Hong Kong's deep divide: Months of protests take their toll on families

Young protesters' passion for the democratic future of Hong Kong is causing deep family rifts, particularly with older generations who disagree with their tactics and don’t sympathize with their goals.

Young activists are fighting with their parents over the future of Hong Kong and even leaving home

Leon, who is using an alias because he’s afraid of the police, barely speaks to his parents after joining the protest movement in Hong Kong. His parents refused to pay his bail after he was arrested. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

It's midday in Hong Kong and for now, there isn't a protest in sight. But Leon seems ready for one. 

He's in his early 20s — tall, thin, and restless. Only his eyes show behind the kind of mask that's become part of a uniform for an entire generation of young people here. 

They've been at the core of Hong Kong's summer of protest, some peacefully, others more violently. 

"It's a revolution for our generation. It's my future," Leon said as he sat down for an interview with CBC News. He's using an alias because he's afraid of the police, having already been arrested once.

Like Leon, many see this as their last chance to prevent the authoritarian Chinese powers in Beijing from taking away democratic rights in the territory. 

But their passion for the democratic future of Hong Kong is causing deep family rifts, particularly with older generations who disagree with their tactics and don't sympathize with their goals.

'I've sacrificed a lot for this'

For more than three months, they've marched against a Hong Kong government they consider unaccountable, and a police force they call abusive and out of control. 

The protests have continued even though the controversial extradition law that sparked the unrest has been withdrawn.

"I've sacrificed a lot for this," Leon said. 

That includes the relationship with his parents, with whom he lives.

Some protesters in Hong Kong, including Leon, say the generational divide makes it difficult for their parents to understand their movement. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Throughout the summer, they staunchly supported the government and the police, even as their son slipped away to protest. Money from his own savings went for equipment and supplies.

Leon said he tried to discuss the issue with them, to "explain the other side" and have a "reasonable conversation." But they weren't interested, and he gave up.

"It's partly a generational thing," he said. "They weren't born in our era and they don't understand that we're afraid of what will happen to us." 

He points out that there have been many older Hong Kongers among the millions who have protested. There was even a march organized by grandparents of the young people on the front lines.

Government supporters counter that the protesters have made their point. To continue protesting and turn the movement into a demand for more democracy risks an even bigger backlash from Beijing — and perhaps even an intervention by the Chinese military to restore order.

'I feel so upset and frustrated'

Government supporters have held their own, much smaller rallies, and some of those have also become violent. But most have stayed silent, waiting for the protests to end. 

Pro-China supporters area holding rallies of their own, including this one at a shopping mall at Harbour City on Sept. 18, 2019. But they are generally smaller; many government supporters are staying silent. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Leon's parents are among them. They were shocked the night he was arrested. 

Leon was among other young people on their way home from protests, when police raided the Prince Edward subway station on Aug. 31.

He has not been charged, but spent two days in jail before being released. He says his parents refused to pay the $170 Canadian dollars in bail. His friends ultimately lent him the money.

"I feel so upset and frustrated," Leon said.

So far, Hong Kong police have arrested more than 1,400 people, though only about 200 have been charged. They've been accused of attacking police with bricks and fire bombs, destroying property, and unlawful assembly.

The system here allows police to delay deciding whether to prosecute until after investigations are finished, often leaving those arrested and out on bail — like Leon — in limbo for lengthy periods.

'This is the sad reality here now'

Right now, that includes many young people. And it's brought to light the deep divide in Hong Kong, one that runs right down the middle of families.

Dan Shum, a human rights lawyer who represents several dozen of those arrested, says 30 to 40 per cent of his clients are young people who support the protest movement, but whose parents don't.

More than 1,400 anti-government protesters have been arrested, including Leon. But only 200 have been charged to date. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

"This is the sad reality here now," Shum said. "It is quite common for parents to disagree strongly with their children, and for the young people not to want to go home."

The political crisis which has consumed Hong Kong for more than three months has also had a huge emotional impact on young people, including the younger teens in Gary Chiu's classes. He's a teacher who has joined marches to keep an eye on some of his students.

'They just cry when we talk about it'

"Some of them, they don't know how to express their emotions," he said. "They just cry when we talk about it."

Since the arrest, Leon has also had a rough time. He sleeps at home, but said his parents mostly ignore him.

"The relationship is very bad," he said. "They don't talk to me or eat with me."

After one especially heated argument, he spent the night sleeping at a nearby McDonald's.

Leon has also had to put his university education on hold. His parents won't pay the tuition. Besides, he's preoccupied with the battle on the streets. For him, it's become deeply personal.

Indeed, he now considers the protesters his real family. He said they are "closer than my brothers."

As for his parents, "they are stubborn people," Leon said. 

"I hope one day they can understand us and we can understand them. I just don't know when that day will come."

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. For the past four years, he has been based in China, reporting on Hong Kong, North Korea and other areas of Asia Pacific. Previously, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic