Alex Lee has embarked on a cross-country bike trip — beginning in Los Angeles, California, and headed to Boston, Massachusetts — in hopes of inspiring the next generation of pro-democracy advocates in China.
He is spreading his message in the U.S., Lee noted, because the free press is likely to report on his journey, and there are many Chinese people in America. He also wants to show Americans there are Chinese people like him who do not stand with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he said.
Lee, 36, grew up in a small coastal city near Beijing, with limited free access to information in China. At the age of 24, he found a chat room where discussions were unfiltered.
Arguing with people abroad, he defended with patriotic fervor the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) until, he said, he dove deeper into its history and found a different story than what he was taught.
"Liberals and conservatives were arguing with each other every day," Lee said about what he was witnessing online when he used the platform from 2009 to 2010.
"Like current Americans," he added, referring to heated political debates.
He studied sociology in Japan in 2016, but three years later, left for Hong Kong to join the pro-democracy protests and to make public speeches because it was less restrictive than in mainland China, he said.
"I thought, as a sociologist, that I knew I could do something for the protest because we support democracy and freedom," he said.
On the 100-year anniversary of the CCP this month, VOA reported similar disappointments among people from Hong Kong. While university students in the 1990s were inspired to run for public office, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese authority in 1997 after British rule since 1839. Pro-democracy advocates say open representation in government has become a distant dream.
Students on front lines
Student involvement in protests had grown dramatically until last year when a controversial national security law significantly curtailed democratic freedoms, critics said.
"Young people were wearing masks before COVID to conceal their identity and gave pseudonyms," shared Paul Greaney, who attended Fudan University in Shanghai and reported on the student protests in Hong Kong in 2019 for NTD Television.
"Everyone on the front lines were young people, and the majority of them were educated and very intelligent," he said.
Social media — like the Telegram app — were key to communicating protests, explained Greaney, as students and young people pushed back on authoritarian rule.
"Many older people I spoke with supported the young people because they couldn't go to the front lines," said Greaney. "They were really brave, they were prepared to get arrested, but still went there."
The crackdown has been met with resistance. This week, nine people were arrested on suspected terrorism charges, the youngest being 15 years old.
VOA reported in January that under a recent national security law, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, 24, was charged with subversion.
And in Chinese-occupied Tibet, three Tibetan teenagers went missing and another was hospitalized with two broken legs after reportedly failing to register a WeChat text group chat with local authorities, according to a Tibetan advocacy group. China has occupied Tibet and imposed pro-China authoritarian rule since 1950.
Fear of speaking out
"During the height of the protests, there was definitely a lot of student activity on social media about the protests," according to an international student from Hong Kong attending New York University in New York City, requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation.
"Some people were worried about posting, especially since in China, people are aware of phone surveillance, but a lot did post. Majority that I had seen were in support of Hong Kong, but some students with wealthier families whose parents benefit from China's involvement did post pro-China content," this person said.
Being an international student, this person said it was difficult to discuss the protests with other students who might report them to the CCP.
"While I do think some people are aware that there's something going on in Hong Kong, I don't think a lot of people really know the intensity of the situation and the reasons behind the protests," the international student said about American awareness of politics in Asia.
When last in Hong Kong in 2019 before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the student reported having great difficulty getting around the city.
"I was staying by the waterfront in Wan Chai, one of the main sites for the protests, and the roads were blocked, police were everywhere and sometimes it was difficult to access the subway, get taxis, and to access certain major areas of the city. I haven't been back since, so I'm not sure if that's still the case."
Not an easy ride
Lee, most recently in the Mojave Desert that stretches across California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona in the Southwest U.S., said he nearly perished in the 110-degree heat as he pushed his bike along sandy streets that made riding impossible.
But he said he intends to persevere after being helped along the way by average Americans.
"Idealists are people who still have the courage and faith to pursue the light in the dark night," he texted.
"I'm not the first person to cross America from coast to coast, but I might be the first person to do that in order to support Hong Kong protests and democracy."