• Despite government support, ex-convicts involved in 2019 Hong Kong protests struggle to reintegrate

    CNA, 13 June 2024

    Thousands were arrested when violent protests roiled Hong Kong five years ago, with some who have been released from prison finding it difficult to return to society.

    HONG KONG: Five years ago, violent protests rocked the streets of Hong Kong over a controversial extradition Bill that would allow people to be sent to China for trial.

    Intense clashes erupted between protestors and the police outside the government headquarters in Admiralty.

    But the situation would soon escalate.

    Protesters stormed the city’s legislative council building on Jul 1, ransacking and vandalising its interior with anti-government slogans. Then-Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam declared the extradition Bill “dead” nine days later.

    In the following months, as the situation continued to worsen, Beijing stepped in and ordered a massive crackdown of those involved.

    More than 10,200 were arrested, with some being imprisoned. Nearly 3,000 have been charged with offences including rioting, unlawful assembly and criminal damage, according to police figures.

    Around 40 per cent of those arrested were students.

    One such former inmate, who only wanted to be known as Kenny, shared his experience with CNA. Those like him who have finished serving their jail terms struggle to reintegrate with the community, even as the government has pledged its support for them.


    Kenny was arrested at a protest in August 2019. He later received a call from the police, who told him to “take another oral deposition”, he told CNA.

    “On that day, I knew I would be officially prosecuted and brought to the court,” he said.

    He later pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and was sentenced to a year behind bars.

    “I felt fear, of course,” he recounted.

    “In prison, there were two things I really worried about. The first one was whether I could continue my studies to finish my bachelor’s degree. And the other thing was … could I find a job after I graduate?”

    Kenny, now aged 24, graduated last year and eventually found work at a logistics company.

    He sought help from non-governmental organisation Project Change, which has helped more than 160 ex-inmates in their job applications. It also helps to restore university and professional qualifications affected by criminal records.

    For example, some inmates who were nurses or social workers were disqualified from their professional licenses. Project Change managed to help two such clients to regain their qualifications.

    Twenty per cent of its cases are referred by the Correctional Services Department, which manages prisoners and prisons in Hong Kong.

    Mr Yau Shing Mu, associate director of Project Change’s Reintegration Programme, said that stakeholders – including school authorities, employers and licensing authorities – need to be persuaded to accept such ex-convicts “without substantial risk”.

    “We try to persuade them that it is in the interest of the community to take these people back so that they can get back on track,” Mr Yau added.

    “They are not those criminal-minded people, and they really want to contribute to the community.”


    Meanwhile, in the years following the protests, Hong Kong introduced various national security measures to rein in radicalism and pro-independence activities.

    In June 2020, China introduced a new national security law in Hong Kong in response to the protests. A wider range of dissenting acts was criminalised, such as “subversion” – undermining the power or authority of the central government.

    The passage of this law led to the closures of many civil society groups, amid uncertainties over the legality of their activities.

    In the wake of this, prisoners’ support group Waiting Bird was formed in 2022. It supplies essentials to inmates like cleaning supplies, stationery and snacks.

    Demand for their “peace packs”, comprising daily necessities for inmates, peaked over the last six months, said one of Waiting Bird’s committee members Brandon Yau.

    It hands out 120 packs on average per month, which are picked up by the inmates’ families.

    Mr Yau said that Waiting Bird has helped with more than 600 cases, with 70 per cent of its beneficiaries still serving their sentences. They were mostly charged with rioting, among other offences including those related to national security and sedition.

    “As of now, although demand for legal advice or sharing of experiences have gradually come down, there’s still a great need for prison supplies,” Mr Yau added.

    Because the Correctional Services Department sets specific requirements for prison supplies, it becomes challenging to source them, he noted.

    “The towels that we can buy are too long … the Correctional Bureau mandates that only half of it can be given to inmates,” he told CNA.

    “Therefore, we have to cut each towel that we bought into halves to be usable.”

    Under existing rules, prisoners may have a third of their sentence reduced on the grounds of good behaviour.

    Yet, with the city’s new national security law Article 23 that was passed in March, things have changed.

    A prisoner convicted of national security offences must not be granted remission unless the Commissioner of Correctional Services is satisfied the move will “not be contrary to the interests of national security”.

    Mr Yau said he came across a detainee who was due to be released soon after being kept behind bars for two years. However, the new legislation meant he ultimately had to stay another six months.

    “Despite frustration, he could only focus on studying, and reached out to us for books to help pass the time,” Mr Yau added.


    CNA also spoke to Mrs Regina Ip, convenor of the key decision-making Executive Council of Hong Kong and a member of the Legislative Council, to find out what has changed since the protests.

    When asked what the government is doing to ensure that young activists who took part in the protests reintegrate into society, Mrs Ip said the Correctional Services Department has a rehabilitation programme.

    But she questioned whether the government can truly trust such young activists.

    “They ask for leniency, but do they really understand, accept that they have damaged society and a lot of damage to our country and society?” she asked.

    “I think people must try and understand and accept Hong Kong as it is.”

    Kenny is one of these young people, many of whom left Hong Kong soon after the protests. But he said he is staying put.

    He added that in the short term, he wants to get more involved in advocacy. He also floated the idea of taking up a volunteer gig at Project Change or other similar organisations.

    “The government can consider hiring someone like me on a case-by-case basis, because most of us who participated in the 2019 protest don’t intend to cause damage in the society,” he said.

    “Instead, we wish to build a better Hong Kong.”