25 January 2020
Police guard an exit of the closed Kwai Fong MTR Station ahead a protest in the area on Sunday. The MTR has come under fire from the public for closing several stations on Saturday and Sunday. Photo: HKEJ
Police guard an exit of the closed Kwai Fong MTR Station ahead a protest in the area on Sunday. The MTR has come under fire from the public for closing several stations on Saturday and Sunday. Photo: HKEJ

Why encirclement tactics against protesters are infeasible

The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) is applying for a letter of no objection from the police for another massive protest this Saturday (Aug. 31), which coincides with the fifth anniversary of the 831 Framework, the decisions announced on Aug. 31, 2014 by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee regarding the selection of the chief executive by “universal suffrage” and the arrangement for forming the Legislative Council.

It remains uncertain whether the police would allow the rally.

Police sources have revealed that during the series of clashes over the past Saturday and Sunday in Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan respectively, the number of petrol bombs thrown by protesters and their power of explosion both saw an “escalation”.

To make things worse, protesters were throwing petrol bombs at the police formations rather than at the “no-man’s land” between them as they usually did before, a trend that has become a cause for substantial concern.

On the other hand, the MTR has also come under fire from the public for shutting down several subway stations near the march routes before the start of the marches on Saturday and Sunday.

Many citizens slammed the move for being an apparent attempt to prevent people from joining the protests. 

However, even the police didn’t necessarily welcome the MTR decision to shut down subway stations.

That’s because when dealing with protesters blocking road traffic or engaging in unlawful assembly, the police would normally try to disperse the crowd first before making arrests.

In other words, the police would normally prefer not to make arrests unless protesters either refuse to leave or make a vigorous stand at the scene.

As such, maintaining normal MTR train service during protests can help demonstrators to disperse more rapidly. On the other hand, closing subway stations during protests would actually work against the quick dispersal of the crowd as the police would like to see.

At a daily press briefing on Tuesday, Chief Superintendent John Tse Chun-chung of the Police Public Relations Branch stressed that the police did not take part in the decision to close MTR stations ahead of the protests on Saturday and Sunday. Tse said the police respect the MTR’s decision.

However, the mainland state media and some pro-establishment hardliners in the city didn’t see it that way. They criticized the MTR for providing convenient and efficient transport for violent protesters by maintaining normal train service during protests.

Given that, it remains unclear whether the MTR, in shutting down a number of stations along the protest routes, indeed succumbed to pressure even at the expense of many peaceful demonstrators and average commuters.

Some people may think that closing the subway stations temporarily can allow the police to encircle illegal protesters and then round them up in one go.

And this aggressive approach to dealing with protesters was echoed by some frontline police officers.

However, as police sources have pointed out, this “encirclement tactic” of arresting a large number of illegal protesters would entail an enormous amount of resources at the scene as well as co-ordination by different departments, not to mention the massive paperwork to book the arrested people afterwards.

For example, there were an estimated 1,000 frontline radical protesters spearheading the charges against the police over the weekend.

And since it normally takes about two to three officers to subdue a single protester, police would have needed at least 3,000 officers if they had really decided to arrest each and every one of them.

Besides, it would also spell nightmare for the judiciary if so many protesters were to go on trial.

As we can see, adopting a more aggressive tactic against protesters is easier said than done.

So perhaps the best way to de-escalate the ongoing situation is for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to come up with a political solution as soon as possible.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 27

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.