By Sebastian Skov Andersen and Joyce Leung
It’s been a long year for supporters of democracy in Hong Kong. Like a viral comic that made the rounds on social media put it: “Before we go to sleep, we check the news, and when we wake up, we do the same. The day starts with worries and ends with worries, too.”
The sentiment rings especially true for Thomas Wong, a pseudonym, who is something of a veteran on the front lines of the pro-democracy movement. As is common among veterans, his service has steadily eroded his mental well-being. While the continued clashes with police have generally been rough on his psyche, one experience marked the beginning of the deterioration in his mental health: the siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Wong, now 19, has suffered from symptoms of paranoia and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the day he walked, or limped — he faked a leg injury to avoid immediate detention — off campus after several days of unceasing battles with police. While he was not arrested at the time, he was “marked” by an officer who scribbled down his personal details to, presumably, add his name to a database for later investigation.
Months after the incident and despite the absence of further altercations, he still prefers to hide in the comfort of his house, where he knows he won’t stumble into police officers.
“When I first got out of PolyU, I felt relieved,” said Wong. “But after a few days I became very sensitive to every little thing. If I hear a pen fall, I’ll think it’s tear gas and it’ll make me jump. And when I hear sirens, I get nervous and I start to walk really fast.
“I’m very on edge and anxious about everyone in the street because I worry every stranger could be a police officer in casual-wear. It’s the same with cars. I keep suspecting they may be undercover police, so I always try to just blend in with the crowd. I can’t lead a normal life.”
Intensified crackdowns by a police force emboldened by the imposition of the national security law have triggered paranoia in all aspects of daily life for many protesters. Despite promises by Chief Executive Carrie Lam that the new law would not be enforced retroactively, protesters remain sceptical. Many don’t believe a word that passes her lips.
Frontliners are terrified they’ll end up behind bars, or even — rationally or not — that they’ll become the next case of “made suicides,” a term protesters use to describe the deaths of protesters who have wound up dead in what are seen as mysterious circumstances, such as Alex Chow and Chan Yin-lam.
Although no evidence has ever emerged that the deaths were anything other than suicide, some protesters genuinely believe they could be made to commit “suicide” if caught alone by officers.
‘Shadow of fear’
Wong first stumbled on such rumours on internet forums, where he also found allegations that the police had raided and arrested protesters in their homes, even during the night, he said. Many warned him against keeping items that could connect him with the movement, and he was encouraged to clear his phone’s data every other day.
Since the implementation of the national security law, he has considered erasing his social media presence entirely — a protective measure many of his peers have already embraced.
“They took down our name, age, gender, and addresses on a notepad, and even videoed what we were wearing. We thought they were gathering evidence to arrest us later, and that has cast a shadow of fear over my life. I can’t sleep because I constantly worry about this,” he said.
Scores of protesters have already deleted their Twitter, Facebook and Telegram accounts to dodge potential charges under the new legislation. Anyone who “incites hatred” or promotes Hong Kong independence could be charged under the law, potentially entrapping many thousands of Hong Kong netizens in situations with unclear legal consequences simply by being affiliated with certain chat groups.
Another protester in his early twenties told HKFP that it was a matter of safety: “Just to protect myself. There’s a possibility the popo will come to my home and arrest me, so I clear my data from time to time.” He had been arrested before, he said, and back then the police had confiscated his cellphone and gone through all the data on it.
The Chinese government has recently sent out strong signals to young protesters that they are serious about silencing dissent. When they arrested prominent activists like former Agnes Chow and owner of pro-democracy paper Apple Daily Jimmy Lai earlier last month, it served largely as a reminder to young protesters that Beijing is not afraid of the repercussions from international society, and that no one is safe
If Wong’s experience is anything to go by, China’s strategy of “rule by fear” is proving effective. Although thousands of anti-China hardliners have continued to march against increasing influence from the mainland, others have gone into hiding out of fear for their personal safety.
One 24-year-old former frontline protester named Katy said she had gone so far as to install security cameras at her apartment block, just to give her a little more time to prepare in case the police come to arrest her. She said she decided to do so after more than half of her friends in protest circles had been arrested.
“I need to know if the police have come to arrest me,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll be arrested. Who isn’t? They’ll arrest anyone, for made-up reasons or for the smallest things.”
Katy said she knew dozens of protesters who suffered from much more severe mental health issues than her. She had been chatting regularly with some to provide support. Since the beginning of the protests a year ago, many have started seriously self-harming because they struggled to cope with their experiences on the front lines, she told HKFP.
“It is my duty to keep them sane, or else I am worried they will kill themselves,” she said.
In January this year, a study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that up to one third of adults in the city experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and about 10 percent showed symptoms of depression.
The numbers marked a severe increase since the last mass protests in 2014, the Umbrella Revolution, when just 5 percent suffered from symptoms of PTSD and only 6 percent showed signs of depression.
A similar study by researchers at HKU last month found that 20 percent of respondents suffered from severe to extremely severe levels of depression, while 10 percent suffered from severe to extremely severe stress and 25 percent from such levels of anxiety.
Bosco, a 22-year-old protester who wished to remain anonymous, is among those who suffer from all three problems. Although mental health has been an omnipresent factor in his life, an encounter with police triggered a severe relapse, he told HKFP.
Bosco, who already struggled with both depression and anxiety before the incident, said he was threatened by police officers after they had randomly conducted a stop-and-frisk on him while he was grabbing his morning coffee at a mall near his home.
Because he’s constantly worried about panic attacks, he always carries medication with him when he goes out. When the officers searched his bags and found the medications — paracetamol, benadryl and some pills to stimulate drowsiness in case of a panic attack — they took down his name and accused him of dealing in drugs. They promised him that, if caught again, they would bring him in on charges of possession and distribution of illegal substances.
“I have been scared to carry my meds ever since. I am scared to walk into those shopping centres, even if it’s downstairs near my house. I thought about going to the supermarket to get groceries to help out my parents, but I’m too afraid,” he told HKFP.
Bosco doesn’t even feel safe at home. Every little sound or movement can convince him that the police have arrived to arrest him. He has also suffered nightmares so severe they make him dizzy and give him chest pains. He now cannot sleep without medication because of his paranoia.
“When I was showering and I closed my eyes to wash my hair, I felt something going over my head, and I started hearing police sounds and officers talking about bad things. I screamed and my heart was beating very fast,” Bosco added.
“I hear sounds and I have nightmares almost every night. One night I dreamt that I was sent to prison and never got back out again,” he said. “I just can’t function in everyday life because I’m so scared.”
If you are experiencing negative feelings, please call: The Samaritans 2896 0000 (24-hour, multilingual), Suicide Prevention Centre 2382 0000 or the Social Welfare Department 2343 2255. The Hong Kong Society of Counselling and Psychology provides a WhatsApp hotline in English and Chinese: 6218 1084. See also: HKFP’s comprehensive guide to mental health services in Hong Kong