OPINION: Hong Kong police aren’t just using force. They’re using unnecessary violence

Published November 21, 2019 in The Student Life by Anna Choi (POM ’23), Mgrublian Center Research Fellow.

Miles away in a university not unlike ours, police are laying siege to students fighting for democracy and justice. Miles away in a city not unlike ours, civilians on the street lambaste the policemen they once trusted. Miles away, people not unlike us are struggling for the basic right to vote and freedom from arbitrary arrest.

These are the Hong Kongers who have staged major demonstrations since June 2019, who were galvanized by the proposition of a bill that would allow extradition of detained Hong Kong residents to China, according to The New York Times. Protesters, the majority of them peaceful, have united under their five major demands, according to CNN

Currently, the most prominent demand is for an independent investigation into police brutality, as their anti-riot and arrest methods grow more and more violent each day. At the time of writing, police have laid siege to the prestigious Hong Kong Polytechnic University for five days, after protesters used the institute as a base from which to occupy a major tunnel of the city, according to Vice

The Hong Kong police’s water cannons spray, with great force, unknown blue liquid that causes “severe skin irritation”; Greenpeace has questioned police claims that the liquid is “harmless,” according to Hong Kong Free Press. While police demand protesters leave PolyU, those attempting to escape the “war zone” are either beaten back by tear gas or immediately arrested, according to The Guardian.

More than 10,000 rounds of tear gas have been deployed by the police since protests began in June, according to the South China Morning Post. Meanwhile, local medical groups have raised concerns of dioxins released by tear gas canisters, especially after a front-line reporter was diagnosed with chloracne, according to HKFP.

The protestors haven’t been entirely peaceful either. Despite police threats of using live ammunition if protesters continued to wield “lethal weapons” against them, some protesters continue to hurtle Molotov cocktails and shoot arrows, according to NPR.

But that’s not to say that both sides deserve equal blame. We need to be careful not to claim “neutrality” and dismiss and oversimplify this situation as “violence on both sides.” Civilians and police have different roles. 

When civilians commit a crime, they are arrested and disciplined under the law. By contrast,  when Hong Kong policemen commit a crime, they don’t face consequences for their actions; experts say the Independent Police Complaints Council is unable to carry out its sole duty — investigate the police — despite Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam’s insistence to the contrary, according to TIME

Further, protesters do not have the weapons police have. Protesters do not have the protective gear police have.

Protesters do not have the power to arrest. Protesters do not get paid to put their lives on the line. Protesters did not receive the professional training police received (paid for by civilians) to specifically not get emotional and not abuse their power.

Those suspected of unlawful assembly do not deserve to be beaten until they have brain hemorrhages, as The Telegraph reported happened to one student. This is not “use of force.” This is violence.

Regrettably, Hong Kong police do not believe in the presumption of innocence, let alone the freedom from violence and torture; this much is blatant in the damning investigation reports by Amnesty International.

While the police have the right and duty to use force, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “all police action shall respect the principles of legality, necessity, non-discrimination, proportionality and humanity.”

In no circumstance is kneeling on the neck of an already-subdued person an act of “necessity”; and pepper spraying a detainee’s gaping facial wounds is outright torture, as seen in a NYT video of the protests. These acts, among many others, are an atrocious violation of human rights. 

When protesters become violent, police action should be proportional to that of protesters. Yet, in response to an 18-year-old swinging a metal rod, a Hong Kong policeman shot him in the chest at point-blank range, despite the availability of non-lethal weapons like pepper spray and rubber bullets available, according to an analysis by the NYT. The policeman was wearing a bulletproof vest; the protester had a plastic board as a “shield.”

We need to be careful not to mislabel police brutality as “use of force,” for this creates a facade of legality to disguise their violence. Often, outsiders viewing an unfamiliar event subconsciously defer to those in power, and such wording dangerously strengthens the police’s legitimacy, in spite of their unlawful actions.

So why, as a NYT article asks, have Hong Kong police fallen from “Asia’s finest” to unruly behavior? I believe there are two main causes. 

First, police now operate with full anonymity. From June 2019 when the protests began, riot police have hidden their identity numbers, according to SCMP. In October, The Nation criticized Hong Kong police for no longer carrying their warrant cards and often wearing masks so civilians are unable to identify and file complaints against them. 

Second, Lam has repeatedly reassured policemen that they are using “appropriate force of weapon,” according to CNN, and will not be investigated for misconduct, according to SCMP

Anticipating clashes with protesters on Chinese National Day, police officials loosened the guidelines on the amount of force officers should use right before the date, according to Reuters, leading to a record level of firearm deployment, with about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds fired. 

This lack of repercussions for misconduct and condoning of further violence demonstrate executive leaders’ aiding and abetting of police brutality.

Depressing as these events are, and uncertain as the future is, we each have the moral responsibility as global citizens to stand on the side of justice. 

Apart from reading articles to stay updated, I encourage you to watch live videos of the protests (search: “Apple Daily live” on YouTube), and to discuss Hong Kong’s situation with your peers, colleagues, friends or with your family during Thanksgiving. 

Hong Kong’s protests are joining with movements around the world, from Chile, to Lebanon, to Catalonia, where activists drew inspiration from Hong Kong’s protest tactics. What links can you draw between Hong Kong’s story and yours?

Miles away, weary Hong Kongers raise signs reading “SAVE US.” The least we can do is to help spread their message.

Anna Choi PO ’23 is a guest writer who was born and raised in Hong Kong. She’s the president of the Hong Kong Political Society, a recently founded activism group, and hopes to give back to the Hong Kong community from which she’s greatly benefitted.