Hong Kong Police Mix Colonial and Communist Brutality

As Beijing cracks down, it turns to familiar tools of repression.

The pro-democracy media tycoon and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is escorted by police on Aug. 11, after being arrested in Hong Kong.
The pro-democracy media tycoon and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is escorted by police on Aug. 11, after being arrested in Hong Kong. Anthony Khan/Getty Images

At the end of last month, 19-year-old pro-democracy activist Tony Chung was arrested in his home and frog-marched into an unmarked car by plainclothes police in the early hours of the morning. “Snatched in the middle of the night” was how one former independence activist described it to me.

Now facing charges that could land him life imprisonment—or even the death penalty in mainland China—the shadowy unit that oversaw and carried out his arrest, by pro-Beijing media’s own admission, has been designed using the former British colonial administration’s elite intelligence and counterespionage unit as a “template.” It’s the same team that just carried out a raid to arrest the pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai and raid his newspaper’s offices. It is a shocking reminder of how Beijing will go to any lengths and co-opt almost anything in pursuit of stamping out what it regards as among the gravest threats to its rule in decades.

The text of the national security law compelled the Hong Kong government to establish a new national security taskforce, described as a “department for safeguarding national security with law enforcement capacity.” Critics have rightly pointed to the grim history of the secret police on the mainland—but the actual blueprint is the colonial Special Branch, which has its own grim history.

In its 1976 annual report, the Royal Hong Kong Police (RHKP) defined the Special Branch’s mission as the “prevention and detection of subversive and espionage activities and the collection, collation, assessment and dissemination of intelligence.” But its resurrection as a national security taskforce is just the latest in a long line of cases in which colonial-era laws, practices, and institutions have been resurrected and fused with the Leninist hardware of the one-party state in the mainland to create bastardized versions of their British-instituted predecessors.

Another fresh example of Beijing’s fusion of colonial institutions with Communist orthodoxy can be seen in the central government’s choice to head the secretariat of the newly formed Committee for Safeguarding National Security. It is chaired by Zheng Yanxiong, a hard-line mainland official distinguished for his role in suppressing the Wukan village protests in 2011. His role sees him directly oversee the implementation of the national security law.

Speaking on Zheng’s appointment, a retired RHKP officer who served in the Special Branch for over a decade told me that the “Special Branch was answerable only to the governor [of Hong Kong]. And now the Hong Kong government has been totally sidelined. Zheng will be the one presiding over this new colonial-style national security committee and police unit—he is the man Beijing has picked to make the day-to-day decisions on their behalf.”

The text of the law outlines the taskforce’s primary duty as “collecting and analysing intelligence and information concerning national security,” in a clear echo of the aforementioned mission statement of its colonial predecessor from 1976. “Special Branch” is a general term used for police tasked to the intelligence and security services, but its most well-known form was the elite police unit with close links to the security services set up in Northern Ireland to monitor and combat armed republican groups, including the Irish Republican Army.

Controversy over the Northern Ireland Special Branch’s operations and allegations of collusion with paramilitaries supportive of British rule, many of which were eventually confirmed, continues to swirl to this day. But for most of its history, the Hong Kong Special Branch and its operations were nowhere near as controversial as its counterpart in Northern Ireland, despite performing many of the same duties. Its responsibilities began to change in the 1960s before it exploded into public life in 1967 as a Communist insurgency gripped Hong Kong, a spillover from the mainland in the throes of the Cultural Revolution.

The RHKP’s uncompromising response to the ferocious attacks, in which over 1,000 bombs were planted in the space of a year, was extremely effective and led by the Special Branch, with the sinologist and historian Steve Tsang describing the unit as being “put to the test in the Communist confrontation of 1967 and it passed with flying colours.” But of the 51 killings over the course of the riots, at least 22 were perpetrated by police. In the process, new formations and tactics were devised and used for the first time that would later form the basis of modern-day riot policing the world over.

An examination of the colonial past of the wider Hong Kong Police Force beyond the Special Branch uncovers a host of institutional issues, many of which last to this day. For one, during the riots, both the police force and Special Branch operated with absolute impunity. Corruption was also an endemic problem in the RHKP, with the force’s own official history noting it was “universally known but never admitted that corruption was widespread throughout the Force.”

