Once hailed by commentators as Asia’s finest, the Hong Kong Police Force has slipped to a new low in popularity and triggered new highs in public anger – all amid allegations of unlawful use of force in protests sparked by the extradition bill.

Gone are the days when the force was seen as a law-abiding, professional group, showing political neutrality, restraint and care when exercising their powers.

police wan chai clean june 22 extradition dan garrett
Photo: Dan Garrett.

That they have crushed protesters and arrested innocent citizens with ugly tactics and unjustifiable force in the ongoing social unrest triggered by the now-suspended bill sparks fears that the force has already become the political tool of a regime that is bent on ruling by fear.

Public anger over the integrity and exercise of power by the police reached boiling point on Sunday, August 10, as clashes between riot officers and protesters broke out in more than half of the city’s 18 districts – from mid-afternoon into the early hours of Monday.

Following remarks early last week by both Hong Kong’s leader and senior Beijing officials that the anti-extradition bill protests had become a “colour revolution,” the police have further hardened their tactics against protesters and ordinary citizens. Cases are plentiful.

china extradition august 3 kowloon
Photo: InMediahk.net.

In Causeway Bay, several protesters complained to journalists nearby as they were being arrested by police officers disguised as demonstrators. One man, who was masked and dressed in black like the protesters, refused to confirm categorically to reporters whether he was a police officer.

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“Use your professional knowledge to judge,” he said as he was pulled away by other officers from the scene.

Television footage that went viral on social media also showed a police officer put a sharp bamboo into a protester’s backpack after he was arrested. In other footage, police officers turned a blind eye to alleged gangsters chasing and beating up passers-by.

An officer was seen shooting pepper balls at close range against protesters as they were leaving the scene in Tai Koo MTR station. Another also reportedly shot a protester with a bean bag round in Tsim Sha Tsui, causing the rupture of her right eyeball.

In Kwai Fong, officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets inside the MTR station. In a statement, the MTR Corporation said it was “very regretful” that the safety of passengers and staff had been put at risk.

Those cases are just part of a list of complaints against the police for breaches of their own rules and regulations, making a mockery of their duty of law enforcement and Hong Kong’s reputation as a city with rule of law and freedom of assembly, among other civil liberties.

august 10 tsim sha tsui nathan road china extradition
File photo: May James/HKFP.

That Sunday’s spate of alleged violations of police rules has added oil to the fire of public demonstrations against the police and the government over the past two months.

It came on the heels of high-profile warnings given separately by Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, and senior mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs, alluding to an intensified crackdown against the protesters.

Speaking at a press conference on August 5, Lam claimed that the nature of the anti-extradition bill protests has changed. She pointed to a popular slogan at the protests – “liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” – as evidence it has escalated into an anti-China campaign.

china extradition august 3 kowloon (4)
Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times. File photo: May James/HKFP.

“They removed the national flag, threw it into the sea, and called for a revolution to liberate Hong Kong… These actions have challenged national sovereignty, threatened ‘one country, two systems’, and will destroy the city’s prosperity and stability.”

Two days later, Zhang Xiaoming, Director of the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, convened a talk attended by more than 500 pro-Beijing leaders from Hong Kong in Shenzhen.

In what was seen as an order from the Central Government, Zhang said: “The most pressing and overriding task at present is to stop violence, end the chaos and restore order, so as to safeguard our homeland and prevent Hong Kong from sinking into an abyss.”

Zhang said there was clear evidence that the protests were indeed a “colour revolution”. But he did not provide the evidence.

Carrie Lam Zhang Xiaoming
Carrie Lam and Zhang Xiaoming. File photo: GovHK.

As if an order to suppress political dissent and punish “trouble-makers” to help restore order had been made, rumours flew on and before Sunday, August 10, that mainland thugs would be sent to Hong Kong to team up with local gangs to attack protesters, in particular in North Point district. North Point is a stronghold of clans from Fujian on China’s eastern coast, who are known for their patriotism and loyalty to the ruling Communist government.

And that Sunday, television footage showed a spate of cases of residents and reporters being assaulted by a crowd – some of whom spoke Mandarin – in North Point. On some occasions, police officers were said to have stood by doing nothing.

The North Point cases have deepened fears that police and triads are colluding to punish and scare protesters. These fears first emerged when hundreds of suspected triads, all in white shirts, attacked black-clad protesters and civilians in a rail station in Yuen Long on July 21. CCTV footage obtained by a local television station showed that the white-shirted men, carrying wooden sticks, had already gathered hours before the attack in streets nearby with at least one police vehicle having passed by.

yuen long attacks
Photo: Lam Cheuk-ting.

In various statements, Central Government officials repeatedly threw their weight behind the Hong Kong police.

It is hardly surprising that China’s Communist regime – which does not have an elected mandate or a system of rule of law – relies on their garrison and public security machinery to maintain order and what they deem as stability.

The descent of the Hong Kong police to become just another branch of the mainland Chinese public security is a bad omen for the city’s future under the “one country, two systems” policy.

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Chris Yeung is Chief Writer at CitizenNews, and the founder and editor of Voice of Hong Kong. He is a veteran journalist who formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues and is the former chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.