On their first date in 2011, Jay Pang took Vicky Choi out for tofu pudding at a snack shop famous for the sweet treat in Tai Po, the neighbourhood where he grew up. They married two years later, and Ms. Choi nurtured dreams of having a pair of children with Mr. Pang.
On Saturday, the couple returned to the same snack shop. The pudding hasn’t changed, but their family plans have. They no longer want children, a decision they made in the midst of protests that have beset the city since 2014.
In Hong Kong at the moment, “it’s hard to see a future for kids,” Mr. Pang said, as he and Ms. Choi retreated from riot police advancing in Tai Po amid the latest round of confrontation with authorities.
For Mr. Pang, the decision not to have children was sealed on Sept. 28, 2014, the day protesters outside the Hong Kong government complex were hit by tear gas and pepper spray, a use of force that shocked the city — although it has been followed by more violent scenes, particularly in the past few weeks.
“I still remember that day,” Mr. Pang said. It came during the so-called Umbrella Movement, when protesters occupied parts of the international financial centre’s downtown for nearly three months in a bid to secure greater democratic freedoms. Their failure to achieve their demands left many profoundly dispirited, and convinced Mr. Pang that China’s authoritarian leadership in Beijing will continue to tighten its control over Hong Kong, at the cost of some of the city’s coveted liberties.
“If we cannot give them a better place to live — no freedom, no democracy — then I don’t think it’s right to have kids,” he said. Beijing, he notes, has pledged to protect Hong Kong’s unique system, with its guarantees of western-style rights, only until 2047. A child born today would enter adulthood at a time of uncertainty about the viability of the city’s status.
“We cannot imagine what is going to happen,” he said. He refers to 2047 as “the very last day of Hong Kong.”
Now, the couple, both 36, are convinced they made the right choice.
Given what’s taken place in the past two months, “we don’t need a kid,” Ms. Choi said.
Since June, Hong Kong has been riven by angry marches that have choked streets and occasionally erupted into violent clashes between police and protesters, who have demanded the cancellation of an extradition bill. The bill had raised fear that the city’s citizens could be made to face justice in mainland China. It has been placed on hold, but demonstrators have sought new concessions, including additional electoral rights.
On Saturday, hundreds of people returned to the streets. Mr. Pang and Ms. Choi went home early, before the hours of roving flash mobs that raced between parts of the city, fleeing tear gas fired by police over hours of tense and sometimes violent confrontations with protesters who threw stones and set fires.
But the dislocations for the city have also disrupted the lives of those who have taken part.
Roughly 600 have been arrested. Dozens have been charged with rioting, punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Dozens more have fled Hong Kong, uprooting their lives, some to avoid lengthy prison terms. People have lost jobs. Young demonstrators fear their involvement could jeopardize careers that have yet to begin. A half-dozen people have died by suicide.
For Mr. Pang and Ms. Choi, too, the grand sweep of protest has been intensely personal.
When her husband expressed reservations in 2014 about having children, Ms. Choi resisted. The idea made her “very, very sad,” she said. She wanted to build a family. They fought, bitterly.
“It was really unhappy,” Mr. Pang said.
Hong Kong has a complex relationship with Beijing. It relies heavily on mainland China for its economic well-being, and even for much of its food and water. Between 10 and 20 per cent of Hong Kong’s population is now people who came from mainland China since 1997. Family ties, shared historical culture and business relationships tie the two places tightly together, while government officials say they are committed to maintaining “one country, two systems.”
Still, Ms. Choi was not disposed to warm feeling for Beijing. Her mother left China in 1981, and she grew up hearing stories about the terrors her family endured during the Cultural Revolution, one of the ugliest chapters in the rule of China’s Communist Party. “My mom said she escaped from China because of the government,” Ms. Choi said.
In the end, Mr. Pang convinced her not to have children in a city they fear will, within their lifetimes, come to more closely resemble the place her mother fled.
“He talked about what’s going on — we can see the future,” Ms. Choi said. “He made me change my mind.“
Hong Kong already has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, with women on average having 1.13 children each, well below the replacement rate. Fewer than half of those surveyed by the Hong Kong Women Development Association last year said they were willing to have children, citing housing and childrearing costs as the most important reasons.
Mr. Pang and Ms. Choi live in a 430-square-foot apartment, with a mortgage that won’t be retired for decades. Having a child would add to their financial burden. Remaining childless will also leave them with less support when they retire.
But money is not, they say, the primary reason. They value their freedoms and feel disquiet at the idea of bringing a child into a place where they believe liberties are eroding.
Mr. Pang relates a story from a friend who took her four-year-old son to McDonald’s at the end of July. The boy brandished his French fries, mimicking a baton wielded by police. “I can hit you,” he said.
“The kid saw the image on TV, or maybe on his mother’s phone, of police beating people,” Mr. Pang said. "How do you explain that to a child? We used to know that the police are the good guys, but right now we can’t even say that any more.”
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