A Hong Kong teenager’s dying 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 had been slower to react, and took lungfuls of the stinging, choking fuel 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 need to ask what did I do mistaken?” she stated into the digital camera, her eyes purple and puffy. “I’m very regular, why do I’ve to undergo this?”

Like many younger Hong Kongers, Chan supported the protest motion and took half in most of the massive marches that ultimately led the federal government to withdraw the extradition invoice with China that kicked off the unrest. However 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 seemingly not have performed a central function within the unrest — one in every of 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 nonetheless, 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 invention sparked a maelstrom of media protection and conspiracy theories. Whereas police swiftly labeled 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..

Within the virtually 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 much from being peripheral to the protest motion, Chan has been adopted as one in every of 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 dying 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 on 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.

But in a metropolis divided over the federal government and its police power, 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, significantly these involving unexplained or complicated deaths, entice conspiracy theories.
What has made Hong Kong significantly susceptible to those because the 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 federal government and police created a really ripe setting for conspiracy theories to flourish in,” stated Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and creator of “Metropolis on Fireplace,” a e-book concerning the unrest. “Each the police and authorities gave accounts of occasions that had been so clearly at odds with the target experiences of people that witnessed it themselves or witnessed it on-line.”

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

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

Earlier than Chan’s dying, unfounded rumors had swirled that a number of folks had died through the Prince Edward incident. Whereas no bereaved households ever got here ahead, and there was no public report from any Hong Kong authorities to substantiate the declare, the speculation quickly grew to become accepted truth 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 stated that he’d fled to the UK two weeks earlier than the Prince Edward protests, fearing arrest.

“He didn’t come out to dispel the parable sooner as a result of he didn’t need to assist the police,” stated Paul Yip, director of the Heart for Suicide Analysis and Prevention at Hong Kong College. “It is all very, very unhappy, to see this degree of distrust between the folks 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 Lengthy assaults — and the way in which prime officers pushed conspiracy theories round alleged international steering of the protests.

“All of it speaks to the absence of management from the federal government,” he stated. “When the authorities both abdicate their accountability or disappear, as the federal government did for weeks final yr, and/or there is not any belief within 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 had 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.

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

However relatively than cease the conspiracy theories, Chan’s mom was engulfed by them. She stated she was inundated with telephone calls and on-line harassment, accused of being an actor or one way or the other in league with the police in overlaying up her personal daughter’s homicide.

“My private data was launched on-line, I’m being harassed by calls in the course of the night time,” Chan’s mom stated in an interview with Hong Kong broadcaster TVB final yr. “I’ve misplaced my daughter, please cease brutalizing me. It is too onerous for us … Please depart our household alone. I need my daughter to relaxation 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 College’s Heart for Suicide Analysis and Prevention, stated “distrust itself could be very contagious, if you really feel very strongly a few sure topic.”

In a metropolis the place the whole lot was being break up alongside political strains, with politicians, corporations and celebrities forged 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 mom) instantly suspect to protesters and different Hong Kongers who determine as ‘yellow,'” stated Sharon Yam, an affiliate professor on the College of Kentucky and common commentator on Hong Kong politics. In an more and more paranoid setting, she added, “Hong Kongers who’re already made skeptical would possibly imagine that Chan’s dad and mom had been paid off as effectively by the state to lie about their daughter’s dying.”

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 stated two folks, a 17-year-old boy and a 65-year-old girl, had been arrested and charged with public dysfunction.

But Chan’s relations 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 night time of her dying, college students vandalized the college, smashing home windows and glass panels, breaking cameras, and spraying graffiti. Although HKDI ultimately launched extra movies exhibiting Chan’s actions, together with when she seems to go away the campus, some claimed the college was actively concerned in a cover-up, and even urged the woman 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 the rest, is what targeted 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 data that it’s among the many final instances she was seen alive, is haunting. It’s onerous to not search for indicators of what she was pondering, 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 prime 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 rely on her fingers. She doesn’t have a look at a telephone 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. In some unspecified time in the future, she ditches her bag after which her footwear, persevering with barefoot.

At round 7 p.m., Chan seems to go away campus. A witness on the inquest into her dying 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.

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

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

Earlier than her dying, Chan lived together with her grandfather, however was in shut contact together with her mom, who stated the pair had been “like sisters.” She was not involved together with her father, who was a drug addict and used to beat her, the court docket heard.

As soon as a high-achieving pupil, from early 2019, Chan started struggling educationally, and was cycled via a variety of colleges in fast succession. Her grades suffered and she or he acquired into arguments with different college students.

She started going lacking for prolonged durations of time, the court docket heard, and in March 2019 she acquired right into a confrontation with police, after which she was positioned in a government-run juvenile residence. 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 response to proof supplied to the court docket. She informed a health care provider she typically heard voices, however denied having tried to kill herself. The physician analyzing her felt she may be affected by acute stress dysfunction, however was unable to get her to conform to a follow-up examination. Social employees liable for her, nonetheless, dismissed the incident as an try and get away from the juvenile residence — an opinion Chan solidified by slipping away from them outdoors the hospital and disappearing for a number of weeks, the court docket heard.

