Steve Shaw on worrying developments in Hong Kong residents’ fight for freedom – a quest which has now gone beyond concerns about the island’s controversial extradition bill.
Hong Kong residents welcomed the first day of September by delicately placing flowers around the entrance to a busy subway station in memory of the victims of what has been branded a “terrorist attack”.
The city has been rocked by months of unrest, but the night of 31 August had been different.
In the aftermath of a protest, shaky videos clips and live-streams had spread across social media allowing many of the city’s seven million residents to watch in horror as train passengers at the Prince Edward Station were ruthlessly and indiscriminately beaten.
One of those videos showed a young injured man cowering inside a train carriage with tears streaming down his face and his hands raised, pleading for mercy. His body was shielding a young girl dressed in pink who desperately clung onto him for safety. An upturned medic’s helmet lay beside them.
In another video, a first-aider urgently pleaded to be allowed into the station while clawing at shutters that had been locked down to prevent anyone from entering. It would be another two hours before he or any other emergency responders would be let in.
No one is known to have been killed that night, but what made the attack so gut-wrenching and unforgivable was not the number of injured or the absolute terror painted on the faces of people locked inside, but the people who carried it out.
“We HongKongers just experienced a terrorist attack planned and executed by the Hong Kong Police Force,” wrote 26-yer-old pro-democracy activist Nathan Law on Twitter. “We are experiencing a humanitarian crisis and we hope that people all over the world can help us in anyway you can think of. Such as UN peacekeeping forces. Thank you and we will stay strong.”
Just a few months ago, police brutality of this scale in one of the world’s most iconic cities had been unthinkable, but it is gradually becoming an everyday reality. Each week, demonstrators take to the streets to urge the Government to give them basic guarantees that their rights and freedoms will be protected. They are met with tear gas, rubber bullets and broken bones.
Pro-democracy activists have been grabbed off the streets and detained, school students have been attacked for siding with protestors, journalists pepper-sprayed and threatened, and riot police have begun routinely stopping buses and trains to check IDs and search bags.
Rather than suppressing the protests, their actions are only making thing worse, with once peaceful protestors now feeling forced to defend themselves from heavily armoured officers with rocks, barricades and petrol bombs.
“I am disgusted and sad to see Hong Kong become like this,” said one resident. “Attacks inside the stations are especially shocking because it is how most Hong Kong people travel across the city and it could have been any of us that were attacked.
“The city is starting to feel like a police state. When you are out and about you never know when you may run into riot police and, when you walk into the stations, you notice more and more CCTV being installed all the time. You feel like you are watched everywhere you go.”
All demands for an independent inquiry into police violence have been ignored. Instead, police chiefs have been using press conferences to justify the violence with Orwellian doublespeak. When a young boy was thrown to the ground outside his school it was because “the ground was slippery”. When an officer kicked a man to the ground as he begged officers not to shoot unarmed protesters it was “a natural reaction”. And, when riot police violently beat unarmed train passengers on 31 August, they were “resisting arrest”.
The authorities have also refused to investigate whether police officers may have colluded with some of the city’s most prominent crime gangs – known as the Triads – to orchestrate a series of attacks on protestors. The most notorious of these occurred on 21 July when a mob of more than 100 men dressed in white t-shirts stormed into the Yuen Long Station carrying sticks and bamboo rattans and beat people on the concourse before moving inside a train carriage and flogging all those inside.
Some people managed to escape the violence to run to a nearby police station only to find it was closed for “safety reasons”, while others tried to phone the emergency services but claim that responders mocked them, saying they “should stay at home if they are afraid”. It took police officers 39 minutes to reach the station and, by then, 45 people were bruised and bloody.
As officers secured the area and put up road blocks, large groups of men in white were filmed casually walking past them and leaving the scene. The Yuen Long Assistant District Commander told journalists that “just because a person is wearing white it doesn’t mean they participated in the fight”.
Resident Galileo Cheng, who was attacked three times in the station while trying to protect a journalist, described the Yuen Long incident as the “tipping point” – the final straw that led to a complete breakdown in trust between the population and the police. Two months on, protestors still march towards lines of riot police and chant “Triad”.
The unchecked power of the Hong Kong Police Force is one of the key reasons why people will not stop taking to the streets every weekend despite the island’s leader, Carrie Lam, announcing that she will scrap a proposal to allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China. That policy may have lit the fuse behind the unrest, but things have now escalated to an all-out fight for freedom or – as Hong Kongers call it – “a revolution”.
Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said: “The Hong Kong authorities have chosen to suppress protests in a grossly unlawful way that has seriously damaged the people’s trust and sense of legitimacy of the Government. The problems with the Extradition Bill were clear from the start, and the Hong Kong Government should have withdrawn it months ago. Instead, it chose to meet protests with tear gas and rubber bullets.”
He added: “It will take much more to show the world that the Hong Kong authorities are truly committed to upholding human rights, and send a clear message that people in Hong Kong can still enjoy these rights irrespective of their political beliefs.”