Hong Kong’s Future: Police State or Mob State?

The destiny of Hong Kong hangs in the balance as neither police nor protesters are willing to back down.

Riot police detain a pro-democracy demonstrator in the Yuen Long district of Hong Kong on Oct. 21.
Riot police detain a pro-democracy demonstrator in the Yuen Long district of Hong Kong on Oct. 21. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

This week, protesters tossing petrol bombs set fire to retail outlets in Hong Kong’s Kowloon area while onlookers heckled police with epithets accusing them of being allied with criminal gangs. Black smoke billowed above shops seen to have mainland connections, such as those of the Chinese handphone manufacturer Xiaomi and the popular snack store chain Best Mart 360, which is alleged to have links to gangs from China’s Fujian province. The vandalism has disturbed many residents. It has prompted more and more voices to counsel a return to peaceful means of dissent.

But therein lies the problem. For both Hong Kong’s authorities and its protesters, there may be no going back. Violence has risen ominously. An 18-year-old is accused of stabbing a police officer with a box cutter. A roadside improvised explosive device detonated as police drove past; no one was injured. Several possibly South Asian men beat the pro-democracy politician Jimmy Sham over the head with hammers; in two months, at least nine pro-democracy activists have been similarly assaulted. (It was the second such attack on Sham.) Many blame age-old gangs called “triads.” After bloody July 21 clashes in Yuen Long, video footage of police chatting with men believed to be triad members triggered outrage.

“It’s conventional wisdom that triads are involved now,” said Ho-fung Hung, a Johns Hopkins University professor and author of a book on Chinese protests. “Analysis of big data shows that, after July 21, many previously moderate people began supporting more extreme action.” 

For the demonstrators, returning to peaceful dissent “won’t work unless the police are reined in,” said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a Hong Kong native who is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. But the police are out in force. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” said Hui, who added that the violence has backfired. She said nonviolent tactics such as consumer boycotts—similar to those used in apartheid-era South Africa—are more sustainable because “more and more violence will just give Beijing an excuse to crack down.” 

Indeed, with protesters still lobbing Molotov cocktails and vandalizing symbols of Beijing’s authority, Hong Kong may face two stark alternative futures: Will it become a police state or a mob state? Already Chief Executive Carrie Lam has invoked century-old emergency powers to ban protesters from wearing face masks, a move that residents assume is just the thin end of the wedge. Some fear a martial law-type clampdown is looming. “A colleague suddenly began sending me lots of articles on Facebook, asking me to forward protest news to everyone I knew—before authorities pull the plug on the internet,” one British resident said. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, visiting Hong Kong in October, declared it to be “in danger of sliding into a police state,” and protesters have begun calling for law enforcement to be disbanded altogether. The largely discredited Lam confessed to being perplexed by the notion.

It may not remain Lam’s headache for long. Her Beijing overlords are reported to be losing patience with Lam’s inability to get a grip. Left to fester too long, her weak leadership, the distrusted and demoralized police, the triads’ shadowy menace, increasingly destructive protesters, and growing disquiet in Beijing could conceivably become a perfect storm of ungovernability, at least in China’s eyes. Last week, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his own city-state would “be finished” if beset by similar unrest. The protesters’ demands are not meant to help solve Hong Kong’s problems but instead are “intended to humiliate and bring down the government,” he said at a conference in Singapore. “And then what?” 

Back in June, few Hong Kong residents could have predicted that the fresh-faced youth who took to the streets would eventually take to lobbing petrol bombs and stabbing police. Nor that some Hong Kong police, once collectively praised as “Asia’s finest,” would stand accused of abuses and demonized as thugs. The question is no longer whether Lam can dig her way out of this crisis but whether any future chief executive will have enough authority and credibility to heal the chasm of mistrust between protesters and police. 

This week may have been a pivotal moment for Lam—and for her bosses in Beijing. Months ago, Lam might have made a difference if she’d said “sorry” earlier and scrapped the controversial extradition legislation that had triggered public anxieties in the first place. (The scheme would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects in Hong Kong to jurisdictions that do not have extradition agreements with Hong Kong, including mainland China, where courts are highly politicized and fair trials are not guaranteed.) Instead, she dithered. First, Lam suspended the proposal, which didn’t satisfy the protest movement because the legislation could have been revived at any time. Then she declared it “dead.” That did little to calm tensions, either. (Meanwhile Lam’s Oct. 4 ban on protesters wearing face masks has been widely ridiculed; in response, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets wearing masks depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Joker, and Winnie the Pooh. They chanted, “Citizens cover their faces. Carrie Lam covers her heart.”) 

