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A Hong Kong teenager’s loss of life grew to become a magnet for conspiracies, and uncovered deep issues in how town operates

The smoke billowed forth as skilled protesters pulled masks down over their faces and scrambled to place goggles on. Many bystanders have been slower to react, and took lungfuls of the stinging, choking gasoline as they hurried to get out of the way in which.

Chan Yin-lam was one of many unfortunate ones. In a video the 15-year-old posted to social media, she complained she had been out purchasing and wasn’t participating within the protest.

“I want to ask what did I do wrong?” she mentioned into the digital camera, her eyes pink and puffy. “I am very normal, why do I have to suffer this?”

Like many younger Hong Kongers, Chan supported the protest motion and took half in lots of the massive marches that finally led the federal government to withdraw the extradition invoice with China that kicked off the unrest. But she was by no means a frontline participant, her mom testified later, and largely averted the more and more violent motion that got here to characterize the protests.

Had issues labored out in a different way, she would doubtless not have performed a central function within the unrest — one in all many supporters who threw their weight behind the motion however averted direct clashes with police.

Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters gathered outside a police station in the Tsim Sha Tsui district after taking part in a rally against a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong on August 10, 2019.

Six weeks later nevertheless, on the morning of September 22, Chan’s bare physique was discovered floating within the sea. She had been useless for greater than 48 hours.

The discovery sparked a maelstrom of media protection and conspiracy theories. While police swiftly categorised the case as a suicide, some within the protest motion claimed there have been indicators of foul play — and even accused authorities of being concerned in a cover-up..

In the just about 12 months since she died, the controversy has not waned, fed by surveillance footage that appears to indicate virtually all of Chan’s last actions, with simply sufficient gaps to ask hypothesis and conjecture.

And removed from being peripheral to the protest motion, Chan has been adopted as one in all its martyrs, her face plastered over posters and flyers as different younger folks demanded justice on her behalf.

On August 11 this yr, after virtually two weeks of hearings, a Hong Kong jury dominated the reason for Chan’s loss of life couldn’t be ascertained.

What ought to have been a personal tragedy for her household has change into a matter of public debate over who’s to be believed: the police or the protesters. Questions about psychological well being help in Hong Kong, and whether or not establishments Chan was involved with had failed to assist her, have fallen by the wayside.

Yet in a metropolis divided over the federal government and its police pressure, her case is unlikely to be the final engulfed by conspiracy theories.

Protestors stand off against riot police Tsim Sha Tsui on August 10, 2019.

Breakdown in belief

Many information occasions, notably these involving unexplained or complicated deaths, entice conspiracy theories.
What has made Hong Kong notably susceptible to those for the reason that protests broke out final yr is the way in which belief in authorities has collapsed amongst sure teams, and the political divide has grown, with either side advancing competing narratives round varied occasions.

“The government and police created a very ripe environment for conspiracy theories to flourish in,” mentioned Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and writer of “City on Fire,” a ebook in regards to the unrest. “Both the police and government gave accounts of events that were so clearly at odds with the objective experiences of people who witnessed it themselves or witnessed it online.”

Violent protests involving tear gasoline, petrol bombs and police costs could be complicated occasions to observe, even for these straight concerned. Hong Kong’s unrest was extensively stay streamed, however not all the pieces was caught on digital camera — leaving information gaps wherein conspiracy theories may thrive.

Police have denied accusations of extreme use of pressure and rejected claims they have been too fast to make use of tear gasoline and different weapons, pointing to the issue of controlling massive, usually chaotic protests over an prolonged interval.
While allegations of brutality have been constantly leveled at authorities within the months after the protests started in June 2019, a specific collection of occasions despatched public confidence within the police right into a nose-dive. In late July, officers have been accused of standing by whereas thugs attacked protesters at a subway station within the northern city of Yuen Long. The following month, movies confirmed officers violently storming a subway practice at Prince Edward station, beating protesters and bystanders whereas they pleaded for assist. Separately, officers additionally confronted allegations of sexual assault from some feminine protesters, each throughout arrests and in police stations — accusations the pressure has constantly and strenuously denied.

