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Interview: Occupy activist Ken Tsang on the 7 cops who beat him, prison life, and his political future

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On October 15, 2014, at the height of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, social worker Ken Tsang was beaten up by seven police officers in a dimly-lit corner outside government headquarters. The officers said that Tsang had provoked them by pouring water on colleagues who were clearing a nearby protest site.

Television network TVB captured the scenes, and aired a narrated clip of the assault at 6am: “Police officers lifted him and took him to a dark corner of Tamar Park. They placed him on the floor, and punched and kicked him.”

But when the news was aired again at 7am, the words “punched and kicked” were deleted from the voiceover, and the violence was downplayed as “suspected.” Outrage and accusations of censorship followed.

Since that incident, both Tsang and the seven officers have been jailed for assault. The police officers’ two-year sentences sparked protests from the pro-Beijing camp in February, and a proposed bill to criminalise insults against police officers.

The 41-year-old activist finished serving his five-week term last month. Following his release, he spoke to HKFP about his life at Sai Kung’s Pik Uk Prison, his early experiences of police aggression as a social worker, and his political future.

Ken Tsang

Ken Tsang. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

How did you spend your time in prison?

I spent a total of 31 days in prison.

In Pik Uk, my duty was in carpentry. As a newcomer, the duty – no matter which workshop I work in – was cleaning. So I had to mop the floor in the morning and in the afternoon, and in the night I had to do some cleaning inside the dormitory. That’s it. If you stay longer, I think more than three months, they will train you to work with some machines.

We woke up around 5am, and then we had our breakfast at 6:30am. Lunch was at 12pm, and dinner time was around 6pm. Each meal everyday was almost the same.

How did the prison officers treat you?

All the officers treated me really nicely – I mean, they treated me just the way they should. Before prison, some people – including myself – were worried about them threatening me or treating me badly. But in the end, nothing happened.

ken tsang supporters

Supporters of Ken Tsang outside Pik Uk Prison. Photo: League of Social Democrats, via Facebook.

A lot of people tried to keep an eye on me. During those 31 days, six legislative councillors came to visit me, like “Long Hair” [Leung Kwok-hung]. He came to visit me three times. Not because I complained, but I think they wanted to give a message to the officers that people are keeping their eyes on me, and they should not treat me badly or let anything terrible happen to me “accidentally”.

What I can say is that they carried out their services professionally. A lot of officers called me not by my inmate number, but by my name… So I think there was a lot of respect.

Of course, you never have a good time in prison, but I had a really peaceful time there. I did a lot of reviews about my life and career and what I should do in the future.

Did you witness any injustices at Pik Uk?

One of the aspects is food. Of course if you go to jail you cannot expect good food, but there are some unfair practices. It is not that equal between Chinese and Western prisoners, or between Indian and Pakistani prisoners. I know some people are doing a judicial review about the catering service in prisons.

ken tsang

Ken Tsang. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

For Western-style food, they will have milk tea with every meal at breakfast, lunch or dinner. But for Chinese prisoners, you don’t. And the volume of the meat, the size – there’s actually quite a big difference with Westerners getting more.

The food of the prisoners has not changed for 30 years. “Long Hair” told me that the first time he was imprisoned was in 1978. At the time, the food was almost exactly the same.

How do you view the pro-Beijing camp’s reaction to the jailing of the seven officers who beat you? (A rally of 30,000 police officers prompted massive fundraising for their families, and a proposal to criminalise insulting law enforcement personnel)

I think it’s quite ridiculous, and I don’t think they reflect the mainstream ideas of Hong Kong people. It’s like Hong Kong is pushing to the other extreme, like Singapore or mainland China. Hong Kong people can always tell you what is wrong and what is right.

When the policemen were fundraising, you can tell, a lot of the money came from the dirty side, the gangs, their representatives… In the end, history will judge.

Police rally

Police rally in support of the seven jailed officers on February 22. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Nowadays, a lot of people come out to confuse you – to say something terrible and make it look like it’s normal. That’s not our standard and not what we want.

You are a social worker, and used to work with young people. Have you witnessed other episodes of police aggression?

I used to be an outreach social worker. I worked with young people, teenagers – especially those who we think were at risk, or they were gangsters or triad members. So I always accompanied them to the police station or to court.

It happened to me once when I hung around in a video game centre. Some policemen came to check people’s identity cards. After they checked and they called the young people back to the police station, the policemen didn’t give back their cards. They just threw them on the floor and said: “Pick it up yourself.”

I didn’t expect policemen to carry out their duty in that way, so unprofessionally. Maybe it was because some of the young people, they didn’t have a really nice attitude, but what can you expect? You’re a policeman.

Ken Tsang

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

But not many of them in the end complain about the police… Whatever they say, they think the court or the legal system in Hong Kong is not protecting them. Of course, they think they did something wrong themselves as well. So they don’t think they have that right.

I think it’s kind of a culture [within the police force]. In Hong Kong, most police officers think they have that power, and they will abuse that power.

How do you think the Hong Kong public and the police can mend their relations?

I don’t think there is anything the public should do. The only things to do are from the police’s side. They should earn back the respect and the expectations from the citizens. You didn’t earn our respect so we don’t respect you.

That’s why after the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, lots of people are calling the cops, “black cops”. You will not see anybody call social workers, “black social workers”, or “black teachers” or whatever. But you always hear that word – “black cops” – after the Umbrella Movement.

occupy protests

Standoff between police and Occupy protests in Admiralty. File photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

Since Occupy, you’ve quit the Civic Party and tried to run for the social welfare constituency in the 2016 legislative elections. What role do you see for yourself in politics in the future?

I think I’m a weird person, I was from the Civic Party. In normal Hong Kong people’s minds, the Civic Party is more blue-blood or middle class-representative. But I’m quite grassroots, I’m a social worker. In social movements I always stand at the front – this is quite different from the Civic Party.

But I don’t think I should have a specific role. I’ll just be myself. For 20 years since I was a university student I was nobody, until people knew me after that incident [the assault by seven officers]. I think if you do the right thing, you’ll always have people supporting you.

In the short-term future I don’t think I will join any political party yet.

I believe in standing up for all Hongkongers. If you ask me whether I am a pan-democrat, or localist, or for self-determination – I’ve not thought about that much.

Ken Tsang

Ken Tsang at the Civic Party’s 2017 fundraising dinner. Photo: Civic Party via Facebook.

What about your plans to run in the upcoming legislative by-elections after the disqualification of Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung?

I told many media outlets I would consider running for the by-election, because I hope to be someone who can represent the largest breadth of the hopes and aspirations of the public.

For example, you see in Kowloon West [a constituency in last year’s legislative elections with a total of six seats], Raymond Wong [a defeated localist candidate] received 20,000 votes, Yau Wai-ching [the elected localist candidate] received 20,000-something votes.

These 40,000 votes are not traditional votes for pro-democracy candidates. Many are for radicals or localists, or against traditional “leftard” [idealistic left-wing] pan-democrats.

But I have to still assess the hopes of the public. I have to see whether there is a preliminary round among the pro-democracy candidates.

Ken Tsang

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

As this is a by-election, not a traditional election, we are looking at the largest camp versus the largest camp – the establishment versus the non-establishment, not the establishment against just the pan-democrats. Apart from the pan-democrats there are many groups, like the localists.

So I think maybe I have an advantage here as a non-traditional pro-democracy candidate.

It’s not just about my future, but about the fact that if we want to win the by-election, then the candidate with the largest reach has to come out.

Who is the democracy figure in Hong Kong whom you respect the most?

I respect “Long Hair” a lot. You can see he carries out lots of things that normal pan-democrats cannot do. As a poor or lower class person in Hong Kong, you will think “Long Hair” represents you, and works for you. He stands until the very last moment and he’s really strong.

Leung Kwok-hung

Leung Kwok-hung. File Photo: Facebook/Leung Kwok-hung.

In the last chief executive election, I think some democracy supporters were quite disappointed when the Democrats 300+ [coalition of 300 pro-democracy electors] said “we should go ‘all in’ for John Tsang.” And “Long Hair” was the only one who stood until the last moment, even when he got lots of shouts or complaints from our camp.

But in the end when John Tsang lost the election, you know, everything is set up by the Communist Party. It’s fake, it’s a dream for Hong Kong people to think that John Tsang can do something to change Hong Kong, or to earn back people’s hearts. It’s an illusion. And that’s what “Long Hair” told people before the election.

A lot of pro-democrats went to “Long Hair” and apologised. You can tell by the result that “Long Hair” was right.

Your own social worker license is under threat after a pro-Beijing colleague filed a complaint against you. What’s the significance of this?

I don’t think it’s a personal matter. I was the first to receive a complaint after the Umbrella Movement, but I won’t be the only case. You can foresee more and more social workers will get challenged.

Ken Tsang

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

For me and for lots of Hong Kong people, the war nowadays – the battle – is everywhere. In the political side, in the professional side, everywhere, even in education – in primary school, high school, universities.

So I – and lots of Hongkongers – won’t give up. It’s not the time to give up.

Edited and condensed for clarity.

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Interview: Occupy activist Ken Tsang on the 7 cops who beat him, prison life, and his political future