The imposition by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of a draconian national security law on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020 prompted several high-profile groups working for greater autonomy to disband, for fear of being pursued for subversion, sedition, or secession under the law.
But Loh Tsz-wai, a former student union leader at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), responded by helping to set up Local Youth Will, a group that recently organized a commemorative event for the 2019 protest movement in Sham Shui Po.
He spoke to RFA's Cantonese Service in a recent interview about keeping alive a spirit of resistance against creeping authoritarian rule in Hong Kong.
"The 'local' part refers to our promotion of social reform, as well as the anti-extradition movement of 2019, while the 'youth' part indicates that young people are the pioneers of social reform anywhere," Loh said.
"If we give in too easily and go underground, then we're just giving them exactly what they want."
Loh's group has already been targeted for criticism by the pro-Beijing media, which is often a harbinger of arrest under the national security law.
"I keep imagining that I will be woken up by the police breaking down my door, and then face a prison sentence of I don't know how long," he said. "Why do we carry on in the face of all that stress and discomfort? I just can't imagine myself ever giving up."
"I have so many good friends, people I respect, and elders who are either in jail or awaiting trial already," he said. "I want to keep going to prove to them that there are still people who support them and are sticking to our guns, that even if they go to jail or die, there will be others who keep going."
"At times of great pressure, it's also important to take care of oneself and husband one's resources," he said, mentioning the ever-moving "red lines" of what is permitted or not permitted to do or say in the post-national security law era.
He said broader cooperation between traditional pro-democracy activists, even those who work for democratic change in mainland China, now appeared more inevitable to him than it had just a few years ago, because the different factions in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement would need to unite against a common enemy.
"A lot of them are braver than most," Loh said. "For example, Chow Hang-tung."
'We should work together'
Chow, a rights lawyer who heads the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, was recently arrested ahead of the 32nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, which the Alliance commemorated publicly with a candlelight vigil for over three decades before the gatherings were banned in 2020.
"Our opinions and beliefs may be different, but we no longer need to disagree with each other," Loh said. "We should work together."
He said there was little chance that he or others in his group would bother trying to run in December's elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo), however, as recent changes to the system have made it unlikely that any contender not approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be approved as a candidate.
"Everyone has worked so hard over the past two years," Loh said. "But we have to keep going, if we want better for Hong Kong."
"We really can't give up now; we shouldn't give up."
Curbs on dissent, opposition
Hong Kong and Chinese officials are engaging in sweeping curbs on dissent and political opposition, according to a chorus of international criticism over the national security law.
Over the past six months, the CCP has moved to "crush dissent and suppress the expression of alternative political views in Hong Kong," a six-monthly report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said last week.
"China has broken its legal obligations by undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms," the report found.
It said the law is being used to deter freedom of expression and legitimate political debate, while those who fall foul of its loosely defined provisions could face lengthy jail terms, as well as the transfer of some cases to mainland China for prosecution and sentencing.
A total of 47 democracy activists and former opposition lawmakers are being prosecuted on "subversion" charges after they took part in a democratic primary ahead of the now-postponed LegCo election in July 2020.
Sweeping electoral changes were also imposed by the National People's Congress (NPC), reversing Beijing's promises of gradual progress towards a system of universal suffrage, under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement.
Arrests, fines, and sackings of journalists, as well as the jailing of pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai for "collusion with foreign powers" under the law are taking a huge toll on media freedom, journalists, and press freedom groups have said.
Reported by Matt Chan and Gigi Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.