One Man’s Encounter:

Police Take Hong Kong's Pro-Democracy Crackdown to New Levels

June 2015

June 2015

BY KONG TSUNG-GAN

I was walking down the street toward a train station on a recent day this spring when, about a hundred feet from the station, I heard what sounded like the clatter of boots on the pavement approaching from behind. Before I turned, a police officer appeared at my side. She was accompanied by four male colleagues. She asked me for my ID.

“Why?” I replied.

“Under the Hong Kong immigration ordinance,” she said.

“What about it?” I asked.

“We have the right to request your ID under the immigration ordinance.”

“Do you suspect me of a crime, or do you think I have been acting suspiciously?”

“No, we just want to see your ID.”

“Do you suspect me of having broken the immigration ordinance or of being in Hong Kong illegally?”

“No, but we have the right to ask for your ID.”

“Why did you approach me just now?”

“To ask you for your ID.”

“Where did you approach me from?”

(Quizzical looks.)

“Have you been following me?”

(No answer.)

The laws regarding police powers to demand to see an identification document are a mixed bag. On one hand, Hong Kong’s Immigration Ordinance (section 17c) states that police have the power, without having to give a reason, to demand that any person produce “proof of his identity” (exactly of what that may legally consist is somewhat open to interpretation).

But according to Police Force Ordinance section 54, police must believe someone is acting in a “suspicious manner” before they can  “stop the person for the purpose of demanding that he produce proof of his identity for inspection by the police officer.”

Because of the relative ambiguity of the Police Force Ordinance, police seem to prefer invoking the authority of the Immigration Ordinance when stopping people and demanding proof of identity.

At the time of my police encounter, the Hong Kong government had just launched its “2017: Make It Happen!” campaign to drum up support for its fake universal suffrage proposals presented to the Legislative Council on Wednesday, April 22. Top government ministers, including the three formally responsible for the proposal, the Chief Secretary, the Secretary for Justice and the Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs, had been riding around the city that afternoon in an open-top bus.

The bus had passed nearby Tai Po Market about a half hour before. I had been there at the time. So had both pro-government and pro-democracy demonstrators, and I had reason to suspect that the police were asking me for identification for political reasons; that is to say, they believed me to hold political views or to have engaged in political acts they considered suspicious, perhaps even conducive to criminal activity.

This was only the second time in my life, including many years of attending demonstrations, that the police had asked me for ID.

The first time was during a demonstration for Tibetan freedom and human rights on Tibetan Uprising Day, March 10, 2011. It is striking that both times were in relation to political protest even though on neither occasion did the police say they had reason to believe I had committed a crime.

As I spoke with the five police officers, they called colleagues. Quickly three others arrived. (Hundreds of police officers were at Tai Po Market and several dozen more in the vicinity of the train station.) I was now surrounded by eight officers altogether. A crowd of about 20 curious onlookers gathered. Two people began to record video if us with their cell phones.

One of the three newly arrived officers was in plainclothes. (I never did ask him for proof of being a police officer, though afterwards I thought I should have.) He told me that I had been seen at Kennedy Town and Lok Fu, two other places the “2017: Make It Happen!” open-top bus had passed earlier that day. And, he said I had “been on TV.”

His words led me to believe that I had not simply been randomly stopped by the five officers who initially approached me, or even that they had followed me from Tai Po Market and stopped me under suspicion of being a pro-democracy activist, but that, instead, the five had been ordered to do so by superiors who had been monitoring me over the course of the day.

“Do you think I have committed a crime?” I asked the plainclothes officer. “Is it a crime to be in those locations or to be on TV?”

“No,” he said, “but it is a matter of public order.”

“I don’t understand. Do you suspect me of having disrupted public order?”

“No,” he said, “but we have the right to see your ID.”

“But what does that have to do with whether or not I was in Kennedy Town or Lok Fu or on TV?”

People outside of a restaurant on the other side of the narrow street on which we stood were shouting at the two onlookers recording our discussion; they shouted back. Five people came over from the restaurant side and began shoving the two videographers. Two of the police officers went over to them.

A young person I recognized as a pro-democracy activist happened by and began to also record the incident on video. He asked me to speak to the camera and explain what was happening, and then he asked the officers what was going on.

Then a citizen journalist I recognized and had seen earlier that day in Kennedy Town and Tai Po happened by and began to observe.

The police demand to see my ID was quickly becoming a spectacle.

* * * * * * * * * *

A lot had already happened that day.

