Three months ago, Hong Kong’s police force enjoyed an excellent relationship with the public. Few countries in Asia could boast such warm relations between the ordinary public and “Asia’s Finest”.
But 13 weeks of protests since June 9 and the increasing violence on both sides have greatly damaged this precious rapport. As of Aug. 4, police had arrested 1,183 people and fired more than 2,300 rounds of tear gas and hundreds of rubber bullets. On rare occasions, they have fired live bullets. More than 200 officers have been injured, with one losing part of his ring finger in July.
The object of the protestors’ anger is Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the Beijing government which chose her – but it is the police caught in the middle who have received the anger directly.
On Sept. 4, Lam announced the formal withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill, two months after its initial suspension. A formal withdrawal of the bill is one of the five demands of the protestors, but it is unlikely to appease protesters who have vowed to go on.
In the weeks ahead, the police will continue to be the main tool used by the Hong Kong government to quash the protests for various reasons.
First, there is unlikely to be a political solution in the near term.
Beijing believes it has already made enough concessions. Any more will be perceived as the central government bowing to Hong Kong and foreign pressure.
Second, the Hong Kong police force itself is under pressure to clear the streets, especially before Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
There is also the signal that, if the police cannot do its job, Shenzhen will help. In recent weeks, Shenzhen has been holding paramilitary exercises. The state media said it could deploy these forces within 10 minutes.
The People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong also brought forward its annual exercises in the SAR – a sign it is flexing its muscles, but not using them yet.
Another reason for the increasing use of the police is the growing anger between the force and the protesters after weeks of clashes.
Police living quarters have become targets for violence and children of officers have been bullied. More than 1,500 officers and their families have had their personal information, including ID cards and addresses, shared online.
With emotions rising, violence has intensified in recent weeks. Police have expanded their arsenal of weapons, from tear gas and pepper spray to water cannon, plastic bullets and increased beatings.
They have relentlessly chased protesters into subways, buses and shopping arcades, sometimes hurting innocent passers-by.
On the other side, protesters have escalated from laser lights and slings to Molotov cocktails and fires on the streets. They have become bolder and angrier after what they perceive as police protection of gangsters who attacked protesters in Yuen Long on July 21.
This more aggressive policing began after the blockade of the airport on Aug. 12, which hit international headlines and caused substantial economic damage. This havoc made the government more determined to hit the protesters harder, using what critics call “white terror”.
Next came a signal from Beijing that the SAR government should use whatever power it wished to end the crisis. Epoch Times reported that, on Aug. 23, an envoy from Beijing told Lam that Beijing would not use the military to intervene directly and that Lam has the full backing of Beijing in her crackdown.
Since then, the police have seized the initiative, not only to disperse protesters from the streets but also to make more arrests and press more charges. This new aggression was most evident on Aug. 30, in the arrest of many protest leaders, including pro-democracy politicians.
The next day, police used water cannon and fired 200 rounds of tear gas at protests in many districts.
Most notorious are the “Special Tactical Squads”, which showed no mercy in hitting protesters and ordinary citizens hard – so hard that many believe that some squad members come from the mainland and have a military background.
Facing negative public opinion, police have shown great discipline. But retired officers are not so reticent.
“The violence toward police officers is totally unacceptable and the apparent indifference of the current administration does not give cause for much confidence,” said Angus Stevenson Hamilton, a former assistant police commissioner before the handover, in a letter to the current commissioner, Stephen Lo Wai-chung.
For the moment, Beijing has ruled out direct military intervention. As a result, it is the Hong Kong police who have been on the frontlines and have been stretched to the limit.
The situation could degenerate further if the government decided to use colonial-era emergency powers to try to end the protests once and for all. The police would again be on the frontlines, with possibly more fearful consequences for the city and the force itself over the long term.
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