Before Chan’s loss of life, unfounded rumors had swirled that a number of folks had died through the Prince Edward incident. While no bereaved households ever got here ahead, and there was no public report from any Hong Kong authorities to substantiate the declare, the idea quickly grew to become accepted reality for a lot of protesters, and the station grew to become a memorial lined in flowers.

One man whose disappearance round that point was linked to the incident lastly emerged final month. In a video posted on-line, he mentioned that he’d fled to the United Kingdom two weeks earlier than the Prince Edward protests, fearing arrest.

“He did not come out to dispel the myth sooner because he did not want to help the police,” mentioned Paul Yip, director of the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention at Hong Kong University. “It’s all very, very sad, to see this level of mistrust between the people and police.”

Dapiran blamed the Hong Kong authorities for the breakdown in belief, pointing to lengthy delays in going through the general public after key occasions — such because the Yuen Long assaults — and the way in which high officers pushed conspiracy theories round alleged international steerage of the protests.

“All of it speaks to the absence of leadership from the government,” he mentioned. “When the authorities either abdicate their responsibility or disappear, as the government did for weeks last year, and/or there’s no trust in the authorities, this creates a vacuum.”

Chan is seen in surveillance footage from September 19, 2019. At some point during the evening, Chan took off her shoes and continued walking around the HKDI campus barefoot.

Conspiracy metropolis

Chan’s physique was found three weeks after the Prince Edward incident, as allegations of police sexual assault have been spreading. As information emerged that she had taken half in some protests earlier in the summertime, claims started to unfold on-line — with no proof — that officers might need assaulted or raped Chan, killed her, and thrown her physique within the harbor.

Speculation about Chan’s loss of life continued even after her mom publicly mentioned she believed her daughter had taken her personal life, and requested folks to cease specializing in the case.

But somewhat than cease the conspiracy theories, Chan’s mom was engulfed by them. She mentioned she was inundated with cellphone calls and on-line harassment, accused of being an actor or someway in league with the police in masking up her personal daughter’s homicide.

“My personal information was released online, I am being harassed by calls in the middle of the night,” Chan’s mom mentioned in an interview with Hong Kong broadcaster TVB final yr. “I’ve lost my daughter, please stop brutalizing me. It’s too hard for us … Please leave our family alone. I want my daughter to rest in peace.”

Chan’s household couldn’t be reached for this story. A lawyer representing Chan’s mom didn’t reply to a request for remark.

People fold paper cranes at the Hong Kong Design Institute as part of a memorial to Chan on October 17, 2019.

Yip, director of Hong Kong University’s Center for Suicide Research and Prevention, mentioned “mistrust itself is very contagious, when you feel very strongly about a certain subject.”

In a metropolis the place all the pieces was being break up alongside political strains, with politicians, firms and celebrities solid as both “blue” (pro-police) or “yellow” (pro-protest), the choice to talk to TVB — seen by many as pleasant to the federal government — poisoned Chan’s mom’s phrases for some observers.

“That interview rendered (her mother) immediately suspect to protesters and other Hong Kongers who identify as ‘yellow,'” mentioned Sharon Yam, an affiliate professor on the University of Kentucky and common commentator on Hong Kong politics. In an more and more paranoid surroundings, she added, “Hong Kongers who are already made skeptical might believe that Chan’s parents had been paid off as well by the state to lie about their daughter’s death.”

When she appeared outdoors the coroner’s court docket final month, Chan’s mom was once more the goal of abuse, with a crowd shouting at her and accusing her of being an actor. Police mentioned two folks, a 17-year-old boy and a 65-year-old lady, have been arrested and charged with public dysfunction.

Yet Chan’s members of the family weren’t the one ones to face repercussions from the case.

