It’s a Long Way to the Top (if You Wanna Be a Uighur Pop Star)

Heartthrob Ablajan embodies the tension between pop and politics in China's Xinjiang region

Sangzhu is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a pop star. An oasis town of some 30,000 people off the old Silk Road in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, Sangzhu is home to ethnic Uighur farmers, mosques and a bazaar. Women move quietly through courtyards, pulling their kerchiefs tight against the wind from the Taklamakan Desert. Bearded men lead donkeys down the road.

Then a bus rattles around the corner, shaking sleepy Sangzhu to life. From the backseats of the rusty clunker comes the kind of feral scream that can only be produced by wild packs of teenage girls. They pound the windows and wave their hands with celebrity-stricken abandon, jostling for a better view. “Ablajan!” they yell as they roll by. “Ab-laaa-jaaan!”

Standing street-side in a studded leather jacket and shades, glancing down at his iPhone, is the object of their frenzy: Uighur pop star, and hometown hero, Ablajan Awut Ayup. He looks up at them, smiles a little sheepishly, and touches his hand to his heart. Then he turns to me and pops his collar with all the mock swagger he can muster. “The ladies,” he says in English, “they like my style.”

Ablajan, 30, is one of the hottest singers in China’s vast northwest. His catchy songs fuse the rhythms of Central Asia with the stylings of global pop—a sort of Sufi poetry-meets-Justin-Bieber vibe. On stage, he channels the theatricality of his childhood idol, Michael Jackson, and the tight choreography of K-pop. His first album, Shall We Start?, sold more than 100,000 copies, no small achievement in a limited market. Local businesses vie to endorse Ablajan, and his face graces billboards in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

For Uighur youth growing up amid marginalization and strife, Ablajan’s story is the stuff of legend. Born and raised in a mud-brick courtyard in one of China’s poorest and most isolated counties, unable to speak Chinese or English until his teens, and lacking training and connections in the music industry, Ablajan somehow made it. To his fans, he symbolizes the possibility of a life that is at once modern, successful and Uighur. He often gives free shows and, during performances, tells kids to study hard and get a good job. “The message is that this is the 21st century,” says Ablajan. “We cannot make a living buying and selling sheep.”

Now Ablajan wants to take his music east to the Chinese heartland. He sees his story as proof that there is more to Xinjiang than what you read in the news. He is right, of course, but Xinjiang is a region on edge, and conflict has a way of creeping in. When my Chinese colleague Gu Yongqiang and I returned to our hotel after visiting Ablajan’s childhood stomping grounds, the police were at the door. They thanked us for coming and asked us to be on our way. Said one cop: “It’s a sensitive time.”

China’s Outsiders

Unlike the country’s majority Han Chinese, Uighurs are of Turkic origin and mostly Muslim. As with Tibet, Xinjiang is historically a contested space, held by a series of Turkic, Mongol and Han empires, including the 18th century Qing Dynasty, which gave the region its current name, meaning “New Frontier.” In the 1930s, Uighur leaders in the ancient Silk Road entrepôt of Kashgar declared the first of two short-lived East Turkestan Republics.

When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into being, its troops marched into Xinjiang, followed by waves of military personnel and migrants to settle a territory three times the size of France. In 1949, the year the PRC was founded, Han Chinese accounted for roughly 6% of Xinjiang’s population; today the figure is about 45%. Uighurs say they are outsiders in their own land. While Beijing has brought development to Xinjiang, most of the new wealth is concentrated in Han hands. Many Uighurs want greater autonomy, some call for independence.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party views those demands as an existential threat. In recent years, any unrest has been met with ever escalating force by Beijing. In 2009, protests in Urumqi degenerated into clashes that claimed nearly 200 lives, both Han and Uighur. The authorities responded by detaining Uighurs and cutting off the Internet for nine months. They have since further curbed the teaching of the Uighur language in schools, banned under-18s from praying in mosques, and stopped civil servants and students from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. On Sept. 23, Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, a moderate activist, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism,” a charge many say was trumped up and a verdict many condemn as excessively harsh.

Such government action has radicalized some Uighurs. In October last year, a vehicle carrying three members of a Uighur family crashed through crowds of sightseers in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five, including the passengers. Some months later, eight knife-wielding assailants—whom the authorities called “Xinjiang separatists”—slaughtered 29 civilians at a railway station in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province. Two subsequent attacks by extremists in Urumqi killed dozens more and sparked what Beijing calls an anti-terror campaign that has resulted in mass trials, convictions and executions. On Sept. 22, state media said that blasts in Luntai County, which is about a day’s drive from Urumqi, killed at least two people and injured several others.

Security personnel in riot gear now blanket Xinjiang’s major cities, and towns like Sangzhu are increasingly sealed off by police checkpoints. Chinese security posters feature racist caricatures of Uighurs: scowling, bearded men with big hooked noses—reinforcing the perception many Han have of Uighurs as backward, dissolute and violent. It’s against this backdrop of suspicion and prejudice that Ablajan—and other young Uighurs—try to climb the economic ladder.

Rhythm and Blues

When we landed in Urumqi, two members of Ablajan’s crew, the improbably named Frank and Caesar, met us at the airport and led us to a black SUV. As Frank steered the beast through rush hour traffic, Caesar talked, in rapid-fire Uighur, English and Chinese, about competing as breakdancer in southern China, and lamented that the central government blocks sites like YouTube where you can listen to rap artists like his personal favorite, Notorious B.I.G., “may he rest in peace.”

