As it faced the challenges of the past year, the Hong Kong Police Force displayed the professionalism and courage for which it was already renowned, albeit in abundance this time. Without it, the “one country, two systems” paradigm, envisaged by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and turned into a reality by the Basic Law, would not have survived. Although its experiences were often traumatic, the police force has emerged stronger, wiser and more committed than ever, even though it had little inkling last year of the horrors about to be unleashed on Hong Kong by hostile forces and their foreign backers.
On June 9, 2019, violent protests erupted in the Central district of Hong Kong, and these triggered the series of events which resulted in the enactment of the National Security Law just over a year later. As midnight approached, hundreds of frenzied hooligans charged the police cordon line at the demonstration area of the Legislative Council Complex, throwing iron rods, metal barriers, water bottles and other hard objects at the police officers, who valiantly strove to hold their assailants back. In total, eight police officers were injured that night, including one with serious eye injuries.
By Feb 29, the police had arrested 33 persons (31 male and two female) in connection with the violence on June 9. The offences included unlawful assembly, assaulting police officers, and possession of an offensive weapon. The violence, though grave, paled into insignificance in comparison with the urban guerrilla tactics deployed thereafter by the protest movement over many months. In its subsequent report, the Independent Police Complaints Council concluded that the community was “being dragged into an era of terrorism”, and the sustained violence of the protesters amply bore this out.
Whereas police officers were repeatedly attacked with petrol bombs, and their families intimidated, people from elsewhere in China, or with different opinions, were brutalized, or else had their businesses destroyed. On Aug 15, for example, two mainland visitors arriving at the airport were assaulted, tied up, and denied medical treatment, to the horror of even hardened foreign journalists, who had witnessed outrages around the world. Thereafter, a father of two girls was set on fire by rioters in Ma On Shan on Nov 11, sustaining dreadful injuries, and then, on Nov 13, an elderly street cleaner was killed with bricks thrown at his head by black-clad protesters in Sheung Shui.
The police force is, therefore, now in a position not only to effectively combat secession, subversion and terrorist activity, but also to fully discharge its traditional functions of protecting lives and property, safeguarding the streets, and detecting child molesters, drug traffickers, fraudsters, and the like. The era of lawlessness which erupted on June 9 last year is coming to an end, and Hong Kong is again becoming a safe city in which to live and work
Not content with causing death and injury, the protest movement wrought massive damage to Hong Kong’s infrastructure. Whereas the overall damage they caused to the MTR came to HK$1.6 billion (US$206 million), the repairs to the 740 sets of traffic lights that were burnt, smashed and blackened, in the name of “liberation”, came to HK$40 million. It was even necessary for the government to spend HK$15 million on restoring about 60 kilometers of metal railings which were vandalized and used as improvised weapons against police officers. The damage to Polytechnic University alone, caused when protesters occupied it in November and turned it into a bomb-making factory, having stolen chemicals from the science laboratory, came to HK$700 million. As they made clear by their slogan “if we burn, you burn with us”, the protesters were willing to destroy the city in order to weaken China.
The IPCC reported that the protesters were using “urban guerrilla tactics”, and they had ready access to explosives and bomb-making equipment. On May 25, the Commissioner of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung, undoubtedly the hero of the hour, revealed that, since June last year, there had been 14 cases “involving explosives”, and five cases “involving seizure of genuine firearms and ammunition”. On March 8 alone, the police arrested 17 people for their alleged involvement in three bomb plots earlier this year, with 2.6 tons of chemicals and three unfinished home-made bombs seized. Of greatest concern have been the seizures of tri-acetone tri-peroxide (TATP), the explosive used, for example, in the London bombings of 2005, and the Sri Lanka bombings of 2019. In their largest ever seizure of TATP, at a storage unit in Tsuen Wan, used by the pro-independence Hong Kong National Front, the police found 2 kilograms of the explosive, clearly intended for use on the city’s streets, once the order was given.
