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Stepping into the fray

As violent demonstrations roil Hong Kong, a bold group of volunteers is providing moral support and physical protection for young protesters

Stepping into the fray

A pastor volunteering with Protect the Children walks among protesters during pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. (Kiran Ridley)

On the road in front of the luxury mall Pacific Place in the central business district of Hong Kong, hundreds of young pro-democracy protesters, wearing hard hats and gas masks, began to yell and run in retreat. Behind them, tear gas canisters arched through the sky, leaving trails of white smoke. As police fired rounds of the acrid gas, members of an elite police squad known as raptors suddenly charged at protesters from both the main and side roads. Groups of half a dozen officers, covered head to toe in protective gear, targeted individual protesters, beating them with batons and roughly pinning them to the ground.

In minutes, the road was cleared of most protesters and occupied by hundreds of riot police and subdued demonstrators. From the sidewalk, an 82-year-old man with gray hair, a cane, and a yellow “Protect the Children” vest strode over to the police waving his cane, scolding officers for treating the protesters so violently. Known to protesters as Uncle Wong, he begged to get the protesters’ names to connect them with legal counsel, but the police urged him back to the sidewalk, pointing a can of pepper spray at his face. Wong had no choice but to comply.

“The heavens can see what you’re doing, the heavens are watching. Please, have some humanity!” Wong wailed at the dozens of riot police that had gathered around him, their faces hidden behind reflective helmet visors. “Why don’t you just beat me to death here? I can’t tolerate this. This isn’t Hong Kong, this is hell.” Fellow volunteers with Protect the Children eventually led the visibly shaken Wong away from the police.

Made up of mostly middle-aged and elderly volunteers, Protect the Children is a church-run group that tries to mediate between police and protesters, sometimes by physically standing between the two. At other times, they distract police to help protesters evade capture, provide protesters with aid and supplies, or offer emotional support. Roy Chan, the founder of the group and the pastor of Good Neighbor North District Church, said that although the group’s membership is not limited to Christians, it’s goal is to care for the young protesters and to love them sacrificially as Jesus does.

The protests began as opposition to an extradition bill the Hong Kong government has since withdrawn. Protesters are now focused on calling for an investigation into police brutality, fighting the Chinese Communist Party’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy, and demanding direct elections in Hong Kong. As the mass protests entered their fifth month, violence had escalated on both sides: Some protesters threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at police, while police shot an 18-year-old protester in the chest on Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The violence increases the risks for Protect the Children, which has between 40 and 80 volunteers at each protest. But Wong believes it’s a job he must do.

“[The protesters] are fighting for freedom, human rights, and democracy—it’s not for their own self-interest,” Wong said. “They’re giving up their time, their blood, and their lives. … If we don’t help them, there will be no Hong Kong left.”

Kiran Ridley

Uncle Wong acknowledges protesters. (Kiran Ridley)

ON THE MORNING OF SUNDAY, SEPT. 29, Chan started his day leading a church worship service in a cramped walk-up apartment in Sheung Shui, a neighborhood near the Chinese border. He strummed a guitar and led 20 church attendees in the worship song “I Sing Praises to Your Name.” Around him were piles of storage bags full of gas masks, helmets, and goggles for protesters.

As Chan prayed for God to bring justice and hope amid Hong Kong’s dark days, several church members cried softly, dabbing their eyes with tissues.

The morning’s sermon looked at the story of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke Chapter 16, as Chan asked, “What is the difference between a person and an object?” The topic was pertinent to the church: A week earlier, a member of Protect the Children became separated from the group and was surrounded by police in an alley. A blurry video showed police swarming and kicking him as he lay on the ground. But police official Vasco Williams, when asked about the incident, said that the video appeared to show “an officer kicking a yellow object on the ground” and that he wasn’t sure what the object was.

Another, clearer video revealed it was really a man on the ground. Chan said the Protect the Children volunteer had bleeding gums and dizziness from the encounter. Many decried the police force’s dehumanization of protesters and aid workers.

In the sermon, Chan pointed out that the rich man ignored Lazarus’ needs, treating him more like an object than a human. He also warned pro-democracy supporters against turning their anger at injustice into hatred of people on the other side.

Afterward, one middle-aged congregant said he found it challenging to be a Christian, since he didn’t see justice and felt hopeless. Another attendee, a woman wearing a Protect the Children shirt, responded that Christians need to hope in God’s sovereign will and His control of the future. She admitted she also faced moments of discouragement and depression, “but we must find time to pray, read the Bible, sing hymns, and hold on to God tightly.”

