Hong Kong’s new fire chief Joseph Leung – who will take office on Saturday – has shrugged off criticism after he referred to pro-democracy protesters as “cockroaches” during a closed-door department event last year.

Speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday, the designated director described the controversy surrounding his comment as a “minor setback.” He said he was expressing his sentiment and the remark was referring to “violent protesters who disregarded law and order.”

Joseph Leung. File photo: GovHK.

“I don’t think the work of the department has been affected because I said the two words. I think I have faced the responsibility or consequences,” Leung said.

Last October, Apple Daily reported that Leung called those demonstrating against the now-axed extradition bill “cockroaches” in a lecture held at the Fire and Ambulance Services Academy. He told staffers: “the streets are unsafe because there are a lot of cockroaches, if you film them, they will hit you.”

The use of dehumanising language is historically controversial. During the tragic events of World War II through to the Rwandan genocide, targeted groups were described as inferior “cockroaches” or “rats.”

When asked if he would refer to protesters as “cockroaches” again, Leung said he had never made such comment publicly and had no intention to do so. He hit back at critics as “puffing up” the controversy, adding that his comment was “an entirely different level compared to violent protesters.”

“If you have to criticise, why don’t you criticise and condemn the violent protesters?” Leung asked, adding that the incident had been reviewed by the former department head and the Civil Service Bureau.

Protesters make way for ambulance. Photo: Stand News.

Leung revealed that a total of 11 staff members of the Fire Services Department had been arrested during the anti-extradition bill unrest, so far two were released unconditionally.

The department also received complaints against around 130 personnel, who were accused of making inappropriate comments online – some involved profanity and criticism against the police force.

More than half of the complaints were found to be invalid after an inquiry, though disciplinary action would be taken if the use of improper language was found, Leung said. However, he did not comment on the details of the investigation criteria and what wording would constitute a valid complaint.

Leung added there are no factions based on political affiliation within the department. He said he would, as management of the Fire Services Department, ensure that the emergency service would carry out its statutory duties.

“When anyone needs help, or when anyone’s life is threatened, we should do everything we can to rescue them, no matter whether that person is a citizen, the law enforcer or even a violent protester,” Leung added.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.