Much of the protest-related violence was, moreover, associated with the people who wished to subvert the national and regional governments, and to promote a secessionist agenda. They repeatedly attacked mainland people and property, and desecrated the national flag, hoping thereby to provoke an armed intervention by the central authorities, but, for good reason, this did not happen. Beijing believed that the police force could be trusted to defend Hong Kong, and its confidence was not misplaced.
The protesters soon realized that they had grossly underestimated the abilities of the police force. Although its officers had previously had little experience of controlling armed rioters, they speedily adapted themselves, learning on the job. By using minimum force, and only mobilizing after clear warnings had been disregarded by the mobs, the police not only defended Hong Kong from its enemies, but did so without any of the fatalities which have resulted from police anti-riot operations in, for example, Chile, France and the United States.
In desperation, therefore, the protest movement, egged on by the Civic Party and its US proxies, sought to besmirch their reputation, demanding a public inquiry, not into those who instigated the riots, but into the very police force which had so selflessly put the lives of its officers on the line in defense of Hong Kong. This proposal, of course, was designed to weaken police morale, and to distract officers at a critical time. Although local do-gooders and anti-China forces elsewhere quickly bought into the proposal, the chief executive, to her credit, held her nerve, and rejected the demand, as a result of which the police force was able to concentrate on its duties and contain the situation.
Containment, however, is one thing, and falls well short of ultimate control. It was only when the National Security Law was promulgated on June 30, that the police force was finally provided with the tools it needed to fully defend Hong Kong, and the effect was immediate. Hostile forces reviewed their strategies, protest organizers scaled back their activities, secessionist groupings announced their dissolution, and local subversives headed for the airport. On July 8, moreover, the police force was able to announce that the 6,000-strong riot squad was to be cut by two-thirds, meaning that 4,000 officers would be returning to normal policing duties.
However, as the protesters have severely undermined public safety, this will inevitably take a while to redress. In 2019, the number of general crimes solved in Hong Kong hit a 10-year low, and this was attributable to the diversion of manpower to handle protest-related criminality. Indeed, the crime detection rate of 37 percent in the first 10 months of 2019 was down from 43.5 percent for the same period in 2018. In the first six months of 2020, a total of 32,345 crimes were recorded, an increase of 7,050 cases, or 27.9 percent, over the same period in 2019. There were 4,507 cases of violent crime, an increase of 537 cases, or 13.5 percent, over the same period last year. The thousands of crimes committed by the protest movement in that timespan included arson (increase of 85.2 percent), criminal damage (increase of 38.8 percent), public order offenses (increase of 7.1 percent), and possession of unlawful weapons (increase of 53.1 percent).
Although it will inevitably take a while to fully restore Hong Kong’s reputation as one of Asia’s safest cities, the police force, in addition to the laws it needed, is now also being strengthened in other key areas. In February, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po announced that total funding on the police will rise by 25 percent over 2019, to HK$25.8 billion, which was greatly welcomed. It is anticipated that an extra 2,543 posts will be added to the 35,000-strong force over the next year, an increase of over 7 percent, in order to “strengthen operational capability”. About 45 percent of the new officers will help to “maintain law and order in the community”, while over 400 new posts will be created to “prevent and detect crime”. At the same time, Chan said that the force’s budget for specialist supplies and equipment, including weapons, ammunition, shields and protective gear, will treble to HK$612 million, and this, together with six new armored vehicles, will significantly boost its operational capability.
The police force is, therefore, now in a position not only to effectively combat secession, subversion and terrorist activity, but also to fully discharge its traditional functions of protecting lives and property, safeguarding the streets, and detecting child molesters, drug traffickers, fraudsters, and the like. The era of lawlessness which erupted on June 9 last year is coming to an end, and Hong Kong is again becoming a safe city in which to live and work. In good times and bad, the police force has heroically protected Hong Kong against those who wished to harm it, and its officers are owed a debt of gratitude, not only by the people of Hong Kong, but also by the nation as a whole.
The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS