Hong Kong’s Inquiry Into Police Behavior Falls At First Hurdle
It’s big and it’s biased. The new study by Hong Kong’s Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) into police behaviour since the mass protests began a year ago is finally out.
At over 1,000 pages long, it’s heavy but cosmetic, and glosses over police violence against protestors. I was there at many of the protests described, in September and November 2019, and in January and February 2020, and saw for myself how the police behaved.
I’ve studied the entire report and its descriptions bear very little resemblance to what I’ve seen. The police are often unruly, barely disciplined, and routinely use violence against protestors.
The study gives no details of police aggression. Its language is one-sided, misleading and emotive.
It claims that petrol bombs were used by protestors “at virtually every protest” from late August 2019 onwards. Not true. Protestors are repeatedly (at least nine times) described as “ferociously’ attacking the police. One scene is described as “literally a horrifying battlefield” - despite the serious violence Hong Kong has seen over the last year, there really aren’t corpses piled on the streets.
Injuries to protestors caused by the police are not presented in explicit detail, unlike those suffered by police officers (e.g., “A police officer … was shot outside PolyU in his left calf by an arrow which almost went right through the muscle with the tip of the arrow bulging out on the other end under the skin,” while another officer “was slashed in his neck”.)
No detail of protestor delinquency is too small to include. A university campus finally abandoned by protestors after a long siege by the police had “graffiti everywhere,” and “The gymnasium was full of yoga mats, clothes and shoes. Rotten food was found inside the canteen emitting a foul odour.” In another incident, “As the Police entered the mall, protesters threw potted plants….”
It even includes what is a rather charming vignette during an attack on a branch of the Bank of China. “For unknown reasons, however, some violent protesters damaged a branch of the Bank of East Asia, after which someone spray-painted an apology on the glass panel, ‘Sorry, wrong bank.’”
While I’m no expert on commissions of inquiry, I’ve written about such investigations for decades, from those in Northern Ireland to the U.S to South Africa to Bahrain: I gave a public lecture on them at the University of Hong Kong in November 2019, and wrote a piece for Amnesty International in February 2020 on the sort of process that might work for Hong Kong.
But this latest IPCC effort is just dire, and falls at the first hurdle of looking independent. When dealing with a mountain of evidence of police collusion with violent counter-protestors from triads, it just side-steps: “It must be stressed that it is beyond the statutory powers and the capacity of the IPCC to examine allegations of collusion between any police officer and triads.”
There’s some useful material in the report, not least in outlining the pressure and stress the police are working under. It said those officers it surveyed “spent an average 47% of their time policing POEs [Public Order Events between since June and October 2019] … they worked an average of 5.6 days a week and an average of 13.5 hours a day.” It also found that of the police surveyed, “28% often felt tense or uptight, 43% often felt angry, and 43% often felt upset,” numbers it rather optimistically describes as suggesting “Levels of stress were … high, but not overwhelming.”
Perhaps most revealing are the summaries of public opinion toward the police and towards the protests. “On a scale of 0 to 10, the score of public trust in the Police dropped from 5.6 in May 2019 to 2.6 in October 2019. Between September and October, roughly 50% of the telephone survey respondents gave a zero to the trust score.”
It found too that in surveys from August to December, around 70% said that ”the Police had used excessive force against protester [sic]…..”
Public tolerance for violent protest also seems to be growing. “In June 2019, around 70% agreed that ‘when the government fails to listen, the use of radical tactics by protesters is understandable’. The percentage rose to over 90% from late July 2019 onward.”
These numbers reveal how huge a mountain the police have to climb to regain public trust. This report won’t help. In a revealing slip, one of its conclusions laments that because the Hong Kong police isn’t as smart with technology as the protestors, “Opportunities for preventing protests were lost.”
It’s not the police’s job to prevent protests, but to facilitate them. This study only perpetuates the Us v Them binary of Hong Kong’s political crisis. It needs to be redone properly, with independent investigators who can be trusted to tell the full story.