HONG KONG – For over a year, the teenager’s weekends were dominated by marches, during which she chanted protest slogans, built barricades and dodged tear gas shells, returning home to Hong Kong in the evening covered with bruises and scratches.
However, as Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on pro-democracy lawmakers and student activists over the past year, participating in protests has become increasingly dangerous. And in December, the 15-year-old known to journalists and other protesters simply as “Aurora” boarded a plane to London, the ticket paid for by an unnamed activist from Hong Kong.
The decision to seek political asylum in the UK made her one of Hong Kong’s youngest exiles.
“I was very worried about being stopped at the airport for having sought asylum in the UK,” said the teenager, who requested anonymity for fear that her family would be punished for her involvement in protests, told NBC News. “But during the flight, I finally felt the safest and most relaxed in a long time.”
His political awakening came in June 2019, after around 1 million protesters took to the streets to protest an extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents accused of offenses to be dispatched. in mainland China to be tried there.
Three days later, on June 12, she and her classmates attended a second rally in a bustling shopping district, which became one of the most violent protests Hong Kong has seen in decades. Police fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and pepper spray at protesters. Some protesters attacked officers and threw Molotov cocktails at them.
She said she was impressed by the solidarity of the activists.
“I have always thought that the Hong Kong people were cold towards each other, but their unity deeply moved me and made me burst into tears,” she said.
From then on, she became more politically engaged, reading the news every day, and she forged close ties with her fellow demonstrators.
“I feel like the protesters are more like my family and they understand me better than mine,” said the teenager, who added that her mother disapproved of her daughter’s activism. Her parents are divorced and she is separated from her father.
The huge protests that followed were fueled by fears that residents would lose their rights and their independent judiciary amid an erosion of the region’s “one country, two systems” deal put in place when the Great Brittany returned its colony to China in 1997.
On June 30 of last year, a contentious national security law came into force, which criminalizes actions Beijing considers to involve subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces, or terrorism.
Arrests of pro-democracy lawmakers and student activists have become more frequent since the law was implemented.
In October, Tong Chung, 19, a former leader of a pro-independence student group, was arrested and became the first high profile politician to be charged under the National Security Law. If found guilty, he faces a life sentence. Most recently, in March, 47 pro-democracy politicians were arrested under the new law, the movement’s biggest crackdown to date.
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Nine leading democracy advocates were sentenced to prison terms on Friday for staging a march during the 2019 protests that sparked a crackdown on Beijing.
The United States and other countries have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for the crackdown in Hong Kong, with Washington calling their actions an “assault on democracy.”
Beijing countered that its actions in Hong Kong defend its national sovereignty and called on other countries “to stop interfering” in its internal affairs.
Larry Lai, a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, said young protesters tended to want to leave Hong Kong mainly for security reasons.
“The national security law and the way it is applied justifies their concerns,” he said.
The UK, in particular, has been an attractive destination, due to its close ties to Hong Kong. In July, he announced a new visa program providing a special route for holders of UK National Overseas Passports, or BNOs, to relocate to the country, with a fast track to citizenship. Nearly 3 million Hong Kong people have been offered refuge and a possible path to British citizenship, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in June.
This year, Beijing said it will no longer recognize BNO passports as valid.
But refugee women – especially those who are underage – often have a harder time integrating into British society and accessing things, such as housing and financial support, according to Nando Sigona, president of international migration. and forced displacement and professor specializing in migration at the University of Birmingham.
“Services and support are primarily for men and single families,” he said.
For now, the teenager lives with a family in London and spends her time reading and studying while her asylum claim is pending. One day, she hopes to be able to return home.
“I hope the protesters in Hong Kong don’t give up,” she said. “If you give up now, all our efforts will be in vain.”