Lu ducked into a KFC bathroom, locked the door and scribbled on a piece of blank paper that he would soon raise while in a crowd of protesters: “I came from the mainland. Thank you, Hong Kongers! Don’t give up, fight for freedom!”
It was July 7, one month into Hong Kong’s protest movement against an extradition bill that, even after its withdrawal last week, continues to serve as a symbol of unwanted control by Beijing.
Hundreds of thousands were marching in a busy shopping district of Hong Kong frequented by mainland tourists, chanting in Mandarin to raise awareness of their fight for autonomy, government accountability and democratic reforms.
The 25-year-old, who asked to use the pen name “Freedom Lu” to protect his family, had crossed into Hong Kong from the mainland city of Shenzhen to join the protest against the bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects to China for trial.
After returning home, Lu was detained by police and held for ten days on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a frequently used accusation against activists and civil society leaders.
Lu is one of at least a dozen mainlanders who have been held or threatened by authorities after having participated in the Hong Kong demonstrations or shared information online that deviates from the government line concerning the semiautonomous territory.
Public sentiment is difficult to gauge in China, because government surveillance is pervasive, public polling nonexistent and the internet and media strictly controlled.
But with the Hong Kong protests viewed as a direct challenge to Beijing’s authority, the Chinese government has not been shy about trying to control the narrative by broadcasting nationalistic propaganda, accusing protesters of U.S.-funded “terrorism,” and claiming to speak for all Chinese people.
China also has sought to intimidate protesters by tracking them down and locking them up, human rights advocates say.
During the early July protest, as light rain drizzled, Lu shivered in the sea of humanity, terrified he would be discovered and punished. But he was also moved by the Hong Kong residents who stopped to thank and encourage him.
“Even if all I did was just one tiny insignificant thing, they gave me such strong and genuine gratitude. This made me really ashamed as a mainlander,” he said.
After returning to Shenzhen, Lu used a virtual private network to bypass the firewall that blocks most mainland Chinese from accessing the open internet. He posted essays on Medium and Twitter, explaining the Hong Kong protests in simplified Chinese and challenging fellow mainlanders to rethink their ideas about patriotism (“Why do we have to love a country that doesn’t love us?”) and state-society relations (“Country, government, and party should be three separate ideas. Government should serve the people.”)
“I think it’s human nature not to want to be fooled, but many people don’t know that they’ve been deceived,” Lu told The Times via an encrypted messaging app.
He said he had grown up believing government propaganda himself, but several Hong Kong professors’ blogs on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, had changed his mind. When authorities shut down those blogs a few years ago, Lu followed them to Twitter.
“The Communist Party is using a firewall to conceal the truth and brainwash people,” he said. “But if we tell people that life can be different, can be more dignified and more free, we shake their foundations.”
Lu said police called him in Aug. 22, telling him someone had reported him. They interrogated him for more than twelve hours about his Twitter activity, searched his phone, made him strip naked, forbade him from using a phone or seeing family, and forced him to sing “There is no New China without the Communist Party.”
He was held in a room of thirty to forty men, he said, and slept on the floor. The others accused him of being a traitor to the Han Chinese race and threatened to beat him to death for supporting “violent rioters,” he said.
“I couldn’t bear this kind of humiliation and pain. I was looking for a way to kill myself every day. I tried to suffocate myself until my whole body was shaking, but couldn’t succeed,” Lu said.
After his release Sept. 1, he fled to Southeast Asia.
In June, Zhejiang activist Wei Xiaobing was reportedly detained for fifteen days after sharing one Facebook post and retweeting two tweets about Hong Kong, including one that simply said, “Add oil,” a commonly used exhortation in China.
On July 25, Beijing police reportedly detained activist Quan Shixin, also for “picking quarrels.” In August, Dongguan resident Hu Haibo was reportedly detained for fifteen days on charges of drug use after returning from Hong Kong protests.
Shandong activist Ba Luning was also reportedly detained last month for supporting Hong Kong protests in a WeChat group. And Guangzhou police reportedly broke into the home of activist Lai Rifu, forcing him to delete tweets and sign a guarantee that he would stop posting about Hong Kong.
The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Washington-based coalition of non-governmental organizations supporting human rights in China, said other activists have been invited for “tea” with police and held until they sign guarantees that they will stop discussing Hong Kong.
“The Chinese government is working overtime to threaten and detain mainlanders from sharing and commenting on the protests in Hong Kong for fear of what it may spark back home,” said Frances Eve, the network’s deputy director of research.
Pressure is rising as the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1 approaches, she added.
In 2014, more than 100 mainlanders were detained for supporting the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.
Several mainlanders who disagree with the government line on Hong Kong told The Times that they fear for their families’ safety, even as they argue with other Chinese social media users.
Mary, 31, a mainlander working for a Hong Kong newspaper, said she stays up until 3 or 4 a.m. explaining Hong Kong protests to her Weibo followers. She’s been flooded by comments cursing her family and calling her a separatist, she said.
“I’m just reading comments and sometimes I feel so pissed off, my chest aches. I’m so angry about Chinese state media distorting the truth,” she said. “But I still have hope. Those 6,000 followers want to know what is happening. If I can open only a small window for them, it’s still a good thing.”
Lu said he’d met a doctor in detention who was held for 24 hours for sharing a video of the protests. Lu was held longer because his involvement was more severe, he said.
Before detention, he’d gone to a small beach at Shenzhen Bay, just across the water from the rural suburbs of Hong Kong, and scrawled in the sand: “Hong Kong, add oil. No rioters, only tyranny. Fight for freedom, don’t give up.”
Lu’s tweets of his beachfront protest have since been deleted, along with everything else he tweeted about Hong Kong. He posted one last statement before clearing the account.
“I’m now afraid to see people, afraid of the phone, afraid of a knock on the door or sounds in the hallway. I couldn’t help crying after calling a friend this afternoon, sitting all alone in a room. I’m really so timid, so scared. Why did our society become the way it is today? All I wanted was to speak a few normal words.”