‘Being young is a crime’ in Hong Kong: Police arrest students and teenagers
The 15-year-old had gone out to watch a movie with a classmate and was supposed to be home by 11 p.m. Now he was two hours late, and his family was getting worried.
Then came a call from the police: He’d been arrested.
He has not been involved in the antigovernment demonstrations that have been roiling Hong Kong the last four months, according to his family. But at the insistence of his father, he was walking home that night wearing a surgical mask, which even non-protesters have been donning as protection from unexpected use of tear gas by police.
The mask and his black T-shirt were apparently enough for the police.
His brother, sister and parents rushed to the police station but were told that they couldn’t bring him home. Instead, police took him to a juvenile home, where he was separated from his family and held for a week even though he had not been charged with any crime.
“I am scared,” said his 21-year-old brother, who spoke on condition that he and his family not be identified because they feared retaliation from authorities or government supporters. “Because I don’t know, what if I wear a black shirt? Do I get arrested?”
The Aug. 30 arrest and subsequent detention are part of a wider crackdown on Hong Kong youth in recent weeks. Police have rounded up children as young as 12 years old on suspicion of unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons or rioting, often based solely on the color of their clothing and objects in their bags.
Of the 1,596 people arrested since protests began in June, 464 were students, including 207 this month.
They include a 13-year-old girl charged with desecrating the Chinese flag and a 15-year-old charged with arson, a charge that could mean life imprisonment.
A pickup in the pace of arrests is widely viewed as an attempt by the government to thwart — or at least limit — protests in coming days as the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 70th anniversary.
Hong Kong authorities said Friday they were banning a protest than has been called for Oct. 1, National Day. Meanwhile, a pro-establishment group known as Safeguard Hong Kong announced that it plans to get 10,000 volunteers to “defend the flag” on that day.
“Young people merely dressed in black can be searched or even arrested without justification,” Denise Ho, a Hong Kong singer and activist, told a U.S. congressional commission in Washington on Sept. 17. “In other words, merely being young is a crime in the police state of Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong authorities have framed the arrests as a failure on the part of teachers and parents to rein in their children.
“It is worrying to see these youths breaking the law and possibly having criminal records at such a young and tender age,” police public relations chief Tse Chun-chung told reporters Friday. “We appeal to all youngsters to rethink their actions and hope the education sector and parents will help our young people to walk the straight and narrow path.”
The government in Beijing has backed that narrative, with state media spreading videos comparing Hong Kong’s children to suicide bombing recruits for Islamic State and the Taliban.
The propaganda campaign does not appear to be working.
On Thursday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam met with 150 citizens for an “open dialogue” that was broadcast live on TV. But only a few participants expressed support for the police or government.
The rest chastised Lam for two hours with rapid-fire questions about police brutality, political reform and government accountability.
“It’s you! It’s you who completely ignores all public opinion! It’s your incompetent governance,” one women declared. “You bear the biggest responsibility. You must step down!”
Afterward, Lam was trapped in the building for four hours as protesters blocked the exit and chanted, “Five demands, not one less!”
The refrain is shorthand for their calls for the government to investigate the police, grant amnesty to arrested protesters, give citizens to right to elect their own political representatives, stop referring to the protests as “riots,” and — the only demand met so far — withdraw an unpopular extradition bill.
On Friday night, tens of thousands of people rallied in Chater Garden to support protesters detained in a remote holding center called San Uk Ling, near the border with mainland China.
Pro-democracy lawmakers, journalists and justices of the peace have been barred from visiting the site, raising suspicion among protesters that police have abused detainees there.
Of 54 protesters who were brought there on Aug. 11 after major clashes between police and protesters, 31 were later hospitalized, six of them with fractures, according to local media.
“San Uk Ling is just a symbol,” said Chris, an 18-year-old protester in a black mask. “The problem is systematic. It’s the police as a whole, not just one place.”
He said he expected a large turnout for the march on Oct. 1 despite police banning it.
“If we don’t show the police and government we’re not scared, then soon enough every protest will be illegal — and that is much scarier,” he said.
The crowd ripped down a banner for the 70th anniversary, stepped on pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping scattered on the ground, and sang the new protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” together, waving tens of thousands of cellphone lights in the air.
A 15-year-old and his parents, all wearing surgical masks, sang softly with the crowd.
The mother, who identified herself as Mrs. Lo, said she didn’t believe rumors that police had killed protesters last month during a clash inside a subway station and then covered it up — but she understood why so many other people did.
The police “behave like they have something to hide,” she said. “Because of that, no one trusts them anymore.”
Her son said he was at the rally to stand up for the human rights of arrested protesters and all Hong Kongers.
“I can’t say what will happen to Hong Kong in the future. .... Maybe we won’t be able to have conversations like this,” he said.
“If we stand up for our rights now, we stand a better chance of preserving them.”
Su is a Times staff writer and Ho Kilpatrick is a special correspondent.
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