During this city’s prolonged battle against Covid-19, many Hongkongers forgot that we have another big problem that goes beyond quarantine-jumping fugitives and a shortage of face masks: the now seemingly unchecked, self-governing Hong Kong Police Force.

Before proceeding, however, let’s pause here for a caveat: this article is not intended to be a wholesale, yellow-on-blue, disband-the-police attack on “black cops” that offers the rhetorical equivalent of spilt dog food to the force’s more than 30,000 officers who are, by and large, decent, fair-minded people trying their best to do their jobs in exceptionally difficult times.

File photo: May James/HKFP.

There have been plenty of unbridled, invective-filled attacks on the Hong Kong police; there’s no need to pile on what is already an abundance of vituperation.

If police chief Chris Tang Ping-keung wants to share drinks and kung-fu jokes with the likes of Jackie Chan and Eric Tsang Chi-wai, let him have his fun.

That said, however, there is a damnably conspicuous minority of his officers who are out of control and need to be reined in once his celebrity friends go home and the commissioner faces the sober light of day.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak that closed schools and offices while also putting the kibosh on huge anti-government street protests that had persisted for several months, complaints of excessive use of force by the police had become a commonplace.

But then the virus cleared the streets far more effectively than the police had ever managed, and there were other things to worry about: an open border with mainland China, where the disease was raging, quarantine centres suddenly popping up in your neighbourhood, unobtainable face masks, and so on.

With coronavirus cases recently appearing to stabilise, however, protesters were back on the streets this past weekend, and so, too, were the police.

Unfortunately, the hostile mindset and conduct of certain police officers had not changed during the Covid-19-induced lull.

File photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

After hundreds of candle-holding mourners gathered in a Tseung Kwan O car park on Sunday to honour the memory of a 22-year-old student, Alex Chow Tsz-lok, who fell to his death there during a protest four months ago, aggressive police action clearly heightened tensions, exacerbated violence and went beyond the pale of acceptable police conduct.

In the end, dozens were arrested after the police declared the gathering illegal and herded together protesters and journalists alike for identity checks that stretched on for hours. Later, as clashes predictably broke out, a Cable TV reporter sustained a head injury after being knocked to the ground by a police officer.

At another Sunday protest in Tai Po, this one against a government plan to convert a Jockey Club clinic located there into a centre for treatment of coronavirus patients, police pepper-sprayed protesters, journalists and even apparent bystanders. In one video clip that went viral, two officers racing in pursuit of protesters can be seen stopping in their tracks to aim pepper spray directly into the face of a man who appeared to be heckling them.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), which has repeatedly complained about police violence against reporters in the past, was quick to fire off yet another grievance to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

NowTV cameraman being treated after being pepper-sprayed during a protest in Tai Po. Photo: Kaiser/United Social Press.

Urging the Chief Executive to “strictly punish officers” who break the law in deliberate attacks on journalists, HKJA chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing stated: “These are not isolated cases, but cases that show some fundamental problems in police enforcement.”

NGOs all over the world, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have expressed alarm over reports of police brutality during the protests. Indeed, as the force’s reputation continues to suffer internationally, Hong Kong’s deputy commissioner of police, Oscar Kwok Yam-shu, felt compelled earlier this week to champion his officers as unfairly maligned guardians of law and order in an appearance before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that fell flat to the ears of most Hongkongers.

Foreign governments are also sounding the alarm.

A group of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom, home of Hong Kong’s former coloniser, have launched an inquiry into alleged human rights violations by the Hong Kong police, and the US State Department on Wednesday released a report slamming the Lam administration for disregarding mounting calls for an independent commission to investigate widespread allegations of police brutality.

The report follows the passage in the US Congress last November of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which threatens to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights breaches in the city.

It was against this background that Lam lamely asked the HKJA and the general public to be more understanding and tolerant of police action taken last Sunday while officers were in a state of “heightened alert” while facing a “chaotic situation.”

Police publicity chief Kwok Ka-chuen wrote to Cable TV describing the knockdown of the reporter in Tseung Kwan O as inadvertent and offering “sympathy for her.”

Even if we want to take the police at their word and grant that the injury of the reporter in Tseung Kwan O was unintentional, what about all the other examples last weekend and going all the way back to the beginning of the protests last June.

Remember, in that initial month of protests alone, the HKJA and Hong Kong Press Photographers Association documented 27 separate cases of police intimidating, obstructing, jostling and, in some instances, outright assaulting journalists.

Reporters and camera crews have been repeatedly tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and doused by blue-dye from water cannons. They have had their gas masks and face masks forcibly removed. They’ve been doxxed. One Indonesian reporter, Veby Mega Indah, even lost an eye to a projectile, likely a rubber bullet fired by police.

Some officers have made a practice of violently wielding their batons – in the city’s streets, shopping malls and MTR stations – without any attempt to distinguish between violent and peaceful protesters; mere bystanders have also been subjected to beatings for the crime of simply being there.

File photo: United Social Press.

Again, most Hong Kong police officers are doing their best in an angry city whose government is widely perceived as incompetent and illegitimate. But there are a number of them, especially the so-called Raptors (more formally referred to as the Special Tactical Squad), who are just as bitter, hate-filled and violent as some of the protesters they face off against.

These brazen, heedless members of the force have become a law unto themselves that nobody seems to have the power or will to oppose – not our feckless Chief Executive, not our cowed police commissioner and certainly not the toothless Independent Police Complaints Council that has ignored or dismissed every charge of police brutality it has received over the course of the protests.

The city wails at the recklessness and brutality of this ignoble band of officers who have brought such disrepute to what used to be regarded as the gold standard for policing in Asia.

“Cockroaches” is their reply.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.