HONG KONG (AP) — The teenager who was the first victim of police gunfire in Hong Kong’s monthslong pro-democracy protests was charged Thursday with rioting and attacking police, as calls grew for the government to ban the wearing of masks to subdue rising violence in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The shooting of the 18-year-old Tuesday during widespread clashes marred China’s National Day celebration and marked an alarming escalation in violence in the unrest that has rocked one of the world’s top financial hubs since June.
Local media reported that Chief Executive Carrie Lam will hold a special Executive Council meeting on Friday to discuss a ban on masks, which have helped protesters conceal their identities, and other tough measures under a colonial-era emergency law.
Lam’s office said it had no comment. Pro-Beijing legislator Michael Tien confirmed the meeting. Activists and some lawmakers warned that such harsh measures would only further alienate the people and could prompt a more ferocious backlash.
Anger against the government has built up since Tsang Chi-kin was shot at close range after he struck a police officer with a rod.
Tsang was among seven people charged Thursday with rioting, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. He also faces two additional counts of attacking two police officers, punishable by up to six months in prison.
Tsang and two others who were hospitalized did not appear in court. The government said Tsang’s condition is stable. Dozens of supporters, many in black, sat outside the courthouse.
Thousands of people rallied Wednesday to demand police accountability for the shooting, which has deepened anger against police, who have been accused of being heavy-handed against protesters. Pockets of black-clad youths vented their anger at night, lobbing gasoline bombs at police quarters, vandalizing subway stations and blocking traffic in several districts. Police responded with tear gas in some areas.
More than 1,000 students marched Thursday at the Chinese University in a continuing show of support for Tsang and vowed to keep up their fight for more democratic freedoms. Many students felt that firing at Tsang’s chest, close to his heart, was an attempt to kill him.
Police defended the shooting as “reasonable and lawful” because the officer had feared for his life and those of his colleagues.
Videos on social media of the shooting showed a group of black-clad protesters with bars and umbrellas clashing with police. They closed in on a lone officer, who opened fire as Tsang came at him with a rod. Just as another protester rushed in to try to drag Tsang away but was tackled by an officer, a gasoline bomb landed in the middle of the group of officers in an explosion of flames.
The protests that started in June over a now-shelved extradition bill have since snowballed into an anti-China campaign amid anger over what many view as Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s autonomy that was granted when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. More than 1,750 people have been detained so far.
Police associations and some pro-Beijing groups have called for tougher measures.
The Junior Police Officers Association, representing front-line officers, said the force has been stretched thin. In a statement Wednesday, it urged the government to impose a curfew and other emergency measures to maintain public order.
A pro-government group, including lawmakers and lawyers, said Thursday that authorities should use the example of a Canadian law that imposes a jail sentence of up to 10 years on anyone wearing a mask during a riot or unlawful assembly.
Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat said the ban would specifically target rioters and wouldn’t curb citizens’ freedom of assembly. While it wouldn’t bring protests to a halt, she said it would help reduce the violence that has wracked the territory.
But Ip Kin-yuen, a legislator representing the education sector, warned it would be akin to “adding oil to the fire” and could further weaken the government in dealing with the crisis.
Legislator Tien said protesters could challenge a mask ban and any curfew order, just as tens of thousands of people have defied police bans on rallies and taken to the streets in the past months.
But he said it could work if the government also responds to at least the key demand of the protesters, which is to hold an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.
“They need to use carrot and stick at the same time,” Tien said.