Hong Kong Police Strain Under Pressure to Solve Political Crisis
(Bloomberg) -- When thousands of black-clad protesters flooded a Hong Kong suburb Saturday to express anger over mob violence on their fellow activists, the police found themselves under attack.
Mask-wearing demonstrators surrounded a police van, breaking a window while officers were still trapped inside. They spray-painted “dirty cops” and the names of local triad gangs on the vehicle before some protesters eventually convinced the crowd to let it escape.
The tense episode in the northwestern suburb of Yuen Long -- one of many during a weekend of protest across the city -- illustrates the toll that weeks of unrest is taking on the 30,000-member Hong Kong Police Force. The agency once called “Asia’s Finest” and celebrated in Hong Kong crime thrillers has faced mounting questions about whether it’s been too quick to use force, too slow to respond -- and even whether it’s colluded with triads.
“The police aren’t even human,” Bobo Tsang, who described herself as a housewife and shouted “Bad cops!” across the street from the Yuen Long police station, said on Saturday. “I wouldn’t have come out if they didn’t behave so poorly. They know the laws, but they are breaking the laws.”
While Police Commissioner Stephen Lo has denied the collusion allegations, the controversies have shaken a city that prides itself on having a professional police force and independent courts system that differentiate it from mainland China. The breakdown of law and order risks undermining one of the top selling points for foreign companies that view the former British colony as a safer way to access China’s market.
The American Chamber of Commerce’s Hong Kong chapter issued a statement urging the government “convene an internationally credible independent inquiry into all aspects of recent unrest,” after police spent hours firing tear gas at protesters in the city’s core business district Sunday. A survey of chamber members found deepening perception that Hong Kong had become a “riskier place” to do business.
International companies “need a secure base to operate when they’re in Asia,” Tara Joseph, the chamber’s president in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg Television. “Now Hong Kong makes perfect sense when things are calm and comfortable: It has rule of law, it has wonderful connectivity, and hopefully long term that can be restored.”
Rex Auyeung Pak-kuen, chairman of local railway operator MTR Corp., also called for an inquiry into police action after the company’s train stations became a focal point of clashes. Meanwhile, real estate giant Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. issued a statement earlier this month to “express its concern” with police efforts to subdue protesters in one of its malls.
The police don’t appear to have a very clear-cut plan to address the rift with the public, said Lawrence Ka-ki Ho, assistant professor in the department of social sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong. The government would normally be responsible for addressing tensions between the police and the public, but these are “not normal circumstances,” Ho said.
Confrontations are likely to increase as the Chinese government and its supporters urge a more forceful response to aggressive protesters. The department is road-testing anti-riot vehicles armed with water cannons for deployment in future protests, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported, citing an unidentified person familiar with the plan. The Hong Kong Police Force declined to comment for this article, despite numerous inquiries.
“At a time like this, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Government and the police should not hesitate or have any unnecessary ‘psychological worries’ about taking necessary steps,” the overseas edition of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper said in a commentary Monday.
The 175-year-old force is among the world’s oldest and was vital to helping the colonial government overcome a wave of 1967 riots involving leftist radicals. Following anti-corruption reforms in the 1970s, the force gained credit for reducing crime and city had one of the lowest crime rates in decades last year.
Now, a failure to restore order could prompt the Chinese government to intervene militarily, calling into question Beijing’s pledge to respect the city’s autonomy until 2047. China’s top office for Hong Kong affairs said it continued to have faith in the police, with spokesman Yang Guang saying they “have been fearlessly sticking to their posts and fulfilling their duties against all odds.”
Besides insults, police have had bricks, umbrellas and flares flung at them. One demonstrator was accused of biting off part of an officer’s finger after riot police entered a suburban shopping mall earlier this month in pursuit of fleeing protesters.
One retired police official said that the morale appeared low among some former active-duty colleagues that he had spoken with. While senior officials have been told to avoid using force against the protesters, officers are frustrated and under emotional stress due to the long hours as well as the physical and verbal attacks, the official said.
The student protesters and the police they face on the front lines probably have similar economic challenges in the world’s most expensive property market. Constables make HK$24,110-HK$38,580 a month, or about $48,000 annually, according to the agency’s website.
Tensions between the city’s police and pro-democracy groups have been simmering for years, flaring up previously when officers clashed with student-led protesters who occupied large swathes of the city in 2014. A University of Hong Kong survey showed that about 50% of those surveyed had a positive view of the police as of June 6 -- before the biggest protests began -- compared with about 70% a decade ago.
Recent clashes have been more frequent and more emotionally charged, especially after the government charged demonstrators who attempted to storm the legislature on June 12 with rioting. Criticism of the police turned into fury after protesters returning home to the Yuen Long area from largely peaceful march on July 21 were suddenly attacked in a subway station by groups of stick-wielding men in white shirts.
While protesters and other passengers swept up in the melee defended themselves with umbrellas, the police were nowhere in sight. It took 39 minutes for enough officers to arrive to respond, compared with the force’s 15-minute goal for that part of the city. Some 45 people were injured.
A history of triad attacks on political dissidents led some, including lawmaker Hui Chi-fung, to accuse police of colluding with the gangs. The next evening, buses to Yuen Long faced unusually long lines as residents tried to make it home before dark to avoid the trains, where they were worried the police couldn’t protect them.
Lo, the police commissioner, has denied any department connection to the gangs, saying “the police will not tolerate any violence.” Authorities have arrested 12 people in connection with the attacks, including nine people with suspected links to the organized crime syndicates.
The assurances did little to deter tens of thousands of protesters who packed into Yuen Long on Saturday and shouted abuse at the police. “Listen police, you’ve been surrounded by Hong Kong citizens!” protesters shouted. “Surrender now!”
“The police should under go a proper investigation, in terms of its mission and its duty and whether they are abusing their power or not,” said Nathan Law, co-founder and former chairman of the pro-democracy party Demosistō. “They lost their legitimacy by their wrong doing, so I think it is better to restore it as soon as possible.”
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