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On the frontlines: the Hong Kong public hospital doctors making a stand against police violence

The smoke was so thick and the rounds were coming so fast that Bruce found himself crouching in the gutter, his protective gear all but useless. On that same stretch of Nathan Road, a woman would poke her head out between the advertising panels of a bus stop and get shot in the eye.

Meanwhile, halfway across town, Dr Benjamin So of Queen Mary Hospital was spending his Sunday evening on call. Checking his phone, he saw scenes that defied belief: riot police inside an MTR station were firing pepper balls from point-blank range.

police shoot protesters Tai Koo

Police shooting protesters at close range at Tai Koo station, August 11, 2019. Photo: Apple Daily.

August 11 became one of the most shocking days in Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill movement, as violence seemed to reach a fever pitch. Riot police deployed what Hongkongers have come to call “tear gas buffet,” while protesters upped their use of Molotov cocktails, slingshots and bricks.

Two days later, 13 of Hong Kong’s public hospitals held sit-in protests in the wake of escalating clashes. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and medical sector employees attended, many covering their right eyes with patches, as a symbol of solidarity with the woman injured in Tsim Sha Tsui.

“Hong Kong police attempt to murder Hong Kong citizens,” read some of the placards. Others read: “Corrupt police, give us the eye back.”

Medical professionals sit-in at Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Medical professionals sit-in at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Bruce and Ben are both doctors at Hong Kong’s public hospitals ⁠— a group that numbered slightly above 6,000 at the end of 2017. In recent months, the medical sector was not exempt from the effects of the city-wide protests, as the fight against an ill-fated extradition bill grew into wider concerns over Beijing’s encroachment, democracy, alleged police brutality, surveillance and other community grievances.

The two doctors spoke to HKFP about how they see themselves in relation to the pro-democracy movement, and how each managed to reconcile their day jobs with a broader sense of civic responsibility.

A ‘moral’ question

Ben, a resident in internal medicine, helped organise the August 13 rally at Queen Mary Hospital, which was first proposed by junior staff mostly in their twenties. “We are the lowest echelon,” he said jokingly.

In the previous weeks, Ben had mostly reserved himself to joining peaceful marches, like those organised by the Civil Human Rights Front.

Benjamin So queen mary hospital

Dr. Benjamin So. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

A doctor’s occupation should not be seen as a barrier to political participation, he argued. “When doctors leave work, they are just any other person. They have their political rights… If we believe that ordinary people have the right to protest, it should go for them as well,” he said.

Reacting to large-scale rallies by public sector employees, the Hospital Authority (HA) on August 15 reminded its doctors of the “importance of public expectations and perceptions towards public hospitals.” While doctors are allowed to express opinions in a personal capacity, the HA said that medical staff should provide “equitable care” to all patients.

For Ben, that guarantee of professionalism has been upheld so far.

“Impartiality for me means that [protesting] does not affect the quality of medical care,” he said. “With everything that has happened since June, the public sector has continued to provide healthcare, and I think we have continued to be professional.”

queen mary hospital lennon wall

Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“We will treat protesters, just as we will treat the Yuen Long gangster who suffered cardiac arrest,” he said, referring to one of the men involved in the July 21 mob attack.

Ben agreed that doctors should refrain from making overt political judgments in the workplace — a factor that helped decide the rally’s direction.

Earlier in August, other representatives of the medical sector also held a rally, which revolved around the five political demands of the anti-extradition bill movement: a complete withdrawal of the bill, no longer characterising the protests as “riots,” amnesty for those arrested, a fully independent probe into police behaviour and universal suffrage.

While Ben supported the demands, he said the event left him a little cold as it was tricky to associate political demands with the role of healthcare professionals. The “focus was clearer” if the message was just about doctors not wanting people to get hurt – especially after the bloody scenes on August 11, he said.

queen mary hospital protest doctor

Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“For the Queen Mary rally, the focus was not really on the five demands, it was not a strong political stance,” he said.

“Our stance was very firmly against police violence… It was a moral problem, rather than any political problem.”

The management of Queen Mary Hospital did not object to the rally, but none of the executive-level doctors attended save for microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung.

Once a top public exam scorer and a champion debater in university, Ben was the one who drafted the strongly-worded statement for the rally, which accused the police of fostering a “perverse culture” that encouraged violence without restraint.

Benjamin So queen mary hospital

Dr. Benjamin So. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“It is clear that any checks and balances on police violence have become so dysfunctional in recent years that police officers using excessive violence not only escape any legal penalty, but are actually legitimised and rewarded by the government,” the statement read.

“As health care professionals bound to advocate for the best interest of our patients and the human race, we cannot stay silent in the face of such police brutality and social injustice. Regardless of any political views we may hold, it is our duty to uphold the basic moral standards fundamental to any civilised society.”

Ben said he was happy with the slogan they picked, which made reference to the two ends of the political spectrum: Blue and yellow is a matter of political opinion, but black and white is a question of conscience.

Another kind of frontline

Dressed in his blue scrubs and white coat, Bruce — who did not give his real name for fear of reprisal — appeared no different from any public hospital doctor.

“I have to make a disclaimer first: I’ve never hurt a single policeman,” he said.

kwun tong china extradition august 24

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The same could not be said the other way round: the doctor in his mid-twenties had been hit by police projectiles a few times, including in his thigh and lower abdomen. He also burnt his thumb while trying to pick up a tear gas canister with a wet cloth.

The injuries were no big deal, Bruce said — and he would know, having just started his third year working at the Accident and Emergency Department at a public hospital.

Since June, he has regularly appeared on the frontlines of the protest movement. First-aiders are a common sight at clashes between protesters and police, but Bruce deliberately chose not to wear a reflective vest or put a red cross on his helmet.

Instead, he dressed as any other frontline protester would, in black and with full protective gear. “If I follow the [first-aid teams], then I have to be neutral. There are some things that first-aiders can’t do, such as putting out tear gas,” he said.

august 5 admiralty harcourt occupation china extradition

Protesters douse a tear gas submunition with water. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“I am a protester. When I made that choice, it already means I’m not neutral… I’m just a protester who happens to want to help others too.”

Bruce said he limits himself to non-violent acts such as shouting slogans and giving emergency medical care to those who need it. As a doctor by trade, he said he was “conflicted” to see the violence escalate.

“I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but I won’t cut ties with [the protesters who use violence]. As the slogan goes, we don’t sever ties among ourselves,” he said.

“I understand why they would do that. Go back to the basics, why did our protest tactics change from the peaceful marches that date back 20 years? Half a million people could make [former chief executive] Tung Chee-hwa resign back then, but one or two million people marching today has no effect.”

kwun tong china extradition august 24

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Violence was the result of two main factors, he said: protesters running out of ideas on how to apply political pressure, as well as a backlash against perceived police brutality. Being on the receiving end of tear gas and rubber bullets, Bruce admitted that frontline protesters had developed “rage and hatred” towards law enforcement.

Asked how he personally felt about the police, he paused and replied: “I’m just a normal person, I also have anger… Is it hatred? I don’t have an answer yet. I don’t know where the line is between rage and hatred.”

Nevertheless, Bruce said that pro-democracy demonstrators cannot avoid confronting the police one way or another, as the officers were part of the regime. He asked, wryly: “Can you fight Hitler without fighting the German army?”

Bruce said he was fortunate to have support from his family, friends and colleagues. His boss would often remind him to stay safe, noting that any reduction in manpower in the emergency room would mean more work for everyone else.

august 18 china extradition (13) (Copy)

Photo: inmediahk.net.

Bruce — who said he picks fights with internet trolls for fun — described himself as “reckless” and “crazy,” but admitted that he was afraid of the legal repercussions of protesting. If he was ever caught, his medical license would likely be revoked.