Most of Ablajan’s dancers and aides are, like him, Uighur kids from the countryside who dreamed of making it big. They live between worlds, learning Chinese to survive, and English as a cultural lubricant, while still clinging to a language and tradition of their own.

Ablajan attended Uighur-language school and spent his evenings toiling beside his father in the fields, singing folk songs to pass the time. He looks back fondly on his youth. “Xinjiang used to be peaceful,” he says. “Then we lost the peace.”

At 14, Ablajan caught a glimpse of Michael Jackson on TV and, for the first time, imagined a life outside Sangzhu. “When I saw him, I was like, Oh my God,” he says. He started practicing the moonwalk and writing songs, and at 19 made the 32-hour bus journey to Urumqi to study dance.

The next six years were a struggle to make it as a musician, and a struggle with the reality of being poor and Uighur in an increasingly expensive, segregated city. He worked as a wedding singer and practiced English and Chinese. Eventually, he was befriended by another young Uighur musician who gave him a computer, his first, and a workspace in his studio. He spent his days writing music and his nights working Urumqi’s restaurant and wedding circuit.

One of his breakthrough hits, “Is There Space to Play?,” turns rural-urban migration into a metaphor for coming of age, according to Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies and translates Uighur music. The song opens with the sights and sounds of Xinjiang childhood: the call to prayer, distant mountains, a bleating goat. By midway, we’re in China’s pressure-cooker schools, where the bags of books are heavy. It ends in the city—skyscrapers and cars are everywhere. Where are the stars at night? Is there space to play?

Hot Ticket

Ablajan is a big star in a small place. When he walks down the street, there’s an endless stream of people waiting to shake hands. At a Chinese Muslim restaurant in Urumqi, two cooks rush out of the kitchen, aprons and, gloves still on, to wish him well: “Peace be upon you,” they say, using the pan-Islamic greeting. In the town of Hotan, a teenage taxi driver refuses to let him pay. “Just write some more love songs,” he says.

With success and celebrity comes perks that young Ablajan might not have imagined. He has enough to live on his own and to send money and gifts to his family. When he visits his hometown he takes a flight, not the grueling overnight bus. And Uighur girls from as far away as Europe and the U.S. send him messages on Instagram, his social network of choice. “So many beautiful ladies,” he says.

But Ablajan also faces obstacles. Many of his fans do not have the money to buy tickets for his shows, and organizing a concert requires multiple layers of state approval. There are technical issues too. For a late spring performance at a college in Urumqi, his team set up a stage on a basketball court and students carried in wooden chairs to form an ad-hoc auditorium. Police lined the perimeter to watch the crowd. When the music started — two hours late because of technical problems — Ablajan was electric. But the guy manning the spotlight from a Toyota pickup mid-court could not quite keep him illuminated.

After the show, the performers gathered in the school stairwell that served as their dressing room. The dancers greeted friends and basked in the post-show glow, but Ablajan held back, despondent about the delays and glitches. He worries about letting people down, he says, and feels the pressure of being a role model to an entire generation of Uighur kids. “I’m only a bad boy on stage,” he said.

When we met the next morning to catch a flight south, he looked beat. I had bought tickets for 8:00 a.m. not realizing that half the region ignores government-mandated “Beijing time” in favor of “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours earlier. It was actually 5:00 o’clock in the morning and Ablajan had been up all night, replaying the performance in his head. But by time we got to the airport, he was himself again, greeting fans and cracking jokes.

As we boarded the plane, Ablajan was humming the tune to a 2013 hit by Toronto-born rapper Drake: Started from the bottom and now we here / Started from the bottom now the whole team here.

The Politics of Music

Ablajan rarely talks politics, wary, no doubt, of jeopardizing his career. But on July 31, violent clashes erupted in a village outside Kashgar, leaving at least 100 dead, according to state media reports. (The cause of the violence and the death toll are still disputed.) When the authorities then canceled a long-planned concert in Urumqi, Ablajan could no longer hold back. His team spent nearly a month, and a whole lot of money, preparing for what was to be a display of ethnic unity performed in front of officials and broadcast to audiences. Police shut it down less than an hour from showtime. Ablajan posted a picture of himself on Instagram, with a caption that read like a cri de coeur: “My name is Ablajan! I am not a terrorist.”

Late last year, Ablajan released his first Chinese-language music video, “Today,” an MJ-inspired epic featuring a car chase and shots of his entourage dancing on rooftops and roads in Urumqi and Kashgar. The goal was to generate some excitement online for the Mandarin single, his first, giving him a foothold in the bigger, more lucrative Chinese-language market. His manager, Rui Wenbin—a Han Chinese born and raised in Urumqi and formerly of Xinjiang’s culture ministry—believes Ablajan’s music can help bridge the divide between the Uighur and Han worlds. Says Rui: “He can be a messenger of peace.”

It won’t be easy. On my last night in Xinjiang, Ablajan and I walk to a public square near the local government office. It’s a warm evening and many people are out, walking arm-in-arm or pushing strollers. On one side, a group of elderly Han women practices a synchronized dance. Nearby, clusters of young Uighurs listen to music. Before the clock strikes nine, however, the cops come out in golf-cart-size squad cars, sirens blaring. Everyone has to go home.