It was during this era that the Cantonese phrase “black police,” referencing both police corruption and collusion with triad gangs, came into common use. This issue exploded back onto the scene last year after triad gang members indiscriminately attacked protesters and bystanders in Yuen Long train station after a major protest march.

Despite the nearest police station being just minutes away, officers took 39 minutes to attend the scene. Footage apparently showing officers walking away from the station as the attack began and subsequent videos showing senior officers fraternizing with individuals with known triad links—including senior expatriate officer John Carroll—have done little to dispel rumors of modern-day police-triad collusion.

History also betrays the fact that the Hong Kong police as an institution has proved incapable of reforming itself since the colonial period. Rampant corruption in the force was only tackled with the creation of the highly successful Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974. And decades later, the Hong Kong police now faces an internal epidemic of a different kind—an inability to control officers’ use of force against protesters and a total loss of discipline on the front lines.

Police violence against pro-democracy demonstrators has now reached grotesque proportions. It is now the case that at virtually every major protest, officers can be seen beating defenseless activists and bystanders indiscriminately, stamping on the heads of protesters already in custody, and kneeling on the necks of detainees, a technique that recently became the focus of global attention following the police killing of George Floyd in the United States. Heinous accounts of sexual assault and rape in police custody have also grown to a deafening cacophony. It is an institution totally out of control.

As protests broke out across the globe in the wake of Floyd’s killing, politicians have been forced to respond. An example of this would be the recent decision by the Minneapolis City Council to disband the police department in favor of funding a new community safety program. But while pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong have led similar calls, the Legislative Council in which they sit has only limited powers and is unable to force reform onto an institution punch-drunk on unchecked power and zero accountability. With democratic legislators set to be forced out of the council entirely, that role will only shrink.

The prospect of the government heeding such calls for change is nonexistent. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who cornered herself by steadfastly refusing calls for an inquiry into police brutality at the start of the protests, has backed the police to the hilt throughout the saga. The recently released report into the Hong Kong police’s response to the protests by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) has been widely criticized, with former IPCC panel of experts member Clifford Stott describing the report as “not fit for purpose.” Speaking of his fellow foreign expert panel members, Stott stated: “We were manipulated and put in an awkward position. … There is no way I could have stood by that report.”

Yet the IPCC report unwittingly drew an important contrast between the 1967 riots and the present unrest. For all its brute force, the response by the RHKP to the riots was overwhelmingly supported by the public, heralding an era of unprecedented popularity and respect for a force referred to as “Asia’s finest.” This could not stand in starker contrast to today. Even the statistics of the heavily discredited IPCC report show that 72.6 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the police’s performance during the protests, with 69.5 percent blaming “use of excessive force/too violent.”

The police’s violent track record and aversion to any accountability have had severe consequences. For one, this behavior has fueled the trend of the most radical protesters responding to police brutality with extreme violence of their own. On July 1, a man alleged to have stabbed a police officer in broad daylight was arrested only after boarding a flight to London the very same day, with the plane being recalled to the gate after taxiing on the tarmac.

The cycle of violence in Hong Kong will continue to escalate as the mainland uses colonial techniques to impose its new order. Martin Purbrick, a former RHKP officer who served in the Special Branch, notes how the Hong Kong police’s present-day “paramilitary internal security mode” means that it has maintained the “same paramilitary structure … from the colonial period to the post-1997 return” of Hong Kong to China.

For it to ever again enjoy support from the public, the Hong Kong police would have to shatter this mold and completely restructure itself into a genuine civil force and away from being a wholly politicized organization that increasingly is answerable only to the central authorities in Beijing. This would have to start with the wholesale dismissal of its senior management who have presided over the saga of the past year.

Yet Beijing has no intention of launching police reform of any kind. In imposing the national security law and canceling the Legislative Council elections, the authorities have decided to double down on their strategy of seeking to extinguish all dissent in Hong Kong. It is a regime that by its very nature seeks not to compromise with but crush any threats to its rule, real or imagined. Post-pandemic, the violence on the streets of Hong Kong will likely not just continue but intensify, driven by a regime intent on extinguishing any and all dissent.

Jack Hazlewood is a student, producer and activist based in London, England. He previously worked for a localist political party in Hong Kong, and served as field producer for the conflict journalism outlet Popular Front’s documentary ‘Add Oil’, which followed frontline protestors in Hong Kong in the run up to China’s national day.