Since the police fired the first canister of tear gas on unarmed student protesters in Admiralty on Sept. 28, many questions have remained unanswered: Why was tear gas used? On whose order was it used? When was the decision made?
Many Hong Kong people were shocked to see riot squads armed with what appear to be shotguns advancing on Harcourt Road and holding banners that read “DISPERSE OR WE FIRE”.
Suddenly, Hong Kong turned into a surreal, scary landscape. It’s no longer the city they were familiar with.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying gave an outright denial during a recent TVB interview that he ordered the use of tear gas on the students, saying it was “common sense” that police commanders at the scene made the decision based on their professional experience.
But it is also common sense that no police officers — not even the commanders or the Commissioner of Police Tsang Wai-hung himself — would use force without authorization from a higher power.
It’s obvious that Leung was being less than candid.
Joining a discussion on the issue at the political forum VJ Media, local blogger Alex Shiu notes that the decision to use force, including tear gas, on the young protesters could have been made more than a year ago when the government started preparing for the Occupy Central movement.
Citing remarks by a former police officer, whom he did not identify, Shiu said Hong Kong’s riot police can only be deployed with authorization from the top official of the SAR government.
Once mobilized, riot police are allowed to use any or all of the weapons at their disposal, and these include pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and even real bullets. Once they are out, they can fire at anyone at any time, Shiu said.
News video footage of riot policemen aiming their guns at protesters were seen live around the world on television.
It was learned that the riot policemen carried high-powered firearms during the dispersal operation.
These include Remington Model 870, a powerful pump-action shotgun that can inflict fatal wounds if fired directly at protesters, as well as M16 and AR15 rifles with an effective firing range of 400-800 meters.
It is said that bullets fired from these weapons, after hitting the target, will rotate inside the body to ensure maximum damage.
Several policemen were found carrying these rifles near the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and Cheung Kong Center that night.
As for the “DISPERSE OR WE FIRE” banners, Chief Superintendent Steve Hui of the police public relations branch told a news conference that police had no intention to fire on the crowd and the banners displayed were printed with “WARNING TEAR SMOKE” on one side and “DISPERSE OR WE FIRE” on the other.
According to Hui, the police wanted to display the side showing “WARNING TEAR SMOKE” to the protesters who were trying to break the police cordons, although the wrong side might have been displayed amid the chaos.
Responding to lawmakers’ questions at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok stressed that the police had no plans to fire at the protesters, adding that the double-sided warning banners have been in use for decades.
But the “one banner, two warnings” explanation has failed to dispel the fear and anger of many.
It was hard to understand why the police, who had been preparing for more than a year on how to respond to the Occupy Central movement, did not think of the risks of using misleading banners if police really had no intention of using deadly force on the students in the first place.
Senior officers of the police force also never bothered to explain why there were so many riot policemen carrying rifles and shotguns that night if they had no intention of using them.
Many observers also failed to grasp the rationale behind the excessive use of tear gas on the students. The last time police deployed tear gas on a crowd in Hong Kong was during the World Trade Organization meeting a decade ago.
Back then police used a total of seven canisters of tear gas to disperse South Korean protesters in Wan Chai. In the Harcourt Road operation, police fired 87.
But that’s not yet the weirdest or scariest information to emerge from this sorry episode.
Just a year ago, media reports said the police conducted an anti-riot exercise at Queen’s Hill Camp, a remote location with no transport links in Fanling.
Two members of the Police Tactical Unit were injured when petrol-based devices were used for the first time in an anti-riot exercise. The device can cause severe burns because it contains petrol-based substance that sticks to the skin.
Just this June police held another large-scale drill in Tseung Kwan O and again the petrol-based device was deployed.
Interestingly, that was the first time media personnel caught sight of the “DISPERSE OR WE FIRE” banners.
The drill took place more than a month before China’s legislature issued its controversial ruling on electoral reform for Hong Kong.
Could this mean that the authorities had already decided that early to take a tough stance in dealing with the pro-democracy movement?
What is clear is that Hong Kong police have been adequately trained and were ready to use lethal weapons in a crackdown on protesters.
And if police are prepared to use maximum force, who has the authority to give the go-ahead? We are talking here not just of tear gas and pepper spray but of weapons which, if used, would have implications far beyond the dispersal of a bunch of unarmed protesters.
And if police are ready to use these weapons, who has the authority to order them to hold fire, cease operation and allow the protesters to occupy the streets?
Would the chain of command end at the police chief? At CY Leung? Or someone higher?
The government owes the Hong Kong people a clear explanation.
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