Category Archives: Social dissent

The Guardian view on Hong Kong: policing the crisis

Brutal treatment of protesters and a government that will not listen have inflamed a dangerous situation


Hong Kong protests: student shot and man set on fire during clashes – video

Hong Kong is unrecognisable. In less than six months a global financial centre known for its efficiency and pragmatism has become consumed by rage and violence. On Tuesday, as police stormed a university campus to arrest students, and their teargas and rubber bullets were met by petrol bombs, parts of the campus looked more like a conflict zone than a seat of learning.

The initial trigger for all this was the now-withdrawn extradition bill. But the government’s response, and in particular police brutality, has fired the protests. The latest escalation was sparked by the death of a student who fell from a building following police clashes with protesters last week. Most responded passionately but peacefully – with an estimated 100,000 gathering this weekend for a vigil. Others have ramped up their stance.

As activists disrupted the morning commute for two days in a row, and attacked property associated with support for the Hong Kong government and Beijing, footage showed police officers shooting a demonstrator in the torso at close range; driving a motorbike into protesters repeatedly; and beating a person inside a church. Meanwhile another horrific video showed a man being sprayed with flammable liquid and set alight, apparently by a protester with whom he had been arguing, in an indefensible attack that has appalled supporters of the movement as well as those bitterly opposed to it.

The government appears to see that assault, and the wider destruction, as an opportunity to drive a wedge between those taking part in protests and the rest of the population: Carrie Lam, the chief executive, described demonstrators as “enemies of the people”. Some residents are no doubt shifting. Yet the real and profound disagreement remains that between the government and the population of Hong Kong – as Ms Lam’s historically low approval ratings indicate. Even people who disapprove of some or many of the movement’s means understand that, unlike the police, it has no command structure. They also see protest actions as spawned by police violence and a government that can only crack down, never compromise. Attacks by thugs on crowds of protesters and the targeting of leading activists have further hardened opinion.

Nor does the news that the city is now in recession, due in large part to the movement, seem to have made a significant dent. And despite Monday’s disruption and violence, white-collar workers in the city’s centre applauded activists and passed them supplies. In a survey taken a few weeks ago, more than four out of 10 respondents said protesters had used excessive violence; but almost seven in 10 said the same of police. Nearly nine in 10 backed an independent inquiry into police actions.

The true responsibility lies not with rank-and-file officers but with those commanding them. A public inquiry and an amnesty for protesters who have not committed violent crimes might still take some steam out of the movement. But these look unlikelier than ever. The alternative is probably ever-escalating violence. Hong Kong’s government must rely on the police because it does not have the support of the public. And it cannot command public support because residents understand that it is not there on their behalf but that of Beijing. That is why the right to choose their own leaders has become a central demand.

John Tsang, the city’s former financial secretary, defeated by Ms Lam for the chief executive post, observed on Tuesday that, given the imbalance of power between protesters and the government, the government should take the initiative to de-escalate the force it is using. This seems like a statement of the obvious but from a pro-establishment figure it is striking. Yet it will almost certainly go unheard. Beijing appears more determined than ever to rely upon increased repression and a few economic sweeteners. But neither trigger-happy policing nor bungs can resolve this political struggle.


  • Guardian Pick

    It is hard to explain life and politics in Hong Kong right now. Think of the lack of any political antennae and empathy of Teresa May and ramp it up many times. Think of the inertia of the most stolid and conservative of regimes in history and cover it in superglue.. Think of any person you know who can only make the wrong decision on everything. Then you have Carrie Lam and her government.

    As soon as I heard of the face mask ban, (advised agains…

    Jump to comment

Note; editorial shared via blog platform instead of platforms provided by links on The Guardian as those are blocked in China. Please see The Guardian website for subscriptions to the paper and further relevant articles.

Hong Kong’s reluctant police officer: ‘It’s not for us to deliver punishment’

The battle with protesters is splitting the police force between those seeking power and others protecting freedoms

Security forces stand guard as protesters take part in an anti-government protest in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
One Hong Kong police officer says the force has become ‘a tool of authorities for stability maintenance’. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Larry Yeung* cuts a lonely figure in the police force these days.

He joined more than 20 years ago because it appealed to his sense of justice. Proudly showing off his graduation tie, he reminisces about his desire as a young recruit to serve society and help the disadvantaged.

“I abide by what the force has taught me,” he says, showing a list of values and mission he signed up for. Among them is “upholding the rule of law”, “impartiality and compassion” and “respect for the rights of members of the public.”

But the recent political crisis in Hong Kong, which has seen police using violent tactics to crack down on increasingly radical protests, has tested his loyalty to the force.

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during a protest in Hong Kong, China August 31, 2019.

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during a protest in Hong Kong in August. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

“Police should protect citizens, but instead, we’ve become a tool of the authorities for ‘stability maintenance’,” Yeung says, with a rueful smile. “Our top officials are hiding and we’ve become their shields.”

Animosity between police and citizens has grown to an alarming level as ever-increasing amounts of tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and water cannon have been used to deal with the resentful crowds.

On 1 October, police fired a live round for the first time, injuring an 18-year-old in the chest. Three days later, a 14-year-old was shot in the thigh. In the past four months more than 2,700 arrests have been made.

Police fire tear gas to clear pro-democracy protesters during a demonstration in Hong Kong.

Police fire tear gas to clear pro-democracy protesters during a demonstration in Hong Kong. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Protesters have also resorted to increasingly radical acts in what they see as justified retaliation. Masked activists have thrown bricks and petrol bombs at police, trashed metro stations and shops seen as pro-Beijing. They have lit street fires and even attacked police or people suspected of being undercover officers or just being pro-government. Earlier this month, a home-made bomb exploded and a police officer was slashed in the neck by a protester.

Police remove barricades under a poster displayed on a wall with remnants of thrown eggs and graffiti sprayed by protesters outside the police headquarters in Hong Kong early on June 22, 2019.

Police remove barricades outside the police headquarters in Hong Kong in June. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Indiscriminate beatings by police gave rise to rumours of covered-up deaths. Widely circulated stories about physical and sexual abuse in a remote police detention centre have led to an unprecedented level of anger and resentment against officers.

Yeung disapproves of his colleagues’ behaviour, something that has driven a wedge between them.

“When we were in the academy, we were taught to use only the minimum amount of force. It’s not for us to deliver punishment,” he says. “But now, the majority of the police think the ‘rioters’ need to be punished … they attack people indiscriminately, even non-protesters.”

Hong Kong police chase down a couple wearing facemasks in the Central district in Hong Kong on October 5, 2019.

Hong Kong police chase down a couple wearing facemasks in the Central district in October. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

“The awful thing is, the majority of police don’t see it as a problem.”

“When they watch footage of police beating people, they shout for joy: ‘Yeah, we’re hitting the cockroaches!’,” he says. “They don’t give any consideration to their high ideals of freedom and democracy.”

Asked why police have resorted to increasingly brutal acts, Yeung says many of his colleagues were angry and felt entitled to abuse their powers.

“It’s the ‘Lucifer effect’– power drives people crazy. They’re angry and they need an outlet. But this is sacrificing the reputation of the police force.”

A police officer chases after a flashmob protester inside Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong, China September 1, 2019.

A police officer chases after a flashmob protester inside Hong Kong International Airport. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Yeung says officers are no longer required to be accountable for their acts. While dealing with protests, riot police officers now wear black masks and do not show their warrant cards and their police numbers on their uniforms. Internal rules require police to write a report every time they use batons, pistols and pepper spray, but many simply don’t bother anymore, he says.

Yeung has tried to make his colleagues see things from another perspective, but this has led to him being labelled a traitor.

“I tried to explain to them what civil disobedience is about. Like, if your boss refused to grant you your entitled holidays, then you take sick leave. It’s about fighting against the system through legal means,” he says.

