After the protest movement declared war on society last June, Hong Kong was fortunate that its police force stood firm. Courageous young officers, many more used to investigating burglaries, arresting drug addicts and chasing road racers, suddenly found themselves confronted by crazed rioters, alien to even the most basic decencies. Over many months, they not only attacked the police with petrol bombs and other lethal weapons, but also killed or maimed citizens with different opinions, brutalized visitors from elsewhere in China, and destroyed banks, businesses and public facilities.
Had it not been for the sustained professionalism of the police force, the “one country, two systems” arrangement would have collapsed. This, of course, is exactly what many in the protest movement, and their foreign backers, wanted to see. They knew full well that if they could provoke Beijing into revoking Hong Kong’s current way of life, as underpinned by the Basic Law, this would damage China as a whole, and be a godsend to its global rivals.
The protest movement, however, was unable to achieve its objectives, despite its indiscriminate use of terror tactics. In frustration, it turned its ire on the police force, which successfully outmaneuvered it at every turn. Throughout many months of violence, the police used minimum force, always giving ample warnings before they mobilized, and avoiding the multiple fatalities which have characterized the recent riots in, for example, Chile and France. The protesters nonetheless accused the police of brutality, hoping to undermine their morale, and they fed their allegations to anti-China forces elsewhere, notably in the United States. Although their foreign allies were eager for propaganda to deploy, they obviously wanted hard evidence, and the protesters tried hard to find them a martyr, albeit without success.
Had it not been for the sustained professionalism of the police force, the “one country, two systems” arrangement would have collapsed. This, of course, is exactly what many in the protest movement, and their foreign backers, wanted to see
Initially, for example, the protesters homed in on a young woman, who allegedly lost her sight after being hit in the eye by a beanbag round during a violent protest on Aug 11, and they even started chanting “an eye for an eye” while demonstrating. However, after a video emerged showing that she may have been hit by a projectile from a protester’s catapult, and once Queen Elizabeth Hospital revealed she had not actually lost her sight, they quickly lost interest in her, and looked elsewhere. This time, they claimed that, on Aug 31, after they had committed arson attacks at MTR stations and thrown iron railings onto railway tracks, seven of their number had been beaten to death when the police entered Prince Edward MTR Station to regularize the situation. This lie, of course, fell even flatter than the others, as there were not only no bodies, but also no reports from families or employers of anyone having gone missing. Undaunted, they then tried to make a martyr out of 15-year-old student Chan Yin-lam, who had previously attended a protest and whose body was found floating in the sea on Sept 15. Although they claimed she had been murdered by the police, this fallacy also collapsed once her mother revealed that Chan was suicidal. In their fury, these fine Hong Kongers then turned on her, subjecting her to doxxing, harassment and telephone calls at all hours, with some cruelly alleging that she was not even the girl’s mother.
However, despite all such crude attempts to besmirch the police force, the truth has now shone forth. On Friday, the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) released its “Thematic Study Report on the Public Order Events”, which examines recent policing events. The 999-page report found that there were no systemic problems of policing in Hong Kong, with the police only using force in response to the violence of the protesters, to maintain law and order, and to protect themselves. Of course, the police force did not get everything right, which is unsurprising as it was confronting levels of violence not seen in recent times. However, they quickly learned on the job, and many of the earlier deficiencies have long-since been remedied. The new police commissioner, Chris Tang Ping-keung, is, moreover, now providing the force with fresh direction, resulting in, for example, better containment of rioters, and he will welcome the report’s recommendations. These include such things as more training, clearer guidelines, and improved communications, which, together with the recent increase in its budget, will boost the force’s capacity to protect Hong Kong. As it reflects his own philosophy, Tang will also have been happy with the report’s finding that “almost all officers are conscious of the need to allow peaceful protest to take place and the need for restraint when due”.
The report debunks several of the myths generated by the protesters, including what happened during the “Yuen Long incident”, on July 21. While recognizing that there was “room for improvement”, it noted that many officers who might otherwise have been available were tied up for nearly five hours that night in combating the violence in Connaught Road West, where armed mobs attacked the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the HKSAR, set the roads alight, and assaulted the police with slingshots, arrows, bricks and sharpened poles. What is particularly fascinating, however, is the revelation that, on July 21, the 999 hotline was deliberately abused, and that posts on the protest-friendly LIHKG forum called on people to jam the system, which is exactly what happened. In consequence, the ability of various police command centers to have a clear picture of what was happening in Yuen Long was undermined, and this inevitably “affected their ability to deploy personnel for effective and timely handling of that situation”.
The report also confirms how, as long suspected, the police complaints procedure has been deliberately abused. Although 1,755 complaints were filed with the Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO), the IPCC was only following up on 584 of them. Quite clearly, many groundless complaints are being lodged, in the hope of distracting the police and tying up busy officers in red tape. It is an offense to provide false information to the CAPO, and there will hopefully be prosecutions in suitable cases.
In its analysis of the protests, the IPCC, chaired by the respected barrister Anthony Neoh SC, explains how the demands of the protest movement have included such things as the release of criminal suspects, the disbandment of the police force, and the liberation of Hong Kong. They use the internet to spread hatred against the police, making threats against individual officers and their families. From relatively humble beginnings, the protesters have escalated their violence, attacking people with different views, disabling major transport networks, and vandalizing public and private property. The report also highlights the recent seizures of assault rifles, handguns and ammunition, as well as bomb-making materials, and this provides a context for the use of force by the police on some occasions.
The report acknowledges that Tang is applying a three-pronged doctrine, which involves preventing the preventable, managing what is not preventable, and engaging the unacceptable in the management of major public order events. If that approach is to succeed, the police force, it says, has to formulate new strategic directions and equip itself with the necessary physical and technological resources, and to be ready to confront “the challenge of multiple citywide guerrilla-type attacks aided by advanced technology and accompanied by violence and vandalism verging on terrorism”. This clarion call will undoubtedly resonate throughout the police force, and it will also be welcomed by everyone who wishes to protect Hong Kong’s unique constitutional status and preserve its precious way of life.
The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of Hong Kong.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS