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With student’s death, Hong Kong uprising enters a perilous new phase

  • Author: Casey Quackenbush, The Washington Post
  • Updated: November 8, 2019
  • Published November 8, 2019

A protester stands near a photo of Chow Tsz-Lok during a memorial flash mob to remember him in Hong Kong on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. Chow, a Hong Kong university student who fell off a parking garage after police fired tear gas during clashes with anti-government protesters died Friday, in a rare fatality after five months of unrest that intensified anger in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

HONG KONG - The death on Friday of a Hong Kong student following a police operation unleashed a wave of anger and heralded a new phase in five months of confrontations between authorities and demonstrators calling for democracy in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

Chow Tsz-lok, a computer science student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, had been in a coma since early Monday, when he fell one story in a parking lot in the Tseung Kwan O neighborhood while police officers were dispersing protesters nearby. The 22-year-old died shortly after 8 a.m. Friday, hospital officials said.

Chow's death could be the first directly connected to police confrontation with protesters, but the details of what exactly happened in the lead-up to the fall are not clear. Security footage released by the building owner on Wednesday did not capture the moment Chow fell. Local reports have said that he was about 130 yards from police officers, who had fired tear gas to clear protesters in the area.

The development quickly ignited the city's pro-democracy movement. By Friday afternoon, crowds of black-clad people began gathering across the city to commemorate Chow's death, with marchers brandishing signs denouncing the police, bearing white flowers, and calling for revenge. Traffic came to a standstill as demonstrators occupied roads in central Hong Kong, chanting "Five demands, not one less!" - a motto of the protest movement.

"I'm really sad. He shouldn't have died," said a 24-year-old analyst among the crowd, who asked to be identified only as K for fear of retribution. "There's a lot of sadness going on right now. We don't want anyone to die."

Some protesters have alleged that Chow was fleeing from police when he fell, and accused officers of obstructing medical responders who were trying to reach him. Police have denied interfering in the emergency response.

"We all are very angry, devastated and frustrated," said Percy, a 20-year-old medical student who volunteers as a first-aid responder, and who declined to give his full name, fearing retribution from authorities. "The police [are] shameless that they claim they didn't delay the ambulance or they didn't do anything that led to this accident."

In a statement, the Hong Kong government expressed "great sorrow and regret" over Chow's death, adding that the police "attach great importance to the incident and the crime unit is now conducting a comprehensive investigation with a view to finding out what happened."

Demonstrators protest in Hong Kong on Nov. 8, 2019. (Bloomberg photo by Justin Chin)

Public anger has grown as Hong Kong authorities, encouraged by Chinese officials and state media, have deployed increasingly forceful tactics to try to quell the anti-government unrest. Police have fired nearly 6,000 containers of tear gas, along with rubber bullets and, on occasion, live ammunition. Some 3,300 people have been arrested. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, has refused to authorize an independent inquiry into police actions, a key demand of protesters.

On Friday, citing new video footage, police revised their initial timeframe of events on the night that Chow fell in the parking garage.

With the city on edge ahead of more demonstrations expected later Friday, police also warned of "radical comments made online."

"We appeal to members of the public to stay calm and rational," Suzette Foo, senior superintendent of Kowloon East Region, told reporters.

Protests erupted in June over a now-withdrawn bill to allow extraditions to mainland China, but have since grown into a broader uprising against Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong. The intensifying police crackdown has eroded support for the city's Beijing-backed leadership, which many here perceive as working with the Chinese government to undermine Hong Kong's political freedoms, autonomy and the rule of law.

At the same time, front-line protesters have adopted more violent tactics. Some have vandalized businesses, including mainland banks and Hong Kong's subway operator, that protesters view as supporting the Chinese government.

On Friday, the second day of college graduation ceremonies, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology president Wei Shyy made a tearful announcement of Chow's death to an audience of graduates, some wearing black surgical masks to commemorate Chow, and called for a moment of silence.

The university canceled classes and graduation ceremonies scheduled for the afternoon, while the student union called on students to partake in memorial services.

Meanwhile, protesters doubled down on their demand for an independent probe into the police force. The Civil Human Rights Front, organizer of massive street marches, called Friday's development "the first death under the police actions" and warned that without a full investigation into the force, authorities risked pushing the city to "a situation where no one can recover."

Hong Kong's worst civil unrest in decades represents a political challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is grappling with a slowing economy and a trade dispute with the United States. In Shanghai this week, Xi told Lam, Hong Kong's embattled leader, that she still had the trust of the central government, following reports that Beijing was seeking to replace her.

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The Washington Post’s Anna Kam and Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.