They came with white flowers to honor a man accused of attempted murder.
His victim was a seemingly random police officer – and for some in Hong Kong, that not only justified the violence, it was cause for commemoration.
Over the past week, a steady trail of visitors have turned the July 1 crime scene into a memorial. Families have brought their young children to mourn the knifeman, who fatally turned his weapon on himself shortly after the attack. The student union of prestigious Hong Kong University passed a motion to say they “appreciated his sacrifice.” And the man’s employer, beverage company Vitasoy, saw its stock dip 14.6%, its biggest plunge since going public in 1994, after it offered condolences to the attacker’s family in a leaked internal memo. Online, some have hailed him a hero.
To them, the attacker died fighting an unelected regime that has stifled dissent. In the year since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, a newspaper has been closed, public protest appears to have been banned, and nearly all of the city’s leading pro-democracy figures, including activists and politicians, have either been jailed or forced into exile.
Authorities have responded to the memorials with fury. Carrie Lam, the city’s leader who was elected by only a few hundred people, urged the public to avoid inciting more “immoral acts.” Police guarded the stabbing site for several days, removing flowers from the makeshift memorial, and characterized the attack as “terrorism,” feeding a narrative from authorities that civil society is now under threat from random acts of political violence.
The July 1 attack exposed that while protests and political opposition have been blunted, the anger that rocked Hong Kong in 2019 lingers in the anti-government camp – prompting fears of more violence.
A holiday subdued
The attack was particularly shocking for two reasons – both the choice of victim, and the choice of day.
For the first 20 years after Britain returned Hong Kong to mainland China, July 1 was a day of mass peaceful pro-democracy marches. This year, those demonstrations were banned, ostensibly under coronavirus restrictions, and a huge police presence was deployed.
The victim was one of dozens of police officers stationed near a cordoned-off street corner, which had been the starting point for previous mass pro-democracy marches, when his attacker pulled an object from his bag and plunged it into him.
The police officer was rushed to hospital in critical condition.
Before the national security law, Hong Kong authorities gave licenses for July 1 marches, a symbol of Hong Kong’s relatively high level of freedom compared to mainland China.
That changed after 2019. For months that year, pro-democracy protests paralyzed parts of Hong Kong, at times resulting in violent clashes between protesters and police. Many demonstrators saw the police response as heavy-handed, fueling public mistrust in officers who the democracy movement saw as agents of the government.
And as the movement veered into something more dangerous, Beijing’s tolerance for demonstrations in Hong Kong ran out.
When the coronavirus pandemic put a pause on mass gatherings, Beijing swiftly used a back door in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution to bypass the city’s independent legal system and pass a controversial national security law, which criminalized acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
With avenues for peaceful protest blocked, thousands have left the city, emigrating to Western democracies offering safe harbor, while hundreds have become political refugees. For those left in Hong Kong, there are few legal ways to be heard.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s number two official and a former police officer, said in an emailed statement to CNN that the security law had restored “much-needed peace, calm and stability to society and the streets of Hong Kong.”
Nobody had been “forced into exile” or “to leave,” the chief secretary wrote. “The so-called political ‘refugees’ include those who championed violence and the overthrow of the HKSAR government but have avoided the consequences of their actions by running away,” he said.
The July 1 attack showed that while dissent had been silenced, it hadn’t disappeared, said Joseph Cheng, a prominent Hong Kong political commentator who now lives in New Zealand. “The anger is obviously there,” he added.
Authorities have not revealed the attacker’s motive. Police called him a lone-wolf domestic terrorist who was likely “radicalized by myriad fake information.” According to local media RTHK, the man was 50, unmarried and lived with his parents.
Local media reported that a police psychologist’s report on the attacker’s mental state would be handed to the coroner, in preparation for a possible inquest. A psychology professor at a university in Hong Kong, who asked not to be named for fear of backlash, warned against blaming the attack on mental health issues alone, saying such a “simplistic explanation” wouldn’t “adequately” unpack the situation.