As we walk back, Ablajan talks about going to Kazakhstan in the fall. If he can scrape up the money, he’d love to see Beijing someday too. “I need proper equipment, a choreographer, costumes, but …” He pauses and searches for the right expression. “Mei banfa,” he says in Mandarin: No solution. “I mean, this is Xinjiang, man.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Sangzhu

TIME Canada

The Ottawa Attack ‘Changes Everything’ and Hopefully Nothing at All

Soldiers lock the gates at the John Weir Foote V.C. Armouries in Hamilton, Ontario, on Oct. 22, 2014, after a soldier believed to be from the base was killed in an attack in Ottawa Geoff Robins—AFP/Getty Images

The Canadian capital has been shaken by the unprecedented attack at the National War Memorial, and yet is already showing its resilience

It was Canadian humor. On Oct. 21, I emailed an old friend in Ottawa. After updates on life and work and weather, I asked about what was happening in the capital these days. I once worked for the local paper and have fond memories of the city. But as a Toronto native, I could never admit that. “What’s the mood?” I ventured. “Does Ottawa even have moods?” You see, Ottawa is so safe and nice that even Canadians joke about how safe and nice it is.

Not today. At around 10 a.m. local time on the morning of Oct. 22, the heart of the Canadian capital came under attack. A man with a rifle approached and shot and killed 24-year-old Nathan Cirillo, a reservist standing guard at the National War Memorial, a granite cenotaph that memorializes fallen soldiers.

From there, a male suspect, now identified as 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, seized control of a vehicle and drove to the nearby Parliament buildings. Set on rise above the Ottawa River, looking out on Quebec, the site is elegant, but exposed. The north of the complex is a grassy field, the site of group tours, Frisbee tosses and the occasional yoga class. The approach is open and welcoming. You can pretty much walk in.

When the gunman arrived, many members of Parliament (MPs), and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were gathered inside the Centre Block. Video shot by Josh Wingrove, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, shows police officers rushing in as shots ring through the building’s vaulted stone corridors. Politicians and journalists took cover in offices or under desks, live-tweeting the lockdown from their phones.

Though what happened next is still unclear, several top Canadian politicians reported that Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, a retired veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, took down the shooter, potentially saving lives. The position of the sergeant at arms is part security, part ceremony, and involves carrying a ceremonial mace into the House of Commons. Vickers is already being hailed as a hero, and a most Canadian one at that: he is described as competent, community-minded, kind.

Outside the Gothic towers, police shut down swaths of the city’s core, and security personnel appeared on rooftops. By the standards of world capitals, Ottawa is very, very safe. When I worked as a journalist at the Ottawa Citizen, I covered more barn fires and county fairs more than murders (there were just nine homicides in 2013). There could have been panic. But footage from the scene shows police officers calmly asking commuters to take cover. Out of habit, they use “please.”

Local authorities released the name of the victim and a suspect, but did not speculate on motives just yet. The press, for the most part, was careful not to jump to conclusions in the hours after the gunfire, noting only that this was the second time in three days that members of Canadian security forces were targeted. (On Oct 20 an assailant ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing on of them; it is being investigated as a potential terrorist attack.)

Across the border, media critics took note of the nonhysterical, fact-based live broadcasts. “Canada’s CBC News Shows What Thoughtful Breaking News Coverage Really Looks Like,” read one headline. “The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation today gave a master class in calm, credible breaking news reporting,” observed a piece from Mother Jones.

For all its calm and restraint, Ottawa is clearly, and understandably, shaken. In an interview with the Canadian Press newswire, MP John McKay, who was on Parliament Hill during the attacks, said he could not even contemplate what came next. “This changes everything,” he said.

Everything, yes, and hopefully, nothing at all. For those affected and their families, all is different, darker. In the weeks and months to come, the country and the city will face questions about security. Questions about motive. There will be pointed fingers, grief and fear.

But already, the city is showing its best self. People are sending words of support to the victim’s family, praising the sergeant at arms, trying not to think, or say, the worst. Within hours, in tweets that would melt any Canadian’s heart, was the type of news that lets you know that good old Ottawa will be just fine: Minor hockey games are canceled. The Toronto Maple Leaf–Ottawa Senator showdown is delayed, for now.

When the smoke clears, they will play the game — and, hey, the Senators might actually win. Our capital, our lovely capital, lives to laugh another day.

TIME China

Risen Again: China’s Underground Churches

Millions find their faith, away from the prying eyes of the state

The pastor places a palm on the man’s head. As he closes his eyes, gentle hands tilt the man backward, below the surface, then guide him up. He emerges cleansed of sin and spiritually committed to Jesus Christ.

It’s a scene that plays out every Sunday, somewhere. This time the rite took place below a makeshift altar, in an unmarked building, on the outskirts of Beijing. When the man rose from the makeshift baptismal tub he joined a community tens of millions strong and growing by the year: Chinese Christians.

Though Christianity has deep roots in China — it dates as far back as the 7th century — it is hard, in the present day, to get a clear picture of the community. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is wary of organized religion, and has alternately tried to crush, discourage, or co-opt Christian groups. But having survived the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, the faith is now flourishing: a 2010 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated there are 23 million Christians in China. In 2011, Pew Research put the figure closer to 67 million, or 5% of the population.

The numbers mask great variety — so much so that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what “Chinese Christian” means. Consider the country’s Catholics: the Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, and the Pope is not welcome on Chinese soil. Yet Pew estimates there are 10 million Catholics in China. Of these, just over half are affiliated with the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not recognize the Vatican. Millions of others worship in secret churches.

