Lai said that he had always thought of the police as fair. But after last night, he says they are “worse than criminals.”

“We have seen that they can beat people up in jail, arrest people in a hospital, but now it is even worse,” he said. “Everyone has a mobile phone and it is all being filmed… they know they are lying and still they say they are doing what is right.”

Two dates when police lost Hong Kong

Police on Sunday responded unapologetically to questions about the subway beatings, saying they had used appropriate force in response to violent acts by protesters in subway stations, which they said included vandalism and arson. Today, riot police were out en masse at highway tunnels and at ferry piers as protesters turned their attention again to the Hong Kong airport, a day after clashing with police near the government complex and police headquarters. Queries sent by Quartz were not immediately answered.

Yet, the events of last night, like two other key dates—June 12 and July 21—are set to deepen the reversal in the reputation of a police force that is usually ranked among the top (pdf) in the world in terms of professionalism. But that has changed as the police became the most visible symbol of an unresponsive government.

On June 12, people said riot police used excessive force on protesters occupying streets to prevent the legislative council from rushing through the extradition bill that sparked this summer’s ongoing protests. Analysis of video of the events of that day by the New York Times and Amnesty International found police beating unresisting civilians, and using rubber bullets inappropriately. Since then, an independent inquiry into police violence has become one of the protesters’ five core demands.

July 21 deepened anger against them when police showed up only after 40 minutes to a train station in the Yuen Long area where people were being beaten up by white-shirted men wielding sticks, believed to be from pro-mainland China triads—in spite of 24,000 emergency calls to police in just three hours. More than 40 people were injured, including a lawmaker and a Catholic church worker. Police say they couldn’t reach the station in time because of deploying personnel to deal with a large protest elsewhere in Hong Kong on that day. Protesters accused them of collusion with the gangs.

In August, the wounding of a first-aid volunteer in her eye with a bean-bag round also became a touchstone moment. And on Aug. 25, in another worrying first, four police officers drew their guns, pointing them at protestors, and one live round was fired in the air.

Close to 1,000 protesters have been arrested, including some of the city’s most high-profile young activists, while there have been hardly any arrests in relation to the attacks by rod-yielding thugs. To make matters worse, police officers, including the head of a police officers association, have referred to protesters as “cockroaches,” raising questions about how they can police impartially—and drawing an admonition from a senior officer.

Police say they are operating with restraint, and doing their best to do their jobs in chaotic circumstances, but that stance has been at time contradicted not only by videos taken on the scenes by protesters and journalists, but by some of those who are closest to the officers themselves. On the same Sunday that saw a police officer discharge a gun in the air (video) for the first time, a small rally was organized by a group that had not yet taken to the streets: relatives of the police.

The marchers asked the government to take steps to meet protester demands and heal society, so that police will not be caught in the middle. Their slogan was a stark and somber “Return the police to the people,” and like other protesters, they covered their faces with surgical masks, sunglasses, and hats in spite of the downpour.

“My younger brother is in the police,” said one 35-year-old consultant, who only gave her name as Sharon. “He doesn’t know I am here. We cannot talk about the situation in the family, because we don’t want to break our relationship. But I don’t want the police to be on the other side of the people.”

Another relative, a teacher who only wanted to be identified as Y, said that “we must make a clear distinction between those police officers that have been excessively violent and hostile to the population, and those who have simply been given bad commands to follow. Like this, the whole force is being hated and nobody feels safe.”

“Police is triad”

Protesters face police on a street during a pro-democracy protest in causeway bay, Hong Kong, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.
It’s become commonplace to see graffiti accusing the police of links to triad gangs, associated with the Hong Kong of the 1960s and 1970s.
Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

It is not the first time that Hong Kong has found itself at odds with its police force, although the last time this happened was more than 40 years ago, when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule, and had just been through the worst riots in its history.

In the ’60s and ’70s, as the Hong Kong population swelled with new arrivals escaping from mainland China’s political convulsions, the whole public sector was under heavy criticism for its fondness for bribes. According to the website of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), formed in 1974 to put an end to widespread lawlessness:

Ambulance crews would demand tea money before picking up a sick person…Offering bribes to the right officials was also necessary when applying for public housing, schooling, and other public services. Corruption was particularly serious in the police force. Corrupt police officers offered protection to vice, gambling and drug activities.

In particular, the case that sparked an outcry was that of Peter Fitzroy Godber, a British chief superintendent who accumulated unaccounted-for wealth, escaped to the UK, and was eventually brought back to Hong Kong to serve four years in jail for corruption.

That was achieved by the newly set up ICAC—which risked coming to an end just three years afterwards, as those who were angry at its investigations stormed it and wanted to shut it down. Governor MacLehose decided to solve the tensions through a partial amnesty that pardoned most corruption-related crimes that had happened before 1977. That era has been immortalized in Hong Kong cinema, such as the 1991 movie To Be Number One.

Could something similar happen today, with an independent investigation into violence by both police and protesters, under the promise of a general amnesty? An inquiry is a demand that most Hongkongers—including key public figures—are voicing, and it might be one of the few ways to get the territory out of this violent impasse. A former district police commissioner called a full investigation “vital to restore trust…Those who have behaved well must not be allowed to be tarnished by those who behaved badly.”

So far, however, only one partial inquiry is underway: the anticorruption watchdog, the ICAC, has proactively launched an investigation into what happened in Yuen Long, in relation to the police’s response.

According to Steve Vickers, former head of the criminal intelligence division of the Royal Hong Kong Police (the predecessor of the current Hong Kong Police Force), things have changed substantially in the 22 years since the handover.

“The police had it fairly soft, they were mostly involved in rather local things: Now it is different, but the police is different too,” he said, noting that the fact that Hong Kong is now a part of China has changed police training.

Both junior and senior Hong Kong police have been going for public security courses in the mainland, while the city’s security officials have also visited the far west Xinjiang region to look at its anti-terrorism approach, even though China has been criticized for its mass detentions there of Uyghur Muslims.

Since the handover of sovereignty in 1997, Vicker says, the status of organized crime gangs might also have changed. In 1984, leader Deng Xiaoping famously praised the triads as having “many good guys among them” and, according to Vickers, “very little to no action has been taken against them in the past years. We are now starting to see the result of that.”

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