Suicides rock Hong Kong protest movement as despair grows over city's independence

Sophia Yan
Volunteers were this week dispatched to look for protesters thought to be at risk of suicide - REUTERS

A lone man in a yellow raincoat stood on top of the scaffolding at a mall in central Hong Kong. 

Nearby was his banner: “Make love no shoot! No extradition to China!”

For hours, police tried to talk Leung down but at around 9pm the 35-year-old jumped to his death, missing the inflatable mattress the officers had prepared to catch him.

In the fortnight since two more protesters have also killed themselves.

At the site of Mr Leung's death, white flowers and encouraging notes form an impromptu memorial to the deceased. One reads "Believe in our youth! Believe in our people!"

But the deaths are a disturbing consequence of anti-government protests that continue to rock the former British colony – after the marches, the peaceful demonstrations and the ransacking of parliament, a handful of citizens are committing suicide in the ultimate statement of desperation.

A woman cleans up a makeshift memorial near government headquarters in Hong Kong, Tuesday, July 2, 2019 Credit: AP

“People are losing their hope, thinking there’s not much we can do to change,” said Alvin Yeung, a lawmaker who has engaged in suicide prevention efforts this week. “It’s the political environment over the past few years that drove them to this point.”

As more people call suicide hotlines, message their MP or post online of their despair, the city is on high alert. Volunteers have been dispatched to hunt for people at risk. On Wednesday, at least two who had contemplated suicide were found before they could act. 

On the surface the city's normal pace has resumed, with workers sent to fix the parliament building seized on Monday night, but a spate of arrests in connection to the protests has fuelled a widespread sense of anguish. Some citizens have begun hunger strikes. Others offer free hugs to boost spirits.  

Meanwhile the protesters’ demands have grown, articulated in signs that continue to pop up despite the city’s efforts to clear them.

A 91-word message scrawled in red on the wall by a woman surnamed Lo, 21, who fell to her death last Saturday, called for the complete withdrawal of the extradition proposal that ignited the protests; demonstrations not to be labelled as riots – a charge that carries a 10-year prison sentence; the release of arrested student demonstrators; the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, and for the police to be punished for excessive force.

Protesters hold up a yellow raincoat to pay tribute to a citizen who killed himself during the anti extradition bill demonstrations Credit: AFP

“I hope to exchange my life for the fulfilment of two million people’s wishes,” she wrote, referring to the number of people protest organisers estimate have taken to the streets in recent weeks. “Please continue to persevere, you all.”

Less than 24 hours later, a woman surnamed Wu, 29, jumped from an overpass after leaving a message on social media.

“Hong Kong, add oil. I wish I could see you all achieve victory in the end. I am sorry I can’t attend the march tomorrow on 1 July because I have given up completely. I feel that there is no tomorrow, I am tired. I don’t want to fight for tomorrow anymore,” she wrote. “I think I would be marginalised by society.”

“There is a frustration and anger among our young people,” said Paul Yip Siu-fai, director of the centre for suicide research and prevention at the University of Hong Kong. They feel “nothing has changed, so some of them, they do resort to these extreme measures.”

“At the same time we have to understand them, their concerns, why they are doing this,” he said, in efforts to prevent more deaths.

Hong Kong has long enjoyed greater freedoms than the mainland, as guaranteed in the 1997 agreement by which Britain handed over the territory to Beijing. But residents worry about the loss of their liberties as the ruling Communist Party exerts greater influence.

Whether the largely organic protests – pulled together by many different groups – will remain cohesive through the summer months remains to be seen. But the calls for the government to respond have only become louder in the wake of the suicides. 

Such deaths are “unprecedented,” said Mr Yeung. “She has every capacity to fix the problem, but Carrie Lam [Hong Kong’s chief executive] stays silent and is nowhere to be seen…. Nobody dares to step up and calm people down.”

And unless Beijing undertakes serious reform the concern is that the unrest is here to stay. Indeed, Hong Kong has been continually disrupted by protests every few years, each movement bigger and more violent than the last.

“Beijing has to understand that Hong Kong is a very unique place. It is a free society,” said Mr Yeung. “There are seeds of democracy planted in the minds of everyone – especially young ones.”

 Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong