Inside the Battle for Hong Kong: “We’re Now at War”

Pro-democracy protesters in 2019, in a  still from FRONTLINE's "Battle for Hong Kong."

Pro-democracy protesters in 2019, in a still from FRONTLINE's "Battle for Hong Kong."

February 11, 2020

In 2019, a controversial extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China sparked a massive and unprecedented pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

At the start, the vast majority of protesters — many of them students and young people — were demonstrating peacefully. But following a brutal crackdown on dissent in which police officers beat protesters and deployed large amounts of tear gas, one of the world’s largest financial centers soon descended into chaos. 

The protesters said they were fighting for their freedom against the communist government of China, which is due to take complete control of Hong Kong in 2047. China, meanwhile, said the protesters were “radicals,” “thugs” and “separatists.”

A new FRONTLINE documentary, Battle for Hong Kong, offers an extraordinary, on-the-ground look inside the movement as it evolved — following five young protesters through intense and escalating clashes with Hong Kong’s police. 

One of those protesters, Agnes Chow, has been described as Hong Kong’s ”goddess of democracy.”

A leading voice in both the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” and the even larger wave of pro-democracy protests that gripped the city last year, the young activist has a simple explanation of her vision for Hong Kong.

“We want,” she tells FRONTLINE, “to choose our future by ourselves.” 

Under the Hong Kong authorities’ crackdown, protesters can face up to 10 years in prison — so most of the movement members FRONTLINE filmed with used aliases and covered their faces. But Chow spoke unmasked and used her real name because she was already known to authorities.

In fact, in the below excerpt from Battle for Hong Kong, Chow describes the moment she was arrested:

Chow, who is out on bail, says she was demonstrating peacefully; she was charged with taking part in, and inciting others to join an unauthorized assembly. Her trial is scheduled to begin soon, and she faces up to five years in prison.

But another protester the film follows, “Li,” takes a far more aggressive approach: “Basically, we’re now at war,” the young man says in the below excerpt from Battle for Hong Kong.

He is married, with a daughter. He used to be a peaceful protester, he says. But now, with a group of other violent hardliners who call themselves “the braves,” he practices for battle with the police, shooting a target with a bow and arrow.

Then, he joins the Nov. 17 siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University — crowing, “Yes! Kill the cockroaches” after one of his arrows appears to hit a policeman in the leg.

“What we’re doing now will be seen by society as f—ing violent,” he says in the below excerpt. “But if it wasn’t for the ‘braves,’ the movement wouldn’t have lasted as long.”

For more on how the protests in Hong Kong began, how they developed, and what’s at stake, watch FRONTLINE’s Battle for Hong Kong. The film sheds new light on what both the movement and the authorities’ response to it portend for the future of the semi-autonomous city. 

Battle for Hong Kong premieres Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 10 p.m. E.S.T./9 p.m. C.S.T. Tune in or stream on PBS (check local listings), at or on the PBS Video App.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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