1, John Lee, the former security secretary, will assume Carrie Lam’s role as chief executive on the 25th anniversary of the handover. Lee oversaw the sometimes brutal policing methods used on protesters and supervised the enforcement of the new security law. He had no challengers in his selection for the post; Lee had assisted Beijing’s overhaul of Hong Kong’s elections, a process that erased nearly all opposition.

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I met with Fong in mid-2021 inside the student union office at Baptist University. Pamphlets, posters, and liquor bottles littered the room, which bore a faint scent of cat urine. I sensed it had fallen into disuse. In the months before, administrators had pushed students at other university unions to quit. Several current and former student leaders faced criminal cases for everything from assembly offenses to national security charges.

Fong looked thoughtful yet ragged as he sucked on cigarettes and considered the legacy of the 2019 movement. During that summer, many young people had adopted a political code called lam chau, a kind of mutually assured destruction. On walls, they spray-painted a phrase borrowed from The Hunger Games: “If we burn, you burn with us.” The protesters aimed to sacrifice and destroy Hong Kong so they could damage China’s economy and the reputation of the Communist Party. They had brought their battle to the international stage, Fong said, and showed “the evil of this government.”

He knew that China’s crackdown on Hong Kong would be long and harsh, a crisis worse, he said, than the bloodbath at Tiananmen Square. I thought that seemed like an overwrought comparison, but Fong pressed on. Soldiers hadn’t gunned down people in the streets in 2019, but the past few years had become a slow-motion torture that had silenced citizens: Lawmakers were ejected, activists, professors, and editors were arrested, civil groups disbanded, and young people flew into exile. “They kill every citizen who pursues freedom,” he said, “mentally and spiritually.”

Hong Kongers have long been unwilling patriots, but in prison, one cannot fight back. The commissioner of correctional services recently disclosed that inmates aged 18 to 30 were invited to join a voluntary program of “de-radicalization.” It consists of Chinese history and national moral and civic education, lessons on the national security law, and “psychological reconstruction to achieve de-radicalization progressively.” The goal would be to “enhance their sense of national identity … and guide them back on the right track.”

There were still young people like Keith Fong who have endured years of limbo before their trials, never admitting guilt or giving an inch. China had achieved obedience and apparent acquiescence in just 18 months. Indoctrination might take longer. Fong and his fellow protesters were still burning China, bit by bit.

Source Images: Getty Images and Alamy


Cover: Styling by Jeanne Yang and Chloe Takayanagi. Styling assistance by Ella Harrington. Grooming by April Bautista using Oribe at Dew Beauty Agency. Prop styling by Chloe Kirk.

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