One mourner, an education worker in her 20s, said she believed the attacker had “reached a point of despair” after the 2019 protests.
“I wanted to be a part in his commemoration to show that he was not alone,” she said. “There is no space for political expression. We have no outlet at all. We cannot take to the streets, we cannot sing songs with political implications because it is illegal.”
A ‘twisted pursuit of freedom’
The July 1 stabbing also represents another tough reality: how the once-revered Hong Kong Police Force has become a public enemy for some.
Polling by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found satisfaction with the police force slumped during the 2019 protests. In the latest poll in May, the police satisfaction rating had risen to 44 out of 100 – well below the peak of 67 recorded almost a decade ago.
Hong Kong police declined to comment for this story, but one 10-year veteran of the force who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak with the press, said he was shocked and saddened by the attack.
The officer said it was a “twisted pursuit of freedom” inspired by “fake news,” including unsubstantiated allegations that police had killed several protesters.
“In my line of work, I need to monitor social media activity. The number of fake accounts that take up my main feed is overwhelming,” he said. “No matter what your values are and no matter how noble they can be, there can be no tolerance for violence and extremist tactics.”
The mourners, he said are “naive.” “Showing empathy to the attacker is wrong,” he said. “How can you teach the next generation that this behavior is acceptable?”
A former high-ranking police official, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said officers “need to be cautious.”
“The man who killed himself is a killer. Why do you see him as a hero?” the police veteran of more than 30 years asked of those who laid flowers.
To the government and their supporters, the July 1 attacker is one of the “terrorists” who are beginning to emerge as the latest threat to Hong Kong’s stability.
Fears for the future
Less than a week after the attack, the Hong Kong Police Force’s National Security Division said it had uncovered a plot linked to a pro-independence group to bomb train stations, court buildings and underground tunnels.
It wasn’t the first alleged terrorist threat they uncovered related to the democracy movement. During the 2019 protests, police seized the largest ever cache of high-powered explosives ever found in the city.
When a 29-year-old was sentenced earlier this year in relation to that haul, the judge said he “came close to declaring war” on society, local newspaper the South China Morning Post reported. Hong Kong is a city with little violent crime and few safeguards against terror attacks – there are no security checks in subways or malls, for instance.
In a polarized climate, some are skeptical of how real the threat of terrorism is. To many, the separation of powers between police and government is being becoming blurred.
Others believe there could be legitimate cause for concern that copycat attacks could inflame tensions that spiral into a larger threat.
A user on LIHKG, a popular, Reddit-like forum used by protesters in 2019, claimed to be planning a similar attack against a police officer. The 30-plus year police veteran said he worried about copycat attacks, especially if members of the public continued to offer what he called “prayers for a killer.”
Diminishing legal ways to voice dissent meant it was possible that lone wolves could resort to more extreme actions, political expert Cheng said. “You are driving a very, very small group of radicals to extreme actions,” he said, appealing to Lam to restore and rebuild people’s trust in the police force.
“Any sensible government has to recognize this accumulation of anger, and has to make attempts to reduce the anger instead of just condemning the violent acts,” he said.
Whether Hong Kongers would listen to their leader is another matter. A recent survey from the independent Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that 70% of respondents would give Lam a vote of no confidence, and only 16% were satisfied with the government’s performance.
In the meantime, police officers, who do not make the law but have to enforce them, are on the frontline of public anger.
The psychology professor said the authorities in Hong Kong had become an “easy target on which people can project all their frustration and disappointment, political or otherwise.”
“Hong Kong people still haven’t had the chance to collectively process or resolve what they experienced (in 2019),” he said. “Covid-19 served as a substantial, and perhaps very effective, distraction, but ultimately true healing needs to take place.”
This story has been updated with comments from Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee, made available to CNN after publication.
CNN’s Jenni Marsh and Jessie Yeung contributed to this report
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