In Might, Chan reemerged and expressed a need to show her life round. She needed to enroll in a design course at HKDI and started trying into part-time work. As protests kicked off that summer time, Chan took half however remained on the periphery, her mom informed the inquest.

Round this time, the court docket heard, she additionally started corresponding with a boy, surnamed Wu, who was being held within the Tong Fuk Correctional Establishment, 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 had 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 telephone and wanted to contact her boyfriend’s father. Police stated she refused assist from officers, who then left.

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

She spent the night time 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.

Throughout 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 residence, 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 Fort Peak Hospital, a psychological well being facility, the place workers stated that they had bother controlling her and needed to restrain her at one level.

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

This is able to be the final probability for an intervention which may have saved Chan’s life.

Following the inquest, jurors really helpful the Hospital Authority assessment how follow-ups are performed after psychiatric consultations with juvenile sufferers.

Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Division additionally didn’t reply to a request for remark. In a press release, Fort Peak Hospital stated it had “famous the decision of the Coroner” and would assessment “the suggestions 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.

Last day

In the direction of the tip of August and into September, Chan’s conduct was largely regular, the court docket heard. She returned residence and shortly enrolled at HKDI, the place she made pals and seemed to be having fun with her lessons.

But on September 19, the state of affairs 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 stated she was listening to voices and could not sleep. Later that day, at HKDI, she took off her footwear and lay down on the ground throughout class, utilizing a backpack as a pillow, the court docket heard.

After class, Chan informed pals she needed to tidy her locker. She spent virtually half an hour doing so, earlier than pals persuaded her to go away with them. After they acquired on the practice at Tiu Keng Leng station, Chan stated she would return to the college later to proceed tidying. She refused to sit down on the subway, as a substitute sitting on the ground.

Ultimately, Chan left her pals, saying she was heading residence. As an alternative 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 offered 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.

Through the inquest, forensic psychiatrist Robyn Ho stated Chan’s conduct within the time main as much as her dying demonstrated indicators of a possible psychotic break. Ho’s evaluation would seem like supported by Chan’s complaints of listening to voices, her incapability 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 dying was unattainable. However pathologist Garrick Li, who carried out the post-mortem on Chan, stated that whereas he couldn’t be certain, there was a “distinct risk” that she had drowned.

Proof was launched on the inquest that Chan was bare when she entered the water, an interpretation the jury agreed with in its verdict. A robust swimmer, in response to court docket testimony, it appears unlikely that she would select this methodology to kill herself, however, whereas within the midst of a psychotic episode, on a sizzling summer time night time, 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 “illegal killing” because the potential causes of Chan’s dying, saying there was inadequate proof for both verdict past an affordable doubt, the authorized commonplace. 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 informed the jury to contemplate whether or not Chan might need died on account of an accident, or attain an open verdict, basically an admission that the reality can’t be absolutely 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 triggered her dying.

A diatom check, which compares the degrees of a sure sort of microalgae within the water and a sufferer’s lungs and blood, might need proven that she drowned, however such testing is just not performed in Hong Kong. The jury really helpful 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 dying is a tragedy, of a younger girl demonstrating indicators of psychological misery, who might need been saved had she obtained the precise assist on the proper time.

Up to now, the conspiracies surrounding Chan’s dying have largely obscured essential 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 dying additionally factors to wider points about psychological well being provisions in Hong Kong, significantly 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. Nevertheless consultants warn that gaps stay, and social stigma round acknowledging psychological sickness might stop folks from searching for assist.
Political unrest has exacerbated the burdens going through younger folks in Hong Kong, who already face intense strain to succeed in school, together with the fact of a shrinking job market and extortionate housing that might depart them struggling to ever get on the ladder.

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

However he was deeply involved on the manner Chan and several other different deaths linked to the motion have been was so-called “martyrs,” one thing he stated risked inspiring copycats — even when the individual might not have deliberately killed themselves.

“Each suicide dying for us is a really tragic case, we now have to cope with them very rigorously, not sensationalize them, not attempt to glorify them,” he stated.

“When folks really feel very helpless they may assume if I die I can fire up a lot emotion and vitality, and provides gas to the (protest) motion itself, that could be very tempting.”

He partially blamed the lengthy delay between Chan’s dying 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 might be seized upon in the same manner.

Yam, the College of Kentucky professor, stated “whereas psychological sickness, particularly despair, nervousness, and PTSD, has change into extra prevalent amongst Hong Kongers, it continues to be stigmatized.”

“This stigma, coupled with the general public’s propensity for anti-government conspiracy theories, might end in a big public well being disaster in Hong Kong, the place individuals are unable to entry psychological well being help,” she added, given that the majority help is supplied by the federal government or government-linked our bodies.

She in the end tied the problem again to the protests, significantly 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 method 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 international locations all over the world struggled to react in time.

In summing up the case, the decide in Chan’s inquest expressed sorrow for her household, significantly the way in which her mom had been handled. Earlier than her dying, he stated, Chan had lastly been in a position to research what she needed, and was sort to her family and friends.

“Though there have been disputes, I imagine (Chan) handled you effectively,” the decide informed her mom, including he hoped the household would discover a method to return to regular in time.

As Chan’s case reveals, nonetheless, Hong Kong itself might discover such normality tougher to come back by.

Journalist Phoebe Lai contributed reporting.


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