Through the summer and into the autumn of 2019 the world has witnessed scenes of escalating violence on the streets of Hong Kong. On the other side of the world, people are bewildered about images of protesters that at the same time demand an independent investigation of the police while also having radical members throwing bricks and petrol bombs towards the police. Here, I will give my interpretation of how such a state came to be.
Opinion polls from Hong Kong suggest that trust in the Hong Kong police force has reached catastrophic levels during this summer. While 6.5% of people in Hong Kong were completely out of trust with the police force in May/June, this figure reached an alarming level of nearly 50% in September. A logical explanation for such a change of opinion is that a large fraction of Hong Kong’s people finds that the escalating violence is primarily driven by the police and the Hong Kong authorities, not the protesters. I believe the reasons can be found in the drastic use of force applied to disperse crowds during demonstrations and skirmishes. Below I present some examples that I hope will shed some light on this issue.
On 9 June there was a major peaceful march from Victoria Park to the Legislative Council (LegCo) building in Admiralty, with approximately one million people taking part. The march was in protest of the proposed extradition law, but despite the extraordinary turnout the government of Hong Kong kept insisting that the law bill must be taken up and accepted by LegCo. This was the defining moment for all that has since come to pass in Hong Kong. If Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and her government had come to their senses and retracted the bill during the days between the protest march and the planned second reading in LegCo a few days later, the protests would most likely have come to an end at that time. But the bill was not withdrawn, and since then, protests have become ever more ferocious, and the level of violence has escalated.
On 12 June, the date set for the second reading of the bill, large crowds took to the streets, blocked traffic, and denied access to the LegCo building by physically blocking the entrances. This action was successful, however, to later disperse the protesters the police applied large quantities of tear gas, rubber bullets etc., which resulted in at least 72 persons being taken to hospitals due to injuries inflicted from forceful police action. From their side the police justified their response by referring to acts of violence from some protesters. Nevertheless, condemnation of what was seen by many as disproportionate use of violence by police officers was widespread. The police was also criticized for harassment of journalists by for example the Hong Kong Bar Association. Amnesty International issued a statement in which the police’ excessive use of force was condemned as unlawful and in violation of international human rights law and standards. From the other side the police characterized parts of the 12 June protests as «rioting», which by Hong Kong law carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ jail time.
Reacting to the 12 June events the protest movement formulated their five demands, including setting up an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force. On 28 June three human rights organizations posted a letter to Hong Kong leaders in which they urge the government to carry out an investigation into alleged police brutality.
In the following weeks the public’s trust in the police force took one blow after another. As can be seen from the polling data shown in the image above, the plunge in the level of trust was particularly strong during the period from mid-July to early August. A traumatic episode took place on 21 July when a mob of in excess of 100 white dressed members of Hong Kong organized crime («triads») attacked civilians on a metro station using iron bars and wooden clubs. Many of those that were attacked were returning from a demonstration which had received a letter of no objection from the police, although some skirmishes between radical protesters and the police were reported in the aftermath. Videos of the incident allegedly show police officers indicating the whereabouts of the pro-democracy protesters to the white clad thugs. In addition to pro-democracy protesters victims also included the elderly, children, lawmakers and journalists.
At least 45 civilians were injured including a pregnant woman. It was not only the acts of violence that shocked society, but also the anemic and late response from the police. Despite having received a large number of emergency calls the police did not arrive at the metro station until half an hour after the attack started which was after the mob had left the scene of their crimes.
On 11 August violence again escalated through several episodes which further eroded the trust in the Hong Kong police force. A woman was hit in the eye by a projectile that was allegedly fired by the police. Sources at the hospital stated that her injury was serious, and that she would lose sight on the damaged eye.
In another episode the police fired tear gas inside an enclosed metro station where limited exit options existed. This action was met with extensive critisism as tear gas is intended to be used as a crowd dispersal agent in open places. On the same day undercover police officers dressed and geared as protesters took part in brutal scenes of arrests. As a consequence there have later been several violent incidents among protesters taking part in demonstrations due to suspicions of presence of undercover police.
The contrasts between arrest of pro-democratic protesters and the leniency when some white clad thugs are arrested could hardly be more striking.
As should be evident from this essay, my view is that it is the Hong Kong police, likely under influence from the government, that has been driving the escalating spiral of violence. Unfortunately, a few of the most radical members of the protest movement have followed suit. One result is a collapse in people’s trust in the police force, as revealed by the polling data described in the beginning of this article. Moreover, according to another survey from the Chinese University in Hong Kong as many as 70% of the Hong Kong population criticizes the police for applying excessive force. On the other hand about 40% of the respondents are of the opinion that there is too much violence among protesters. Nevertheless, more than half can understand the protesters’ radical actions, while about 27% hold the opposing view. Finally, a substantial majority assigns blame for the present shambolic state of Hong Kong to the government and the police.
Above, I have recounted some episodes which were described in some detail in the media as they unfolded. There have also been allegations of sexual harassment and violence upon or after arrests of the victims. However, all of this is just the tip of an iceberg of countless encounters between the protest movement and their adversaries, among whom the police dominates. Also worth noting is that several police officers have been injured in the skirmishes, and also been victims of doxxing. Nevertheless, it is evident that a large majority of the Hong Kong population is of the opinion that the force applied by the police is beyond what they see as reasonable response. Moreover, police officers have removed their ID badges which previously was easily seen on top of the right side pocket of their shirts, a change that may contribute to a sense of reduced accountability in the police force. Police officers have also characterized protesters as cockroaches and objects. Such dehumanizing acts and attitudes build an underlying foundation of a sense of superiority which in the mind of the beholder justifies use of force that otherwise would be in conflict with moral and ethics.
I end this account with an episode that took place on 7 October when riot police stormed a shopping mall after first being held back by the mall’s security guards. On the following day five security guards were arrested when they arrived at the police station for questioning. They were charged with obstruction of the police. From what I’ve been able to read it is questionable if the police acted in accordance with the jurisdiction since they did not display an arrest warrant upon arrival. But for a moment, let’s disregard the letter of the law. The essence of what we can learn from this incident is that the reputation of the Hong Kong police force has descended to a depth at which trained security guards resist the police.
If you’ve read this far, I must point out that it can be hard to separate facts from exaggerations and misinformation in the toxic atmosphere inside which presently society in Hong Kong is engulfed. Nevertheless, even though some reports may not be completely objective, it is evident that society in Hong Kong is presently in a dysfunctional state. Further, it seems obvious that there needs to be a reform of the police so that public trust in the force is restored. It is in the interest of every single Hong Kong citizen that an independent commission is established in order to investigate the numerous complaints about acts by the police that have been filed in the past months. The members of the commission must be selected in a manner that receives wide support with respect to neutrality, independence, and competence. This is one of the protesters’ five demands.
The original version of this article (in Norwegian) was posted on October 10.