When the extradition scheme was finally killed off officially this week, the news barely caused a ripple. It was eclipsed partly by headlines about Sunday’s chaos—and partly by speculation that Lam’s tenure itself may now be running on borrowed time. The Financial Times reported that mainland Chinese authorities have begun drawing up scenarios for replacing Lam with an interim chief executive. If China’s top leadership signs off on the move, Lam could be out by March. When asked about the Times story, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared it “a political rumor with ulterior motives.” Yet the embattled chief executive—whom some have nicknamed “Carrie Lam-toinette”—has become so unpopular that Beijing strategists might ultimately conclude they’ve got nothing left to lose by reshuffling the deck.

The list of options for defusing the crisis keeps shrinking. “I’m pretty pessimistic,” said Joseph Cho Wai Chan, a politics professor at the University of Hong Kong who in 2014 tried to help mediate between government officials and some members of an earlier protest movement called Occupy Central. “Today no one seems willing to compromise.” He believes Lam might have had some impact if she’d swiftly agreed to set up a truly independent inquiry into reported police abuses. But the government may have considered such a prospect “suicidal,” Chan said, because at the time “its top priority was maintaining order, which only the police could do.”

And after 20 weeks of unrest, a vicious cycle of mistrust has escalated perceptions that some members of the Hong Kong police are part of the problem, not the solution. On Sunday, police preparing a water cannon truck for another night of unrest sprayed liquid blue dye—which is an irritant and intended to deter protesters—on the front entrance of the Kowloon mosque and on some bystanders as well. The next day, Lam visited the mosque with police representatives to apologize for the incident, which they insisted was unintentional. A mosque spokesperson agreed: “Based on the past record, we’ve always had good relations with the police. … There would be no reason for them to storm the mosque.” Not everyone was so calm about it. Mohan Chugani, the former head of the Indian Association Hong Kong, said he was trying to protect the mosque when he got spattered. Chugani told reporters: “I used to believe in the police. Now I don’t anymore.” 

In Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper, the commentator Alex Lo criticized Lam’s recent annual policy address for focusing on fairly bland issues such as housing, mortgage caps, and land supply—without trying to address the current crisis by “reaching out to the opposition and calming the anger of young rebels while searching for common ground.” Instead, Lo wrote, “[S]he has kept saying no, no, no, without offering alternatives. Surely she must know that’s like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull.” 

With the uptick in violence, the Hong Kong police increasingly have found themselves in the “impossible position as the face of government and the target of protesters,” wrote Martin Purbrick, a former officer of the Royal Hong Kong Police, in the journal Asian Affairs; he called it a “‘Catch 22’ situation.” 

The belief that Hong Kong’s law enforcers themselves now are undermining law and order gelled dramatically three months ago in Yuen Long, during the most infamous clash so far. On July 21, apparent gang members dressed in white T-shirts attacked not only black-clad protesters but also ordinary residents. Hundreds of emergency calls were made to police. When police finally arrived 39 minutes after the first call, they questioned a few men but initially made no arrests. This allowed the attackers to return for a second wave of assaults. Nearly four dozen people were injured. 

Purbrick wrote that the Yuen Long attacks, “believed to have been conducted by local villagers and gangs of triad (criminal secret society) members, shocked Hong Kong and led to a widespread believe that the Police were in collusion with triads. This event turned a substantial number of the passive Hong Kong population against the Police, and many people started to label the Police as ‘haak ging’ … or ‘black police.’”

Critics lambast Lam for failing to grasp the urgency and volatility of the situation. But something more than simple miscalculation may have helped trigger Hong Kong’s worst crisis since the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under a formula dubbed “one country, two systems.” The timing of Lam’s sudden push to implement the provocative legislation apparently was her decision, not a timetable dictated by Beijing. There’s little evidence that Chinese leaders had any desire to risk opening this Pandora’s box just as they prepared to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1. 

Lam was in a rush because she’d hoped to curry favor with senior officials in Beijing around the time of the anniversary, according to three sources who could discuss the sensitive topic only on condition of anonymity. Lam reportedly had been impressed by the kudos Beijing showered on Chinese anti-graft investigators who’d managed to wangle the return to the mainland of a number of allegedly corrupt fugitives who’d fled overseas. 

