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A Hong Kong teenager's death became a magnet for conspiracies, and exposed deep problems in how the city operates

September 19, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

The crowd recoiled as tear gas canisters rained down on them and riot police advanced up the street, carrying shields and batons.

Protesters had gathered outside a police station on Nathan Road, a busy shopping street in Hong Kong that had become the latest battleground in the anti-government protests that would rock the city for more than six months.

Like many young Hong Kongers, Chan supported the protest movement and took part in many of the large marches that eventually led the government to withdraw the extradition bill with China that kicked off the unrest.

On August 11 this year, after almost two weeks of hearings, a Hong Kong jury ruled the cause of Chan's death could not be ascertained.

Questions about mental health support in Hong Kong, and whether institutions Chan was in contact with had failed to help her, have fallen by the wayside.

"The government and police created a very ripe environment for conspiracy theories to flourish in," said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of "City on Fire," a book about the unrest.

"He did not come out to dispel the myth sooner because he did not want to help the police," said Paul Yip, director of the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention at Hong Kong University.

Dapiran blamed the Hong Kong authorities for the breakdown in trust, pointing to long delays in facing the public after key events -- such as the Yuen Long attacks -- and the way top officials pushed conspiracy theories around alleged foreign guidance of the protests.

As news emerged that she had taken part in some protests earlier in the summer, claims began to spread online -- with no evidence -- that officers might have assaulted or raped Chan, killed her, and thrown her body in the harbor.

Speculation about Chan's death continued even after her mother publicly said she believed her daughter had taken her own life, and asked people to stop focusing on the case.

"My personal information was released online, I am being harassed by calls in the middle of the night," Chan's mother said in an interview with Hong Kong broadcaster TVB last year.

In a city where everything was being split along political lines, with politicians, companies and celebrities cast as either "blue" (pro-police) or "yellow" (pro-protest), the decision to speak to TVB -- seen by many as friendly to the government -- poisoned Chan's mother's words for some observers.

When the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), where Chan was a student, initially refused to release all surveillance footage from the night of her death, students vandalized the school, smashing windows and glass panels, breaking cameras, and spraying graffiti.

The sight of Chan walking aimlessly around HKDI, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, with the knowledge that it is among the last times she was seen alive, is haunting.

Before her death, Chan lived with her grandfather, but was in close contact with her mother, who said the pair were "like sisters. " She was not in contact with her father, who was a drug addict and used to beat her, the court heard.

Social workers responsible for her, however, dismissed the incident as an attempt to get away from the juvenile home -- an opinion Chan solidified by slipping away from them outside the hospital and disappearing for several weeks, the court heard.

As protests kicked off that summer, Chan took part but remained on the periphery, her mother told the inquest.

Two days after she was tear gassed in Tsim Sha Tsui, on August 12, police were called to a subway station on Lantau, where Chan was screaming and shouting, in severe distress, saying she had lost her phone and needed to contact her boyfriend's father.

When they got on the train at Tiu Keng Leng station, Chan said she would return to the school later to continue tidying.

During the inquest, forensic psychiatrist Robyn Ho said Chan's behavior in the time leading up to her death demonstrated signs of a potential psychotic break.

Taken alone, Chan's death is a tragedy, of a young woman demonstrating signs of mental distress, who might have been saved had she received the right help at the right time.

But he was deeply concerned at the way Chan and several other deaths linked to the movement have been turned into so-called "martyrs," something he said risked inspiring copycats -- even when the person may not have intentionally killed themselves.

Before her death, he said, Chan had finally been able to study what she wanted, and was kind to her friends and family.

As Chan's case shows, however, Hong Kong itself may find such normality harder to come by.

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