Police response to Umbrella Revolution leaves force with tarnished image
HONG KONG — By the 21st night of last fall's Occupy Central movement, the pro-democracy demonstrations of the "Umbrella Revolution" had thoroughly tested the patience of Hong Kong's exhausted police force.
Ken Tsang bore the brunt of its frustration.
“They took away my goggles and mask and they put pepper spray on my face, so I have to breathe in. My eyes are burning. My face is burning,” recalled Tsang, a 39-year-old protester whose beating was caught on video by a local TV station on Oct. 15. “After a few minutes, they dragged me to the dark corner and beat me some more.”
The dust of the 79-day occupy movement has mostly settled since Hong Kong’s streets were cleared on Dec. 15.
But the rising disapproval of a once-revered police force — now caught between an increasingly active Hong Kong youth and conflicted local government — has not. The police made 955 arrests during the movement, plus waves of controversial "arrests by appointment" since it came to a close.
Nathan Law, one of the Hong Kong Federation of Students’ protest leaders, was one of those who said he grew up being taught the police were a neutral and efficient force.
But the 21-year-old now has little sympathy for a police force he said most people consider a “servant of the communist party” since sovereignty over Hong Kong was handed over from Great Britain to China in 1997.
“Their eyes [show] they want to kill you," said Law, who was one of the first students arrested in September. “When we were protesting peacefully but they brutally suppressed us ... it's just an emotion that grows in your heart when you're observing such scenes that you won't forget for life."
Even more neutral observers like Steve Vickers, the former head of intelligence for the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, said there appeared to be confusion among the police as to what constituted “minimum use of force.”
“The appalling police public relations throughout this was a classic reason why things went wrong,” Vickers said. “It wasn't just bad, it was pathetic during the protests."
A final decision on the details of voting rights for the 2017 elections is approaching in the aftermath of a political reform package released by the Hong Kong government on April 22. But the blueprint showed little hope for true universal suffrage, so further widespread protests within the special administrative region of China could soon return.
And with the renewed protests, questions surrounding the degree of Beijing's influence on Hong Kong’s police and courts will likely resurface.
China, the overseer of the ambiguous "One country, Two systems" agreement with Hong Kong, is blamed by many protesters for the aggressive handling of the movement. The Hong Kong government and police force did little to disprove these claims during the protests.
The 28,000-member force has begun a major internal review of its handling of protests that could rework how it handles them in the future, according to a March report in the South China Morning Post.
The Hong Kong police force declined an interview request for this story, instead offering a review of the organization’s general policies.
However, William Tang, a former assistant police commissioner who spent 34 years with Hong Kong's police, said it would have been impossible for a "politically neutral body" to have avoided taking action on protesters causing so much disruption.
“People are getting crazy in this city,” Tang said. “The police force is facing a new situation. This Occupy Central is something that’s never happened before.”
While pro-democracy protests have regularly occurred in Hong Kong since the British colony reverted to Chinese rule in the Handover of 1997, they had been largely kept under control with little criticism pointed at the police force until the Umbrella Revolution. Last fall’s movement peaked at tens of thousands of active demonstrators.
The Occupy movement followed a decision from Beijing that would allow China to maintain control over which candidates could present themselves to the Hong Kong electorate, in effect limiting the chief executive candidates to those approved by a pro-Beijing nominating committee in 2017.
Tang said the force's mission became more complex after the Handover, when its purpose was no longer to simply maintain law and order in Hong Kong on behalf of the queen.
"Now, since the Handover, the queen has left the picture. So who are we? Why are we here? We maintain law and order on behalf of whom, is the question," Tang said, pausing. "Rather than seeing ourselves as merely a law enforcement agency, we [began to] see ourselves as a service agency, serving the people in Hong Kong."
But the impacts of the Umbrella Revolution have extended beyond political.
The movement substantially disrupted transportation within the seven million-person city, as many major streets were blocked off for more than two months. Further, there were increasing issues of safety for Occupy supporters facing aggressive opposition — suspected by many to be the product of triad societies.
Vickers said the police “trained for a massive civil disobedience event,” but instead faced a far more fast-moving situation. “I think they hadn't anticipated being caught between two groups, the Occupy Central and the anti-Occupy Central, he said.
Among those saddened by the changed relationship between the public and the police is Claudia Mo, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature who backed the protests.
“I think the Hong Kong police force never suffered a bigger humiliation, ever,” she said as she looked out of her Legislative Council office onto the streets of Hong Kong’s Admiralty district, which six months earlier had swarmed with demonstrators and international media members alike.
“They handled the movement very badly .... but it’s not completely their fault,” she said. “They’re being used as political tools.”
Mo, an engagingly candid journalist turned politician, said she’s convinced that Hong Kong’s chief executive C.Y. Leung was taking orders from Beijing on how to handle the protests following the first night of the Umbrella Revolution.
The occupation officially began on Sept. 28 when the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism led protests outside government headquarters in Admiralty that spilled onto the streets.
Police responded with volleys of tear gas, which drew media attention worldwide, as well as intense criticism locally.