But in her zeal to wrap up the “birthday gift,” Lam lost sight of the downside risk, helping to unleash a paroxysm of unrest that nearly ruined the National Day parade. Oct. 1 saw protesters rampaging through the streets in Hong Kong; one was shot in the chest by police using live ammunition. Nor did Lam realize how much time she’d wasted. Now, as events have gotten out of hand, scrapping the extradition scheme is just one—and probably the least important—of what ultimately became the protesters’ five demands. The other four are overturning the protests’ designation as “riots”; giving amnesty to arrested demonstrators; holding an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality; and—the most recent and most difficult of all—implementing complete universal suffrage in Hong Kong. 

If Lam and her aides had done a bit more homework, they would have realized that her extradition proposal inevitably would have opened up an old wound. In the years before 1997, representatives from Britain, China, and Hong Kong negotiated long and hard over countless aspects of the transfer. Twice they tried to tackle the issue of sending fugitive offenders elsewhere for trial—and each time they pigeonholed the topic because it was too complex and too gnarly to resolve. For her part, Lam in February gave as an excuse the detention in Hong Kong of the criminal suspect Chan Tong-kai, who acknowledged he’d murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan. A Hong Kong resident, Chan was jailed in Hong Kong on charges of money laundering, linked to his use of her cash and belongings. Under interrogation, he told Hong Kong police that during a trip around Valentine’s Day in 2018, he’d strangled his pregnant girlfriend, jammed her body into a suitcase, and stashed it in some bushes outside Taipei. 

Having served his sentence for money laundering (with time off for good behavior), Chan was freed from prison in Hong Kong this week. He said he’d surrender himself voluntarily to Taiwanese authorities to face the murder charge. But now Hong Kong and Taipei are wrangling over how to make the transfer, whether Taipei can trust Hong Kong to share evidence in the case, and even what terminology to use.

The back story is that Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China, even though Taipei authorities have been self-governing for 70 years. Hong Kong enjoys semi-autonomous status but in 1997 returned to the sovereign embrace of Beijing, which does not have normal diplomatic relations with Taipei or any country that has extended diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. Hong Kong must proceed with care so as not to appear to be conferring recognition on Taiwan. 

Lam confessed she felt “relief” when Chan decided to turn himself in; she expressed hope that the move would bring “a relaxing feeling to society.” It might seem to make sense for people to take a pause. Recently, protesters were heartened by the visits to Hong Kong of three U.S. senators, all of whom praised the activists but warned they would lose international support if they chose the path of violence. That message was more recently stressed by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who in a recent speech commended the Hong Kong authorities for dumping the controversial extradition bill and Beijing for showing “some restraint.” He had this message for Hong Kong protesters: “We stand with you. We are inspired by you, and we urge you to stay on the path of nonviolent protest.” 

However, if Lam hopes to salvage anything from her tenure during the time she has left, she still must tackle the prickly issue of reforming the police. Many believe Hong Kong’s wounds will never heal properly without a credible investigation into alleged police brutality, but Lam acts as if this were a mission impossible. Is that because such a probe may result in findings that Beijing would rather leave unfound?

One reason for tensions between grassroots residents and the police is the question of where police loyalties lie. Residents worry not only that some officers are chummy with triads but also that some have been indoctrinated by Beijing. Chinese authorities have taken to rewarding senior retired police commissioners with impressive titles; one Hong Kong police officer who took a tough stand against protesters this past summer was awarded a prominent spot in Beijing’s National Day parade. A number of Hong Kong police receive training in mainland Chinese police facilities (one is reportedly in Xinjiang, of all places), and there is persistent though unconfirmed speculation that personnel from Hong Kong law enforcement entities—as with foreign companies working in China—are targets for recruitment by Chinese Communist Party cells. The concern is that Beijing’s use of political rewards could become part of an invisible patronage system inside what is supposed to be an impartial Hong Kong bureaucratic entity. 

Recently, there have been signs of friction between police and some government officials. Related to the July 21 Yuen Long attacks, the government’s chief secretary for administration, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, publicly apologized for the police’s handling of the assaults, acknowledging the police response “fell short of public expectations.” (Police were criticized for not reacting quickly or thoroughly enough.)

In response, Lam Chi-wai, the chairman of the Junior Police Officers’ Association, said the chief secretary’s “irresponsible remarks ignored the efforts, dedication, grievances, and sacrifices of police officers in this political incident.” The rebuke startled many observers. “It showed a blatant defiance of authority,” said Joseph Chan, the University of Hong Kong professor. And it may be a sign that the looming police state people have been warning about could be less like a reign of “Asia’s finest”—and more like a Beijing-style heavy-handed police regime.

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.

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