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

A demonstrator is detained by police. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

As parishioners trickled out the door, Chan dressed himself in body armor and strapped on packs full of gear for that afternoon’s protest. That weekend proved a busy one: On Saturday activists held a rally marking the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement; on Sunday protesters held an anti-totalitarianism march; and on Tuesday, China’s National Day, protesters held six different rallies in various Hong Kong districts. That meant Chan and the Protect the Children volunteers had little rest between protests.

Chan founded Good Neighbor Church in 2014 after leaving his position at a megachurch in the nearby city of Fanling and feeling that the church wasn’t doing enough to help the poor and the marginalized. As he examined issues of poverty, he concluded that the root cause was often unfair policies that stemmed from Hong Kong’s undemocratic government system and ultimately benefited the rich. With a background in social work, Chan began to provide shelter for the homeless and to advocate for impoverished street cleaners and farmers illegally evicted from their land.

During this summer’s pro-democracy protests, Chan and about 10 others went on a hunger strike starting July 3 after seeing the despair among young protesters, many in their teens or 20s, as the government repeatedly ignored their demands. Chan believed this desperation would lead young people to commit acts of violence or even suicide. He wanted to show young people a more positive way to channel their energy, and to show them that the older generation cared for them and was willing to suffer for them. 

They held a hunger strike for 19 days, urging the government to agree to Hong Kong citizens’ democratic demands, including universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police actions. As the days wore on, they decided that rather than just sitting there on a hunger strike, they could do more good reaching out to the protesters with love and warmth and trying to ensure that no one got hurt.

Chan issued an open call to anyone interested in joining, and 200 people showed up on July 21. Afterward their numbers dropped as the danger increased. At first, the police largely treated them with respect—the volunteers would reason with the police, hand them flowers, and ask them not to attack. Police responded politely, saying, “Old man, go home before things get dangerous.”

But as the protests became increasingly violent, police started treating the volunteers roughly, calling them cockroaches, pointing guns at them, and pushing and kicking them. 

Kiran Ridley

Roy Chan leads a worship service at his church. (Kiran Ridley)

AFTER SUNDAY’S SERVICE, Chan scarfed down a pastry before hopping on a van headed to Hong Kong Island, where the anti-totalitarianism march was planned. Police had announced a ban on the event, and along the road they had formed checkpoints to try to stop protesters from reaching the site. 

At Admiralty subway station, about 60 Protect the Children volunteers assembled. After a pastor led them in prayer, they split up into groups of seven, each with a team leader who wore an earpiece to receive directions from the group’s control center. Volunteers at the control center would follow social media and local livestream feeds to inform leaders where police were positioned, where protesters were headed, and where the volunteers could be the most help.

Some of the teams typically head to sensitive areas, such as police headquarters, to watch and see if police stationed on footbridges decide to fire tear gas on peaceful protesters. If anything does happen, they’ll use microphones to direct demonstrators out of the line of fire and help wash their eyes with saline solution. Other teams head directly to the front lines, where police and protesters clash.

On that day, Uncle Wong’s group first headed out onto the roads where protesters were peacefully marching. The team handed out water, drink coupons, and supplies like gloves or arm sleeves. Many of the young protesters approached Wong and the group to thank them for their service. As the team moved closer to the front lines, where police had already fired tear gas, the leader instructed the volunteers to put on their hard hats, goggles, and gas masks. As Uncle Wong walked in the front of the group, protesters on either side of the road applauded and cheered. 

Kiran Ridley

Chan suits up to attend the day’s big demonstration. (Kiran Ridley)

The team came across a panicking European family that had come to Hong Kong on vacation and gotten stuck in the middle of the protest. (Buses had stopped running, and many shops and certain subway stations were closed.) Protect the Children volunteers directed the family members to areas of safety. When a young woman approached the group crying in distress, one of the middle-aged female volunteers pulled her in for a hug. 

With a handheld microphone, the team leader, a petite woman with glasses and a ponytail, informed protesters of what was happening farther down the road, urging those without protective gear to head back. Soon after, the tear gas descended, the raptors charged at protesters, and Wong took his stand. 

That afternoon, another Protect the Children team stood holding hands in between police and protesters. Tear gas and water cannons had cornered protesters into a space next to a subway station, and the closed metal gates blocked their way out. With the volunteers blocking police, some of the protesters were able to secretly escape by lifting a gate and crawling under it. 

