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World & Nation

Hong Kong’s police were once revered. Now they’re just a blunt tool, ex-cop says

Canaan Wong, a former Hong Kong police officer, says the rift between the force and millions of citizens could be irreparable.
Canaan Wong, a former Hong Kong police officer, says the rift between the force and millions of citizens could be irreparable.
(David Pierson / Los Angeles Times)

On Oct. 1, as the People’s Republic of China celebrated its birthday, Canaan Wong and his friends were dodging tear gas.

Adherents of the pro-democracy movement that has convulsed Hong Kong for months, they approached a pedestrian bridge in the central district of Wan Chai, part of a throng of marchers. Suddenly, a police officer heaved a garbage can the size of a beer keg over the side of the span, sending it crashing down about 15 feet onto the head of one of Wong’s friends.

“The police don’t seem to have any rules anymore,” said Wong, a 29-year-old teacher’s aide, who escaped arrest that afternoon by finding refuge in a nearby apartment building, where residents waved protesters over to hide. “They don’t train you to throw a rubbish bin at people.”

Criticism of the Hong Kong Police Force — historically one of the most respected in East Asia, esteemed for its professionalism and restraint — has been mounting. In Wong’s case, though, the criticism comes from an unusual source: He is a former beat cop, and not long ago donned the same olive-green uniform worn by police officers he is now evading. As a police trainee, he spent months learning about the appropriate use of force. Now, as a protester, he has joined the ranks of those who have accused the police of brutality, unprofessionalism and acting with impunity.

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As Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong intensifies, more and more city residents will not speak to journalists, fearing that doing so might hurt them in their workplaces or schools. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Wong said he had decided to voice his experiences as a former policeman because of his deep misgivings about his former employer’s response to the protests.

Wong finds himself in a face-off with former colleagues most weekends. Each time he wonders how the millions of Hong Kongers like him who have taken to the streets will ever trust the police again.

“I don’t know if we can,” he said in a series of interviews.

Wong’s remaining friends on the police force have stopped returning his text messages. One of them used to tip him off to leave a protest site before riot officers arrived. Wong said he thought that growing public mistrust of the police had pushed these officers to wall themselves off.

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“They’re isolating themselves,” he said. “They don’t want to hear anything that’s different from their position.”

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If Hong Kong is to ever recover from its current turmoil, which is about to enter its seventh month, it will need to repair the relationship between the police and the people they have sworn to serve.

Perceptions of the police force have hit new lows, according to a recent public opinion poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, which found that even the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong is viewed more favorably.

In another recent survey by the South China Morning Post, nearly three-quarters of respondents said their trust in officers had eroded because of their handling of the protests.

Each side has accused the other of aggressive and disorderly behavior. In this city historically known for prosperity and order, protesters say that acts of vandalism and resistance are now justified because the police have become an unaccountable occupying force.

Amnesty International, the human rights group, released findings of an investigation in September that detailed instances of police brutality and torture in detention facilities.

The press office of the Police Force did not respond to requests for interviews for this article. In a recent statement, the Hong Kong government called reports of abuse “biased and misleading” and blamed protesters for the escalation of violence.

One Hong Kong University student told The Times he was beaten in the back of a police van in October after he refused to unlock his cellphone for officers. The 21-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said police repeatedly slammed his head against the van’s window and later detained him for nearly two days.

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Another Hong Kong man, Lucas Lam, told The Times he was standing outside a shopping mall when he was pushed face first onto the ground by an officer. The impact left him with five fractures in his left shoulder and his face soaked in blood. Lam, 44, was briefly sent to a jail near the border with the mainland province of Guangdong. He eventually received medical attention, six hours after his arrest.

Lucas Lam
Lucas Lam, 44, shows the scars he suffered during his arrest at an Aug. 11 protest near his home in Hong Kong. He was injured when he was pushed to the ground by a police officer.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Kristy Chan, a 25-year-old pastry chef, was the protester hit on the head by the trash can Oct. 1. She said she escaped a serious head injury only because she had put on a helmet she picked up off the ground moments earlier. The force of the container caused her to stumble into some bushes.

All three said that they had attended protests but that they had not threatened the police or done anything illegal. Their accounts could not be independently corroborated.

It wasn’t so long ago that the police were seen as a benign — or even cool, thanks to the canon of popular movies and TV series that lionized the 30,000-member department, its crime fighters portrayed by stars like Andy Lau, Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung.

But in the two decades since Britain returned Hong Kong to China, in 1997, the police have gradually been drawn into a political conflict that has undermined the territory’s “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing.

Under governing arrangements known as the Basic Law, Hong Kong was assured a “high degree of autonomy” from the mainland, and the continuity of its capitalist market economy, for 50 years after the handover. But Beijing has increasingly sought to tighten its grip on the city, reneging on promises to allow Hong Kongers to choose their local leaders through direct voting.

The demand for direct legislative representation helped precipitate the so-called Umbrella Movement of 2014, the most violent confrontation with police since communist riots in 1967. The movement was named for the parasols used to block pepper spray and tear gas, instruments of police control that were once unthinkable in a city that historically was better known for consumerism than agitation.

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Lingering anger from the Umbrella Movement set the stage for this year’s turbulence, which was triggered by a government bill — since abandoned — that would have allowed extraditions to China. Its since widened into an existential crisis over Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing.

