HONG KONG - A 22-year-old Hong Kong student died Friday morning after falling from a multistory parking lot during a protest Sunday night. It may be the first confirmed death directly linked to police action in Hong Kong's five months of escalating political unrest.
Spontaneous demonstrations mourning the man's death and condemning police erupted throughout the city, with hundreds chanting: "Murder must be compensated with life! A debt in blood must be paid in blood!" and "Hong Kongers, revenge!"
Alex Chow Tsz-lok, an undergraduate student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, reportedly plummeted from the third floor as he attempted to escape tear gas that police had fired into the building. But key circumstances surrounding his fall remain unknown.
"Did the police pursue him and lead to his fall? Was he thrown off the car park purposely? Did the police obstruct the rescue operation to save Chow?" asked pro-democracy lawmaker Ray Chan, echoing many Hong Kongers' misgivings.
Sunday's protest began with people heckling police who were guarding a colleague's wedding ceremony in a suburban shopping area. As riot police arrived to clear the area, some retreated to the parking lot and threw objects at police from the upper levels. Police responded by firing tear gas at the parking lot.
According to various accounts from those at the scene, riot police dispersed first-aid volunteers and blocked paramedic access, resulting in a delay of more than half an hour before Chow received treatment. Police denied those claims at a news briefing.
A recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that close to half the city's residents have zero trust in their police force, contributing to an atmosphere in which rumors thrive and official pronouncements are rarely believed unless backed by eyewitnesses and surveillance video.
"Hong Kong people's sadness is beyond words," Chan said. He predicted that "people will be more resolute in their call for an independent investigation and resort to all available means to demand full accountability," further escalating protests in the coming days and weeks.
News of Chow's death came during the university's annual graduation ceremony Friday morning. University President Wei Shyy canceled ceremonies scheduled for the afternoon and visited the hospital where Chow had been in critical condition since Sunday. Students staged a moment of silence followed by a march while calling on Wei to denounce the actions of the police.
Some vandalized Wei's residence and trashed several cafeterias as well as on-campus branches of Starbucks and the Bank of China - businesses that have been labeled pro-Beijing and frequently targeted in recent protests. Wei later issued a statement demanding a thorough investigation into the circumstances of Chow's death.
"We will be outraged if there is no acceptable explanation offered," he said.
Hong Kong police have faced widespread criticism for use of tear gas deemed excessive since protests began in June in response to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be tried by courts in mainland China.
Since then, police have fired close to 6,000 tear gas canisters in the densely packed streets of Hong Kong, affecting millions of residents. Anger at this police response has sparked a demand for an independent investigation and has helped transform what started as single-issue marches into a wide-ranging antigovernment movement.
Several young protesters died by suicide this summer, leaving notes about despair over their failure to win concessions from the government. Unverified rumors have also swirled for months surrounding extrajudicial killings of protesters and subsequent cover-ups by police.
In June, activist Marco Leung Ling-kit fell to his death after hanging a banner opposing the extradition bill from the rooftop of a downtown shopping mall. Chow's death, however, is the first linked to a clearance operation by riot police.
At a news conference Friday afternoon, police spokeswoman Sze Yuk-sim said officers had entered the parking lot before Chow's fall but left long before it happened. She warned people about attending "unlawful assemblies," referring to impromptu memorial services for Chow that sprang up across the city throughout the day.
In Hong Kong, gatherings without a "letter of no objection" from police are deemed illegal, so participants can be arrested. More than 3,000 people have been arrested in the last five months of protests, more than a third of whom are students.
In Beijing, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment on Chow's death. "At present, the most urgent thing for Hong Kong is to stop violence and restore order," he said.
As night fell, thousands of mourners gathered at the parking lot where Chow fell. A line of people dressed in black and wearing masks snaked through all three levels of the garage. They brought white flowers and candles, waiting quietly to lay their tributes at the spot where he hit the ground.
"When I heard the news on the bus this morning, I started crying," said Tiffany, 24, as she lighted a row of candles. Like other participants in the memorial, she asked not to disclose her full name for protection from authorities. "As a Hong Konger, I can't accept this happening. ... This isn't supposed to happen here."
Since Chow was Christian, mourners did not burn the incense or paper offerings typical of traditional Chinese memorials. Instead, the air was thick with the scents of fresh-cut flowers and burning wax. A heavy silence hung over the crowd, broken only when a choir led them in a repertoire of somber hymns.
Alex, 36, a mourner dressed in a front-line protester's uniform of all black and a face mask, said he was angry and sad. "But we've been angry for months - for years. Tonight, the sadness is greater than ever," he said.
Later at night, police fired tear gas and a live round in confrontation with the mourning crowds. Some protesters set fires and built barricades.
Police also arrested at least six pro-democratic legislators late Friday night, some from in front of their homes, for protesting and trying to obstruct a legislative meeting about the extradition bill back in May. The arrests come weeks before a local election in late November in which many expected a sweeping win for pro-democracy candidates.
They set a dark mood for the weekend, in which planned protests will probably see a fresh surge of participation amid public grief and rage.
Alex, the protester, said he wouldn't confront the police Friday out of respect for Chow and his family. But he also vowed never to forgive the police, hinting that he'd be on the streets soon.
"I prefer to mourn on the battlefield," he said.
(Special correspondent Ho Kilpatrick reported from Hong Kong and Times staff writer Su from Beijing.)
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