Later that night Wong met up with another Protect the Children volunteer, 72-year-old Chan Ki-kau, known as Uncle Chan. Chan, too, is a fixture at the protests, often wearing a red hat bearing the name of his town, Ma Shi Po. A week earlier, he had tried negotiating with police, asking for the name of an arrested protester so volunteers could provide a social worker to follow up. But according to Chan, another group of police came over and pepper-sprayed Chan in the face and shoved him so that he fell to the ground. “I haven’t thanked the police for the pepper spray yet,” he said with a cheeky smile that exposed missing teeth. “I usually don’t eat spicy, but that night I did.”

Vincent Thian/AP

Protesters face off with police. (Vincent Thian/AP)

Uncle Chan (no relation to Roy Chan) was born in Hong Kong before moving as a toddler to Guangzhou in mainland China. He recalls his family’s poverty during the Great Leap Forward, a time in which tens of millions of Chinese people starved to death. Because his father ran a small business selling rice, his family was deemed capitalist and authorities tortured his father to death while Chan was in elementary school.

“At that time who could speak out?” Chan asked, tears falling at the thought of his father’s death. “You couldn’t resist it, no matter how much you suffer, you couldn’t speak out. All you can do is to keep suffering.”

After his father died, Chan worked odd jobs to provide for the family, working in construction and loading cargo onto trains. Once China began opening to the outside world in the 1980s, he moved back to Hong Kong, working at a dried seafood store then renting land to farm in Hong Kong’s north district. Chan liked Hong Kong: There, he no longer felt constrained and could enjoy freedoms.

Yet for the past 20 years, Chan has been fighting land battles in Ma Shi Po, where the government plans to take farmland to develop high rises. The development project would displace 1,500 households, including Chan’s. Through his battle to maintain his farmland, he got to know Pastor Roy Chan, and this year he joined the hunger strikers and decided to become involved with Protect the Children. “I don’t know about politics, but when there’s injustice, I step up,” he said.

Kiran Ridley

Uncle Chan marches with protesters. (Kiran Ridley)

Currently he’s upset to see the Hong Kong government and its “big boss” in Beijing using the police to subdue the people and strip away their rights. On the night of Sept. 29, he confronted a group of police who were arresting two teenage protesters. Uncle Chan and other Protect the Children volunteers asked for their names, and one of the boys responded. Chan then asked the police for their ID numbers, which are supposed to be visible on their uniforms for civilians to file complaints. But the police refused to answer, and the ID numbers were nowhere to be seen.

“There’s no one for me to report you to,” Chan said as he filmed the police on his phone. “Hong Kongers are suffering. Who can we go to?”

PASTORS WEARING ORANGE VESTS with Jesus fish on the back have also joined Protect the Children. Gary Lau, a Lutheran pastor, said he volunteers because the Bible teaches that Christians should go to where injured people are. Through Protect the Children, he helps protesters get out of dangerous situations and also provides emotional support: Some youth are traumatized by the violence, others have been disowned by their parents because of their involvement, and others struggle with depression. 

Most Hong Kong churches are passive in the protest movement, but Lau says, “If we view the current situation as a war, then we need to reflect on the role pastors should play during wartime.” He points to the Good Samaritan, who disregarded his status and position in order to help a person who hated him. “That’s why we think the church should be the Good Samaritan, this is a position of faith, not politics.”

Some churches that spoke out at the beginning of the protests grew quieter as the violence escalated, according to Roy Chan. He admitted that some face internal disagreements about the protests and feel constraints about how they can help, but he feels many churches are overly concerned about their safety.

Kiran Ridley

Riot police beat a demonstrator. (Kiran Ridley)

“If everyone is afraid, then no one has any voice to tell the government that they are doing something wrong,” Chan said. “I don’t want Hong Kong to become North Korea or mainland China. In the Bible it says that perfect love drives out fear. What we need to fear is God.”

As the protests have increased in frequency, Roy Chan’s days have become increasingly hectic. The day before the Oct. 1 protests, his phone received four calls in five minutes as he scarfed down a KFC dinner while speaking with me. At one point during the interview, he looked at his ringing phone and apologized that he needed to answer the call.

The caller was a young protester asking Chan to pray for him. The youth planned to go out as a front-line protester the next day and was overwhelmed with fear that he would be killed by police. After chatting and praying for him, Chan hung up the phone and cried. He said it was difficult to deal with the suffering of these young people and know he was so limited in how he could help.

But he also acknowledged that some moments make him realize the work is worthwhile: After helping the marchers on Sunday, a young protester turned to him and said, “When I see you, I see Jesus.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.