People vs police: a short history of Hong Kong's uneasy relationship with law and order

Hong Kong’s police are frequently depicted as enemies of the people – so why is the force seen as a desirable career path? 

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Last week, a surreal scene went viral on Hong Kong social media. An army of police officers clad in sky blue uniforms and armoured with shields descended on an underpass in the suburbs of Tai Po, glancing awkwardly at passers-by and journalists. Adorning the “Lennon Wall”, one of many walls in Hong Kong named after the John Lennon wall in Prague, where Czech youths painted subversive graffiti, were multi-coloured Post-it notes lovingly pasted by supporters of the city’s anti-extradition law movement. They contained words of encouragement for protesters that have been tear-gassed, injured, and wrestling with depression since June.

The police were there to inspect and remove posters that bore the details of a colleague whose personal information had been plastered on the wall after he was caught on film swearing at protesters earlier that week. Their disproportionate show of force against inanimate objects provided light relief to the violent standoff between police and protesters that has since escalated in Hong Kong.

The real antagonist of the protests is Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but the police are her unmistakable foot soldiers. Officers have shot rubber bullets and fired tear gas at students, shoved journalists and arrested countless demonstrators. The police force has tried to justify its violence through a bizarrely Orwellian social media campaign vilifying demonstrators and posting photos apparently depicting injuries sustained by officers. Protesters have hit back, sharing images of police abuses online and blasting local rapper JB’s “Fuck the Popo” at a recent rally in Sha Tin.

Animosity towards the police, whose official motto is to “serve and protect Hong Kong”, is not new. Since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, pro-democracy protesters have taken to nicknaming officers “black cops,” referring to the dirty, sometimes unlawful tactics used to suppress political protest.

In recent years, high-profile cases have included seven officers beating up social activist Ken Tsang and former police superintendent Frankly Chu attacking a pedestrian with a baton, which he termed “the extension of his arm.” Since the 2014 Umbrella protests, Hong Kongers have been on high alert for any sign of misconduct. But despite public animosity towards the force, there have also been demonstrations in support of the police. Some are genuine gatherings organised internally by the force; others appear to be the work of notoriously pro-China figureheads such as Leticia Lee and Fu Chun-chung, hinting at China’s attempts shape the public discourse.

In 2015 I walked into the police headquarters in Wan Chai to report a case and noticed that the wall behind the reporting room was decorated with blue ribbons the colour of police uniforms, which came into fashion during the Umbrella protests among police supporters—the antithetical cousin to their yellow counterpart, which are synonymous with occupation. Last month, I watched from afar as protesters gleefully egged the same police headquarters and flashed lasers at officers trapped inside the building. 

The failure of individual police officers to don uniforms clearly displaying their identification numbers prompted calls in June for tougher mechanisms to check police powers. Protesters have joked that a regular police “uniform” consists of a grey shirt and green khakis, because some officers wore casual clothing while on duty. Journalists have shown up to police press conferences in full protective gear, protesting against obstruction and violence towards the press.  

Currently, Hong Kong’s Independent Police Complaints Council, the body that examines complaints made against police, has no investigative powers of its own, and is only able to review evidence derived from an internal police unit, the Complaints Against Police Office. This has inspired the popular saying that the police in Hong Kong “investigate themselves”.

In this acrimonious environment it’s difficult to understand why an ordinary Hong Konger would wish to join a force notorious for brutality and frequently depicted as an enemy of the people. Though the question may be a fruitless line of inquiry, it has often intrigued me how officers are tempted into the position. Some among them may genuinely like the idea of maintaining law and order, while others, it has been said, desire power. I suspect the compulsion runs deeper – and is simpler – than either explanation.

Among the colourful insults hurled at the police last month outside the police headquarters in Wan Chai was “Yi Jin Jai 毅進仔”. Yi Jin is a system where students who don’t score well on their public exams enrol on a programme where they can acquire the diploma that allows them to join the force. Yi Jin Jai has been criticised as a classist term and a means of branding officers as academic underachievers whose only means of securing a stable life in the notoriously expensive city is by joining the force.