While at Kennedy Town, I had stood on a corner opposite the corner where a large number of pro-government and pro-democracy demonstrators were gathered, squeezed into a small area. From my vantage point, I could look down the street in the direction from which the “2017: Make It Happen!” bus was scheduled to come. The demonstrators would not be able to see the bus until it turned the corner and was almost already past them. When I saw it, I crossed the street and called to the demonstrators, “The bus is coming!”

As I yelled, three police officers grabbed me and pulled me to the sidewalk. The bus turned the corner, and I stepped out into the street to catch a glimpse of it, since, on the sidewalk, my view was obscured by the other demonstrators. One policeman tackled me, another held me down, and a third towered over me. A fourth came quickly, and the four of them took one limb each and carried me to the side of the road while I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Stay on the sidewalk,” they told me, and then ran back to where the bus had just passed.

A scuffle broke out between pro-government and pro-democracy demonstrators. When the bus had turned the corner, the pro-democracy demonstrators had pushed toward the street, and the police who had gathered to block them shoved them backward with an enormous heave. They clattered into the pro-government demonstrators who began attacking them. One heavy-set young man pummeled a scrawny young man about the head.

Two plainclothes policemen I recognized emerged from the crowd. One of them looked stunned. He had gotten caught up in the scuffle, and his colleague was trying to attend to him. I shouted at them that a demonstrator was being attacked, but the one officer led his dazed colleague off in the opposite direction. It was very difficult to draw police attention to the assault, as the police appeared to think that their only mission was to guard the bus.

Now that the bus had passed, the police did intervene, dozens shoving their way into the thick of the crowd, but they clearly had little idea of what was going on, or really didn’t care, as they took away the scrawny young man who had been pummeled while the heavy-set man who’d attacked him disappeared into the crowd. I tried to follow him, but he got away. Then I told the police they were dragging away the wrong person, but not a single police officer listened to me. They did not appear to be interested in taking witness statements. Instead, they told me not to follow them.

From Kennedy Town, I went to Lok Fu. I arrived a few minutes after the “2017: Make It Happen!” bus had passed. I dashed back to the train station and took it up to Tai Po Market. It’s interesting that the plainclothes police officer I spoke to near Tai Po Market mentioned that I had been at Lok Fu, since I’d been there a matter of only a few minutes, emerging from the train station and then going right back into it. The fact that the police officer said I had been seen there suggests they were tailing me or monitoring me fairly closely.

At Tai Po Market, there were very few pro-democracy protesters, perhaps a couple dozen altogether. They were outnumbered by the pro-government demonstrators who had set up a stage. In fact, there were so few pro-democracy protesters, I wondered whether the “2017: Make It Happen!” bus had already passed.

While I stood on the wide pavement out front of the market trying to get my bearings, a police officer approached and asked what I was doing.

“I am standing here,” I said.

“Be sure not to block others,” he said.

“I don’t think I am,” I said. “Do you?”

He didn’t reply.

I saw a scrum of reporters encircling Joshua Wong, the student activist who has led the universal suffrage movement in Hong Kong (and who was named as one of Time magazine’s Most Influential Teens of 2014, nominated for Time’s 2014 Person of the Year, and listed by Fortune Magazine as one of 2015’s World’s Greatest Leaders). Then I turned in the other direction and saw the “2017: Make It Happen!” bus coming swiftly down the street. I wondered whether I was really seeing it because it seemed as if no one else had yet noticed. I shouted, “I want real universal suffrage!” at the bus.

This caught Joshua’s attention, and he broke through the media scrum and ran toward the curb. He was almost immediately knocked down by a police officer, though he was doing nothing in the least bit threatening (unless simply moving in the direction of the bus could be construed as threatening).

I started to jog/run parallel to the bus as it made its way down the street and continued shouting, “I want real universal suffrage!” I was almost immediately blocked by several police officers.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Don’t step out into the street,” one officer snarled at me.

“I’m not. I’m on the pavement,” I said.

“You’re close to the street,” he said. He wasn’t interested in fine distinctions.

The officers were simply trying to prevent me from following the bus, although presumably I had a perfect right to do so as long as I remained on the pavement. As soon as the bus turned the corner down at the end of the street, the police backed away and allowed me to proceed.

I continued on down toward the end of the street. I wanted to reach the corner and see if the bus had already disappeared out of site. I passed the pro-government stage. Several people there swore and spat at me.

I stopped and stared at them, then turned to the large group of police officers standing nearby. “Look at what they’re doing,” I said. The police officers neither moved nor replied. Their faces were entirely impassive, in strong contrast to the one snarling at me moments before.

