Last Friday at midnight, the Hong Kong Government, led by Carrie Lam, enlivened their “emergency powers” to ban the wearing of face masks at public gatherings.
It is a Hong Kong custom to wear face masks to reduce the spread of infectious diseases and to reduce exposure to pollution. The Government believes that banning face masks will help reduce the protests that are currently rocking the city by making it easier for the police to identify protesters.
Given the Government’s willingness to implement emergency powers, some believe this could eventually lead to more serious emergency powers action such as bank account forfeiture and wealth confiscation.
Many Hong Kongers are already clearing out their bank accounts.
The main issue now is the brutality by the Hong Kong Police. The mask ban gives the police the excuse to continue the violent arrests, which increases the demands by Hong Kongers for a police reform inquiry.
Why the protests continue even after the Extradition Bill was withdrawn
The original protest started due to the Extradition Bill: a bill that would have allowed the extradition of people to Mainland China which does not follow the same judicial process as Hong Kong. If Carrie Lam had withdrawn the bill immediately after the initial protests, then the matter would have been resolved. But by refusing to withdraw the bill she created an environment where both protesters and police were put into an escalating cycle of conflict.
Most notably, these protests have highlighted the systemic corruption amongst Hong Kong Police leadership and officers.
Hong Kong Police links with organised crime
To draw a parallel with Australia, imagine if the Australian police took their orders from bikie gangs? Corruption would run rampant. This is what Hong Kongers are facing with the Hong Kong Police Force and its unhealthy relationship with organised crime gangs.
These protests have now brought the issue to the point where it needs to be addressed.
The organised crime connections are so obvious that locals frequently gather around police stations to yell abusive chants at the police. “Hak Se Wui” is Cantonese for “Triads”.
Those who confront police about their conduct often find themselves getting arrested for the “obstruction of police”.
The Hong Kong Police's disproportionate response
Some examples of police brutality are graphic. It’s not pleasant, but it is important for the world to see what is going on. The police seem to be aiming rubber bullets and bean bag rounds at peoples heads, resulting in a number of cases of permanent blinding, including this young medic.
The police are actively inhibiting accountability by wearing strobe lights to prevent the media from filming incidents and no longer wear their warrant ID cards, making specific complaints impossible.
Hong Kong Police attacks on the press
Hong Kong and international journalists have been nothing short of courageous. They have put themselves in physical danger to bring us all the front line stories of what is happening.
Many have been injured or assaulted by police. Sadly, one journalist was blinded last week when she was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet from police. Police also regularly target journalists with tear gas.
Hong Kong Police attacks on citizen mediators
In some instances, regular citizens not involved in the protests have tried to appeal to the police to show restraint. A young man confronted Police and said “where is your conscience?”. The police response was to chase him down and beat him.
A local elder, affectionately known as "Grandpa Chan" represents the "Protect the Children" volunteer group and is often seen trying to intervene in situations of Police brutality. On 22 September, he was pepper-sprayed at point blank range and arrested.
The most enraging example of brutality was this video that emerged, showing the Police dragging a "Protect the Children" volunteer (seen in yellow vest) into an alley and beating him unconscious. The Police spin machine’s attempt to rationalise the beating only infuriated the protestors further.
Hong Kong Police raid protesting schools
Police raided a school where students were striking. The child in the video was tackled to the ground and reportedly had his two front teeth knocked out.
Many young students are now actively involved in the protest against police brutality.
Hong Kong Police subway commuter bashing
On 31st August, the world saw the horrific images of masked police bashing commuters on the subway. Hong Kongers refer to this as the “8/31 terrorist attack” by Police.
The Police then actively prevented emergency responders from treating the injured. Some medics pleaded with Police but were still refused access to the victims.
Many are angry that the Government-aligned subway is withholding the CCTV footage of the bashings, hence the subway stations are being vandalised and disrupted frequently until they provide the footage.
Government-aligned companies are also facing backlash. The daughter of one of the founders of Maxim's food chain fronted the UN trying to paint protesters as terrorists. As a result, Maxim's related outlets are being boycotted and sometimes vandalised.
Hong Kong Police political enforcement, not law enforcement
The police have forgone law enforcement duties and instead have devolved into a political enforcement department. Police have abused a local lawmaker, yelling he is “no better than dogs”.
The Assistant Commander has even had to send an email to officers, reminding them not to refer to protesters as "cockroaches".
An uncertain future
A once thriving financial hub is now tearing itself apart. The locals tried peaceful protests. Then the police started aggressive “clearance operations” resulting in a small amount of protesters, responding with violence and targeted vandalism.
Hong Kongers feel they have no option but to fight and resist given that they’ve tried multiple, large-scale peaceful protests and were ignored.
It is possible that the Chinese Government could send in the army but the international optics would be unmanageable given everyone has a smartphone nowadays. In reality, the army may not be needed, as the Police have already taken on the role of a military-like force.
In an attempt to appease the protesters’ demands for an independent police reform inquiry, the Lam Government announced additional resources for the current Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC). However, this is not a truly independent body and even the IPCC concedes it is a toothless tiger.
Is there still hope?
Everything the Government and Police do merely serves to increase tensions. The resulting chaos gives the Lam Government the opportunity to use the imagery to quell international condemnation, gain favorable local public opinion and garner the political leverage needed to take final, decisive action.
Whether this is by design or through incompetence is debatable.
However, the judiciary appears to still be working. Some protestors arrested for rioting, who are facing a possible 10 years jail, are getting community service sentences. Protester children removed from their parents by police are being sent home.
It is understandable that many observers are confused by the events in Hong Kong. The friction between Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese can be summarised with by a verbal exchange at one of the Melbourne protests, culminating in a Chinese man telling a Hong Kong woman "you only deserve the freedoms we give you".
The Hong Kong woman responds “No! One country, two systems”, a reference to the Sino-British Basic Law declaration.
What Hong Kong needs is a political solution, not a policing solution. Unfortunately, the Lam Government have sent the police to enforce politics. Now, there can be no resolution without police reforms. A country cannot operate when its police force doesn’t respect the rule of law. Unfortunately, the Government seems determined to protect the status quo.
We are now at the stage where neither side will compromise, which means one side will likely win and one side will lose.
Romesh Wijeyeratne worked as a Quality Assurance analyst for CBA, ASIC and the NSW Police.
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