When the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), the place Chan was a pupil, initially refused to launch all surveillance footage from the evening of her loss of life, college students vandalized the varsity, smashing home windows and glass panels, breaking cameras, and spraying graffiti. Though HKDI finally launched extra movies exhibiting Chan’s actions, together with when she seems to go away the campus, some claimed the varsity was actively concerned in a cover-up, and even instructed the lady showing within the movies was an actress.
People stand in silent tribute at the Hong Kong Design Institute. Behind them, broken windows can be seen, the result of protests over an alleged lack of transparency regarding Chan's last movements.

Warning indicators

That HKDI surveillance footage maybe greater than anything, is what centered media and public consideration on Chan’s case.

The sight of Chan strolling aimlessly round HKDI, throughout the harbor from Hong Kong Island, with the information that it’s among the many final instances she was seen alive, is haunting. It is difficult to not search for indicators of what she was considering, of what’s to come back.

In 16 movies shot throughout virtually 90 minutes on the night of September 19, Chan — sporting a black tank high and saggy, black-and-white striped trousers — appeared to look confused or misplaced, however not overly distressed. Her quick hair, dyed brown, is pulled again from her face, and she or he clasps her palms in entrance of her as she walks, as soon as stopping and showing to depend on her fingers. She doesn’t take a look at a cellphone or discuss to anybody within the footage.

For over an hour, she could be seen pacing across the campus, ready for elevators, strolling round an outside space on the roof and thru a canteen the place different college students are seen huddled over laptops or consuming dinner. At some level, she ditches her bag after which her sneakers, persevering with barefoot.

At round 7 p.m., Chan seems to go away campus. A witness on the inquest into her loss of life testified to seeing her strolling into a close-by subway station, however she did not undergo the ticket gate. What occurred between that point and when her physique was found three days later stays unknown.

But whereas that hole within the official report has obsessed many observers, the complete story of Chan’s loss of life begins a lot earlier.

Evidence launched through the inquest on August 11 painted an image of an more and more disturbed younger lady who, regardless of a number of alternatives, seems to have slipped by the cracks in the case of getting her the assistance she wanted.

Before her loss of life, Chan lived along with her grandfather, however was in shut contact along with her mom, who mentioned the pair have been “like sisters.” She was not involved along with her father, who was a drug addict and used to beat her, the court docket heard.

Once a high-achieving pupil, from early 2019, Chan started struggling educationally, and was cycled by a lot of colleges in fast succession. Her grades suffered and she or he received into arguments with different college students.

She started going lacking for prolonged durations of time, the court docket heard, and in March 2019 she received right into a confrontation with police, after which she was positioned in a government-run juvenile house. There, she tried to strangle herself with a plastic bag and banged her head towards the wall, the court docket heard, forcing workers to ship her to hospital.

This was one of many first of Chan’s many interactions with medical professionals, in accordance with proof offered to the court docket. She advised a health care provider she typically heard voices, however denied having tried to kill herself. The physician inspecting her felt she could be affected by acute stress dysfunction, however was unable to get her to comply with a follow-up examination. Social employees accountable for her, nevertheless, dismissed the incident as an try and get away from the juvenile house — an opinion Chan solidified by slipping away from them outdoors the hospital and disappearing for a number of weeks, the court docket heard.

In May, Chan reemerged and expressed a want to show her life round. She wished to enroll in a design course at HKDI and started wanting into part-time work. As protests kicked off that summer season, Chan took half however remained on the periphery, her mom advised the inquest.

Around this time, the court docket heard, she additionally started corresponding with a boy, surnamed Wu, who was being held within the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, on Lantau Island in western Hong Kong. She later described him as her boyfriend and would go to go to him alongside Wu’s father, the court docket heard.

Two days after she was tear gassed in Tsim Sha Tsui, on August 12, police have been referred to as to a subway station on Lantau, the place Chan was screaming and shouting, in extreme misery, saying she had misplaced her cellphone and wanted to contact her boyfriend’s father. Police mentioned she refused assist from officers, who then left.

