Anti-government protesters make a mural depicting the student protester who got shot by police with live ammunition in Hong Kong, China October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Anti-government protesters make a mural depicting the student protester who was shot by police with live ammunition in Hong Kong, Oct. 2, 2019.

HONG KONG - Born after the historic July 1 day when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the 18-year-old protester who was shot at close range in the chest by a police officer during violent demonstrations this week and then arrested in the hospital is part of a generation for whom the clock is ticking.

In the lifetimes of young Hong Kong citizens born after 1997, the sands will run out on China’s promise — enshrined in the territory’s constitution — that Hong Kong’s “capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”

That looming deadline and uncertainty about what, exactly, will happen after 2047 hang like a sword of Damocles in the minds of many people in Hong Kong.

Fears for the future

But protesters who have flooded the streets since June are certain about what they don’t want: For Hong Kong to become like all of China’s other cities, its special freedoms snuffed out, its status lost as a freewheeling international hub for business and ideas.

Schoolmates and protesters gather in support of student Tsang Chi-kin, 18, who was shot in the chest by police during violent pro-democracy protests that coincided with China's Oct. 1 National Day. The student is in stable condition.

Those fears, his schoolmates say, drove Tsang Chi-kin to become a protest leader in his high school, which bubbled with fury Wednesday following the teenager’s shooting during widespread and violent demonstrations that wracked Hong Kong Tuesday, as Communist leaders in Beijing were celebrating 70 years in power.

As other pupils at the Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College in Hong Kong’s Tsuen Wan district used their lunchbreak to chant in anger, a 17-year-old student who previously joined Tsang on marches said he and others born after 1997 feel that if they don’t fight now to defend the territory’s liberties, they may never get a second chance.

“That’s why, I think, Kin is so passionate,” said the schoolmate. Like many who fear they could face repercussions for protesting, he would only give a single name, Sam. “He believes that this is the last time, the last chance for us to fight for what we have.”

Police use of force

But while friends used the word “brave” to describe their wounded schoolmate, the police chief defended the officer’s use of force as “reasonable and lawful.” Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said the officer had feared for his life and made “a split-second” decision to fire a single shot at close range. Video of the shooting showed the protester striking the officer’s shooting arm with a metal rod, and that he was part of a group of about a dozen black-clad and masked demonstrators who swarmed the officer and other riot police, some hurling objects.

The shooting, the first time a protester is known to have been hit by gunfire, was a fearsome escalation in what is already the most serious crisis faced by any post-1997 Hong Kong leader and is severely testing the strength of Beijing’s commitments to let the territory be largely its own boss, at least until 2047.

For schoolmates of Tsang, the injured protester, those promises are becoming ever-harder to believe. Exhibit A for skeptics was a Hong Kong government proposal that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trials in Communist Party-controlled courts. Although its withdrawal was promised in September, the bill blew away trust that Hong Kong won’t slowly lose its freedoms.

Residents of Tsuen Wan gather at an open air stadium, Oct. 2, 2019, to protest a teenage demonstrator shot at close range in the chest by a police officer in Hong Kong.

“It’s becoming a small town in China. That’s why we need to stand out,” said Sam, who recalled riding the bus with Tsang to march in central Hong Kong, where protesters have repeatedly targeted government and police headquarters and been repelled by tear gas, water cannons and arrests.

He said Tsang, as a protest regular, advised others about how and where to demonstrate and gave “absolutely everything for this movement.”

“He is a good leader,” he said.

Victim made perpetrator

A female classmate, tears welling in her eyes, said, “Just last Friday, we were sitting next to each other and chatting and now he’s been shot and in critical condition.”

“We heard police say they may want to press charges against him. It’s preposterous,” said the 16-year-old, who gave only her initials, SY. “Police fired the shot but they want to charge him. Instead of being a victim, he’s been made the perpetrator.”

Seeing youngsters organize, march and be swept up by riot police has infuriated many older Hong Kong residents and swung them behind the movement.

“They try to bind up our hands and feet and then thrust a towel into our mouth to shut us up. It’s tyranny,” said a 60-year-old woman who showed up outside Tsang’s school on Wednesday in a show of support. She gave only her surname, Chan.

But the protests have also split families.

Aiden Chan, another 17-year-old schoolmate of Tsang’s who said they had played basketball and worked out together, wanted to join the protests China’s National Day but was grounded by his parents.

“They think that the protests are destroying the city,” he said. He said his parents also believe protesting kids are being brainwashed and “controlled” by foreign powers, suspicions Chan dismissed as “nonsense.”

“When I try to go out, they don’t understand me,” he said. “They just think that as a student I should work hard and I should get into university and that’s all. So there’s quite a generation gap.”

The shooting is likely to increase the gulf between those who fear that the chaos is ruining Hong Kong’s economy and prospects, and protesters who view the police use of lethal weaponry as a harbinger of repression they see in mainland China.

“I saw the video (of Tsang’s shooting) and I’m really shocked,” Chan said. “I still can’t calm down.”

“How can these things happen in Hong Kong?”