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Hong Kong protesters see shot teenager as a symbol of defiance

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Via Financial Times

At the Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College in Hong Kong’s working class north-west, posters commemorate Tsang Chi-kin — the student who has become the nearest thing to a martyr in Hong Kong’s long summer of protests.

The 18-year-old on Tuesday became the first person to be shot by police in four months of pro-democracy demonstrations in the Asian financial hub while he was in a skirmish with riot police during protests to mark China’s national day. 

Some of the posters show anime-like images of a policeman firing at him while others feature a picture of a heart — the shot missed the teenager’s most vital organ by mere centimetres. He remains in hospital in a stable condition.

“We already think that he is a hero, not only for us and our school but even for Hong Kong,” said a 17-year-old student who identified himself only as Jimmy. 

The shooting of Mr Tsang has sharply raised tensions in the territory, threatening to prolong the worst political crisis to hit the former British colony since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, on Friday invoked colonial era emergency laws to ban protesters from wearing face masks in an attempt to contain the protests — the first time the rules have been used in more half a century sparking clashes across the city on Friday night. The MTR, the city’s metro network, was closed on Saturday and supermarkets saw long queues and shelves emptied as residents stocked up on food. The MTR partially resumed operations on Sunday morning with a march planned for the afternoon.

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For young people in Hong Kong, the shooting has turned Mr Tsang — who had been better known among his peers for his prowess at basketball — into a symbol of youthful defiance against state violence. 

Students provide the backbone of the protests, with school children as young as 12 counted among those to have been arrested. The once peaceful financial centre has become deeply politicised down to primary school level.

“The protesters are under the impression that the young man was intentionally shot,” said Larry Lai, an honorary lecturer in politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong. “The rules of the game in the protests have changed.”

Among demonstrators, Mr Tsang was what is known as a “frontliner”. These are protesters who arm themselves with makeshift shields and sticks and form the vanguard of the marches.

On the day he was shot, the high school student and some fellow protesters were tackling a riot policeman in front of a Chinese bun shop in the outlying district of Tsuen Wan. Another officer intervened and discharged his service revolver at point blank into the chest of Mr Tsang, who was carrying what appeared to be a plastic pole. “Send me to hospital. My chest is hurting,” Mr Tsang shouted after falling to the ground. 

Mr Tsang’s lawyers have kept personal details about their client and his family closely guarded. Like most protesters, many of whom have changed their names online to disguise their identity, the student seems to have maintained a low-profile on social media. 

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But his classmates described him as a popular figure at his school. A student who identified himself as Mr Mo and used to play basketball with Mr Tsang said the pair were members of a school group set up to oppose the government’s introduction of an extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent to China for trial. 

Hong Kong’s protests started in opposition to the bill — which Ms Lam has promised to withdraw — and have expanded to include demands such as universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into police brutality.

Mr Tsang’s case “has shown the international world how brutal the police are”, said Mr Mo. 

The police say the officer fired in self-defence and the government has charged Mr Tsang with rioting and assaulting a police officer, accusations that carry prison sentences of up to 10 years and two years respectively.

CY Leung, a former chief executive of Hong Kong, has written to Mr Tsang’s school pressuring the principal to expel the “student rioter”. 

But students and alumni, such as a friend who identified himself as Mr Li, are resisting, raising almost HK$126,000 ($16,100) to help Mr Tsang and his family, as well as holding protests outside the school. “He is sporty, nice, quiet and responsible,” Mr Li said. “When I first heard about that [the shooting] I couldn’t believe it was someone I knew.”

The school, which is government-subsidised, said in a statement that its “principal, vice-principals and teachers had visited the student and his parents at the hospital” and have set up a team “to provide pastoral care to those affected”.

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In her address announcing the emergency laws, Ms Lam said she was concerned about the number of young people taking part in the violent protests. 

But judging from protest artwork at the school, the government’s actions are only serving to entrench opposition among the city’s youth.

“I’m very worried,” said one parent, who identified himself as Mr Chau and was surveying the posters. “The relationship between the police and the protesters is getting more dangerous and, as a parent, it’s very hard to explain that to our children.”

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