Outgoing Deputy Police Commissioner Tony Wong Chi-hung has said that the police force may fire tear gas at demonstrators if another pro-democracy Occupy movement breaks out again.

Wong, due to retire this Saturday, said that the use of tear gas in the 2014 protests was against the wishes of the police, but it was a necessary measure at the time as the clashes between police and protesters had reached an “intolerable” level, Ming Pao reported on Wednesday.

Tony Wong Chi-hung.

In September 2014, Hong Kong police fired 87 rounds of tear gas at unarmed protesters who demanded open elections for the city’s leader. The police action resulted in a backlash as more people joined the street blockade, shutting down key areas of Hong Kong for 79 days.

Wong, who has overseen many large-scale demonstrations in the territory, said he understands the concern that tear gas may harm “innocent” protesters such as those who did not clash with the police. However, he said, tear gas is an internationally recognised policing tactic and hence, if “history repeats itself,” the police may still fire tear gas at demonstrators.

The outgoing commander added that police could consider improving the procedure for using tear gas, such as giving clearer warnings and placing more speakers around to notify demonstrators so they can leave in time.

Wong said that the force had reviewed the effectiveness of crowd control tactics during the Occupy protests, and had decided to upgrade their equipment with purchases such as water cannons. He said he hoped that the water cannons would be in service by July next year.

Tear gas during the Umbrella Movement. Photo: Flickr/Pasu Au Yeung.

But lawmaker Nathan Law Kwun-chung, who was one of the student leaders behind the Occupy protests, questioned Wong’s justification of the use of tear gas.

“Police fired tear gas not because protesters were charging at them, but because they wanted to disperse the crowd,” Law told Apple Daily. “Police shouldn’t blatantly lie – they are hardliners who wanted to disperse and even crack down on the protesters.”

Police-community relations

Wong, who is seen as one of the few “dovish” officers in the police force, said that police should try to settle disputes through peaceful means, rather than worsen them through a hardline approach.

“What good does it do if you use a tough-minded approach every time?” said Wong, adding that the police decision not to clamp down on the 79-day Occupy protests showed that the force was willing to resolve conflicts through peaceful means.

Wong added that the Occupy protests had negatively affected police-community relations and Hong Kong society, Am730 reported. However, he said, police officers “must not take a beating just because they fear a possible deterioration of police-community relations,” and they must prioritise law enforcement and order over public relations.

Hong Kong police during the Occupy protest. Photo: HKFP.

In response to the criticism that the police have been used as a political tool to suppress dissent in recent years, Wong said that it is important for police to remain neutral when handling public demonstrations.

“If we side with any camp, there will always be people who think that we are being unfair. But if we maintain a neutral position, we will be able to get our job done,” said Wong.

Wong said the management understands the stress and difficulty facing officers at the forefront of protests, and therefore it has worked to strengthen the officers’ psychological resilience.

Retirement plans

Wong said that he would be seeking a job that is less stressful. Asked if he would join the business sector like former police commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung, who will be working as a strategic advisor at a private firm, Wong said: “So what if you can earn the entire world? It’s already good enough to be well sheltered and fed.”

Former police commissioner Andy Tsang-wai-hung. File

The 57-year-old officer said there are two things he would never do: Break the law, or become a politician. He added that if the police force needed him one day, he would be willing to return to teach young officers.

During his 35 years of service in the police force, Wong worked in various teams, including the Security Bureau, the Narcotics Bureau and the Police Tactical Unit. He became the Deputy Commissioner in charge of Operations in September 2014.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.