So it is with Protestants. The government-approved Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement is 23 million strong, according to Pew, while as many 35 million others are unregistered, practicing their faith in underground or “house” churches. But the line between “permitted” and “forbidden” is always shifting. The southern city of Wenzhou, known as China’s Jerusalem, was last spring rocked by the destruction of ostensibly state-approved spires. Elsewhere, underground churches thrive in plain sight.

It was this ambiguity that drew photographer Kevin Frayer to an unmarked church outside Beijing on Sunday, Oct. 12. The people there worship quietly, but not covertly. The authorities know they exist, but seem content, for now, to look the other way. “Christianity is tolerated sometimes, to some extent,” says Frayer, “as long as it is controlled and behind closed doors.”

Though CCP cadres remain suspicious of what they consider “Western” dogma, their biggest fear is not the doctrine itself, but its popularity — they worry that Christianity could grow more popular than the party. At the church outside Beijing, at least, the service was steeped in the rituals of worship, not the language of politics. A Chinese flag hanging near the pulpit was the only reference to the state.

After sharing a snack of fried bread and cabbage, about 80 men and women gathered for the service. There was prayer and song and sleeping babies. A woman wept. “It was very emotional,” Frayer says.

When he lived in Jerusalem, Frayer witnessed baptisms in the Jordan River. This time, it was a wooden tub — different, but just as deeply felt.

TIME Hong Kong

The Voice of a Generation

Joshua Wong and his fellow students have triggered a youthquake that’s shaking up Hong Kong

Photograph by James Nachtwey for TIME

Joshua Wong does not want to grow up. He’s a Hong Kong kid and that’s why, just before midnight on Oct. 6, he and his girlfriend (and his girlfriend’s friend, because teenagers travel in packs) have ducked into a barbecue joint in the working-class neighborhood of Mongkok to feast on grilled scallions, roasted pineapple and Chinese egg noodles bathed in cheese and garlic—a classic Hong Kong fusion dish. Wong, who turns 18 this month, sucks down the pasta with one hand and checks his smartphone with the other. Slurp, swipe, slurp, swipe.

The clatter of Cantonese rattles around the restaurant. An overhead TV displays images of the student-led protest movement that has occupied key commercial districts of Hong Kong, highlighting the dilemma of a hybrid city reared on democratic ideals but ruled by an authoritarian China. No one in the eatery, though, pays much attention to the news. This kind of place—fluorescent-lit, Formica-clad, Hong Kong soul food of the cheesiest, noodliest variety—is why Wong, one of the organizers of the protest campaign, says he will never leave his home city, why he, like Peter Pan, never wants to become that most disdainful of species: an adult. “The future will not be decided by adults,” says Wong. “I would like to ask adults, people with capital and power, Why are they not fighting for democracy?”

(PHOTOS: A New Generation Speaks: See Inside Hong Kong’s Protests)

If Wong is wary of adulthood, his beloved home, Hong Kong, is also suspended in adolescence. The city may be the financial heart of the world’s most dynamic region, a collection of 7.2 million people for whom pragmatism and efficiency are a guiding faith. But since its inception as a tiny fishing port plundered by the British from the enfeebled Qing dynasty in the mid–19th century, to the colony’s hand­over back to China in 1997, Hong Kong has never been permitted political maturity. It was always a pawn of empire.

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, the former Crown Colony was given a 50-year adjustment period to mainland rule. The “one country, two systems” policy guaranteed the territory a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing on most everything but security matters. In 33 years’ time, though, the city will revert to full Chinese governance. Little Hong Kong will be forced to grow up and merge with the masses.

The trajectory toward 2047 is particularly troubling for Hong Kong youth, who will inherit this new political reality. Already, many locals worry that China’s communist rulers are eroding the freedoms—like an independent judiciary and an open press—that differentiate the city from the rest of China. Beijing’s recently announced plan to prevent Hong Kong from freely electing its chief executive galvanized the first batch of protesters who crowded the city’s downtown in late September. But it was the overreaction to this display of civil disobedience—sprays of tear gas from the police and outright thuggery from elements of Hong Kong’s underworld—that led tens of thousands to occupy more streets, a spontaneous, sympathetic outpouring no one, least of all Wong, expected. Umbrellas, unfurled by students against the pepper spray, turned into the movement’s symbol. Hong Kong’s very public struggle now ranks as China’s most consequential protest since the 1989 pro-democracy rallies were crushed at Tiananmen—and young Hong Kong residents have provided the crusade with both its population and its passion.

The student-led siege of prime Hong Kong property is not going to suddenly transform the territory into a full-fledged democracy—certainly not if the Chinese Communist Party remains in power on the mainland. As a government ultimatum to clear the streets expired without incident on Oct. 6, the urge for solidarity against the authorities faded; protest numbers have waned. Nevertheless, the events of the past few weeks have awakened a political consciousness that few, even in the city itself, knew they possessed. Their idealism, not to mention their organizational acumen and communal spirit, is exactly what threatens China’s rulers, who, from the heady days of Tiananmen and further back in the country’s history, know well the transformative potential of students on the streets.

Teen Icon

It was past 1 a.m. on Oct. 2, and the throngs gathered outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters in Admiralty district were starting to dissipate. Protesters had spent days camped on an overpass, sleeping curled around their backpacks, subsisting on crackers and KFC. Throughout the campaign, some had been pepper-sprayed and soaked by rain. The air was growing thick again, and restlessness had set in.