Eventually, Wu’s father arrived on the station, and took Chan to a close-by restaurant. There, she continued to behave unusually, speaking to folks on different tables and ordering meals that wasn’t on the menu. After he dropped her off, she mentioned she was going house, however as a substitute returned to the correctional establishment the place Wu was held, the court docket heard.

She spent the evening sleeping outdoors the constructing, and tried to enter within the morning, getting right into a confrontation with workers that resulted in her being handcuffed and brought to a close-by police station.

During a subsequent examination with a health care provider, Chan once more reported listening to voices, and have become agitated. She was despatched again to the juvenile house, the place she once more started self-harming, destroying her room and banging her head towards a wall, the court docket heard. She was then transferred to Castle Peak Hospital, a psychological well being facility, the place workers mentioned they’d hassle controlling her and needed to restrain her at one level.

Chan refused to return to the juvenile house, saying she heard voices when she was there, and complained of not sleeping. A health care provider gave her a tranquilizer, however dismissed her complaints as indicators of her “being rebellious,” the court docket heard.

This could be the final probability for an intervention that may have saved Chan’s life.

Following the inquest, jurors beneficial the Hospital Authority assessment how follow-ups are carried out after psychiatric consultations with juvenile sufferers.

Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department additionally didn’t reply to a request for remark. In an announcement, Castle Peak Hospital mentioned it had “noted the verdict of the Coroner” and would assessment “the recommendations made by the jury.”

Chan walks through the canteen at the Hong Kong Design Institute. This was one of the last times she was seen alive.

Final day

Towards the tip of August and into September, Chan’s conduct was largely regular, the court docket heard. She returned house and shortly enrolled at HKDI, the place she made associates and gave the impression to be having fun with her lessons.

Yet on September 19, the scenario once more took a flip for the more serious. At three a.m., her grandfather testified at court docket, he was woken by the sound of Chan tidying her room. She mentioned she was listening to voices and could not sleep. Later that day, at HKDI, she took off her sneakers and lay down on the ground throughout class, utilizing a backpack as a pillow, the court docket heard.

After class, Chan advised associates she wished to tidy her locker. She spent virtually half an hour doing so, earlier than associates persuaded her to go away with them. When they received on the practice at Tiu Keng Leng station, Chan mentioned she would return to the varsity later to proceed tidying. She refused to sit down on the subway, as a substitute sitting on the ground.

Eventually, Chan left her associates, saying she was heading house. Instead she returned to HKDI, the place she would spent the final hours of her life, earlier than heading in direction of a close-by waterfront park, proof introduced on the inquest confirmed.

What precisely occurred subsequent is unclear, the essential hole in surveillance and witness testimony that left the jury in the end unable to succeed in a verdict.

During the inquest, forensic psychiatrist Robyn Ho mentioned Chan’s conduct within the time main as much as her loss of life demonstrated indicators of a possible psychotic break. Ho’s evaluation would seem like supported by Chan’s complaints of listening to voices, her lack of ability to sleep — which additionally may have been a contributing issue — and her obsession with tidiness.

The state of decomposition meant that ascertaining the reason for Chan’s loss of life was unattainable. But pathologist Garrick Li, who carried out the post-mortem on Chan, mentioned that whereas he couldn’t make sure, there was a “distinct possibility” that she had drowned.

Evidence was launched on the inquest that Chan was bare when she entered the water, an interpretation the jury agreed with in its verdict. A powerful swimmer, in accordance with court docket testimony, it appears unlikely that she would select this technique to kill herself, however, whereas within the midst of a psychotic episode, on a sizzling summer season evening, it’s not past perception that she might need determined to go for a swim, with deadly penalties.

In instructing the jury, coroner David Ko dominated out each suicide and “unlawful killing” because the potential causes of Chan’s loss of life, saying there was inadequate proof for both verdict past an inexpensive doubt, the authorized customary. When her physique was found, it confirmed no indicators of apparent bruising or damage, and no proof of sexual assault or rape, although pathologists admitted that such proof might need disappeared throughout her time within the water.

