For these Hongkongers this is a battle of freedom versus authoritarian rule.
All over Hong Kong young people leave their homes, some of them making up lies to their parents about where they are going.
They duck into side streets and change into black T-shirts as they rush to join the frontline.
“Please don’t show my face. I told my mum I was going out for dinner!” yells one young man as he changes his shirt.
In many ways, Hong Kong resembles a city in open rebellion.
What started as a protest against a proposed new law, which would see people extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China to face Beijing-style justice, has now turned into a battle for the future of Hong Kong.
These are the “frontliners” in the democracy movement and they’re backed by a brigade of self-organised medics, scouts, fire teams and supply runners.
They’ve formed a formidable force that communicates and organises through the use of encrypted apps and spontaneous street huddles.
‘It’s about my future’
Twenty-four-year-old “Tom” spends his days in a suit working as an engineer on Hong Kong island, but at night he dresses in black and joins the frontline, facing off directly with police.
Like most frontliners, Tom covers his face to hide his identity and carries supplies in a backpack. He packs spare clothes so he can quickly change in side streets when he’s running from the elite police Raptor unit.
“That’s the most scary thing to do, because you’re very afraid of meeting a cop on the street when you’re going back home with a backpack full of the equipment,” he told Four Corners.
On the ground, decisions need to be made quickly, so frontliners often stage quick group meetings under the cover of umbrellas to work out which locations they should target next.
They’re armed with lasers to distract police and cable ties to secure barricades when they block roads.
Protesters shine a laser beam at police during a protest earlier this month. (AP: Vincent Thian)
Pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung says it’s brilliant that the protesters have been able to work together.
“We’ve seen the crowd exercising democracy in their own ways. In the streets, there are many situations that I was there observing and watching them making these decisions as to whether they would stay or leave, which other places they would go if they wanted to leave,” he said.
“A lot of it is through discussions and voting on the spot.
“It opens up a new version of how social campaigns or movements can take place in the rest of the world.”
Tom sometimes gets his father to pick him up when he’s finished on the frontline, but he says he has mixed feelings about his son’s involvement in the movement.
“But he also understands that what I’m fighting for. It’s worth it, because it’s about the future of my next generation as well. So every time I go out he reminds me to be safe in kind of subtle way,” he said.
‘I would rather die’
“Gotham” has joined the democracy protests but his parents, who were born in mainland China, don’t support his decision.
“I think my parents are like scientists in the Galileo era [who] believed that the Earth was flat,” he said.
“Those people have fallen asleep, you can’t wake them up. If you discuss with them, they become more angry.”
Gotham sees no future for Hong Kong once it falls completely under Chinese rule.
“It is suffocating to live under the Communist Party’s rule. Living in a place with no freedom and no rights, including human rights, I think frankly I would rather die,” he said.
‘Trying to save lives’
There are hundreds of volunteer medics supporting the movement.
“Harry”, an anaesthetist who obtained his medical degree in Australia, has been treating wounded protesters.
“Some like me come out to be on the first-aid team, some are supporting the movement by donating materials and equipment for the protest,” he said.
“I don’t want anyone to die doing this protest. So, that’s why I’m here. To try to save as many lives as I can.”
A leaderless movement
There is no central leader in the protest movement — a deliberate decision so as not to create a target for the Government.
Instead they use online forums and encrypted apps like Telegram to communicate and vote on ideas for tactics and target locations.
They also post warnings about locations where riot police or tear gas have been deployed.
Earlier this month, Telegram users voted 79 per cent in favour of swarming Hong Kong’s airport terminals.
Later, the airport protests turned violent when protesters captured and beat one man they suspected of being an undercover police officer and another who they accused of being a spy from Beijing.
The second man turned out to be a reporter from the state-owned Global Times media outlet.
A man accused of being a Chinese spy is evacuated from Hong Kong airport. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)
The escalation caused divisions among the protesters and prompted a vote on Telegram over whether they should apologise for the violence. In the end, the majority agreed they should.
Tom says they’ve learned from their mistakes.
“I would say the protester, including me, committed a mistake. Receiving medical treatment is a human right and it should always be allowed, even though maybe he is our enemy,” he said.
As the protests roll on, the government has restricted the sale of gas masks, goggles, helmets and hard hats.
@rachel_cheung1: Here’s a list compiled by #HongKong #antiELAB protesters of the effectiveness of different gear, gas masks and filter combinations, including data from surveys conducted over past few months.
An underground popup shop called National Calamity Hardware has been set up to fill the gap.
The shop will announce its location on Facebook and certain Telegram channels, setting up for a few hours at a time to sell the contraband.
They offer discounts to students and those who can’t afford the equipment and stock sells out quickly.
The protesters operate under the slogan “Be Water”, adopted from martial arts master and actor Bruce Lee.
“We just disappear, and then we’re here,” explains Tom.
Like a flash mob, they try to fan out at multiple locations across the city, in an effort to confuse and overwhelm the police.
The protesters have used flash mob-style tactics to try and surprise and outrun Hong Kong’s riot police. (Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)
The protesters have now made a number of demands:
They want the extradition bill withdrawn; they want Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to step down and full democratic elections to be held; they want the government to retract its use of the word “riot” to describe the protests; all arrested protesters to be released; and they want an inquiry to police brutality.
For some, there is an even bigger goal: They want to inspire a similar movement inside mainland China.
Gotham is hoping news of their movement will reach those inside China.
“I hope we could not only inspire students in mainland China, but people with conscience. We need to have human rights and freedom. If we don’t have those rights, how can we live with our lives?” He said.
“I want more people to know you deserve to have human rights and freedom, not [be] a bird inside the cage.”
This satellite image captured on August 12 appears to show Chinese security force vehicles inside the Shenzen Bay Sports Centre. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
Chinese state media has now released video showing troops massing on the border with Hong Kong, and those in the protest movement are well aware of the Communist Party’s brutal tactics to silence dissent.
They fear Hong Kong could end up like China’s province of Xinjiang — where more than one million Uyghurs have been rounded up and put in detention or forced labour.
“If Hong Kong and the movement now fails, Hong Kong would become a city like Xinjiang. Because in their eyes, Hong Kong people are like kind of foreigners. They have those so-called extremist thoughts,” said Tom.
“They will send our children to school and brainwash them with nationalism. And people who say something that is opposite to the country will be banned or be put in jail.”
‘Now or never’
University graduate and pro-democracy advocate YoYo says things have come too far to quit the fight now.
“If we stop now, so many more young people and people of all ages will be arrested and sent to jail and like charged for riot,” she said.
She says the protesters are generally peaceful, but they are prepared to use more radical tactics — like those seen at Hong Kong airport — if the government does not start listening to their demands.
“We just know that peaceful rally doesn’t work anymore. So basically we’re exploring different ways to urge the government and also gathering more pressure on the government,” she said.
“This is our end game. This is now or never.”
Read The Story In Chinese: 阅读中文版本
Watch Rebellion on Four Corners tonight at 8.30pm on ABC TV and iview.
Reporter: Sophie McNeill
Producer: Jeanavive McGregor
Digital Producer: Brigid Andersen
Designer: Georgina Piper
Cinematography: Louis Eroglu ACS
Sound: Rob Mackay