As a light mist fell, word spread: Joshua Wong—who on Sept. 26 was arrested for trespassing and spent 46 hours in detention for the students’ initial occupation—was about to speak. Many in the crowd raised their phones to capture the moment. With his bowl-cut bangs, sparse stubble and thick-framed spectacles, Wong looks like any other nerdy kid in a society where nearly half of youngsters wear glasses. His delivery at the makeshift podium set in the shelter of a pedestrian bridge came in confident, quick-fire Cantonese. The fight for full democracy is not over, he told protesters. “Stay,” he said. They did.

Off the podium, Wong is polite, prone to bringing his hands together in a penitent clasp. He was raised in a Christian family that dispatched him to rural China for volunteer teaching; some of his fellow student activists are friends from church. In 2011, when he was just 14 years old, Wong formed a group of students in Hong Kong called Scholarism to stop the territory from implementing a mainland-designed “national education” policy that ignored the Tiananmen massacre and pushed fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. After 100,000 people joined his 2012 street rally, the Hong Kong government backed off.

Wong had taken on Hong Kong’s bosses in Beijing—and notched a rare victory. Local celebrity followed, with breaking-news reports on his (mediocre) college-entrance examination results. Despite the attention usually reserved for Canto-pop heartthrobs, Wong lacks physical presence. His shoulders are hunched in the kind of phone-tethered posture that annoys mothers everywhere. Yet his rhetoric, often delivered with eyes squeezed shut, is unequivocal. “I don’t want to follow the games of adults,” he says, “handing out business cards that you’ll just put in the rubbish bin, chit-chat. Political reform is not going to come from going to meetings … We had to do radical action because our leaders did nothing.”

Wong has a girlfriend named Tiffany and thumbs picked raw from stress. He wishes he had more time to play mobile-phone games and displays no overriding affection for any particular book. Despite the command his speeches claim over the protesters, Wong says he has no wish to serve as an icon and is still shocked that his arrest last month galvanized so many to join the cause. He doesn’t have any heroes himself, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Wang Dan, the Beijing university student whose leadership of the Tiananmen pro-democracy struggle made him “enemy No. 1” to the Chinese government. To Wong, the leaderless nature of the territory’s democracy movement is a strength, not a weakness. “If Hong Kong just relies on me,” he says, “the movement will fail.”

Generation Gap

Compared with their peers in mainland China, Hong Kong’s youth are wealthier, healthier and have access to social media like Facebook and Twitter that are blocked by Chinese censors. Wong is often asked if his parents are activists; they are not. There’s an assumption there must be something unusual about his upbringing, beyond his Protestant faith, that makes him care. “People think that every night we were talking about how the government was violating democratic principles,” he says. “[My parents] just gave me the freedom to do what I want.”

Such liberty in China is unique to Hong Kong, and the city’s prospects depend on the whims of a Communist Party led by a President, Xi Jinping, who has shown little tolerance for dissent. Even the local economy is not immune to jitters about the future, especially as worries proliferate that Hong Kong’s reputation for clean governance is being compromised by Communist Party politics. Hong Kong has long thrived as a conduit for foreign investors to China, but growth is slowing, chiefly because of sliding exports. “If Hong Kong is so obviously becoming just another mainland city, why not set up one’s regional headquarters in Beijing or Shanghai?” asks Carsten Holz, an economics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Income inequality has surged since 1997 and now ranks as the highest in the developed world. The fertility rate is so low that the local population cannot sustain itself. Instead, an influx of mainland Chinese—40.7 million visited last year—has brought with it a flood of new wealth that has made Hong Kong’s homes the least affordable in the world, yet also the smallest, according to one housing survey. “We don’t see good prospects for our future,” says Katie Lo, 21, a university student.

Proud of their heritage—the Cantonese language instead of the Mandarin spoken on the mainland, for instance—locals fear a cultural and economic invasion from the north. “Stand on Canton Road,” frets legislator Claudia Mo, speaking of a major Hong Kong thoroughfare, “and you’ll hardly hear any Cantonese.” Mandarin has eclipsed English as the city’s second language. For her own part, Mo speaks very upper-class British English. She comes from a coastal mainland Chinese family that fled the communists and came to Hong Kong. But like many of her peers, she identifies as a Hong Konger first, global citizen second and a resident of the People’s Republic a distant third.

There’s plenty of chauvinism toward mainlanders in Hong Kong. A nasty local phrase labels them “locusts.” For all the hope that Hong Kong’s struggle might catalyze a similar awakening in the rest of China, where dissent usually earns activists jail terms, many Hong Kong students’ concerns are locally cocooned. “Hong Kong people want to protect our freedoms,” says Hiu Wah, a 19-year-old early-childhood education student. “I am not interested in changing Chinese politics.”

While Britain extended rule of law to its colony, it kept the populace all but disenfranchised. Since the 1997 handover, China has provided the territory with a string of proxies for its chief executive, the latest being the widely unpopular Leung Chun-ying. Hong Kong still boasts competent civil servants and veteran democracy legislators, with their crisp British accents and posh overseas degrees. But the youth at the barricades defending the protest sites wonder what all that conventional activism has done to change Hong Kong’s political predicament. “People always say to me, ‘Oh, if you want to change the world, first you need to go to university, then work as a government administrator or a businessman, then you can make policies,’” says Wong. “No, to affect the world, you go to the streets.”