One plainclothes officer continued to follow me down to the end of the street.

“You will be in trouble if you don’t stop,” he threatened.

“Why are you following me?” I asked.

When we reached the end of the street, he turned around and headed back to where he’d come from.

From the corner, the bus was nowhere in sight.

By that point, whatever the “objective facts,” I definitely felt my freedoms of movement, assembly and association had been unjustifiably infringed. The atmosphere in Tai Po was menacing.

It was then that I headed back to the Tai Po Market train station, and was stopped by the police officers who demanded my ID.

Our discussion went in circles. They threatened to arrest me and take me to the police station to identify me. I stepped aside and made a phone call to ask for advice. I also hoped the call might signal to the police officers that I was a “somebody” and that treating me as they were could have repercussions. I was advised by my phone interlocutor to offer to show the police my ID if they agreed not to take down my details.

When I got off the phone, the plainclothes officer who said I’d been seen at Kennedy Town, Lok Fu and “on TV” had disappeared, but two more uniformed officers had arrived. The total was now nine.

“If I show you my ID, will you record my details?”

“Yes,” they said.

“Why do you need to do that if my ID is in order?”

“It is standard procedure,” they said, “for the records.”

We were at an impasse. Some of the officers looked embarrassed; they just wanted to move on. Two looked very angry with me for giving them trouble. I would not want to encounter them in a “dark alley.” If they began to arrest me, I wasn’t sure what I’d do. I believe the police are politically profiling people and probably keeping a list of “politically suspect individuals,” including those who have never been arrested or convicted of a crime, to keep an eye on. I did not want to show them my details because I did not trust them.

* * * * * * * * * *

The next day, I went on the “Remember June 4” 26-kilometer run (June 4 is the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.) This event is held every year in the lead-up to the candlelight vigil on June 4. At most, several dozen people turn out for it. We start at Chinese University and run through Hong Kong, finishing at the Central Government Liaison Office where we make a declaration and lay white chrysanthemums. We are just about the most harmless, non-threatening group of mostly middle-aged people you can imagine, and in the ten years of the run, we have never caused the police any trouble at all.

In past years, there was very little police presence along the route. Typically, it increased only at the University of Hong Kong. Around the Liaison Office, there were always a lot of police. Indeed, year after year, the police would find little ways of making our lives difficult (no, you can’t bring that Goddess of Democracy statue through; there isn’t enough space, etc., and long negotiations would ensue), but then, police behavior in front of the Liaison Office is a category unto itself.

This year, for the first time in my seven years doing the run, there was a continuous police presence along most of the route. All of the officers were very courteous and some quite solicitous, stopping traffic for us. This, I thought, is what Hong Kong police are good at, directing traffic; it’s what they should stick to. But I also found it strange that there were so many along the way. Many of them took photos of us. I felt under surveillance.

What did they think? That we were going to suddenly occupy a street? That we could be part of some plot to re-occupy the city? Probably not, but I suspect the police are under orders to do whatever they can to prevent any kind of re-occupation from occurring. Prevention is the order of the day. And that means not only more police in train stations and university campuses (which I have also noticed) but also stepped-up monitoring of any group affiliated with the pro-democracy movement.

In Hong Kong, there is insufficient oversight of police. Complaints must be made directly to police who are supervised by a toothless and quite inactive Independent Police Complaints Council, through a labyrinthine process. There has been no action taken by the Hong Kong government or any other official entity to hold the police accountable for police actions during the recent pro-democracy occupations, and no independent investigation of police either. (Pro-government members dominate the Functional Constituency part of the Legislative Council — the part not elected according to principles of universal suffrage — and voted down pan-democratic attempts to pass a motion establishing an independent investigation.) Considering this situation, the risks of abuse of power and infringements of political and civil liberties are present, to say the least, and, for anyone who has been out on the street, quite palpable.

Not only were police present along the route, but there were also people I took to be mainland intelligence agents. I’d seen the sorts in the past: thick, stocky and pot-bellied or abnormally skinny, both types in sunglasses and ill-fitting suits or polo shirts. Though I was running and had better things to do, I was so provoked by the ones taking photos of us that I stopped and took a photo of them.

The intelligence guys were standing near the police. I thought to myself, “While mainland intelligence personnel spy on Hong Kong citizens–nothing new about this, except it’s become more blatant–the police exhibit suspicion of people due to their political expression. This is not a pretty picture.”

At the finish line, there was definite police overkill, even more so than in the past: upwards of 200 police officers versus less than fifty of us. You wouldn’t want us to hop the fence and occupy the compound there, would you?!

