By Mari Saito
HONG KONG (Reuters) - It was holiday time at Hong Kong's sprawling Harbour City shopping mall, and shoppers posed for selfies next to giant presents wrapped in golden foil, while toddlers jumped into a ball pit filled with fake marshmallows. College students Oscar Tsoi and Joanna Ho raced past candy-coloured Christmas trees, on the tail of riot police and protesters.
Tsoi, a skinny 19-year-old who looks even younger, was wearing a fluorescent yellow safety vest over his signature white hoodie. Ho, 20, had on combat-style boots and a corduroy skirt with her safety vest. They were both wearing helmets with the word PRESS stamped across them.
"I think it's bulletproof," Tsoi said with a weak smile, pointing to his khaki-green helmet.
For months, Tsoi and Ho have been on the ground at nearly every protest and rally across Hong Kong, joining a tight-knit band of student reporters who tweet, livestream and send updates from the front lines of the historic pro-democracy demonstrations.
Although they haven't even graduated from college, the student journalists often jostle for position next to veteran photographers and newspaper reporters and have captured some of the most striking scenes of the protests, including a video of a police officer shooting a teenage demonstrator in October.
Tsoi, a sophomore at the University of Hong Kong, didn't plan to spend his nights and weekends prowling shopping malls and streets filled with tear gas and pepper spray. He was studying Chinese and philosophy and working for an academic society in his college when the protests erupted last June over now-scrapped extradition legislation.
When the unrest flared, Ho was a linguistics major minoring in media studies, hoping to one day break into broadcast journalism. When she heard her classmates complaining that the campus publication didn't have enough reporters to cover the protests, she volunteered.
Tsoi and Ho both work for the Undergrad, a student union publication with 70 years of history at their university. Ho mainly films protests with her iPhone, while Tsoi takes pictures of arrests using his heavy Canon camera. When they're not running between demonstrations or sending a steady stream of images for the publication's Facebook feed, they're glued to their phones, where they monitor dozens of Telegram channels for news of protesters clashing with police.
Once widely respected, police have been criticised for their handling of the protests.
"The police call us 'black journalists' because we're around the same age as the protesters and they think we can't be neutral," Tsoi said. "They call us kids and tell us to go home."
Tsoi admitted it can be hard not to get emotionally involved in the story when he sees students his age arrested or tear-gassed.
"Actually, I have several friends arrested during this protest, and it's really hard not to step into their shoes since they could be me and I could be them," he said. "I think the only thing we can do is to push our own emotions down and when we're reporting … you have to switch your brain to a different mode."
Covering the protests can quickly become dangerous for the students. Ho said she was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet fired by police to disperse protesters who threw Molotov cocktails and started a fire in November. It was one of the very first events she covered as a reporter.
Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University's journalism school, estimated that around 100 student reporters now routinely cover the protests.
Lui, who previously reported as a correspondent in mainland China and Hong Kong for 14 years, counsels his students to prepare to be harassed while covering the often-volatile protests.
"I tell them, 'You have to treat yourself like you're working in China,'" he said. Lui said that even though students have less training than those with decades in the field, they're getting practical experience on the ground and bring an important perspective to the coverage of the protests.
Two of his students were arrested last year, and Lui posted bail for them both and found them lawyers. He also accompanied them home so he could calm their parents.
Hong Kong's police say they respect the freedom of the press and the right of the media to report and record police operations. In an emailed response to questions, the police's public relations branch answered that on numerous occasions, people dressed as journalists attacked their officers and that they had seized counterfeit press badges.
"Members of the media are strongly advised to take care of their personal safety and avoid exposing themselves to danger by placing themselves directly between Police and those they are engaged with," it said, adding that anyone who believes they have been "unreasonably treated" should file an official complaint.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association has filed more than 30 complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Council over police officers' actions toward reporters. The association hasn't been able to compile a full list of injured and arrested journalists because it happens so frequently, said Chris Yeung, the chairman of the association.
Police distrust of student reporters may come as no surprise to some, given that university campuses in Hong Kong have been the sites for some of the most dramatic clashes between young protesters and riot officers. As of December 19, police had arrested 6,127 people in connection with the protests, and nearly half of them were university and secondary school students.
Tsoi said his parents are supportive and have long given up trying to get their son to pursue other interests. When he left home to travel more than an hour by bus and train to cover yet another protest on Christmas Day, he just told them he wouldn't be home in time for dinner.
"They know not to ask," he said.
Though he appears shy at first glance, Tsoi's smile disappears in the field.
On another day during the busy Christmas season, plainclothes police entered one of Hong Kong's big shopping arcades; protesters spotted them at once. The cops try their best to blend in by wearing Adidas and black masks, but their earpieces and matching buzzcuts quickly give them away.
When Tsoi saw the squad scuffling with protesters and pulling some teenagers aside to make arrests, he walked up to one of the officers, an intimidating man wearing dark sunglasses and mask. Nearby, a couple sat on velvet chairs, shopping bags from luxury retailers pooled at their feet. They peered through plastic shutters the store clerk lowers when trouble is near.
"Where's your police ID?" Tsoi demanded even as the police officer jabbed his finger in the young man's narrow chest. "Show me your ID," Tsoi persisted, inches away from the officer's face.
He returned without the officer's name or badge number but quickly transmitted a message to his colleagues about the apparent arrest.
Taking a break between protests, Tsoi shovelled rice and tofu into his mouth and thought aloud about what he might do after university. He could try and get a master's in journalism, something he never considered before because jobs in the industry are notorious for bad pay.
Whether he chooses to pursue journalism or not depends on whether freedoms of the press will be upheld in Hong Kong in the years to come, he said.
Like many of his peers, Tsoi has a grim outlook of the future, worrying that the territory will come under increased Beijing control when its "one country, two systems" arrangement runs its course and Hong Kong loses its designation as a special autonomous region.
"I'm not sure if the Hong Kong of our future needs journalists," he said. Even so, Tsoi is running for editor-in-chief of the Undergrad next year.
"We have grown up in such a chaotic time," he said, halting between sentences to find the right words in English. "But we have been chosen by the time and we need to be fearless and just to do what we think is right…. That's the mission of our generation."
Ho also said she'd like to continue working as a journalist after finishing university, even though being on the front lines has taken its toll.
"I can't sleep well at night," she said, her dreams haunted by riot police.
A few days later, on New Year's Eve, Tsoi was out again after hearing about a standoff between protesters and police in a busy shopping area. Water cannon trucks arrived. The wobbly video shot on Tsoi's iPhone shows police pelting the street with a jet of water, then pivoting to aim directly at him. His phone drenched, Tsoi staggers to the left, only to be hit again.
For a moment, Tsoi goes silent. A few other reporters in yellow vests rush toward him, but he waves them away. He then gets back to work, narrating the scene for his viewers.
(Reporting by Mari Saito; editing by Kari Howard. Additional reporting by Ebrahim Harris and Joyce Zhou in Hong Kong.)