As the territory’s officials refuse to punish police officers for misconduct, volunteers are compiling huge archives of evidence.
As pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have turned more violent and disruptive, spectacular scenes of front-liners wielding fiery arrows and Molotov cocktails have dominated international coverage. Black-clad protesters have become icons of the uprising—and been forced to shoulder the blame for the destruction of the city. But that narrative obscures a driving force behind their actions, one supported by many of their fellow Hong Kongers: resistance to the brutality of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), and to the government that has so far refused to hold the police accountable.
The protests, which were sparked by a now-withdrawn bill that would’ve allowed people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, began peacefully in June. But continued violence and other misconduct by the police—from beating compliant arrestees with batons to alleged sexual assault of detained protesters, to refusing to show identification when asked—has pushed some protesters to both fight back and barricade themselves in universities rather than risk arrest.
Many Hong Kongers have called for the actions of the police to be investigated by an independent council and for the HKPF to be held to account. But despite condemnations of police violence by everyone from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the medical workers who have seen protesters’ injuries firsthand, only one police officer has been disciplined for excessive force against protesters this year.
The Hong Kong government does have a civilian body meant to provide oversight of the police: the Independent Police Complaints Council. But critics say it’s made up of conservative, pro-government figures. And earlier this month, a leaked document revealed that a panel of experts appointed by the Hong Kong government found the IPCC incapable of handling the independent investigation needed, citing “a shortfall in IPCC powers, capacity, and independent investigative capability necessary to match the scale of events and the standards required of an international police watchdog operating in a society that values freedoms and rights.”
Those on Hong Kong social media—especially on Twitter and some channels on Telegram, the secure messaging app preferred by the protesters—have made a concerted effort to document and publicize police brutality. #HongKongPoliceBrutality and #HongKongPoliceTerrorism are just two of the hashtags Hong Kongers use on Twitter as they recirculate videos and graphics contextualizing the violence. These netizen-protesters see themselves as being on the front lines of the information war over Hong Kong, coordinating a PR campaign to raise awareness—and get the international attention that they see as crucial to their movement’s success.
These nonstop conversations have created an overwhelming amount of data, from eyewitness reports of police abuse to the debunking of fake news and propaganda. To that end, two major citizen-led projects have organized the mass of evidence of suspected police misconduct in order to build a case against the law enforcement establishment. The editors and administrators behind both initiatives—which include an investigative report compiled by the volunteer group NOPAID and the crowd-sourced police brutality database on the pro-democracy website HKrev.info—hope that transnational bodies may one day use these archives to hold the HKPF and the Hong Kong government accountable. And as the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, continues to sidestep allegations against the HKPF, both projects make the argument for an independent investigative panel outside of the current police accountability system.
“The main purpose of documenting and preserving the database is that it will show the world what we Hong Kongers are confronting, thereby securing sympathy and assistance from the international community. We hope that the day will come when the police will be tried and our database would be a powerful evidence of their atrocity,” an administrator of the police brutality database who goes by the name Chronicler told The Nation. (Many involved in these initiatives choose to remain anonymous, out of fear of repercussions.) “Our [other] mission is to keep a comprehensive historical record of our revolution so that we, and our future generations, will never forget the heavy price we are paying for freedom, democracy, and justice.
One of the first major condemnations of police brutality in Hong Kong this year came right after the protests began, when police unleashed beanbag shots, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse thousands of demonstrators on June 12. Amnesty International called this an “unnecessary and excessive use of force by police” on “largely peaceful protesters.” But then–Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-Chung not only justified the violence but escalated the conflict, calling the clash “a riot”—in a place where riot charges can land arrested protesters in jail for up to a decade. Hong Kongers responded by staging the biggest protest the territory has ever seen just a few days later, with an estimated 2 million people taking to the streets to demand not only the retraction of the extradition bill but also the retraction of the riot claim and the release of arrested protesters. On July 1—the anniversary of the territory’s handover from the United Kingdom—protesters stormed and vandalized the Legislative Council.