This is doubtlessly an unfair portrayal, but it’s true that the occupation is an attractive career to many seeking upward mobility, who may have been shut of the extremely competitive education system. According to Hong Kong’s police website, constables make a monthly salary of at least HK$24,110 (£2,480) upon entry. For inspectors, this increases to $42,665 (£4,386 – far above the entry-level pay of most graduate jobs in Hong Kong.

At a recent screening of Tête-bêche (2018), a local film about a family comprising a journalist, a social activist and a police officer, the motivations of the two officers were presented as purely financial – in fact, one intended to save his salary towards a graduate law degree. After the screening, both the director and audience commented that as far as they know, everyone around them who became a police officer was in it for the money.

Last year, I interviewed a police officer who had worked several years as a journalist. When I asked his reasons for changing career, the officer, who gave his name as Will, said the job offered a much better salary. This financial incentive gives an insight into why so many people, perhaps even some who secretly supported political movements, end up finding themselves on the other side.

Pop culture, too, has played a pivotal role in glorifying disciplinary forces. The cop film is a distinct genre in Hong Kong cinema. Titles including Infernal Affairs (2002), Connected (2008), Cold War (2012), are beloved by Hong Kongers. They weren’t made as police propaganda, and a number of films belonging to the genre romanticise triads or feature corrupt officers – but this is where TVB, perhaps the city’s most well-known television broadcaster, comes in. I’ve lost count of the number of TVB dramas that emphasised the spirit of comradeship born in the police training academy and later in the force; the most significant during my childhood were The Academy, Armed Reaction, and E.U.

In a 2014 article shared on Facebook site Sunday Mingpao, a local columnist found that 50 cop-related shows have aired on TVB since 2000, noting that such dramas contribute to a renewed image of the police as brave, determined heroes and defenders of justice. It is difficult to explain to an international audience the significance of this, but it’s safe to say that everyone in my generation had grown up with TVB playing unceasingly in the background of family dinners.

In the 1960­ and 1970s, under British colonial rule, the police were seen as corrupt thugs ready to sell out for a little cash on the side. In many districts, it was a common practice for officers to supplement their wages – which were said to be low – with bribes known as “tea money” offered by everyday Hong Kongers in exchange for maintaining order. This was not rectified until the establishment of a corruption watchdog body tasked with eliminating the problem within government and police ranks. In the decades since, the Hong Kong police has rebuilt its image as “Asia’s finest” – which explains why people have high expectations of the local police force, and are unlikely to accept retorts that police in “other countries” would have been a lot less restrained.

The looming threat of police brutality has weaved itself into the development of political activism in Hong Kong. Last year, I covered the trial of Edward Leung, who has since been sentenced to six years in prison for “rioting” in relation to the Mong Kok clashes in 2016. Most media outlets reporting on the events described the protest as a response to the authorities’ attempts to clear street hawkers. But when Leung was questioned about his actions that night, he told the court how, during Umbrella, police had violently cracked down on protesters and Leung had watched as an officer called a student with a bloody face “scum.” That, he said, made Leung determined to protect the public in Mong Kok. 

As the recent history of Hong Kong has proven, violence from the people is directly instigated by violence from the police and the government. Time and time again, many Hong Kongers have been drawn out not because of a devotion to greater causes, but because they want to protect their young from police brutality. It would fare well for Lam’s administration to finally answer these calls for greater checks and balances, whether through an inquiry commission, as a former chief justice suggested, or an independent watchdog. Only then can she live up to her campaign promise to “mend rifts in society,” and prevent further bloodshed on both sides. If democracy remains a pipe dream at this point, at least we could hope for a disciplined police force that is accountable to the people. 

Karen Cheung is a writer and editor in Hong Kong. She tweets @karenklcheung