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How Hong Kong’s police force lost the goodwill of the people

“Fuck tha Police.” 

So sang the legendary American hip-hop group N.W.A. in 1988. Millions of their fans joined in, and a brazen and profane protest anthem against police injustice was born. Eight years later protesters were singing it in the streets of Belgrade in what was formerly Yugoslavia, and the song recently gained new currency with the 2015 release of the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton.

Most Hongkongers, of course, despite the angry polarisation of the city’s politics in which the police have played a significant role, are still too polite to throw public f-bombs at law-enforcement officers as a form of protest, but they could certainly be forgiven if their private thoughts have turned this way.

Hong Kong police during the Occupy protest.

Hong Kong police during the Occupy protest. File photo: HKFP.

As Hong Kong prepares to mark the 21st anniversary of its handover from British to Chinese rule on Sunday, the city’s police force, once dubbed “Asia’s finest,” has become a symbol of hostility and suppression to those who support democratic reforms and oppose the creeping authoritarianism that demands for such reforms have provoked from the central and Hong Kong governments. 

Since the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement fizzled out after 79 days without any tangible gains, any dialogue or debate about democracy has moved from the front burner to the back burner to cold storage. Meanwhile, via edicts handed down from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, so-called “interpretations” of the Basic Law by that same august body and multiple warnings about traitorous thoughts not to be uttered and red lines not to be crossed by central authorities as high up as President Xi Jinping, Beijing has moved to bend Hong Kong to its autocratic will. 

And, although Hong Kong police chief Stephen Lo Wai-chung and his senior officers will certainly deny it, there is no question that the city’s police force has served as an instrument of that will, alienating large segments of the public, especially the younger generation. 

police tear gas admiralty hong kong democracy occupy universal suffrage umbrella movement

File photo: inmediahk.net.

Indeed, again going back to Occupy, it’s helpful to recall the symbolism of the time—yellow ribbons (and umbrellas) representing the tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and blue ribbons representing the police and the pro-Beijing counter-protests against the movement. But we should also remember the pressure, anger and frustration felt by ordinary police officers during Occupy. Given the daunting task of keeping the peace during a prolonged mass anti-government demonstration, they were also, following their initial ill-advised tear-gas attack on peaceful protesters, clearly under instructions to act with the utmost restraint.  

We saw that frustration explode in Tamar Park in the early-morning hours of October 15, 2104, when seven officers kicked, punched and rained baton blows down on activist Ken Tsang, who had been arrested, hand-cuffed and zip-tied after pouring a foul-smelling liquid (thought to be urine) on police from a nearby flyover. 

Tsang would later be found guilty of assault and resisting arrest and sentenced to five weeks in jail; the seven officers, on the other hand, would receive two-year jail sentences for assault occasioning actual bodily harm, with the severity of their sentences (when compared to Tsang’s) prompting police rallies and outrage among the rank and file. 

ken tsang

Ken Tsang. File Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Between the Tsang assault in 2014 and the sentencing of the officers in February 2017, Hong Kong had also witnessed the Mong Kok riot—an HK.W.A. “Fuck tha Police” night of horror during which nearly 90 members of the force were injured by enraged protesters throwing bricks, bottles and rubbish bins which had been set alight at stunned and frightened officers struggling to restore order. 

Like Occupy, the destruction and mayhem unleashed in Mong Kok on that first night of the 2016 Lunar New Year, when a minor protest in support of unlicensed hawkers of street food erupted into a full-scale attack on law enforcement, has clearly left a psychological scar on the Hong Kong Police Force that is yet to heal. 

Once perceived as the best trained and most professional force in Asia and as a fair and able manager of Hong Kong’s post-handover culture of protest, the force is now seen to be actively working to undermine that culture. Consequently, it has lost the trust, not to mention the goodwill, of many Hongkongers who feel their way of life under the “one country, two systems” agreement with Beijing is slipping away with the increasingly open complicity of government officials from Chief Executive Carrie Lam on down.

hong kong democracy occupy universal suffrage umbrella movement police

File photo: inmediahk.net.

And thus police routinely offer absurdly low-ball estimates for protest turnouts. For example, by police count, a mere 17,000 people showed up at this year’s June 4 candlelight vigil honouring those who died 29 years ago in Beijing’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, 1,000 fewer than last year, while organisers said 115,000 were there, 5,000 more than last year. 

The force has also put the squeeze on the organiser of Sunday’s traditional handover protest procession, the Civil Human Rights Front, stipulating that the starting point for participants must be the central lawn of Victoria Park, a small patch of grass that guarantees an equally small turnout count by police. Funny how that works. 

tiananmen massacre vigil 2018 hong kong

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

The dispute over the starting point for the procession comes after the Leisure and Cultural Services Department again jumped into the political fray, for the second year running granting use of the park’s six football pitches on July 1 to the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, a pro-Beijing political group thinly—very thinly—masquerading as a charity, instead of to the front. From 2004 to 2016, the front had started its procession from the pitches, which can accommodate tens of thousands of people. 

This new, severely circumscribed arrangement for the procession, aimed at promoting Beijing’s brand of unquestioning patriotism while subverting Hong Kong’s post-handover tradition of orderly and peaceful dissent, may well provoke clashes—between procession participants and nearby pro-Beijing proxies as well as between police and frustrated protesters who venture beyond their prescribed ambit. 

Is that the idea?  

How Hong Kong's police force lost the goodwill of the people