Then, just as mysteriously, the police called off attempts to swiftly clear the streets with tear gas.
"It was a political situation from day two,” said Vickers, the retired senior police official who now runs his own risk mitigation firm. “Had they seen it through the first night when they fired the CS [tear gas] and kept going, it might have been different. But going halfway and then stopping put them in an invidious situation. It made a lot of people angry with the police."
This act of “blind panic in the Hong Kong government,” described Vickers, not only allowed protesters to maintain the streets, but was also counterproductive — the violent portrayal of the police in the news and on social media actually inspired more citizens to take the streets in additional parts of Hong Kong.
Ken Tsang, the protestor whose beating was captured on video, said that as soon as he saw on the news that tear gas was being employed, he left a backpacking trip in South America to return to Hong Kong and support the movement.
“They have to show power and use violence to make people afraid of them,” said Tsang, who was detained on the night of his beating. “They feel they're losing respect.”
Leung made an address on the first night of Occupy Central denying rumors that China’s army, the People’s Liberation Army, would be deployed, and asking demonstrators to peacefully disperse.
But the reason for calling back tear gas has remained a point of contention.
One pro-democracy legislator, James To, said he believes that Xi Jinping, the president of China, ordered C.Y. Leung to stop the tear gas because Beijing “feared that there would be a mini-sized Tiananmen Square incident in Hong Kong. Because [that] nobody can control."
The Tiananmen Square massacre was a pro-democracy movement in China in 1989 that was violently suppressed by the central government with assault rifles and tanks, killing many unarmed civilians, exactly how many remains unknown.
Michael Davis, a University of Hong Kong’s School of Law professor who has studied the constitutionality of the “One country, two systems” relationship, said Hong Kong’s Basic Law clearly states public order is to be maintained by the local police, barring “an emergency where a request was made by Hong Kong officials.”
Davis said the first use of tear gas is the most obvious example of the evolution the police force has undergone since the Handover.
"In the old days, the police were the good guys, going back to protests in 1989,” Davis said. “I used to joke that it almost looked like police were welcoming people into the protest area."
Observers agreed long work hours for officers was a byproduct of the challenge to maintain order during the occupation, likely contributing to occasional lapses in self-control.
Tang, the former assistant commissioner, admitted handling a large-scale movement can take a toll on a force.
"Police officers are also human beings. They have their own emotions,” Tang said. “How we make sure they will not overreact is a very big challenge.”
Vickers said that “by world standards,” the amount of excessive violence used was actually minor. He said he doubts the strength of the movement’s net impact.
"Overall, the police behaved pretty well. There were a couple instances which were regrettable, but also some of the students — they're kids, you know? A few days is fine, but it went on and on,” Vickers said. “The net result was they became deeply unpopular with the [Hong Kong] people and did severe damage to their own movement. And I would not be surprised if what the Chinese central government want will be voted through.”
Ironically, Vickers said the biggest takeaway of the Umbrella Revolution, initiated to give Hong Kong more control, will likely be a lesser degree of it.
“The biggest casualty is Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. The mainland will not let this happen again,” Vickers said. “To them, this is a shock. The reality is China is the sovereign power, like it or loathe it."
The video of officers beating Tsang, a Civic Party activist who is one of just 1,200 Hong Kong citizens with a right to vote for the city’s Chief Executive, spread worldwide — leading to a suspension of the officers involved. Tsang’s lawyers appeared in court on April 17 to apply for a judicial review, which would ask that officers’ names be disclosed to Tsang so that he could pursue the case privately, but a decision has been postponed, according to Agence France-Presse in Hong Kong.
"Those seven policemen still have their name, badge and gun,” Tsang said in March. “And that's frightening for Hong Kong citizens."
Since the end of the occupation in mid-December, police have employed a unique "arrest by appointment" strategy to apparently gain more intelligence on the primary forces behind the movement — including well-known protest leader Joshua Wong. This means protesters are told by phone to appear at the police station where they are arrested and questioned regarding their role in the protests, then typically released without charge.
Mo joked that since she's one of the only democratic legislators not to be arrested by appointment, she feels "left out." Mo was, however, arrested during the protests, after she said she was invited by officers she knew to help maintain peace on the streets.
"It’s all political showbiz,” Mo said. “They're probably a bit embarrassed if they arrest me [again] by phone call, saying that I took part in unlawful assemblies. I would retort by saying, 'I thought you invited me?'"
The necessity of these arrests by appointment have been called into question by experts such as University of Hong Kong’s School of Law professor Eric Cheung, who spent six years on an independent police watchdog panel.
“Arrest entails a deprivation of liberty for that person,” Cheung said. “If you still have lots of things to investigate and you haven't made up your mind whether to charge that person, then you need to consider whether it is necessary to arrest that person."
Though Mo believes police may still be reviewing her case, the legislator doesn't anticipate many of the protesters will be charged.
"I doubt very much that they would make a joke of the Hong Kong judicial system," Mo said. "There would be hundreds, if not up to a thousand, that would be charged."