But then, on July 21, a mob reportedly connected to the triads, as some organized crime groups are known in Hong Kong, assaulted protesters and passersby at the Yuen Long railway station, injuring at least 45 people. The police took over half an hour to arrive at the scene, causing many to speculate that the police were colluding with gangs to intimidate protesters. Then, in October, a police officer shot an 18-year-old student in the chest at close range. The police officer was not disciplined, but the student was charged with rioting and assault.
The failure of 2014’s mostly peaceful Umbrella Movement to obtain substantive gains has led some protesters to adopt more spontaneous guerilla tactics. The outrage over the police’s behavior—and the government’s reluctance to meet their demands—have helped to turn some protesters increasingly radical, even violent. The vast majority of Hong Kong protesters are peaceful, but some front-liners have used petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails to ward off the police. Over 90 percent of the stations for Hong Kong’s subway system, Mass Transit Railway (MTR), have been vandalized since June, following protesters’ accusations that the MTR Corporation had done the government’s bidding by shutting down subway stations near sites of unrest. Bystanders have paid the price of these clashes too: Earlier this month, a 70-year-old sanitation worker died after he walked into a confrontation and was hit in the head with a brick.
Meanwhile, reports of police brutality have escalated in kind—especially since November 8, when a 22-year-old college student died from injuries sustained while reportedly fleeing tear gas. Since then, police officers have shot a 21-year-old front-liner, attempted to storm the Chinese University of Hong Kong after protesters barricaded themselves inside, and kettled around 1,500 protesters inside the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong. The journalist Laurel Chor, reporting from PolyU, estimated on November 21 that around 50 people were still inside the university, with everyone else having surrendered, escaped, or arrested; as of November 26, just a handful of people were thought to still be inside. Since the protests began, nearly 4,500 people have been arrested.
The tactics of the Hong Kong police have catalyzed and sustained public anger against the government. Of the protesters’ now-famous five demands, three call for reining in law enforcement: Protesters demand an independent inquiry into police brutality, amnesty for those arrested, and an end to characterizations of protests as “riots.” The New York Times reported in early October that the Hong Kong police is now “a symbol of what many protesters regard as the unchecked power with which Beijing governs the semiautonomous Chinese territory.” It is no surprise, then, that a sixth demand has emerged from some protesters: a call to disband the police.
Back in June, a volunteer group of Hong Kong professionals sensed that the government would not holding the police accountable and decided to take matters into their own hands. They would eventually call themselves Netizens Organizing Police Abuse Investigation Data (NOPAID). “There were few calls for establishing an independent committee [then]; the government was also not paying attention. So we thought, what if we tried collecting data [on police abuses] as a first step?” a member of NOPAID told The Nation over Telegram. “We believed that only through examining, then analyzing, the entire police force’s…legal foundations that we could possibly hold them accountable later on.”
Soliciting the help of anonymous legal professionals on Facebook and LIHKG (Hong Kong’s version of Reddit, which also functions as a public forum for crowdsourcing and organizing protests), NOPAID compiled an extensive report, first released in July. (A new edition was published in September.) It reviews and specifies weaknesses in the current accountability system and lays out evidence of suspected systemic abuses by the police force between June 10 and October 2 of this year. About 10 people cowrote the 381-page report, including over 200 pages detailing day-by-day instances of alleged police misconduct, with screenshots of videos and live streams gleaned from both social media and news organizations to back them up. (One editor gave a conservative estimate that they have collected over 1,000 videos that substantiate their claims.) The reports are available in both Chinese and English, and were uploaded by a member based in the United States—which a NOPAID editor told The Nation was “completely for safety reasons.”
Drawing on public records readily available online, the NOPAID report points out that of 2,119 complaints about police beatings submitted to the IPCC between 2011 and 2018, the IPCC only confirmed two. (And, as Sing Tao Daily has reported, only one officer was prosecuted for any misconduct during that entire period.) It also explains that the “passive role” of the IPCC means it has “no power to investigate, file a case or to take disciplinary measures, and…cannot compel the HKPF” to do so either. NOPAID alleges that at least 20 of the 29 incumbent members of the IPCC are linked to the pro-establishment camp or Chinese business interests in some form; some even have direct ties to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body for the Chinese government.