The government has repeatedly refused to establish an independent commission to investigate police brutality, and this is sparking more even more public anger as it is one of several demands that protesters insist must be fulfilled.

Yeung believes the authorities’ endorsement of harsh crackdown is actually fuelling protests.

Last month, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper reported that China’s public security minister had become a deputy head at the Communist party’s Hong Kong Macau liaison committee – an unprecedented move analysts say has bolstered the control of the city’s police force by China, which sees crackdown as a natural response to unrest

“I think they want to push terror to an extreme. Beat them and arrest as many as you can, and people will be too scared to come out again,” he says of his bosses’ attitudes.

A woman holds a cross in front of the Mongkok Police Station as riot police holding shields stand guard during a standoff with protesters after an anti-government rally in September.

A woman holds a cross in front of the Mongkok Police Station as riot police holding shields stand guard during a standoff with protesters after an anti-government rally in September. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Yeung sympathises with the protesters: “If I wasn’t a policeman I’d be out on the streets like them.”

Even though Yeung thinks differently from many of his colleagues, in the eyes of protesters, he is still a “black cop”.

“One time, a group of young people yelled at me when I was inside a police van. I held up my arm as if to say it has nothing to do with me. But how can I not be one of them?”

“I have not come out to correct my colleagues’ faults – that is complicity.”

Asked whether he had thought about resigning, Yeung, in his 40s, says he has a young family and that makes it difficult. “But I won’t rule out that possibility,” he says.

A schoolmate of Tsang Chi-kin, 18, who was shot in the chest by police during violent pro-democracy protests that coincided with China’s October 1 National Day, holds a placard during a sit-in protest at a school in Hong Kong on October 2, 2019.

A sign condemning the shooting of Tsang Chi-kin, 18, who was shot in the chest by police during violent pro-democracy protests that coincided with China’s National Day on 1 October. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Yeung, a Christian, insisted that his mission was to help the weak and to speak up about inequality. He maintains he can only support a government that serves the people.

“If the country is built with flesh and blood, if people’s freedoms and lives have to be sacrificed for ‘development’, I’d rather not have that,” he says.

“The very least I can do is to refrain from doing evil myself and to remind my colleagues not to get excessive. But they often ask: ‘So, which side are you on?’”

*name has been changed to protect identity

If Beijing does not budge, the struggle for Hong Kong will last decades

Police violence has further radicalised protesters, and China’s ‘one country, two systems’ formula lies in tatters


Anti-government protesters react in front of skyline building at Tsim Sha Tsui is in Hong Kong, China October 27, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

‘Vast numbers still turn out for unauthorised protests, wearing masks to taunt the administration and underscore its impotence.’ Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

“Is there any way that Hong Kong can avoid becoming another Northern Ireland?”

This was the first question posed by a well-known Hong Kong activist at the start of a recent interview. A few months ago, the comparison to decades of civil unrest would have seemed absurd. But after 21 weekends of protests, the endgame seems further away than ever before. The escalating weekend insurgency and the police brutality deployed in response have marooned the territory in a cycle of violence that is doing serious damage to its economy, rule of law and public trust in its institutions.

Over the weekend, the assault on the rule of law intensified, after a court banned the harassment of, pestering or interfering with Hong Kong police, or assisting or inciting others to do so. This temporary injunction criminalises a whole range of previously lawful acts – including taking photos of policemen, heckling the police and singing anti-police protest songs. One of the injunction’s stated intentions is to outlaw the disclosure of officers’ personal details, to prevent “doxxing” (publishing identifying information online about them). But its effect will be to create a two-tier system providing more legal safeguards for police than ordinary citizens, turning Hong Kong’s predictable legal environment into an arbitrary, unequal one.

This month, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, activated the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance, not used since 1967, to make the use of face masks punishable by a HK$25,000 (£2,339) fine and up to one year in prison. The arbitrary suspension of public transport and the use of illegal assembly charges against protesters has also created a de facto curfew at weekends.