* * * * * * * * * *

So, have the police changed, or am I just making a lot out of nothing? And, if the police have changed, how much?

Having gone to many pro-democracy demonstrations over the years, I’ve seen police do a lot of annoying things, and there’s much I could take them to task for. What immediately comes to mind are arrests for things like whistling too loudly in the vicinity of police officers, “assault” for opening a bottle of champagne (some of it allegedly spraying a security guard standing nearby), prominent pro-democracy figures arrested simply for appearing on Citizens’ Radio, a station the government has refused to license, and various other arrests that appear more like harassment (or judicial persecution, as it’s been called) than law enforcement.

In that sense, the situation today is not entirely new, though its scale and severity are. Pro-democracy demonstrators have never felt the police are “on our side” or even entirely neutral, but in the last five years especially, they often appear to be against us. Is it an exaggeration to say that political opposition is being increasingly criminalized?

For a stark point of contrast, there’s the march in July 2003 when a half million people turned out to protest against impending “security” legislation intended to make Hong Kong laws dovetail with the mainland’s. Considering the enormous crowd, the police presence on that occasion was light. The police regarded their role as that of facilitation, no more, no less. There were no arrests, and the event went off peacefully. In how many other cities around the world could half a million people gather without any destruction to property or other crimes committed? In this regard, it’s important to remember that Hong Kong people are largely self-policing and nonviolent. The fact that crime rates in Hong Kong are relatively low is perhaps due more to the law-abiding character of the population than to the police.

Compare the 2003 march to the one on July 1, 2014. Last year was the first time ever that march organizers were arrested for a July 1 march — five of them altogether. Year after year, organizers and police had disagreed about various details of the march, but the police had never before taken the step of arresting them.

Some have compared Hong Kong police to police elsewhere and argued we have little to complain about. But most of these comparisons, for instance to police in U.S. cities, are more misleading than instructive. There have been several notorious cases of unarmed black men (and a child) being killed by police in the U.S. recently and, as a result, some say, “Look, hey, here in Hong Kong, a little tear gas, a little pepper spray–what’s that compared to the fact that police elsewhere, and in a democratic country no less, are killing their own citizens?”

But in comparing different situations, it’s important to take their different contexts into account. In this case, the U.S. has a “double history” of violence: First, slavery and racial discrimination that, while not as bad as before, continues up to this day; second, gun laws that allow a large number of citizens to carry lethal weapons. The two are a lethal brew, for racist tendencies amongst U.S. police are compounded by their expectation that in any given situation, they could be shot at. The chances of them pre- or over-reacting are great.

There is also the worryingly large number of reports of Hong Kong people being prevented from entering the mainland. It appears there is a kind of blacklist, and it is unclear whether or not, or, if so, the extent to which, Hong Kong authorities, perhaps including the police, have cooperated with mainland authorities in compiling it.

But at base, the political corruption of the Hong Kong police by making them serve the ends of an unelected government (which is little more than the representative of the largest dictatorship in the world), has to do with the decision to tear gas demonstrators on September 28, 2014 for hours on end, far past the point that the teargasing could reasonably have been said to have any law enforcement function, if indeed it ever could have.

In taking that decision, the Hong Kong government was essentially turning the police into a militia to protect it and treating the pro-democracy demonstrators as the enemy. This constituted the breaking of a basic social contract that had existed for decades. Remember, it was the first use of tear gas against Hong Kong citizens, the first concerted attack on Hong Kong citizens since the late 1960s. Back then, at any rate, the police had the defense that their adversaries, Cultural Revolution-inspired leftists, were violent, and were planting bombs and throwing Molotov cocktails.

Not until both the Hong Kong government and the police formally and unequivocally acknowledge their actions, fully account for them, hold individuals responsible for making the decisions to take them and apologize to the Hong Kong people can the Hong Kong police really regain their integrity and hope to reform.

The police attack on demonstrators had more to do with regime intimidation than law enforcement. This continues to be the operative paradigm, and at root, this is the problem.

* * * * * * * * * *

You could that the police are simply responding as best they can to a new reality, namely, the Hong Kong people’s greater willingness to engage in acts of civil disobedience and their decreasing willingness to abide by the terms of the Public Order Ordinance, which has been criticized both locally and internationally for being open to abuse as a tool to infringe freedom of assembly and association.

Are the police adhering strictly to the role of law enforcement? Or have they overstepped their bounds, largely due to government orders and the disposition of top officers, in particular the Police Commissioner, and increasingly begun to play the political role of keeping political opposition to the regime in check? To what extent has “law enforcement” bled into harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and infringement of civil liberties?