Movements need great men and women, and practical ones too. Already the protests have lost momentum, as the crowds thin. By the night of Oct. 7, no more than a couple thousand people milled around the main occupied zone in Admiralty district, well below the tens of thousands days earlier. So much energy has gone into figuring out how to get the protesters off the streets—endless talk about talking with the government, in addition to the actual talking—rather than figuring out how to turn this movement into practical policy that Beijing might consider. The protest leaders have declined to invite opposition politicians, who are well practiced at negotiating with the central government, into their movement. The same organizational and factional dysfunction that has beset protest movements around the world may undercut the Hong Kong campaign too. “They want to do it on their own,” says Emily Lau, head of the Democratic Party. “But why alienate pan-democrat legislators? Our goals are the same.”

Even for Hong Kong residents who support the students’ ideals, the lengthy shutdown of major roads and neighborhoods is a significant inconvenience. Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor who pointedly carried an umbrella to an official ceremony marking China’s National Day on Oct. 1, says it’s time to withdraw. “You’ve given people a voice,” he says, “now you give them the street back.”

Wong isn’t bothered. “You need to create the rules yourself,” he says. “Students have more time, more energy, so they should stand on the front lines.” Whenever Wong is spotted shuffling through any of the protest sites, he’s mobbed by dozens of news cameras and fans requesting snapshots with him. Hollywood actors might be used to the attention, but Wong is a student who, as he likes to point out, attends the ninth-ranked of nine universities in Hong Kong. (He is studying politics and public administration.) The attention, all those demands to explain his political philosophy and smile for selfies, is exhausting.

No wonder Wong is sometimes most comfortable going underground, literally. As he hops onto the subway, almost no one recognizes him. He’s just another teenager, swaying as the train tunnels under Hong Kong’s harbor, updating his Facebook page and WhatsApping madly. Three friends, also in Scholarism, stand next to him, absorbed in their own online lives. Barely a few seconds go by without frantic swiping. “Taking action is more meaningful than words,” says Wong. He dismisses planned negotiations with the authorities as “just an opportunity to show our anger to the government.” Inevitably, his head soon bends over his phone again, just a lone Hong Kong kid connecting with the world.

With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Rishi Iyengar, Nash Jenkins and David Stout / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Chief Executive Refuses to Resign, but Agrees to Talks

Announcement is unlikely to please protesters

Updated 7:18 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. ET

With his office surrounded by student protesters, Hong Kong’s embattled, Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, said late Thursday night, local time, that he would not resign as chief executive, but offered students the chance to meet with another official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam. He said the dialogue must be based on the Basic Law and framework of the National People’s Congress — effectively a nod to Beijing.

The announcement, which seems unlikely to please protesters, was made just before midnight as police and pro-democracy demonstrators were locked in a tense standoff outside government headquarters. Earlier in the evening uniformed police officers carried what looked to be riot gear into the walled compound. Protesters responded by calling more people to the scene, setting the stage for a long, tense night.

The mood in Hong Kong remained as delicate as it has been since the night of Sept. 28, when riot police fired tear gas into a crowd of pro-democracy demonstrators rallying in the heart of the city. Photographs from the scene showed people in makeshift protective gear — swimming goggles, plastic wrap and raincoats — using umbrellas to shield themselves from the smoke. The images spread quickly, fueling outrage over the use of force. And the “Umbrella Revolution” was born.

The police withdrew as tens of thousands of Hong Kong people took to the streets, shutting down major thoroughfares from the financial district on Hong Kong Island to densely packed neighborhoods across the harbor, in Kowloon. For three days and nights, these sites became parallel cities. People slept on the pavement, hung banners and sang songs. They called for the resignation of Leung, and full democracy. To some, it felt like victory.

But on Oct. 2, the mood changed. A front-page commentary in a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, suggested the central government was in no mood to compromise. “The actions of “Occupy Central” have flagrantly violated the laws and regulations of Hong Kong, severely obstructed traffic and disrupted social order,” it reads. “If matters are not dealt with according to the law, Hong Kong society will fall into chaos.”

At the same time, movement organizers gave the government an ultimatum: Leung Chun-ying goes, or we escalate. Some planned to block access to Leung’s office Friday morning to force the head of Hong Kong’s government to come out to face the crowd.

After Leung’s press conference, the scene outside the Chief Executive’s Office was tense, but there was no violence. To the south, in the shadow of the People’s Liberation Army’s headquarters, stood dozens of police officers. To the north, closer to the harbor, were thousands of demonstrators. The crowd swelled out into the road, spurring repeated warnings from the police.

At 1 a.m., student leader Joshua Wong urged calm. He said the students must put safety first, and should be patient. Soon after, Occupy Central With Love and Peace (OCLP), one of the groups involved in the demonstrations, issued a statement: “OCLP hopes the talks can provide a turning point in the current political stalemate,” it reads. “We will fully support the students in the process.”

As of 7 a.m., Leung’s office remained surrounded by several hundred protesters. Thousands more were camped out on nearby roads. What comes next? “We’ve discussed it all night,” said a woman surnamed Tsui. “But we still don’t know what to do.”

One demonstrator, Mart Kwok, 28, said the protests should be widened. “We should get more people to support us, not just students, but more workers. More strikes. If we get larger, we can’t be ignored.”

Despite the tense atmosphere at the barricades, dedication remains high. Woody Yip, 23, told TIME that she quit her job because of the protests. “I have given up my job. I know that this will be a long time and I can’t leave this.”

Added Fiona Chau, a 20-year-old student, “I think most of us are frightened, but we are doing the right thing. So we can’t be scared.”