In Hong Kong, the abnormal has become normalised so quickly that the international community – distracted by Trump and Brexit – can hardly keep up. This week, there was surprisingly little attention given to the government’s formal withdrawal of the extradition law that originally sparked the crisis – in part because protesters’ demands have multiplied. Now the most serious challenge for Beijing and Hong Kong is the widespread call for universal suffrage – but the most pressing issue is protesters’ insistence on an independent inquiry into police behaviour.

‘More than half of Hong Kongers have zero trust in the police.’ Riot officers fire teargas during a rally against police brutality on Sunday. Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Since June, police have arrested at least 2,580 people, including a 10-year-old, and fired 5,100 rounds of teargas – not to mention pepper spray, beanbag rounds, sponge grenades, rubber bullets, chemical-laced blue-dye shot from water cannons and live ammunition. One recent poll indicated that more than half of Hong Kongers have zero trust in the police, an astonishing breakdown in trust for a force once touted as “Asia’s finest”. Meanwhile, police have unleashed a dystopian parade of outlandish charges against citizens. These include a 19-year-old who was shot in the chest by police being charged with assaulting police, and being put under arrest while still in intensive care. Students carrying a plastic butter knife and laser pointers were detained for possessing offensive weapons. A couple taking their three-year-old for a bike ride were threatened with arrest for illegal assembly.

On the ground, police tactics against protesters regularly violate the force’s own guidelines, including targeting the press with pepper spray and teargas, and flashing lights to prevent reporters filming officers beating protesters. These tactics have radicalised demonstrators, who now regularly throw bricks and molotov cocktails at police, as well as vandalising businesses linked to pro-Beijing figures.

This breakdown of law and order has been exemplified by a wave of attacks on pro-democracy figures by the Triads organised crime syndicates. In the most violent of these, Jimmy Sham, a civil rights activist who organised the mass marches, was attacked by at least four men with hammers and left lying on the pavement in a pool of his own blood.

The escalation of this conflict on the streets has polarised Hong Kong society, and is sending the territory into recession, with tourism arrivals down 40%.

Beijing has repeatedly attempted to internationalise the crisis, using economic leverage to try to muzzle minor celebrities and multinational companies with business interests in China. The first target was the Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific, which was forced to sack at least 20 employees for showing support for the protests on social media. More recently, those showing public support for Hong Kong – including the YouTube star PewDiePie, online gamers on Blizzard and even the Houston Rockets basketball team have all been censored on China’s internet.

On the ground though, there is political stasis. Beijing has denied as a “political rumour” a Financial Times report that Lam may be made to resign next year, to be replaced by another unelected leader. Indeed, such a move would achieve little.

In any case, authorities may soon see the extent of voter alienation at the ballot boxes; at the end of November, district council elections could redraw the political landscape at the grassroots level, given the 386,000 new voters who have signed up. The authorities are boxed in: any political reforms that fall short of concessions or real dialogue would likely worsen the situation, as would no action at all. If Beijing’s long-term strategy is to stall while accelerating Hong Kong’s absorption into the Greater Bay Area – Beijing’s answer to Silicon Valley, which would connect 11 southern Chinese cities – that, too, would heighten the sense among protesters of having little left to lose.

Either way, Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula is in tatters. All attempts to intimidate protesters with police violence and mass arrests have instead radicalised the movement. Now Hong Kongers are girding themselves for a long struggle ahead. Vast numbers still turn out for unauthorised protests, wearing masks to taunt the administration and underscore its impotence. As the weeks pass, the issues become ever more intractable, the conflict more entrenched and society ever more divided. If the government does not budge and the violence continues to escalate, Hong Kong’s own Troubles may last for decades.

Louisa Lim is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited and a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer and journalist based in Hong Kong

Article shared privately for educational purposes only. For subscriptions please see The Guardian online. Note: shared in this form (blog) due to platform access restrictions in China.