In Hong Kong, the people vs Beijing has become the people vs the police

After the shooting of a teenage protester, calls to disband the police force entirely are gaining traction. 

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As Hong Kong protesters staggered through a fog of tear smoke and a hail of rubber bullets yesterday, chased through the streets of the Sha Tin suburbs by continuous police charges, a hush suddenly fell over the black-clad youths. Behind their latest frontline, they huddled around their mobile phones and silently digested the news: elsewhere in the city, one of their own (18-year-old Tsang Chi-kin) had just been shot in the chest by police with live ammunition, and was in a critical condition. 

After 17 weeks of relentless protests triggered by chief executive Carrie Lam’s attempt to push through an extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to face trial in China’s Communist Party-run courts, a new threshold had been crossed. When police previously shot a volunteer medic in the eye with a baton round, protesters’ rallying call became “an eye for an eye.” Now, some on the ground were saying it was time for “a life for a life”. 

Tuesday’s protests, which erupted in six districts across the region, were timed to coincide with China’s National Day celebrations. To those marching, however, there was nothing to celebrate. Polls show that an ever-growing majority of young Hongkongers do not identify as Chinese, and the former colony’s summer of discontent has only widened that chasm. The theme of the day was “no national celebration, only national mourning,” and the shooting turned that distant mourning – over the deaths caused by Communist Party persecution and misgovernance over the past seven decades – into something as close to protesters’ hearts as the bullet that missed their comrade’s by just 3cm. 

The misnamed “anti-extradition bill movement” has gone from one centred around a single key issue to a wide-ranging drive for democratic rights and freedoms. These were promised at the time of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China in 1997 but denied in 2014 despite the Umbrella Revolution protests. As clashes with police have intensified, the foremost issue motivating many of the young protesters has become the behaviour of the police themselves, who they accuse of excessive force and unnecessary arrests. Nor is this attitude restricted to the “geared-up” frontliners who bear the brunt of the violence: polls have also shown that far more Hongkongers blame the police for escalating violence than the protesters, and the latest survey results from the Chinese University of Hong Kong saw nearly half of respondents rate their trust in police as zero out of ten. 

The Hong Kong Police Force’s response to the shooting followed a now-familiar pattern of denying any wrongdoing. Police chief Stephen Lo defended the officer's action as "reasonable" and “legitimate” since the officer was being attacked by a group of “rioters” and felt his life was in danger. While the two groups were clearly locked in an intense confrontation, the asymmetry of the weapons at their disposal – a revolver with live ammunition aimed at a foam kickboard “shield” – has seared another iconic image into citizens’ minds that will drive them to attend officially banned protests (despite the risk of imprisonment). It is this lack of capacity for self-reflection or criticism that has incensed the public and intensified their calls for an independent commission of inquiry into their methods.

Speak to the protesters on the streets and they are less likely to mention the extradition bill or even political reform. Instead, they now speak of 21 July, when police failed to intervene in a triad-led attack on returning protesters and other commuters in Yuen Long, and 31 August, when police stormed a subway train at Prince Edward Station, locking out journalists and medics and beating, pepper-spraying and using less-lethal ammunition to shoot trapped passengers. They speak of how it felt seeing their brothers and sisters bleeding in the street and sent to detention centres where they have allegedly faced torture and sexual assault. “All I feel today is anger” was the common refrain from protesters when asked how they felt on their supposed National Day. 

Yet despite official assurances, many protesters have believed for over a month that police killed several people in Prince Edward Station and then staged suicides as cover-ups. Even before that, they had labelled police “murderers” for shooting a medic in August, which was viewed as an attempt to kill her. Although the condition of the shot teenager has now stabilised, police are once again being called murderers in opposition dispatches. While it may not transform the nature of the anger towards police, it will certainly deepen it. After a summer of escalating outrages, what began as the people versus Beijing has become the people versus the police. 

Calls to disband the police force entirely have been gaining traction among protesters with an independent inquiry seen by some as insufficient. As China’s rulers celebrated yesterday, Hong Kong took another step not simply toward the point of no return, but beyond it. Without decisive action to address protesters’ five demands – which also include amnesty for arrested protesters, the withdrawal of “rioting” charges and the introduction of a democratic government – the deferred dream of a democratic Hong Kong will endure until the day it truly explodes.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is a freelance writer and archaeologist born and based in Hong Kong.