— With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Rishi Iyengar and David Stout / Hong Kong

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Shows Beijing Exactly What Democracy Can Look Like

Protesters block a street near government headquarters in Hong Kong
Peaceful protesters block a street near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Sept 30, 2014 Carlos Barria—Reuters

Peaceful Occupy protests are showing the Chinese government that Hong Kong is no insolent child that needs protecting from itself

The Chinese Communist Party insists Hong Kong is not ready for democracy. Beijing announced late last month that if Hong Kong residents want to select their next leader, in 2017, they must choose from a list of candidates essentially vetted by the party. Mainland Chinese officials and academics liken Hong Kong to an insolent child, and the central government to a wise mother. Don’t act out, they warn, or chaos will follow.

Hong Kong people are proving them wrong. On the night of Sept. 29 and the morning of Sept. 30, just 24 hours after demonstrators here were hit with round after round of pepper spray and tear gas, tens of thousands of Hong Kong people took to the streets in a historic act of protest. As local police withdrew, the swelling crowd hung banners and blocked roadways on both Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side. It could have been a night of violence; peace held.

What happened in Hong Kong that night was nothing short of amazing — the embodiment of civil society. Streams of people occupied the very heart of the city, from the financial district to government offices in Admiralty, to a key intersection across the storied harbor in Kowloon. They moved slowly and carefully through the packed concrete corridors, mindful of the people around them, eager to lend a hand.

In just a week, Hong Kong’s student-led class boycott has morphed into a social movement. The goal is the resignation of the city’s top leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and a free election in 2017. Though many Hong Kong people were, or are, wary of pushing too hard, too fast, support is spreading as it becomes clear that the people on the street are committed to protecting the city and each other.

Late on the night of Sept. 29, on a packed subway car heading east from Central District to the shopping mecca of Causeway Bay, sweat-soaked demonstrators make way for ordinary people on their way home. When an elderly woman with a walking cane entered, several stood to offer their seats. She smiled at them, but refused to sit in their place: “You students need the rest,” she said.

The crowd is mostly but not entirely young, and represents many parts city’s social fabric. High school students in crisp white uniforms deliberate homework on the ground. Local business owners donate food. When a group representing the city’s ethnic minorities arrived at government offices, the crowd roared. “We Are Hong Kong, We Stand United,” their sign read.

Volunteers ferry basic necessities to the front and set up support stations. “Do you need a mask?” they ask. “We have biscuits!” People arrive with plastic shopping bags full of granola bars. There are reserves of toilet paper and bandages. Just before 3 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 30, a polite young man offers water. I decline. “We have sparkling too!” he grins.

As the night wears on, atmosphere is tinged by rumors that the police are on their way, that a crackdown is imminent. They are not sure why the police changed tactics and wonder when the authorities will once again resort to batons or tear gas. Some are wary of speaking to the press or being photographed, certain that officials are watching and plotting retribution.

The big unknown, of course, is what local authorities, and their backers in Beijing, will do. In a city that each year marks the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, people are all too aware of the worst-case scenario: brutal suppression by the central government. Will Beijing show they are listening and give ground? Will they send the People’s Liberation Army to crush the rally?

The ruling party is no doubt weighing its options. On the Chinese mainland, where the Internet is censored and local media are tightly controlled, they could try to stop the news from spreading, to purge scenes of mass protest from the front pages. They could try to cast the crowds in Hong Kong as self-destructive teenagers, to argue that it’s time for bed.

But that won’t fly in Hong Kong, where the press is largely free, and the camera-wielding crowd is documenting their every move. However this ends, it is their posts, pictures and videos that will make history.

It is a history the city can be proud of. Where there might have been discord and violence, cooperation and camaraderie reigned. A lesson for Beijing.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Braces Itself for Another Night of Pro-Democracy Protests

Demonstrations have grown at a speed that seems to have surprised protesters and authorities alike

As the sun rose Monday morning, dispelling the clouds of tear gas, one of the world’s great cities found itself in partial lockdown.

Hong Kong’s normally gridlocked thoroughfares became deserted concrete canyons as pro-democracy demonstrators continued their occupation of the Admiralty and Causeway Bay districts on Hong Kong Island, and of a key intersection in Kowloon — on the other side of a world-famous harbor that glittered in the sun of early fall.

With a speed that seemed to surprise protesters and government alike, what started six days ago as a student-led class boycott has now become a full-scale showdown between tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and the police.

Many of those protesters are part of the Occupy Central movement — a group naming itself after its goal of shutting down the city’s main business area. The name is now obsolete: as protest sites spread and more people join, Occupy Central has become Occupy Hong Kong.

“We have been waiting for so many years,” said one protester, Raymond Chow, 45. “And now that we’ve started, we will not stop.”

On Monday morning at the upper reaches of Nathan Road — Kowloon’s main artery — all traffic had halted. Buses and cars stood where their drivers had abandoned them the previous evening. Dozens of black-clad students and other protesters lay sprawled across the road listening to speeches.

A young girl moved through the crowd offering breakfasts of bread rolls while a human chain formed to move bottles of water, donated by the public, from a collection point two blocks away, right up to the front line.

Last night’s barricades still stretched across the road and, eerily, not a single police officer could be seen. One of the world’s busiest shopping quarters had completely fallen to the forces of democratic revolution.

That is exactly what Beijing fears. Oct. 1 marks the 65th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and 65 years of Chinese Communist Party rule. In the CCP’s narrative, Hong Kong has been assigned the role of prodigal city: seized at gunpoint by rapacious opium traders, and subject to British rule for 156 years, before being returned to the fulsome embrace of Chinese sovereignty.

Or so the story is meant to go. Instead, since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, its people have been singularly truculent, disagreeing with their new overlords over everything from national-security legislation to school curricula and the pace of political reform.

The latest protests erupted when Beijing rejected demands — shared by many in this sophisticated and highly educated community — that Hong Kong’s highest officeholder, the Chief Executive, be directly elected from candidates nominated by the city’s 3.5 million eligible voters and not chosen by an election committee composed of oligarchs and pro-Beijing figures.

In retrospect, Beijing may come to regret its decision to refuse its most cosmopolitan city even this modicum of democracy. By late Sunday, what had been a largely peaceful face-off degenerated into scenes of violence, as the police fired successive rounds of tear gas into crowds gathering along Connaught Road by City Hall, right in the seat of the city’s power. Tear-gas canisters bounced off the walls of the exclusive Hong Kong Club as defiant protesters faced riot police.

In Causeway Bay, home to some of the world’s most expensive retail premises, thousands of others waited long into the night. As volunteers distributed water and crackers, young people talked politics and watched for updates on their phones. “We are fighting for a fair democracy and supporting our students,” said Kusa Yeung, a 24-year-old copywriter, handing water to exhausted peers. “We are not afraid of the Chinese government.”

Protesters were still on the streets this morning, and their numbers have been building steadily throughout the day. By Monday afternoon, thousands were swarming along Queensway, home to government offices and the city’s High Court, ready for another night of confrontation with the police.

“The police were very harsh yesterday, that’s why I’m here,” arts student Lillian Chung, who took part in the Nathan Road occupation, told TIME.

If the police repeat last night’s tear-gassing and pepper spraying, there could be many more Hong Kongers on the streets tomorrow.

— With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Charlie Campbell, Liam Fitzpatrick, Rishi Iyengar and David Stout / Hong Kong

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

TIME China

Uighur Academic’s Daughter Faces Lonely Road After His Life Sentence on Separatism Charges

Ilham Tohti
Ilham Tohti Andy Wong—AP

It was supposed to be an adventure. It was Feb. 2, 2013, and Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-based professor and writer, and his 18-year-old daughter, Jewher Ilham, were on their way from China to the United States. He was to start a year-long residency at Indiana University, she was tagging along to help him settle in. They got to the airport, checked their bags, and made their way through the gleaming terminal. But at immigration, they were stopped.

Security personnel took them to a small room where they sat for several hours. Eventually, they informed them that Ilham Tohti could not leave. Jewher, then 18, was put on a flight to Chicago. She landed in the U.S. alone, with no money and only rudimentary English. “I was so afraid,” she says.”I did not know what to do.”

So began the journey of Jewher Ilham. With the help of a family friend, she made her way safely to Indiana. But she has not seen her father since the airport. And she may never see him again.

On the morning of Sept. 23, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism. He is a leading advocate for the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority that has long bristled under Beijing’s rule. His brutal detention, closed-door trial and harsh sentence are yet more signs that when it comes to certain issues, the ruling Chinese Communist Party will tolerate zero dissent.

Ilham Tohti’s case comes at a time when his native Xinjiang is experiencing a rise in violence. The Chinese government says the upheaval in its far northwestern territory, home to the Uighurs and other minority groups, is the work of extremists with links to foreign terror. Though Tohti often wrote about his desire for inter-ethnic harmony, officials have linked him to the recent unrest. “Tohti encouraged fellow [Uighurs] to use violence,” reported Xinhua, a state-backed newswire. They also faulted him for “making domestic issues international.”

Rights groups say the charges are trumped-up and the conviction amounts to political scapegoating. “Ilham was only exercising his right to free expression, for which he should not be imprisoned” read a statement from China Human Rights Defenders, an NGO. “The government is trying to lay blame on him for recent violent incidents and divert attention from its own policy failures that have contributed to rising ethnic tensions.”

Jewher Ilham has always maintained her father’s innocence, and from her new base in Bloomington, Indiana, she has done what she can to clear his name. When she first arrived in the U.S., her father’s friend and colleague, Elliot Sperling, helped get her into English classes. At first, she was unable to communicate in English, and Sperling served as a round-the-clock Chinese-to-English translator. In April 2014, just over a year into Ilham’s studies, she testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. She spoke about their fateful trip to the airport, her father’s detention and torture, and the hardships faced by her brothers and stepmother back home. A month later, she accepted the PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on her father’s behalf.

“I had never imagined that I would be in such a situation; I never thought that one day my father would be imprisoned in Xinjiang and I would be on the other side of the world, trying my best to speak for him,” Ilham said.

But speak she did, beautifully: “My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of Uyghur of Xinjiang: words, spoken, written, distributed and posted,” she said. “This is all that he has ever had at his disposal, and all he has ever needed. And this is what China finds so threatening.”

When I interviewed Jewher in August she seemed determined, but tired. She said she started each day by typing her dad’s name into Google, searching for news about his case. “I hate the feeling that I have to learn information about my father on the Internet,” Jewher said. She often gets early morning calls from journalists—appreciated but tough to balance with mid-term exams.

I did not have the heart to call this morning, the day her father was sentenced to life. But I will be thinking of her. She is young and brave, but so very far from home.

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