One NOPAID editor told The Nation that he hoped their work could “provide an objective basis upon which locals and foreigners could know the truth and discuss”—a centralized database that would allow for easier and more “powerful” collection of evidence.
“The escalation we’ve seen so far has been horrifying,” he added. “The unlawfulness of the police has become more serious after the mask ban and the fourth plenary session, involving firing real bullets, abuse, rape, as well as the discovery of many corpses with unknown causes of death”—a reference to the allegation that an uptick in suicides and discovery of dead bodies in Hong Kong could be linked to the government or police misdeeds.
The NOPAID team stopped publishing updates after October, citing lack of resources and time. But the Chinese version of the police misconduct database on HKrev.info is still being updated almost daily.
HKrev.info is a volunteer-run aggregator of news and protest schedules, which also archives news and ephemera related to what it calls the Hong Kong 2019 Democratic Movement. Since early October, it has also hosted the police misconduct database. Published in four languages, the Chinese version of the database documents over 1,000 incidents of abuse by the HKPF, complete with links to sources for every allegation. This includes 222 cases of alleged “use of excessive force,” 346 cases of alleged “improper use of weapons,” 286 cases of alleged “abuses of police power,” 199 cases of alleged “intimidation, threats, and verbal violence,” and 80 cases of “collusion with and covering up for ‘black forces’” (referring to counterprotesters and triads).
The database began after the assault by triad-connected mobs on July 21. A group of five people in Hong Kong who had connected via LIHKG began compiling a list of suspected instances of police misconduct using Google Slides. The person who goes by Chronicler told The Nation that when “the sheer number of cases had overloaded the system, making it laggy and difficult to organize,” they migrated the data onto its current site. It’s now maintained by around 30 people in their 20s and 30s, who add cases as soon as someone is able to provide videos or photos, information about when and where the incident happened, and an explanation as to why they suspect police misconduct. No incidents can be uploaded to the database without photographic evidence. (To streamline the process, the admins set up a bot account on Telegram to helps take in submissions.)
The incidents documented range from property damage to protesters’ being beaten by police. Chronicler believes that the database presents these events “in a way that strives to show the full picture of each and every incident,” and that perusing the extensive database will also show foreign observers “why the protesters have to [escalate] their offensive and defensive capabilities as a means to protect themselves and those around them.”
The host site, HKrev.info, hews close to the principle of decentralized organizing preferred by the protesters. “All of our members work at our own time and space with one goal in mind—that is, to relay messages and the current situation of the movement as quickly as possible, and as accurately as possible,” a volunteer for HKrev.info told The Nation, expressing gratitude for everyone who contributes. “There is no ‘big boss’ in the group when all members contribute as much as they can at the pace our volunteers wish.”
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has consistently refused to address concerns about police misconduct, even after instances of protesters’ being shot. In August, local outlet Stand News reported that during a visit to a police station, Carrie Lam had promised there would be no independent investigation into alleged police brutality, as “it was the only thing [she] could do for the police force”; in a recording leaked to Apple Daily, Lam acknowledged that although many wanted an inquiry into police misconduct, her “colleagues in the police force were very resistant.”
Multiple local and international outlets have found that the police force has improperly deployed crowd control munitions, such as pepper ball guns and tear gas. (The United Kingdom banned sales of tear gas to Hong Kong in June, and the US Senate just passed a bill to ban sales of tear gas and other weapons to the HKPF.) Journalists have been roughed up by the police, arrested, and injured; one was permanently blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet. There have even been allegations of sexual assault by the police. In one instance, lawyers representing the survivor of an alleged gang rape by police slammed the police for “systematically work[ing] to discredit her and to undermine her complaint.” The only officer facing consequences thus far is one who, in a viral video, repeatedly drove a motorcycle into a small crowd of protesters; he was suspended and put on mandatory leave.
