War at the dinner table: Hong Kong families divided over protests

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For weeks, Jane lied to her mother about joining Hong Kong’s protests – pretending her rucksack was bulging with books, not supplies – until the ideological rift between them grew so great she had to move out.

With millions marching to protest stuttering freedoms under Beijing’s rule over the last 100 days, Jane found herself increasingly arguing with her mother who was bitterly opposed to the pro-democracy movement.

Eventually, an insurmountable gulf grew between them.

“After every fight, she wouldn’t talk to me for a week,” said the softly spoken 24-year-old, who asked to use a pseudonym. “Hong Kong flats are small. We’re apart by just one wall. So I had to leave.”

It was a huge emotional blow. Jane was raised solely by her mother.

“We’ve spent my whole life together, just me and her, but she won’t stand by me,” she said. “It makes me feel powerless.”

Jane describes herself as a moderate – not one of those on the frontlines battling police or embracing violence.

She said she tried to explain the movement’s goals of a more democratic Hong Kong but her arguments fell on deaf ears with her mother.

“She believes what China says, she believes the protesters are paid by foreigners, that all protesters are thugs,” Jane lamented. “She never believes me.”

The three months of huge, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city are overwhelmingly youth-led.

They were sparked by opposition to a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to the mainland but have since snowballed into a wider movement demanding greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.

They are also the latest expression of pent-up anger at Beijing’s creeping control over the city and its refusal to make concessions to similar youth-led democracy protests in 2014.

Research by academics has shown that half of those at rallies are between 20 and 30 years old, while 77 percent have degrees.

According to a regular poll by the University of Hong Kong, the number of locals who describe themselves as being proud to be a citizen of China is at a record low of just 27 percent.

Among those aged 18-29 the figure is even lower – 10 percent.

Smaller pro-Beijing rallies in Hong Kong — where many wave Chinese flags – have generally featured an older demographic.

The pro-democracy movement spans ages and generations – there is even a contingent of elderly “grey hairs” holding solidarity marches.

But younger protesters say they often find themselves at ideological odds with parents or older relatives, who either think the city has thrived since it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 – or fear what the authoritarian leaders in Beijing may do if the protests rage on.

For many young committed protesters, the battle on the streets continues around the dinner table.

“At the beginning, we would eat in silence. It was so depressing that now I don’t go home until I know my parents are in bed,” said Chris, also a pseudonym, who graduated recently and started a finance job at a top bank.

“I think it comes down to education. My parents were educated in China and weren’t taught about democracy and freedom,” he said, explaining how his parents came to Hong Kong in the 1990s as stowaways looking for a better quality of life.

“What my parents want is stability and economic well-being. But I want more than that and I will fight for it,” said Chris, describing how his normally-settled home life has spun into an “us versus them” conflict.

Speaking with a shaking voice, he described feeling exhausted and despondent.

“I can’t talk to my colleagues because I don’t trust them, and I can’t talk to my parents at home without them yelling at me, so I often get pretty down,” he said.

Julia, a 19-year-old student, was surprised by the family arguments.

“I didn’t know how different we were until this summer,” she said, adding her parents were unaware that she regularly faced off with riot police on the frontlines.

After explosive arguments over her backing of the protests, her parents threatened to cut financial support.

“They were blackmailing me, eventually I just tore up the credit card and started lying about everything,” she said, now fully dependent on a part-time job around her studies.

Jane, meanwhile, now lives with the family of her girlfriend, whose parents also disagree with the movement.

But she says they have made an uneasy arrangement of tolerating each other’s starkly different political leanings.

“We never talk about it. We mainly just talk about the cats,” she joked.

“But I can feel that it’s a fragile environment.”