His victim was a seemingly random police officer – and for some in Hong Kong who not only justified the violence, it was the cause of commemoration.
Over the past week, a steady trail of visitors has turned July 1st crime scene to a memorial. Families have brought their young children to mourn the knife man who fatally turned his weapon against himself shortly after the attack. The student union at the prestigious Hong Kong University adopted a movement that they “appreciated his sacrifice.” And the man’s employer, the beverage company Vitasoy, saw its share depth of 14.6%, the biggest jump since its release in 1994, after giving sympathy to the attacker̵
Authorities have responded to the memorials with rage. 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 temporary memorial, characterizing the attack as “terrorism” and feeding a narrative from authorities that civil society is now threatened by random acts of political violence.
The July 1 attack revealed that while protests and political opposition have been blunted, the anger that rocked Hong Kong in 2019 hangs in the anti-government camp – fearing more violence.
A subdued holiday
The attack was particularly shocking for two reasons – both the choice of victim and the choice of day.
The victim was one of dozens of police officers stationed near a screened street corner that had been the starting point for former mass participants in democracy when his attacker pulled an object from his bag and threw it into him.
The police officer was taken to hospital in critical condition.
Prior to the National Security Act, Hong Kong authorities licensed July 1 marches, a symbol of Hong Kong’s relatively high degree of freedom compared to China.
That changed after 2019. For months that year, pro-democracy protesters paralyzed parts of Hong Kong, sometimes resulting in violent clashes between protesters and police. Many protesters saw the reaction of the police as a harsh and highlighted public distrust of officers, which the democracy movement saw as agents of the government.
And as the movement went into something more dangerous, Beijing’s tolerance of demonstrations in Hong Kong ran out.
With opportunities for peaceful protest blocked, thousands have left the city and emigrated to Western democracies offering a safe haven, while hundreds have become political refugees. For those who are back in Hong Kong, there are few legal ways to be heard.
The July 1 attack showed that while disagreement had been silenced, it had not disappeared, said Joseph Cheng, a prominent political commentator in Hong Kong who now lives in New Zealand. “The anger is clearly there,” he added.
A mourner, a training 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 of his memorial service to show that he was not alone,” she said. “There is no room for political expression. We have no outlets at all. We can not take to the streets, we can not sing songs with political implications because it is illegal.”
A ‘twisted pursuit of freedom’
The stabbing on July 1 also represents another harsh reality: how the once-honored Hong Kong police force has become a public enemy for some.
Hong Kong police declined to comment on the story, but a 10-year-old veteran of the force, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said he was shocked and saddened by the attack.
Officers said it was a “twisted pursuit of freedom” inspired by “fake news”, including unfounded allegations that police had killed several protesters.
“In my job, I have to monitor social media activities. The number of fake accounts that record my main feed is overwhelming,” he said. “No matter what your values are, and no matter how noble they may be, there can be no tolerance for violence and extremist tactics.”
The mourners said he was “naive”. “Showing empathy for the attacker is wrong,” he said. “How can you teach the next generation that this behavior is acceptable?”
A former senior police officer who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said officers “must be careful.”
“The man who killed himself is a murderer. Why do you see him as a hero?” the police veteran for more than 30 years asked those who laid flowers.
Fear of the future
In a polarized climate, some are skeptical about how real the threat of terrorism is. For many, the separation of powers between police and government is becoming blurred – the new security secretary was, for example, the former police chief.
Others believe there may be legitimate reason for concern that copycat attacks could ignite tensions that sprout 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 on a police officer. The 30-year-old police veteran said he was concerned about copycat attacks, especially if the public continued to offer what he called “prayers for a killer.”
A diminution of legal ways of expressing disagreement meant that it was possible for lone wolves to 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 needs to acknowledge this accumulation of anger and should try to reduce anger instead of just condemning the violent acts,” he said.
Meanwhile, police officers who do not issue the law but have to enforce it are at the forefront of public anger.
The psychology professor said the Hong Kong authorities had become an “easy target by which people can project all their frustration and disappointment, political or otherwise.”
“Hong Kong people still have not had the chance to collectively address or address what they experienced (in 2019),” he said. “Covid-19 acted as a significant, and perhaps very effective, distraction, but ultimately true healing must take place.”
How to get help: In Hong Kong, call +852 2896 0000 for Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for suicide prevention. In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Friends Worldwide also provides contact information to shelters around the world.