With the landslide victory of the pro-democracy camp in the local District Council elections on November 24, it is clear that a majority of Hong Kongers back the five demands, seeing complete democratic reforms as one of the only means by which state actors like the police may be held accountable. With voter turnout exceeding 70 percent, the city saw a peaceful weekend for the first time in months. But there is a good chance that protesters may soon return to the streets.
So far, neither the Hong Kong nor the mainland Chinese governments have acknowledged the NOPAID report or the police misconduct database. Nor have they been widely referenced in English-language media. And although HKrev.info’s Twitter account has more than 4,600 followers and the English version of the NOPAID report’s release was retweeted more than 8,600 times, it’s unclear how much influence either initiative has exerted over the greater discourse about the Hong Kong protests—or that about the police.
The IPCC recently claimed that it is still committed to releasing a report in early 2020 that will reflect on this year’s events, making “recommendations to the Commissioner of Police and the Chief Executive on how police practices and procedures may be improved.” But Chronicler said they doubted that anything short of radical change would quell the movement—or their documentation of it.
“Disbanding the Hong Kong Police Force and forming an Independent Inquiry Commission is a start. Universal suffrage of the legislature and the Chief Executive, as enshrined in the Basic Law, is the long-term goal,” they said. “Civilians have been raising these demands for months. Only by addressing our demands can the crisis be stopped.”
How to abolish the Hong Kong police
Thinking through the ‘sixth demand.’
Police point guns at retreating protesters in Wong Tai Sin, 1 October 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan
How to abolish the Hong Kong police
Thinking through the ‘sixth demand.’ By Vincent Wong and Edward Hon-Sing Wongon November 13, 2019 Share
Tensions with the police have reached a breaking point in the wake of the death of HKUST student Alex Chow Tsz-lok, who succumbed to his injuries on November 8 after falling from a parking garage where police were dispersing protesters. On November 10, riot police fired tear gas into multiple university campuses, a traffic cop shot an unarmed protestor with live ammunition in broad daylight, and a police motorcyclist was filmed ramming into protestors, in one of the movement’s most traumatic days yet.
There are comprehensive reports detailing the police’s excessive and indiscriminate use of force throughout this year’s protests. In addition to live ammunition, police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and sponge-tipped bullets. Police have maimed and blinded journalists and first aid workers, and reportedly tortured detainees. As of early November, well over 3,000 protesters have been arrested, and hundreds of people have been charged with “rioting,” which carries a penalty of up to ten years imprisonment. As many as one-third of those arrested are minors.
Despite widespread condemnation of the police tactics, including from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and four UN Special Rapporteurs, the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) has thus far enjoyed impunity for their actions. Only a single officer (the motorcyclist who rammed into protesters) has been suspended; no officers have been charged. While the government insists the public can file “complaints” against police misconduct, the force has consistently refused to display their warrant card numbers, and even obtained a court injunction to prevent anyone from disclosing officers’ personal details.
Surveys have found protesters’ primary motivation is “expressing dissatisfaction with police’s handling of the protests.” This helps explain the staying power of the movement, which continues to insist on “Five Demands, Not One Less,” including an independent inquiry into the HKPF’s use of force.
As the protests roll into their sixth consecutive month, many in the movement have begun to make a “sixth demand”— to disband the HKPF altogether. The remarkable uptake of this demand has sparked debate around exactly what dissolution of the HKPF would entail: reconstitution and reform? Or a more radical type of abolitionist politics?
The Hong Kong police’s job is to protect the establishment
Hong Kong has a long tradition of struggle against its unjust social, political, and economic order. For just as long, the police has played an integral role in maintaining the status quo.
According to Norman Miners and Raymond Lau, the HKPF was originally formed as a paramilitary force to maintain British colonial order in the face of a hostile Chinese population. Like its counterparts across the colonized world, the HKPF supplemented the British military garrison to deter Chinese people from attempting to retake the territory.
