19 September 2019
A pro-establishment group's Facebook page carries 
messages in support of the purchase of water cannon vehicles for crowd control. Photos: Reuters, Facebook
A pro-establishment group's Facebook page carries messages in support of the purchase of water cannon vehicles for crowd control. Photos: Reuters, Facebook

Water cannons: a sign of growing hostility toward dissent

“We need a true water cannon vehicle.”

“We need water cannon vehicles even though we don’t get our salaries.”

“We need water cannon vehicles even if I don’t have my meals.”

“I need a water cannon vehicle.”

Reading these slogans, which have appeared recently on the Facebook page of a local pro-establishment group, one might get the impression that Hong Kong is in a state of siege, and our police officers are in dire need of hardware to protect themselves and the law-abiding public from huge crowds of rabid rioters.

Thankfully, that is not the case. And even during the height of the Umbrella Movement, protests remained peaceful and orderly, and would have remained so had they not been dispersed by police or disrupted by goons. 

It’s quite clear that the group calling itself Occupy Central Not Representing Me has taken a hostile approach towards the pro-democracy camp.

Though the Occupy Central protesters had long decamped from Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok after their 79-day campaign in late 2014, the other side’s anger apparently has not dissipated.

Their support for the requisition of water cannon vehicles for crowd control is the latest example.

Pan-democrat lawmakers are opposing the HK$27 million funding application by the police force to buy three such water cannons amid fears that their use could cause permanent injury or even death. 

Why does the police force need to spend such a huge sum of public money to buy weapons for crowd control?

Public discontent is growing over a range of issues from urban planning to political roadmap.  The lack of public support has made it difficult for the government to implement its policies in a smooth and effective manner.

And because of the growing distrust between the government and the public, most controversies are spilling out into the streets in the form of mass demonstrations. And that’s the reason why the police want to buy water cannons.

The opposition camp is concerned that the proposal to buy water cannons could be an indication of the government’s growing hostile attitude towards dissent.

In the first place, law enforcement officers have shown that they are not sufficiently trained and professional enough in handling mass demonstrations. The Occupy campaign showed that police could be capable of abusing their authority as exemplified by their violent dispersal of unarmed protesters with the use of truncheons, tear gas and pepper sprays.

Some pro-Beijing lawmakers argue that using water cannons for crowd control is much better than using tear gas. “It’s better for the protesters to wet their bodies, rather than lose their virginity,” said Chung Shu-Kun of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Such ridiculous comments indicate the caliber of some of the lawmakers from the pro-Beijing camp.

But the deployment of water cannons is not a joke. It’s about the safety of the protesters, and the people’s freedom of expression, which is guaranteed under the Basic Law.

It is the principal duty of the police to protect the public, but the use of a water cannon can seriously injure or even kill people, according to a human rights group.

Some netizens challenge government officials to test the water cannons by allowing themselves to be the targets, to see for themselves if they could get hurt or not, before the Legislative Council approves the funding request.

In London, critics said the deployment of water cannons is a move to a more military style of law enforcement, and their use will damage the image of the police.

The London Metropolitan Police Service has promised the vehicles will not be used until authorized by the home secretary and that their use will not lead to abuses or injuries.

London Mayor Boris Johnson himself agreed to experience the impact of a water cannon in a bid to reassure the people that they will be safe when subjected to such an attack.

The bid to use water cannons against protesters will only serve to erode the core values of our society, and threaten the freedom of expression that we have enjoyed for so many years.

And the insistence by Beijing loyalists that maximum force be used in handling protests reflects the tendency of some people to disregard the principles that make us Asia’s world city and unique from other Chinese cities on the mainland.

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EJ Insight writer