One can be scared and still be mentally prepared, he said: “Once you decide to go to the frontline, you should be prepared to get arrested, shot or knifed by triads. It is a kind of realisation.”

“It’s just like giving a consent form to a patient. This surgery will have such-and-such risks, if you can accept them then go for it,” Bruce added. “It is the same for everyone who goes out there: you are giving yourself a consent form to sign.”

Someone to trust

While Bruce and Ben chose to engage in the pro-democracy movement outside of work, the consequences of escalating clashes in Hong Kong have challenged the public hospital system in a fundamental way.

After each violent clash, Bruce said the emergency room receives a similar set of patients: injuries resulting from blunt trauma, dislocated joints, or respiratory symptoms such as coughing and breathing difficulties.

Medical professionals sit-in at Queen Elizabeth Hospital

Medical professionals sit-in at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

But it was the projectile wounds that worry Bruce the most. “Anyone who has been shot — no matter by which type of bullet — will suffer injuries that can have serious consequences. These people are most in need of our services, but they won’t dare to go to the hospital.”

While other injuries can be explained away, a projectile wound would place its victim at the scene of a protest, attracting unwelcome attention from the law.

On June 17, news broke that the police could freely access the Hospital Authority’s system to check details of injured protesters. The HA denied sharing information with police, though at least five protesters were arrested whilst seeking help at hospitals.

Ben said that a lot of the doctors at the time felt “very dissatisfied” with what he described as the HA leaking sensitive patient information.

“Starting from that time onwards, I cannot draw a direct link, but it does seem people started to lose trust in public sector healthcare,” Ben said. “They’re afraid that they might go to a hospital and end up arrested.”

Accident and emergency hospital

Photo: GovHK.

After a night of violent clashes, some protesters would avoid the emergency room and instead seek Bruce out in private. Luckily, the cases he dealt with so far were relatively minor, he said.

Those were not isolated incidents: Médecins Inspirés, a group of pro-democracy medical professionals, has been privately treating people who refused to seek help via conventional means. While the group did not disclose the number of cases they took on, one representative told Apple Daily there were so many that some of their volunteers were “exhausted and on the brink of collapse.”

Bruce said that the government and police were to blame for the climate of fear that pervades public hospitals. “It is like the 1960s or 70s when you need to find a doctor on the black market, or you need to try all sorts of backdoor methods just to find someone you can trust,” he said.

“This is stripping ordinary citizens of their right to public healthcare. This really disgusts me, I can’t stand it.”

leung pak-yin

Hospital Authority Chief Executive Leung Pak-yin. Photo: inmediahk.net.

A few days after the privacy scandal broke, the HA’s chief executive apologised for the “anxieties caused,” and established a task force to look into hospitals’ IT systems and patient privacy protection.

But, for Ben, the question remained unresolved. “Whether police continued to get more information from hospitals, we don’t know. It’s just that we all stopped talking about it,” he said.

Public hospitals entered the spotlight again on August 20, when two police officers were caught on CCTV abusing an elderly patient. With the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam mired in a governance crisis, Hongkongers are forced to ask: how many public institutions can still be trusted?

Ben and Bruce said they hope hospitals can remain a safe space for all. However, as the city’s protests are set to continue into September, the fractures within Hong Kong’s public healthcare system — between medical professionals, police and the government — may take a long time to mend.

queen mary hospital lennon wall

The Lennon Wall at Queen Mary Hospital. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

As he leaves the interview to start his shift, Bruce observed that the dynamics between doctor and patient had changed — perhaps with lasting consequences.

“If [protesters] come to us that means they still have a bit of trust, but they have wised up on how to protect themselves. For example, they wouldn’t give their real names and claim they forgot to bring their ID cards,” he said with a grin.

“I can tell if a patient gave a fake name, because when I say it over the PA system it takes a few tries for them to respond.”


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On the frontlines: the Hong Kong public hospital doctors making a stand against police violence