Commentary: Are Hong Kong police officers equipped to deal with new wave of protests?
The Hong Kong police have been overstretched for quite a while, says Singapore University of Social Sciences’ Lim Tai Wei.
SINGAPORE: The Hong Kong protests are entering a new phase. It first started as a leaderless, peaceful mass movement demonstrating strength in numbers.
Then it morphed into a combination of mass movements with smaller mobs alongside.
The former came out in force and generally included a broad spectrum of Hong Kongers (at an estimated but unverified 2 million).
The latter consisted mainly of hardliners popularly nicknamed the “Black Shirts”, an amorphous and loose term since that name has also come to represent the protesters as a whole.
THE EVOLUTION OF HARDLINE FACTIONS
The masked Black Shirts proved to be more easily agitated as they considered many leaders in the legislature to be ineffectual and moderate members of the protest community too meek.
Some have even outrightly rejected passive, non-violent resistance and want a stronger show of strength.
The strategy “Be Water” – based on Bruce Lee’s philosophy of navigating obstacles with the fluidity of water, instead of ramming through them – proliferated among hardcore protesters.
“Be Water” combined with the doctrine of “if we burn, you burn with us” developed into a kind of flash-mob strategy, with masked Black Shirts suddenly appearing at certain locations, inflicting disruption and damage to public infrastructure, and then promptly disappearing.
A few months back, the more conservative and hardline elements of the movement also decided to adopt an all-or-nothing approach in their demands. They began to espouse the anarchic notion of burning down Hong Kong since they perceived there was no other future worth fighting for.
Then, the Black Shirts started setting fires to police dormitories and shooting laser pointers at police facilities and Chinese government offices. Some started to confront and harass mainland Chinese shoppers, tourists and residents.
It was also at this stage that signs of factionalisation began to surface, with moderates juxtaposed with hardcore members, although many protesters remain united by their common sense of disenfranchisement.
THE EMBATTLED HONG KONG POLICE
The Hong Kong police force has showed signs of fatigue but continued to face radical factions in the protest community.
Some police officers have described the determined protesters as “zombies” and were shocked by how mobs kept coming at them despite their efforts to push back.
However, while the Hong Kong police force’s initial response to the protests was defensive and confined to the protection of government buildings, they began to employ non-lethal weapons to break up protest groups, including the use of water cannons with blue dye to mark protesters.
According to the city’s Public Order Ordinance, the Hong Kong police can employ reasonable force to prevent, stop or disperse public gatherings deemed to disrupt public order.
Some officers also began to take stronger action vis-à-vis the protesters. For instance, a policeman pointing a non-lethal beanbag shotgun at protesters became a social media sensation in China.
Questions were raised in the international media about proportionality. Such discussions, however, were not mitigated by the fact that the police were overstretched.
The police’s defensive strategies could not address hit-and-run flash mobs with their element of surprise.
That police officers’ families were also targetted has posed a bigger strain on the force’s morale. Many families in Hong Kong have been torn apart by their differing views on the protests, and police officers will not be spared from this societal divide.
There were also rogue elements on both sides.
Both protesters and police officers are now caught in a tit-for-tat exchange of blows. What can defuse the tension and help Hong Kong out of this new normal?
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE IN EYES OF PROTESTERS
The announcement by the Chief Executive Carrie Lam to formally withdraw the extradition bill proposal opened up a new phase to the Hong Kong protests.
It was accompanied by a dialogue and a promise to enact reforms to the property market, as housing affordability has been identified as a key factor in fueling discontent in the city.
Given that Lam had leaned forward and demonstrated some level of reasonableness, authorities might have hoped that would take the sting out of the protests. But it seemed all too little too late.
The protesters were no longer satisfied; they had more demands, including Lam’s removal, reforms to the election system based on notions of universal suffrage, investigations into police brutality, amnesty for those arrested, and the removal of terminology that labelled protesters ‘rioters’.
The city stood with bated breath to see if the next low-hanging fruit would be plucked. Would the Hong Kong Chief Executive step aside after failing to quell the protests?
A watershed moment came when Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly expressed support for Lam amid swirling rumours that the Chinese were preparing for Lam to step down. Beijing leaders told Chief Executive Lam to restore stability and clamp down on those breaking the law.
Beijing’s move was anathema to radical protesters and solidified their hardline position further.
AN AUTUMN OF SADNESS
As the Hong Kong protests evolved, so did public perceptions. Schisms are also starting to emerge within Hong Kong society.
Polls suggest youths are more supportive of hardcore actions than seniors. Some working Hong Kongers are also worried about disruptions to their lives.
Some Hong Kongers nonetheless support the protesters’ radical actions, and see them as advocates for democracy, autonomy and even independence.
There is no good way to evaluate how mainstream Hong Kong society views police and protester action.
Chinese leaders have demonstrated huge restraint so far in avoiding involvement from the People’s Armed Police and People’s Liberation Army. Doing so might repudiate the “one country, two systems” formula, for which a watchful Taiwan will be closely monitoring.
Beijing may also be cognisant of the accompanying international criticism of any action to send in the troops.
Any mainland intervention may be unhelpful to the ongoing US-China tensions since US President Donald Trump had said “bad” developments in Hong Kong could affect trade negotiations in early October.
The US Congress also passed the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act 2019 in mid-October, which will allow Washington to impose sanctions against individuals who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Many mainstream Hong Kongers and international observers are hoping for a peaceful outcome.
TOWARDS A SPRING OF HOPE
While questions whether the Hong Kong police are sufficiently prepared to deal with the challenges of these long-drawn protests remain, the societal, political and geopolitical complexities of the situation suggest the only way forward is one that requires all stakeholders to engage in dialogue and foster mutual understanding.
Amid questions over the effectiveness of police action, it is worth looking at the larger context in explaining why the Hong Kong police are not as effective in quelling flash mob protests.
It is also worth examining how protesters are becoming less able to prevent unintended collateral damages.
This rebuilding of trust must start now.
The sense of trust between different political stakeholders has been further damaged by incidents this week that include the death of a student, a masked Black Shirt who was shot by a policeman, and a man who was set on fire for allegedly making pro-Beijing remarks.
The summer of discontent is slowly transiting into an autumn of sadness. Many wonder if a spring of hope awaits.
Lim Tai Wei is an Associate Professor with Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) and an area studies expert in Northeast Asian affairs.