The HKPF was routinely brought out to put down labor uprisings, notably the 1922 Seaman’s Strike as well as the 1967 “leftist riots,” a strike-turned-uprising against the colonial government. In both these instances, the colonial government enacted the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO) to grant itself sweeping powers to put down dissent. Last month, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam once again enacted the ERO as part of a police escalation against protesters which, as Wilfred Chan and JN Chien write, “makes clear the continuity between the British colonial regime and the Chinese authoritarian state.” Read more
This time, many protesters have openly called to disband the police force. Yet Carrie Lam has seemed unable to even comprehend the demand. In a recent Q&A with Hongkongers over Facebook, the Chief Executive responded to the idea with bemusement:
I’m puzzled when I hear this, because when there are public order and safety issues, such as theft or unfortunate attacks, people say they must ask police to follow up seriously. So police are playing a very important role, and we must support them in law enforcement.
Lam’s response betrays her positioning within Hong Kong’s hierarchy. What can Lam mean by “public order” or “safety issues,” when police have shown almost no concern for the victims of targeted hits on pro-democratic figures, indiscriminate mob attacks, or their own vicious and rampant police brutality? Like the many rulers of Hong Kong before her, Lam knows the police’s true role is to protect the city’s elite from the demands of the citizenry.
Abolition means democracy
We have much to learn from the work of the Black liberation movement, which has long made the connection between the criminal justice system and the maintenance of an unequal race and class based social order in the United States. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis argues that, despite its formal abolition in 1865, slavery was simply replaced by institutions like lynching, segregation, and incarceration. Today, all federal prisoners in the United States are forced to work for pennies an hour, in a “wide-ranging corporatization of punishment that has produced a prison industrial complex.”
A similarly extractive system exists in Hong Kong. In 2017, the total commercial value of products and services produced by a daily average of 4,529 people in criminal detention engaged in industrial work was 454.1 million HKD—despite prisoner-laborers earning a mere fraction of the already-abysmal Hong Kong minimum wage.
Feeding Hong Kong’s prison industrial complex is a broader socio-economic structure that renders certain groups of people vulnerable and targets them for policing. Police brutality is nothing new for marginalized Hongkongers, be they sex workers, undocumented migrants or members of racialized communities. The fact that Han Chinese Hongkongers are now targeted as well should remind us that no one is exempt. As Jun Pang points out, criminality in Hong Kong has always been a malleable label used by the state to justify its own violence as it seeks to uphold the status quo. Read more
To counter this system, we may draw inspiration from Angela Davis’ framework of “abolition democracy,” which calls for “an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete.” Davis suggests that one way to achieve this is the full-scale democratization of political and economic institutions. This helps us tie the sixth demand to our broader struggle to create a more democratic Hong Kong.
Challenging assumptions of prosecutorial justice
As Pang notes, this year’s movement shows “[a]n abolitionist politic for Hong Kong is not only possible; it is already in the making.” This work begins by exposing the flawed logic of the criminal justice system.
Writing in a U.S. context, Georgetown Law professor Allegra McLeod offers a vital critique of the “prosecutorial” conception of justice—which also undergirds Hong Kong’s legal system. First, she notes, criminal prosecutions generally fail to address the needs of survivors of harm. Instead, they focus on punishment of the accused while squeezing the victim through a complex, dehumanizing, and potentially retraumatizing criminal process with no guarantee of securing an apology, punishment, or reparations.
Second, the criminal legal process completely neglects the underlying socioeconomic causes of the problems at hand, so that they are almost certain to occur again. It does not, in the words of renowned prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, address the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life, such as equitable access to jobs, education, housing, health care.
Neither does there seem to be a correlative relationship between greater policing and greater public order. In fact, as the anarchist collective Crimethinc argues, the increasing militarization of police may even contribute to uprisings, as “a population rendered expendable by globalization and automation can only be integrated into the functioning of the economy at gunpoint.”
Finally, the criminal legal process is structurally incapable of delivering justice or accountability for state-perpetrated violence, in part because prosecutors are fundamentally compromised by ties and reliance on policing.
As the Hong Kong protests have shown, anyone can be dragged through this flawed criminal system. This should give pause to those who believe that security and justice can be achieved simply by reforming the police force.
February 08, 2020
Ah Yen, a frontline first aider, has his back scorched by tear gas. After skin grafting, his wounds are yet to heal. While he has no regret providing first aid in the frontline, his mother thinks he is a “trouble maker” and asked him to leave home. The pain in the skin will subside eventually, but the divide in the family may take long to resolve.
The Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) movement has lasted half a year and the scars are imprinted in the heart of every person in this city: over 2,600 people are injured with some lost an eye, some with bone fractures or dislocation of joints, some suffering from mental health problems, and numerous families torn apart. Despite that their wounds are still on the mend, some of the injured, putting aside personal consequences, are hoping for a speedy recovery so that they can return to the frontline to help fellow brothers and sisters. They hope for their friends to be safe and look forward to a prompt realization of the five demands. Sharing the weight of these scars with Hongkongers, they choose to keep on fighting for justice.
With a back burnt by tear gas, he got kicked out of home. Yet Ah Yen looks forward to returning to the frontline.
Ah Yen (a pseudo name) is a first year Hong Kong Shue Yan University student. He once thought that politics is something remote but this year he walks away from the lifestyle of a “Hong Kong Pig” (a term for those who only care about eating and sleeping) and volunteers as a first aider in the frontline. In early November, he was hit by a tear gas canister and had his back burnt. The wounds up to now have not completely healed. While he has no regret providing first aid in the frontline, his mother thinks otherwise and kicked him out of home right after he was discharged from hospital. “I don’t need your (Ah Yen’s mum’s) support, nor recognition. I merely want understanding. If she would understand me, that’s when I will go home,” said Ah Yen.
“If she would understand me, that’s when I will go home.”
“The moment when the tear gas canister hit and blasted open my back, it hurt but I could still talk. I could call my family and thought I was fine.” What was unexpected was that the tear gas projectile continued to emit heat, resulting in second to third degree burns on his back. In the end he required skin grafting. Up to now, the wounds are still bleeding.
While the pain in the flesh will one day be gone, it is a lot harder to overcome the divide in the family. Growing up in a single-parent family, the political views of Ah Yen and his mother are completely different. He described his mother as “extremely pro-government”. Ah Yen is a first aid member of St John Ambulance and sometimes will be on duty at the Jockey Club racecourses. “She said if there is no pay, why do I have to work until late at night?” When the anti-ELAB protests broke out, Ah Yen went to the frontline every now and then. “She thinks the protestors are trouble makers and so am I. I will provide first aid to whoever in need regardless of his/her political stance.”
After he was admitted to hospital, Ah Yen called his mother. The reply he got was: “Don’t call me even if you are dying”. After discharge, he had no home to go to. “She asked me to hand over the house key. … I take it as going independent early. I feel that she has disowned this son.”
Ah Yen confronted his mother numerous times arising from differences in political views. It has been difficult for Ah Yen to change her opinions. “I don’t need your support, nor recognition. I merely want understanding. If she would understand me, that’s when I will go home.”
At the time of the Umbrella Movement, Ah Yen was in form 2. Back then, he thought politics was something remote. To a secondary school student, universal suffrage is not a subject of immediate concern. The anti-ELAB controversies have uplifted his understanding of the issues surrounding the bill.
He started to actively discuss politics with friends, breaking from his “Hong Kong Pig” lifestyle which has been filled with video games, food and sleep.
On his 19th birthday, also Christmas Eve, by his side were Ah Yen’s first aider teammates.
In the frontline, Ah Yen has seen protestors hit by water cannon and tear gas. Some were so frightened that their bodies were shaking. On Christmas Eve, those who celebrated his 19th birthday with him were his voluntary first aid friends. He does not regret being a first aider. He hopes to recover soon and go back to the frontline again.
Source: Ming Pao, December 26, 2019
This is an English version of website showing all missing people & “unsuspicious suicide” cases since the Anti-Extradition Protest broke out in June. Please do share it, we need the world to pay attention to them.
The young demonstrators shift back and forth between their old lives and their new – school uniforms and dinners with mom and dad, then pulling the masks over their faces once more. They are risking everything for a tomorrow that almost certainly won’t come: a Hong Kong that cleaves greater freedom from the Chinese Communist Party.
By TOM LASSETER in HONG KONG