Tea Leaf Nation
How a Video of Police Brutality Is Dividing Hong Kong
City residents are alleging censorship and misinformation after a clip of police beating a handcuffed protester went viral.
This piece has been updated.
An Oct. 15 video that appears to show plainclothes police officers assaulting an unarmed pro-democracy protester has enraged many Hong Kong residents and galvanized those who support the demonstrators. But disputes about the video's authenticity -- and complaints about in-house censorship by the network that aired -- it is highlighting a larger divide in the Chinese territory between those who support the ongoing demonstration for universal suffrage and those who support the current government.
This piece has been updated.
An Oct. 15 video that appears to show plainclothes police officers assaulting an unarmed pro-democracy protester has enraged many Hong Kong residents and galvanized those who support the demonstrators. But disputes about the video’s authenticity — and complaints about in-house censorship by the network that aired — it is highlighting a larger divide in the Chinese territory between those who support the ongoing demonstration for universal suffrage and those who support the current government.
Read more from FP on Hong Kong
In footage by local television station TVB, the protester, later identified as Civic Party member Ken Tsang, is escorted by six officers to a dark corner and pushed to the ground, his hands bound in a plastic tie. The government later confirmed there were seven officers involved in the assault, all of whom have now been suspended. In the video, police then punch and kick Tsang while others stand watch, which the reporter narrating the scene has said lasted for about four minutes. With a membership consisting of lawyers and professionals, the pro-democracy Civic Party is one of the largest opposition parties in Hong Kong. (Other footage from local television shows a man who appears dressed like Tsang pouring liquid onto police officers from a ledge; it is unclear whether that man is Tsang.)
The video quickly went viral on Facebook, Hong Kong’s social network of choice, with web users launching a so-called "human-flesh search," using social media to identify those involved in the beating. An Oct. 5 page on Facebook originally used to identify anti-occupy protesters was quickly repurposed to identify abusive police. Some netizens have even condemned police officers as "black cops," slang meaning they have forfeited their role as public servants, working instead for undefined "dark" forces.
Despite its clear (and disturbing) nature, the video has proven surprisingly controversial, with various questions about its presentation and veracity managing to displease both pro-government and anti-government Hong Kongers. Many netizens, fearing that the footage would be taken down or censored, saved copies on sharing and mirror sites. Their anxiety proved justified when TVB — which has a pro-mainland reputation, and which some have nicknamed CCTVB to sound like the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV — later edited the voiceover to reframe the nature of the assault. The original narration stated that officers pushed Tsang "on the ground, punching and kicking him." By contrast, the voiceover in later newscasts removed the discussion of punching and kicking.
Many journalists at TVB were outraged by the change. Forty-six of them signed a widely shared open letter posted to Facebook on the afternoon of Oct. 15 protesting the management’s editorial decision. In the letter, the journalists said the description of punching and kicking was accurate, and urged the station’s management to remain "objective." Online, blame for the airbrushing appears to have shifted to TVB news chief Keith Yuen Chi-wai, who has been accused of siding with Beijing.
Curiously, government supporters were also largely displeased with TVB’s coverage, saying it was not fair towards police officers. Some even believed the footage had been fabricated to discredit police. On a Facebook group called "Love Hong Kong Action", a member called for a blockade of the TVB headquarters in response. Police supporters also accuse pro-democracy protesters of using violence against authorities. A photo showing an officer with blood flowing in his face quickly became popular among government supporters, with even Fung Wai-kwong, information coordinator at the Chief Executive’s Office, sharing the image.
But HKTV, another Hong Kong network, has confirmed on Oct. 15 that the photo is of an actor wearing stage makeup. The image — which depicts a zombie policeman who will be featured in a new drama series — had been uploaded to Facebook by a makeup artist.
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