Wally Santana / AP
Wally Santana / AP

Hong Kong police in spotlight as protest tensions escalate

Authorities have refrained from using force since last weekend, but pro-Beijing attacks on protesters change the dynamic

HONG KONG — Police tactics may hold the key to the fate of Hong Kong’s protest movement in the coming days. The use of tear gas and pepper spray on peaceful demonstrators last weekend turned largely student-based action demanding electoral reform into a broad citizen challenge to the authority of the territory’s Beijing-backed chief executive. Since then, the police have refrained from using force, instead apparently trying to wait out the protesters. But their failure to intervene on Friday when pro-Beijing groups attacked those gathered has further eroded public trust in the force.

Last weekend’s deployment of tear gas angered many Hong Kongers and drove a wedge between police and the wider citizenry.

“I’m usually on the side of the police,” said 26-year-old finance worker Vincent Kan, who took Friday off from work so he could participate in the protests. “I still respect them, but now I don’t trust them. Even if a minority of the police used unnecessary violence, they should apologize. I won’t trust them until they apologize.”

Some demonstrators were more sympathetic to the rank-and-file officers, and they blamed the commanders who had given the orders to use harsher tactics. “The police is like the egg of the sandwich,” said sales employee Samsung Chu, 28. “They’re pushed on either side by the government and the protesters. Tear gas is not acceptable, but they wouldn’t accept the order unless someone gave the order. Our concern is not with the police, but the government.”

The decision to use tear gas for the first time in nine years — justified as “appropriate force” by the territory’s No. 2 political official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam — was controversial within the police ranks as well, with some officers anonymously stating their dissatisfaction with the decision to media outlets.

The plan certainly backfired. Rather than dispersing the crowds, it drew thousands more people of all ages — office workers, the elderly, the disabled in wheelchairs, young children with their parents — to join the crowds in front of the government headquarters in the city’s Admiralty district.

“We’re here to support our friends,” said Tony Cheng, a 20-year-old student at City University of Hong Kong. “If we win this, we can have our own opportunity to change the future. We’re not scared of the police.” The movement soon spread to other areas of the city, with leaders emphasizing the non-violent nature of the demonstrations, urging supporters to refrain from actions that might provoke further police action.

The use of tear gas drew a cloud over the Hong Kong police force’s sterling reputation among the city’s population. With over 28,000 active officers — one of the world’s largest per capita constabularies, with roughly one per every 252 residents compared to New York City’s one officer per 242 residents – it has kept crime rates among the lowest in the world. 

The police is like the egg of the sandwich. They’re pushed on either side by the government and the protesters.

Samsung Chu


During the 1960s and 1970s, when it was known as the Royal Hong Kong Police Force under British rule, the force had been widely perceived as a corrupt institution that colluded with gangsters and drug lords in this freewheeling port city. Its public image began to change in 1974, with the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and a branch to handle complaints and conduct internal investigations. By the mid-1990s, the force began to focus on public service; the slogan of serving “with pride and care” was adopted in 2001.

The decline in cases of violent crime, robbery and theft over the past five years testifies to the force’s success. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Hong Kong (when tallied separately) has the third-lowest murder rate in Asia, just slightly above Singapore and Japan.

Yet the city's track record in crowd control is different. Critics say the police have taken an increasingly hardline approach to protesters since Commissioner Andy Tsang took over leadership in 2011. In that year alone, 45 protesters were charged with disturbing public order under the Public Order Ordinance. This compared to the 13 years between 1997 and 2010, when only 39 had been similarly prosecuted. Tsang has also been steadfast in his decisions, refusing to apologize after an 8-year-old boy had been pepper-sprayed during a 2011 budget demonstration.

Tsang urged the police force in a recent email to stay “united” and “resolute” in the face of public condemnation. He alluded to the “complexity of this unprecedented operation,” but did not mention the use of tear gas.

Some critics believe the force’s legal structure makes it too beholden to Hong Kong’s political leadership. While police powers are delineated by the Police Force Ordinance, the police commissioner answers to the chief executive, who is effectively appointed by Beijing.

“After 1997 [when British control ended and China regained sovereignty over the territory] and after certain political issues, I don’t think the police can be neutral,” said Mr. Chu, the 28-year-old sales employee.

Following the tear-gassing incidents last weekend, riot police were withdrawn from the streets Monday and there has been no notable use of force by the police since then. But the current peace is anything but certain. Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, has said that the police will continue to be tolerant, but that the protests cannot last forever. “Once the police see a weakening in the protests,” wrote University of Hong Kong law professor Simon Young Ngai-man in an email, “I suspect they will adopt a more assertive and possibly confrontational approach again.”

Once the police see a weakening in the protests, I suspect they will adopt a more assertive and possibly confrontational approach again.

Simon Young Ngai-man

University of Hong Kong

Officials were seen carrying boxes of rubber bullets, tear-gas canisters, batons, and other riot-control gear into the legislative compound Thursday afternoon, hours before the expiry of the ultimatum set by protesters for Leung’s resignation. Protesters had threatened to storm and occupy the building in the event Leung refused to go. But despite his refusal of that demand, protesters have not tried to breach police lines.

Late Thursday night, only a few protesters in front of the chief executive’s office wore protective goggles and facemasks; many believed the police would react only if provoked. There is still confidence among protesters in police restraint.

But that restraint has also translated into a failure to stop violence directed at protesters by pro-Beijing elements. Opponents of the protests attacked a student protest encampment in the city’s Mong Kok district Friday evening, and the failure of the police to protect the peaceful demonstrators prompted fierce criticism from the Occupy movement. Leaders of the student protests late Friday pulled out of talks that had been scheduled with Carrie Lam for Saturday, demanding that the authorities stop pro-Beijing groups from attacking demonstrators.

The police are not the only source of armed authority in the city, of course. China’s People’s Liberation Army has a garrison housing some 6,000 troops there. In the course of the current protests, soldiers have been spotted in its windows training binoculars onto the crowds. Although the Chinese military is not permitted to interfere with local affairs, Article 14 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, says the chief executive is permitted “when necessary” to call upon the PLA for assistance “in the maintenance of public order.”

So far, Leung has stated that he will not ask Beijing for help. Unless he does, a Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong would contravene the Basic Law, local experts say.

Legal issues aside, it remains unlikely that the army will intervene. With the world watching this city, the stakes are too high. International news organizations have reported that Beijing’s strategy is to wait and allow the protest movement to lose momentum naturally, and has handed down an order for Leung to end the movement peacefully. The dwindling crowds attest to the possibility that the strategy could work. The practical citizens of this business-oriented city could soon long for routine and turn their attention from the movement.

Still, many of the protesters believe this is their last chance to fight for the right to freely elect their top leader. They know that it is a long shot in the face of an intransigent Beijing and that relationships built on trust have eroded, but that has not killed hope for conciliation.

“We don’t hate the police,” said Cally Fung, 22, who is a student at City University of Hong Kong and had been protesting since Sunday. “They just received orders and were obedient. We still think they are good people.”

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