Hong Kong police furious over government handling of protests
In the midst of Molotov cocktails and clouds of tear gas on the front lines of Hong Kong’s demonstrations there is often an incongruous sound: the barking of dogs.
Not the bass of police hounds but high-pitched yapping from protesters mocking officers who they now call “dogs”.
On the other side of the barricades, riot police insult the protesters, and sometimes reporters or bystanders, as gat zat — the Cantonese word for cockroaches.
After more than 11 weeks of violent clashes, the Hong Kong Police Force is stretched to breaking point with increasing warnings from Beijing that it is prepared to intervene directly. Morale among the force’s 32,000 officers has hit rock-bottom as they have become the only real interface between an incensed populace and a government that is almost entirely absent.
Even members of the staff of Carrie Lam, the embattled chief executive whose push to launch a controversial extradition bill sparked the protests, admit that her stilted performances in press conferences have only tended to inflame public sentiment further.
“If it wasn’t for us, Carrie Lam would have been lynched by now,” said a police officer at a recent social event. “I wouldn’t trust [the Hong Kong government] but I do trust the Chinese [the Communist Party in Beijing]. They appreciate what we’ve done.”
Established in 1844, just three years after Hong Kong became a British colony, the police force was overhauled in the aftermath of bloody Communist-led riots in the late 1960s to eradicate deeply entrenched corruption, incompetence and collusion with criminal “triad” gangs.
The former colonial police force became known as one of the best and most professional in the world at Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China in 1997. But that reputation is now under intense scrutiny, especially after the police’s apparent indifference to attacks by alleged triad members on pro-democracy protesters during the current crisis.
Since the start of the protests in early June, police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets. But each week, the tension increases. Last Sunday marked the first time police fired a real bullet after a small group of officers was attacked by protesters wielding bats, metal poles and makeshift spears. When one officer fell and dropped his service revolver, his comrades drew their weapons and fired a warning shot.
Since the start of the unrest, more than 200 officers have been injured, including 21 last weekend. In July, one officer lost part of his ring finger during scuffles with demonstrators in a suburban shopping mall. Many protesters now jeer at police by holding up their hands with their ring finger folded down so it appears to be missing.
Protest organisers say the hatred is a natural reaction to what they allege is police brutality, with the masked, black-clad Special Tactical Contingent — known as the “raptors” — attracting the most opprobrium for its more aggressive approach. Hundreds of demonstrators have been injured, some critically, but the total number is impossible to estimate because many refuse to go to hospital out of fear they will be arrested for rioting.
The UN’s human rights office has condemned the force for violating international standards and creating a “considerable risk of death or serious injury”.
Defenders of the force say they have exercised considerable restraint compared to police in other countries and are doing their best in an invidious position.
The anger of ordinary officers towards political leaders has now spilled over into the public arena.
On Monday, Hong Kong’s Junior Police Officers’ Association called for a review of crowd management tactics and use of force standards. It said its members are facing “unprecedented challenges to their personal safety”.
“The violence towards police officers . . . is totally unacceptable and the apparent indifference and conspicuous absence of the current administration does not give cause for much confidence,” said Angus Stevenson Hamilton, a former Hong Kong assistant police commissioner before the handover, in a letter to the current police commissioner Stephen Lo sent after he met with senior officers in the city.
Police living quarters have become targets for violent demonstrations, children of police officers have been bullied and an estimated 1,600 officers and their families have had personal details such as ID cards and addresses shared on social media.
As the protests drag on and the vacuum of political leadership created by Ms Lam’s relative absence continues, the likelihood that Beijing will eventually intervene is rising.
“Police, in the absence of any realistic government dialogue, are the only group in regular contact with the demonstrators; the consequences of this collision have been disastrous with deep hatred now aimed at the force,” said Steve Vickers, former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who runs a risk consultancy. “In the event of Beijing perceiving Hong Kong to be out of control, Beijing would probably intervene to re-establish order.”
Additional reporting by Ravi Mattu