Or to put it another way, when the Hong Kong government refuses to abide by international law when they deny their people the basic human right of genuine universal suffrage–when, in effect, it is they who have broken the law, what role should the police play? Arguably, the police should have been arresting the people on that “2017: Make It Happen!” bus, the people responsible for the Fake Universal Suffrage plan, and not the people demonstrating against it.

If there were any international enforceability in this area, they would be indicted for depriving eight million people of a basic political right. How much are the Hong Kong police corrupted when they are continually in the position of defending a government that has committed a crime against the Hong Kong people who are trying to hold them legally accountable to the international law?

It is really an up-is-down, down-is-up situation, which is why it’s hard to listen to Hong Kong government propagandistic phrases like “the illegal Occupy Movement” with any patience; it should quite literally be “the illegal Hong Kong government.”

The media should have a pressing interest in asking and pursuing these questions, but you’d be hard pressed to find much in the mainstream press about them, apart from news about the most notorious cases, such as the 2014 beating of Ken Tsang by seven police officers.

But those are easy to write off as “excesses” committed by a few “bad apples” when the problem, as I say, is more systematic. To approach this systematic problem, you need analytical and investigative journalism, of which there is very little in Hong Kong, and even less of high quality. And international journalists simply don’t have the time or inclination to cover it; Hong Kong isn’t a high enough priority to their editors based on the other side of the world. And so, arguably one of the larger stories of the pro-democracy movement, whether the police force has been turned into a tool to protect the political power of the regime, goes unexamined in local and international public discourse.

The police who accosted me in the street were not “bad apples,” at least not in their handling of me. They were just “doing their job.” Yet the job they were doing really shouldn’t be their job. They were ordered to do it, and they did it, and in doing it, they were corrupted, not dramatically, not in the sense that they beat me or arrested me and framed me or harmed me physically, but in the sort of subtle way that becomes significant only when you recognize it as part of a pattern.

In a way, all of what I have written here was going through my head when the police requested my ID–and goes through my head in any encounter with the police. I am not alone; it’s the same for a great many in the pro-democracy movement, and if you spend any time talking with them, you will come away with a great many stories like this one.

The issue of political pressure on institutions–and of their compromising and corruption and degradation–in Hong Kong is urgent and has to do not only with police but also the media, education and universities, the law and the judiciary.

One reason the Department of Justice seems reluctant to prosecute pro-democracy demonstrators is it fears the judiciary is not yet sufficiently compromised that the government can expect easy wins that can be parleyed into propaganda (look at the “illegal” demonstrators!). The Hong Kong government consistently employs the description, “the illegal Occupy Movement,” but it has yet to test this assertion of “illegality” in court. Not a single occupier has been tried for unlawful assembly, though the great majority of arrests were for that crime. Some in government, and the police, must understand that there is a difference between the world of force, which they inhabit, and the world of law as represented by the judiciary and legal community. Unlike the judiciary, the universities, some schools and a few holdouts in the media, the police, on the other hand, have proven sufficiently pliable. Admittedly, they were the most vulnerable to such corruption to begin with.

The police and the Department of Justice should either make full efforts to prosecute those they arrest, in particular on the charge of unlawful assembly but also in connection with demonstrations, or the police should acknowledge its errors in making those arrests and stop the abuse of their powers of arrest. Otherwise, they are simply using arrests to control people they have no intention of actually prosecuting and who have, until proven otherwise, committed no crime. Their acts are not illegal until proven so in a court of law.

* * * * * * * * * *

Just when it looked as if the police would be carting me down to the police station, the female officer who had been the first to approach me took me aside and said, “Perhaps if you answer a few questions about Hong Kong, we can be assured that you are not an illegal immigrant.”

From the point of view of methodology, her suggestion was absurd, but I discerned she was trying to find a face-saving way of ending the encounter.

“OK,” I said.

“How long have you been in Hong Kong?”

I answered the question.

“Where do you live?”

I said I did not want to answer the question.

“What district do you live in?”

I told her.

She asked one more question about my marital status (?!) and then said I could go. Good on her for putting an end to the farce.

Common sense had eventually prevailed and this, too, is a characteristic of many Hong Kong police, albeit perhaps dwindling overall.

At stake is the soul of the force, which in turn will have much influence on the fate of Hong Kong.

Which way will it go?

Kong Tsung-gan is a pro-democracy activist working for change in Hong Kong. He can be reached at info@thereporters.org

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