27 January 2020
Police recently unveiled specialized crowd management vehicles equipped with water cannons. Photo: HK Police/Facebook
Police recently unveiled specialized crowd management vehicles equipped with water cannons. Photo: HK Police/Facebook

The water cannon truck cannot resolve political issues

Just days after the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office reiterated Beijing’s support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and highly praised the police force for its handling of the political unrest in the city, the Department of Justice filed rioting charges against 44 protesters who were arrested during last Sunday’s clashes with the police in the Central and Western District.

They appeared in court on Wednesday morning and all but one were granted bail and ordered to come back for a hearing on Sept. 25.

The fact that the justice department is now pressing rioting charges against protesters, instead of the much less severe charge of unlawful assembly, suggests that the administration is determined to crush the anti-extradition bill protests with an iron fist.

Under Section 19 of the existing Public Order Ordinance, the maximum penalty for any person convicted of rioting is 10 years’ imprisonment.

Edward Leung Tin-kei and Lo Kin-man, the two young localists convicted over the 2016 Mong Kok riots, have been sentenced to six and seven years in jail respectively.

And so the 44 protesters could face years in prison once convicted of rioting.

Over the past two months, since the massive protests against the extradition bill began, the government has not prosecuted any arrested individual for rioting despite the multiple and escalating clashes between protesters and police – until now.

Lam and Police Commissioner Steven Lo Wai-chung have actually backpedaled on publicly referring to the clashes on June 12 as a riot amid fierce public backlash.

The DoJ’s rioting charges against the 44 protesters, the biggest number of such indictments being pressed in one go since the 1997 handover, not only indicates the ferocity of the clashes on the night of July 28, but may also signify that the authorities will no longer go easy on arrested protesters.

Apart from the serious criminal charges, police are also adopting new ways to deal with the protesters in the streets. Recently unveiled were the specialized crowd management vehicles equipped with water cannons.

Police have started testing the vehicles. RTHK cited sources saying the water cannon vehicles are expected to be deployed in one to two weeks at the soonest.

It’s not certain, however, if the vehicles will be deployed during the planned protests this weekend, the police sources said.

Besides, the water cannon trucks, although definitely intimidating, may not be as effective as many people think: they are basically useless against protesters in narrow alleys and street blocks.

The protests are now becoming more and more like guerrilla warfare. Hundreds or even thousands of protesters can come together in a particular place, such as outside the Kwai Chung Police Station on Tuesday night, in just a matter of hours, and then quickly disperse, making it more difficult for the police to respond rapidly and effectively.

Nevertheless, police sources stressed that, if necessary, the water cannon trucks can be ready for deployment in very short notice to disperse protesters.

It is said that the water cannon trucks are definitely something to be reckoned with because aside from being able to fire high-velocity streams of water at the crowd, they can spray liquid dye at protesters.

Meanwhile, online chats indicate that activists are also studying how to neutralize this new and awesome weapon. And so it remains to be seen whether the trucks will be a deciding factor in the street confrontations in the coming days.

The fact remains, however, that both the armored water cannon vehicles and the filing of rioting charges against protesters can only serve as a quick fix at best at a time when public grievances against the government are continuing to intensify.

Unless the administration can get to the roots of the social turmoil and address them adequately, the conflicts will persist and Hong Kong itself will end up the biggest loser.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 31

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.