A report published Tuesday has said that indiscriminate force deployed by Hong Kong police officers played a pivotal role in radicalising last year’s pro-democracy protests.

The findings are based on research led by Clifford Stott, a British policing expert who withdrew last December from the Hong Kong Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) probe into allegations of police brutality citing its limited powers of investigation.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

The report stated that protester radicalisation was in response to an “almost complete collapse of police legitimacy among protesters.” Police attempts to disperse mass demonstrations on June 12 last year marked a “tipping point” and a fundamental shift in protester attitude towards officers, the paper concluded: “Protesters described the escalating situation as… an indiscriminate attack by the police on those merely seeking to protest peacefully.”

On June 12 last year, police were criticised for deploying tear gas, pepper spray and batons during a mass demonstration outside the Legislative Council building against the passing of the now-withdrawn extradition bill. The force also faced a backlash after failing to respond speedily to the Yuen Long mob attacks on July 21, where white-clad thugs indiscriminately attacked members of the public.

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The protest movement was further radicalised by the “subsequent denial of responsibility and the absence of any credible system of accountability for the police,” the report added.

It concluded that police action perceived by protesters to be “illegitimate and disproportionate” – such as deploying tear gas in confined spaces in shopping malls and MTR stations – empowered and validated the increasingly radical forms of resistance which culminated in the 12-day police siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The findings were in part based on behavioural analysis of protester interviews, media reports and protester attitudes on social media.

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Photo: Kiran Ridley.

Allegations of police brutality fuelled tensions between protesters and police during last year’s protests, which erupted in June in response to a now-withdrawn extradition bill which would have allowed those in Hong Kong to be tried in mainland China’s opaque legal system.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam in January denied allegations of police brutality towards protesters, saying officers had been “working very hard to maintain law and order.” The police, meanwhile, have said they responded with minimal force against “rioters” using Molotov cocktails and other makeshift weapons.

‘Cycle of escalation’

“What we observe in Hong Kong is similar to patterns we see elsewhere when riots escalate. Experiences of illegitimate and undifferentiated police action create a psychological unity among previously diverse groups in protest crowds,” Stott said in a statement on Wednesday.

“This appears to have been important in Hong Kong because aggressive police intervention empowered more direct actions among protesters that, police found increasingly unacceptable. Over time, this social psychological process fed an increasing sense of police illegitimacy which fuelled the spread of the protests and the escalation of violence in an ongoing cycle of escalation.”

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Photo: Kiran Ridley.

Stott told HKFP on Wednesday that he hoped the paper would provide an objective analysis on the impact of police behaviour during last year’s protests: “My job as an… academic is to produce scientific analysis of protests and to develop understanding internationally of the dynamics through which such protests come about… I’m seeking to contribute objectivity to the analysis of what went on.”

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The Keele University professor was one of the five members of the IPCC’s foreign expert’s panel who withdrew from their advisory posts, citing “doubts” as to the body’s “independent investigative capability.” Stott later told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club that he made the decision to leave after feeling “manipulated and put in an awkward position.”

The IPCC report released in May, which largely cleared the Force of wrongdoing, was decried as an attempt to “whitewash” the reality of police behaviour towards protesters.

Stott has criticised the official report as a calculated move by authorities to enforce an unfounded narrative of the protests.”At no point have I yet found reference to contemporary scientific evidence on the dynamics of crowds… It would seem the release of the IPCC report is part of a wider set of coordinated announcements designed to deliver the new ‘truth’,” he said at the time.

The Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) is an official Hong Kong watchdog tasked with reviewing the work of the Complaints Against Police Office — a unit of the police force which investigates complaints. The Council reports directly to the chief executive and has faced criticism for lacking independence and the power to launch investigations or summon witnesses.

The Security Bureau told HKFP on Wednesday in an email statement that they won’t comment on the “opinions or reports” of “other individuals or groups who have different political affiliation, intentions and views,” saying that they believed the IPCC report was “based on facts.”

“[The report] is fair and objective,” the bureau’s statement read. “It criticised the shortcomings of the police force in handling large-scale public processions, as well as factually stated the destruction and violence of the rioters.” It added that “the HKSAR government values the recommendations by the IPCC and a Security Bureau task force is actively following up on each recommendation mentioned in the report.”

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.