In the absence of a political solution, police were once again called out to suppress popular discontent.

This time, the level of violence made the Umbrella Movement look tame. Scenes of bloodied youngsters, subway stations and malls choked with tear gas and indiscriminate use of pepper spray became regular.

Thorough media coverage and social media have helped fan viral clips, including one of a traffic officer on a motorcycle trying to ram protesters on foot, another of masked officers beating subway passengers wildly with batons, and a journalist blinded by a police projectile.

“There is far too much video evidence showing front-line police anti-riot officers using excessive force against anyone they catch,” Martin Purbrick, a former Hong Kong police inspector, wrote in an editorial for the newspaper Ming Pao. “This should have been stopped early in the conflict, but police management either failed or were unwilling to control their officers.”

Allan Jiao, an expert on the Hong Kong police and a criminal justice professor at Rowan University in New Jersey, said the force has been remarkably restrained compared with what would happen elsewhere in the world.

“I have all the sympathy for protesters yearning for democracy, but they would never allow protesters to shut down air traffic or subways in the U.S.,” Jiao said. “It’s unthinkable.

“The police are stuck in the middle just like anywhere else where there’s a progressive movement challenging the status quo. It’s just more intense in Hong Kong because you have the big backdrop of Communist China.”

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Rampant criticism of the police has resulted in a bunker mentality, observers say. Police regularly refer to protesters as “cockroaches.” Lawyers and politicians visiting police stations say they’ve seen cans of cockroach repellent displayed on front desks.

So palpable is the anger that police can rarely venture anywhere without being heckled, most commonly with a four-character invective involving one’s mother that’s something of a linguistic national dish here.

One particular phrase abounds in graffiti here, cursing “the Po Po,” shorthand for the police.

Rank-and-file officers struggle to contain their frustration, lashing out at passersby with profanities of their own.

Some pro-democracy protesters have even called for disbanding the police force, calling it an irreparable tool of repression by the Beijing government.

The charged atmosphere has led to online doxxing of officers and intimidation of their family members. Hundreds of police officers have been injured, including one who was shot in the leg with an arrow and another who was slashed in the neck by a box cutter. Others have been targeted by petrol bombs and hit by acid attacks.

The lack of police accountability has given rise to a citizen’s network of websites and social media groups documenting incidents with video evidence.

A majority of Hong Kongers are demanding that the government launch an independent inquiry into police conduct. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon, even used his recent Christmas message to push for such an investigation.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has rejected calls for an investigation and praised the police for their restraint. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has also expressed “unwavering” support for the force.

The unconditional backing of the police reflects the government’s need for legitimacy in a time of crisis — particularly because it wasn’t democratically elected, said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of “City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that they’ve hitched their wagon to the Hong Kong police so closely,” Dapiran said. “They don’t have any choice because they don’t have any popular mandate.”

Lam said police misconduct can be reviewed through the Independent Police Complaints Council, but the civilian body lacks the power to summon witnesses or compel evidence.

A panel of foreign law-enforcement experts recruited to advise the council stepped down earlier this month after earlier complaining about the group’s inadequate “scope and powers.”

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Wong winces when he sees demonstrators running away from police being thrashed with batons. In the police academy, he and his cadets were all taught to use the minimum force necessary. Batons should only be used against “active aggression,” according to internal use-of-force training guidelines that have been leaked to news organizations, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

To be fair, Wong faced nothing like today’s protests when he policed the streets of Chai Wan, a former industrial neighborhood that’s quickly gentrified.

Back then, an exciting day involved arresting shoplifters and writing tickets for illegal parking. An evangelical Christian, like a number of the prominent protesters here, Wong had been in the habit of praying with others arrested at his local police station.

Wong joined the Police Force after the Umbrella Movement. Back then, the youth ministry at his church was deeply divided about the pro-democracy movement. Wong, who admits to having a contrarian nature, said he wanted to see for himself if the police were all that bad. It didn’t hurt that his parents — a chef and a factory worker, both resolute atheists — had been hounding him to find a stable job.

Immediately, Wong says, he felt out of place at the academy. Having attended a prestigious high school and received an undergraduate degree in sociology, he was one of only a handful of university graduates in his group of 30 cadets. Most recruits had come from working-class backgrounds, and some seemed to have landed at the Police Force for want of other career options.

“These are people who were neglected by society,” said Wong, who left the force after a year. “Joining the Police Force gave them respect and an identity.”

Wong said many of his fellow police recruits were now on the front lines, having graduated from rookie cop to riot officer in the space of a few years. He said some of his friends had deep reservations about their conduct.

Wong said China’s suppression of Christianity had led him to become sympathetic toward Hong Kong’s protest movement.

He and some of his friends from church have been following the extradition bill controversy since the beginning of the year. They’ve attended every major protest since the summer, often on the front lines.

Over the summer, Wong said, he tried to persuade his remaining friends on the force to quit. He even drafted resignation letters for them. It didn’t work. The more Wong pushed, the more his friends recoiled. One of them told him that the abundant overtime pay from the protests was keeping him on the force.

“Some of them actually know what the police are doing is wrong, but they have to eat so they won’t say anything,” he said.


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