Ko advised the jury to contemplate whether or not Chan might need died on account of an accident, or attain an open verdict, primarily an admission that the reality can’t be totally ascertained. In doing so, the jury cited inadequate forensic proof about precisely how Chan had died, and whether or not a psychological dysfunction or break had induced her loss of life.

A diatom check, which compares the degrees of a sure kind of microalgae within the water and a sufferer’s lungs and blood, might need proven that she drowned, however such testing just isn’t carried out in Hong Kong. The jury beneficial that diatom checks be utilized in future suspected drowning circumstances.
Chan waits for an elevator at the Hong Kong Design Institute on September 19. She spent almost 90 minutes walking around the campus that evening.

Tragic penalties

Taken alone, Chan’s loss of life is a tragedy, of a younger lady demonstrating indicators of psychological misery, who might need been saved had she acquired the fitting assist on the proper time.

To date, the conspiracies surrounding Chan’s loss of life have largely obscured vital questions of whether or not varied authority figures and establishments with whom she interacted, from medical doctors to social employees, failed to assist her and even acknowledge that she was in want of assist. Her loss of life additionally factors to wider points about psychological well being provisions in Hong Kong, notably for younger folks.
Since 2015, when a string of youth suicides led to public calls for for motion, the federal government has elevated funding for psychological well being help. However consultants warn that gaps stay, and social stigma round acknowledging psychological sickness could stop folks from in search of assist.
Political unrest has exacerbated the burdens going through younger folks in Hong Kong, who already face intense strain to succeed at college, together with the fact of a shrinking job market and extortionate housing that would go away them struggling to ever get on the ladder.

For some younger folks, mentioned Yip, the HKU knowledgeable, the protest motion could have saved their lives, offering the sense of group and solidarity that may be wanted when somebody is at their most susceptible.

But he was deeply involved on the means Chan and several other different deaths linked to the motion have been become so-called “martyrs,” one thing he mentioned risked inspiring copycats — even when the particular person could not have deliberately killed themselves.

“Every suicide death for us is a very tragic case, we have to deal with them very carefully, not sensationalize them, not try and glorify them,” he mentioned.

“When people feel very helpless they might think if I die I can stir up so much emotion and energy, and give fuel to the (protest) movement itself, that is very tempting.”

He partially blamed the lengthy delay between Chan’s loss of life and it being investigated by the coroner for giving area for conspiracies to unfold. And he was involved that future circumstances wherein confusion or lack of proof round how somebody died may very well be seized upon in an analogous means.

Yam, the University of Kentucky professor, mentioned “while mental illness, especially depression, anxiety, and PTSD, has become more prevalent among Hong Kongers, it continues to be stigmatized.”

“This stigma, coupled with the public’s propensity for anti-government conspiracy theories, may result in a significant public health crisis in Hong Kong, where people are unable to access mental health support,” she added, given that the majority help is offered by the federal government or government-linked our bodies.

She in the end tied the difficulty again to the protests, notably the “lack of police accountability and transparency.”

And this lack of belief is spilling out far past the police, casting a pall over any motion by the federal government, regardless of how a lot officers insist that their motion is within the public curiosity.

When the authorities introduced voluntary mass testing for the coronavirus this month, some noticed it as a approach to collect samples of residents’ DNA, or a sop to Beijing, which despatched medical workers to assist out with the drive. An preliminary delay in closing Hong Kong’s border with mainland China within the early months of the pandemic was additionally seen as politically charged, whilst nations world wide struggled to react in time.

In summing up the case, the decide in Chan’s inquest expressed sorrow for her household, notably the way in which her mom had been handled. Before her loss of life, he mentioned, Chan had lastly been capable of examine what she wished, and was type to her family and friends.

“Although there were disputes, I believe (Chan) treated you well,” the decide advised her mom, including he hoped the household would discover a approach to return to regular in time.

As Chan’s case exhibits, nevertheless, Hong Kong itself could discover such normality more durable to come back by.

Journalist Phoebe Lai contributed reporting.

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