This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in Hong Kong on Thursday charged a high school student shot in the chest by police with rioting and assaulting a police officer, as ongoing pro-democracy protests once more prompted the closure of train services.
The teenager’s shooting came amid city-wide anti-China protests as the ruling Chinese Communist Party marked its 70th anniversary in power on Oct. 1, and was defended by Hong Kong police as “necessary and appropriate,” despite widespread public condemnation.
His case is among dozens of similar protester prosecutions to come before Hong Kong’s courts in recent days, since a wave of protests and clashes began last weekend and continued through China’s Oct. 1 National Day holiday.
Chief executive Carrie Lam was reportedly mulling a ban on masks, which have been used by hundreds of thousands of people to protect themselves against thousands of tear gas canisters fired by police during the past three months of protest, as well as to mask their identities.
Media reports that Lam’s cabinet, the Executive Council (ExCo), would push through the ban under colonial-era emergency legislation triggered a temporary spike in shares on Hong Kong’s stock market on Thursday.
But protests and confrontations continued on Hong Kong’s streets, with large numbers of unarmed, unmasked local residents confronting fully armed riot police in Taikoo district.
Riot police were forced to board two vans and leave a shopping mall and housing project complex after facing off with an angry crowd chanting “Criminal gangs! Criminal gangs!” and hurling obscenities at them.
Police brandished batons, pointed and appeared to fire non-lethal weapons at the crowd before making their getaway, only to be pursued down the road by dozens of unarmed protesters, livestreamed video footage from the scene showed.
Meanwhile, supporters of shooting victim Tsang Chi-kin gathered in his home district of Tsuen Wan, calling for the abolition of the current police force.
“Disband the police! Delay no more!” the crowd chanted, as well as “Come on, Kin lad!”
Metal baton or plastic pipe?
Police once more defended the officer’s decision to fire at Tsang, who is recovering from emergency surgery after the bullet pierced his chest, saying he and fellow protesters had attacked officers with metal batons.
But an investigation by a Stand News reporter of the video taken during the aftermath of the shooting found a PVC plastic tube around one meter long that was deliberately left behind by police gathering evidence, who instead carried away a two-meter metal baton that had been brought there by another officer.
Local media also reported that Tsang’s shooting came shortly after police guidelines on the use of force during the protests were updated.
An updated version of the police procedures manual published on Sept. 30 said officers were allowed to use their firearms if faced with an attack that intended “to cause death or serious physical injury,” rather than by an attacker wielding “deadly force,” which was the condition specified in the previous version.
Batons of the type used by some frontline protesters in recent clashes with riot police were also reclassified as ‘low-level lethal weapons,” instead of “intermediate-grade weapons” in the earlier version, the reports said.
RFA was unable to verify these media reports independently.
But pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said the revisions to the police manual had given officers more latitude for the use of lethal force against protesters.
“This will give frontline police officers more room for interpretation and to use deadly force,” Lam said. “If the police force has a monopoly on the use of force in Hong Kong, and now also a monopoly on the right to interpret when force should be used, then the effect will be terrible.”
Lam said he is worried, given recent attempts by police to describe laser pens as an “offensive weapon,” that a protester could be shot just for shining one on police officers at a protest.
Police associations and pro-Beijing politicians have called for tougher measures, including curfews and other measures under emergency powers legislation.
‘Tools of a dictatorship’
But political affairs commentator Liu Ruishao said emergency powers measures could lead to an even greater public backlash against the police and the government.
“The police are basically now tools of a dictatorship, and also its weapons,” Liu said. “If they use emergency powers to bring in a mask ban or curfews, this will just lead to a huge backlash in public opinion. It would definitely be [another] evil law.”
“Also, if they use emergency powers, then eventually that will curb everybody’s freedom to communicate, including that of foreigners doing business in Hong Kong,” Liu said. “There will be a cumulative and negative backlash.”
Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said a ban on masks would clearly mark the beginning of Hong Kong’s transition into a totalitarian society.
“This will only exacerbate tensions and divisions in Hong Kong,” Kwok said. “It will do nothing to resolve the issues at stake.”
“Today, a mask ban under emergency powers, tomorrow, an extension of [pre-charge] detention to 96 hours or more,” he said. Detention is currently limited to 72 hours without charges being brought.
“Or maybe we’ll see people being locked up in San Uk Ling Detention Center for up to 15 days on administrative detention,” Kwok said. “Once they start using emergency powers, there is no way to revoke them.”
Tsang was among seven people charged Thursday with rioting, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. He also faces two additional counts of attacking two police officers, punishable by up to six months in prison.
Tsang and two others who were hospitalized did not appear in court, although hundreds of people showed up to support him.
More than 1,000 students marched on Thursday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to support Tsang and in support of the protesters’ five demands of full democracy, an amnesty for the thousands of protesters arrested since June, an end to the official description of protesters as “rioters”, an independent inquiry into police violence and the formal withdrawal of a legal bill that would enable extradition to mainland China.
Protesters say an earlier pledge by Carrie Lam to formally withdraw the amendments to the extradition bill isn’t enough to end protests without the other four demands being met too.