“We will accomplish what is left to be done,” wrote one.
The death of the woman — known to most of the world by her last name, Mak — was the fourth suspected suicide to be connected by local media to ongoing demonstrations, sparked initially by a controversial extradition bill that many feared could further limit freedoms in the semi-autonomous city.
Protesters have talked of sacrifice, hopelessness, and a loss of trust in their leaders. The four who died have become fixtures in protest art and been treated by some demonstrators as heroes of the cause.
The fight for Hong Kong
The movement to block the extradition bill has been cast as a binary life or death struggle from the outset.
When at least hundreds of thousands — up to a million by some measures — marched at the start of June, it was described by activists as the “last chance to fight for Hong Kong.”
The deaths of the protesters only added to that intensity.
At demonstrations, protesters created banners from yellow raincoats, giving the illusion that the first death by suicide, a 35-year-old man who died wearing a distinctive yellow raincoat, was floating above them. Protesters wore black and waved black flags to honor the dead. In the mass outpouring of grief, some protesters pointed the finger at the government. For a time, a blood-red placard became ubiquitous. It read: “Stop killing us.”
“He sacrificed a lot for us,” a 16-year-old schoolgirl, who only gave her name as Athena, said of the man at one of the marches. “This is related to the political system of Hong Kong — it’s life-threatening and it’s fateful.”
In places around the city, demonstrators held memorials for the dead. They piled flowers on footpaths that formed little mountains of white and plastic, and left notes to the dead that they would never read.
“Dear Hero, we will fight for you,” read one on a piece of white paper decorated with a heart. “He was dragged down by the regime,” read another.
Those lost to suicide became fixtures in protest art, too. One showed the 35-year-old man and another victim holding hands as they walked toward the light with the words: “Friend, don’t leave. Hong Kong people, don’t give up.” Even messages that didn’t depict the protesters took on a darker tone. “If we burn, you burn with us,” read a huge, deep-red banner.
“We need to remind them that it is not worth it. Time is always on the side of the young,” she said.
The problem is, the young don’t necessarily feel like that.
Why things turned dark
Hong Kong is a city familiar with protests. But the protests haven’t always been like this movement.
Hope was in the air.
There was a sense that democracy might finally be possible.
So when protesters took to the streets earlier this year, they released years of suppressed anger and distrust of the government, according to Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
The four suspected suicides added another emotional element — especially because many saw the deaths as the fault of the government, said Yuen.
“The protest is about the life and death of Hong Kong,” he said. “The protests are about continuing the wishes of those who ‘gave their lives.’
“It’s about how people trust the system, how people can still have confidence about the future of Hong Kong.”
At a press conference earlier this month, Hong Kong’s leader Lam said she was saddened by the protesters who had hurt themselves as a result of the bill. She added that the government had asked many non-governmental organizations to offer emotional consultation services, “hoping to ease the negative emotions that plague the Hong Kong society.”
A 34-year-old protester, who asked not to be named, said he joined the protests after seeing the “brutal” police actions on June 12 — and was given “faith and courage” by the death of the first protester on June 15.
“The death of (the protester) forced people to acknowledge our city’s government has changed,” he said. “Our impression of a government that cares for the people is shattered.”
“We chose to ignore it for years that our city is slowly changing. But this time, we can’t.”
A hopeless future?
The bleak language — and spate of deaths — has lawmakers and mental health experts worried.
Paul Yip, the director for the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention (CSRP), was concerned about the risk of copycat suicides, and the effect the negative atmosphere could have on youth who are suffering from pre-existing mental health issues.
Yip cautioned that turning people who may have had mental health issues already into martyrs risked glamorizing suicide, which could create a contagion effect.
“These people … are the victims of a mentally stressed environment,” he said.
And there’s evidence that mental health in the city has been negatively impacted by the protests. Clarence Tsang, executive director of Samaritans Befrienders Hong Kong, said his organization had seen 73 calls in June by people distressed about the social movement, compared to only a handful on this topic in the previous months.
In the face of all the negativity, some people in Hong Kong have rallied around each other. Candice Powell, a clinical psychologist, has set up a hotline for journalists who have been traumatized by the violence they have seen. Lawmaker Roy Kwong — a former social worker — has emerged as a volunteer, on-call support person to protesters.
In so-called Lennon Walls around the city, protesters have written notes on Post-its, spurring each other on. “Dear Hong Kong, everything will be alright,” read one.
Yong Pui-tung, the 28-year-old best friend of Mak, said others should talk more and not to feel alone.
“I’m really afraid there will be more and more, and I don’t want to see that kind of thing happen again,” she said. “We should all talk more to our friends — you shouldn’t feel alone because everyone is with us.
“Hong Kong people, we stand as one and we should stay strong.”
Kwong, meanwhile, urged protesters to think of the future, which he didn’t believe was as negative as many expected.
“I think people need to keep a normal, calm attitude,” he said. “They need to know this is a continuous fight.”
Contributions: CNN’s Stephy Chung, Maisy Mok, Jessie Yeung, Jadyn Sham and Charmaine Lee contributed to this report from Hong Kong.