The first badge identifies her as a full-time employee of a pro-government newspaper. Every day, her employer condemns the unprecedented protests, now in their second month, for wreaking havoc on the city’s transportation networks and economic vitality. The second card identifies her as a volunteer reporter for an outspoken Facebook-based news outlet with more than 100,000 subscribers.
One badge always obscures the other. By day, she displays the first. By night, as she camps out in protest zones and faces down riot police, she displays the second. Few protesters read her newspaper, but most have probably seen her work.
Alice Lau is a pseudonym. Revealing her name or employer could get her fired, she said, and revealing her Facebook platform could invite undue scrutiny. “It’s not like I want people to think I’m a hero,” she said over iced milk tea at a McDonald’s in Admiralty district, the protest’s de facto core. “I just feel like I need to use my talents to help Hong Kong, to help my community. I’m just an ordinary citizen.”
Hong Kong’s traditional media is suffering a crisis of confidence. Many of the city’s most influential newspapers and TV stations are owned by local tycoons who, wary of jeopardising their mainland business ties, have taken great pains to maintain a conservative editorial line. The city’s young people have responded by turning to social media for news – and thus, the ongoing “umbrella movement” may be the best-documented social movement in history, with even its quieter moments generating a maelstrom of status updates, shares and likes.
“Press freedom in Hong Kong is not in a good state – it’s not an authoritarian regime yet, but the pressure is on,” said Mark Simon, a senior executive at Next Media, the city’s only openly pro-democratic media conglomerate. “What’s saving the city now are these group acts of journalistic courage.”
The protests’ intensely public nature has fostered a heightened sense of caution. Although few protesters expect a Tiananmen-style crackdown, which would almost certainly spur an exodus from the city, many fear that Beijing will find ways to persecute organisers and high-profile supporters in a gradual, retroactive campaign. Many volunteer supply booths at the protest sites prominently display “no photo” signs, a plea to keep their operators’ identities under wraps.
Simon said that a crackdown, while unlikely, would be devastating for the city. “Can Hong Kong survive with [student leader] Joshua Wong in jail, or [Next Media CEO] Jimmy Lai in jail – do you think Hong Kong could survive that? I say no. It won’t work. The world’s not going to treat you the same.”
Since Beijing assumed control of Hong Kong in a 1997 handover, it has ruled the the city under a “one country, two systems” arrangement, granting it freedoms unknown on the mainland, including an independent judiciary, freedom of assembly, and an unrestricted press. Among these, the last is perhaps the most conspicuous – the city has 18 newspapers and a string of scandal-hungry TV and radio stations, many of them notorious for broadcasting unscrupulous celebrity gossip and political exposés.
The protesters demand the ability to choose the city’s top leader by “genuine universal suffrage” in 2017. Their rebuke to the alternative – a Beijing-backed electoral framework which would only allow party loyalists on the ballot – stems in part from a creeping anxiety that central authorities aim to gradually take these freedoms away.
Next Media has found itself on the frontline. Since 12 October, mobs of pro-Beijing counter-protesters have formed sporadic blockades to halt deliveries of the group’s flagship newspaper, Apple Daily. Cyber-attacks have repeatedly hobbled the paper’s website. Last week, knife-wielding assailants hijacked delivery trucks and poured soy sauce over stacks of the tabloid, ruining 15,200 copies.
Analysts say the gulf between pro-Beijing and pro-democratic media is widening. “Seven Demon Police Surround and Beat Protester for Four Minutes,” Apple Daily headlined a story about a recent instance of suspected police brutality. “Police Assaulted,” reported the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao. The pro-establishment television station TVB, which first broadcast footage of the beating, said in an early-morning broadcast that the protester was “punched and kicked”. Later, after the report prompted a public outcry, they replaced that voiceover with another saying that the police may have “used excessive force”.
“This is a demonstration of what we’ve been fearing for years,” said Shirley Yam, vice-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and a columnist for the South China Morning Post. “When the debate is not about a controversial issue like this, then you don’t feel [the self-censorship] so strongly. But when such a controversy comes around, then you can tell how the controlled press actually works – why Beijing emphasises this so much.”
Altogether, at least 24 journalists have been assaulted while covering the protests, according to Hong Kong journalist groups – some by counter-protesters, others by police. On Saturday night, three journalists were attacked by a mob of counter-protesters during an “anti-Occupy” rally by the city’s Star Ferry pier; one, a reporter for the moderate broadcaster RTHK, was sent to hospital.
“This is uncharted territory for everyone, and that’s just the general state of affairs,” said Francis Moriarty, chairman of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s press freedom committee. “The police have at times confused the messenger with the message, and reporters have had to bear the brunt of it.”
The protesters see a clear worst-case scenario, just across the border. Mainland Chinese media covered the protests extensively while almost never showing the demonstrators themselves or articulating their demands. Official editorials repeatedly claim that the movement is backed by “hostile foreign forces” intent on fomenting a “colour revolution” to undermine Beijing. State TV stations interview bystanders who, speaking in Mandarin – which is not widely spoken in Hong Kong – blame the protesters for taking secret payouts to hit the streets.
After milk tea on Tuesday night, Lau stepped out into the main protest site, a sprawl of tents and pro-democracy art installations occupying a stretch of highway by the city’s government offices. Overhead, large banners hanging from a footbridge read: “Do you hear the people sing?” and: “Everyone can be Batman.” She walked past small clusters of black-clad university students sitting cross-legged on the ground, chatting and playing guitar. Nearly all of them gripped smartphones.
Lau found a secluded swath of pavement about 30 metres from the students, and pitched a small tent. The spot would be quiet, she said – a good place to get some rest. After all, she had to go to work in the morning.