Escaping Hong Kong's Catch 22

【明報專訊】The violence in Hong Kong has become sickening. A 70-year-old man killed by a brick thrown by protesters. A man set on fire after chasing protesters. People in the street beaten up for disagreeing with protesters. The Chinese University has been badly damaged, and the Polytechnic University resembled a battleground. How to end the crisis that has led to this violence is the only important question.

Hong Kong is caught in a "Catch 22" that involves the repetition of violence by protesters and Police. "Catch 22" is a phrase coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel of the same name and refers to a dilemma or difficult situation from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependant circumstances. The Hong Kong Government have left our city in this Catch 22 because there is no political action to break the cycle of violence between protesters and the Police.

There are no efforts to de-escalate the violence and no attempt at meaningful dialogue or concessions by the Government to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the community. The approach taken by the Government and the Police is to oppose all political protest, correlate large peaceful protests with the smaller violent protests, and to respond to violence by using Police force. This has not worked, the protests have continued, and the violence has escalated. The Police have used force and the Government imposed restrictions on freedoms to respond to (often violent) protesters, which has led to less legitimacy for the Police and the Government. The diminishing legitimacy leads to more protest, more violence, and more use of force by the Police. This cycle of violence has become extreme and led to a massive loss of public confidence in the Police, but also infuriation against violent radical protesters whose actions have undermined the peaceful protests of Hong Kong people.

How did we come to this situation? On 12 June, at 7:00am on my way to work, I walked around the Central Government Office and Legislative Council building to see how many people would protest. By 7:30am the government complex was surrounded by protesters. The Police were deployed around the complex in large numbers with protective equipment and looked ready to fight, not talk. The vast majority of the protesters were peaceful and included people singing Cantonese songs as well as Christian hymns. However, there were also a smaller number of young people whose aims were not peaceful. I talked to some young boys and asked what they would do, and they told me that they would "Fight the Police". This shocked me as they were polite, educated, spoke English, but were determined to fight the Police. That day ended in violence as a few hundred protesters attacked the Police, who responded with force against the entire peaceful crowd. From that day events have illustrated the escalating cycle of violence.

On 14 July, the Police fought running battles with protesters inside the busy New Town Plaza shopping mall, causing fear amongst shoppers and families. The Police have since then repeatedly entered busy shopping malls to chase protesters and in doing so alienated ordinary people. It is contrary to the duty of the Police to protect the public when riot officers enter a busy shopping mall to chase protesters, putting the safety of innocent people at risk.

On 21 July, white clad villagers and triads attacked people in the Yuen Long MTR station. Although hundreds of emergency calls were made to the Police, no officers arrived until 39 minutes after the attacks started. Two uniform officers left the MTR station during the attacks and did not intervene. Intelligence provided to me is that the attacks were planned over a week before, a large WhatsApp group was used to organise participants, and five separate triad society factions were involved. How did this happen with no Police intervention to prevent the incident? This is a failure of policing, not because of the simple failure to respond but because a planned large triad gathering and attack was not detected and prevented. The failure is in the approach to policing in the New Territories that has allowed triad factions to entrench themselves with influence over village representatives and rural property.

On 31 August, following large protests, Police officers from the Special Tactical Squad deployed to Prince Edward MTR Station to respond to reports of a man attacking people with a hammer. The Police were filmed beating multiple passengers on a train at the platform, including many people who were not dressed in protest gear. The indiscriminate beatings by fully armed Police officers were of unarmed people who were not resisting. The Police then delayed entry of ambulance officers to the MTR Station platforms and injured people did not reach hospital for several hours. The video recordings of the Police action, and the incompetence in not allowing rapid medical aid, led to conspiracy theories amongst Hong Kong people that the Police had killed protesters and hidden the bodies. Such was the complete loss of public trust in the Police.

This arbitrary use of tear gas by the Police has failed to break protests but has further alienated large parts of the innocent population. By the end of November, the Police have fired over 9,000 rounds of tear gas during protests. This has been bizarre to watch as almost all of the protesters confronting the Police have been wearing gas masks, and hence the people most affected by tear gas are innocent local residents and bystanders. On 11 November, the Police fired tear gas at protesters in Pedder Street, Central, around midday when thousands of office workers were out for lunch. Tear gas has been fired into an MTR station entrance, into housing estates, and on to pedestrian bridges. The Lancet medical journal published a paper in October stating that:

"The ongoing situation in Hong Kong calls for a reflection of the appropriateness of tear gas utilisation for crowd and riot control in densely populated urban areas when minimum efforts have been made to provide decontamination guidelines and health protection to bystanders, affected communities, and stakeholders."

The offence of Unlawful Assembly has been used by the Police to arrest large numbers of protesters who have not engaged in violence. By mid-November, the Police had arrested over 4,400 people for various offences. It is evident from videos of Police arrests that they have had limited success arresting violent protesters (many of whom look strong and fit), but far more success arresting less fit protest participants who cannot run fast when chased! Arresting anyone in the area of a protest for Unlawful Assembly has not solved the key problem of a relatively smaller group of violent radicals who have not been arrested.

The policing failures of 12 June in Admiralty, of 21 July in Yuen Long, of indiscriminate use of tear gas, and of mass arrests of any participants at political protests, have not stopped protest violence. The use of the Police force to combat people protesting about political issues will result in strategic failure as more people will lose confidence and trust in the Police and the Government.

The loss of public confidence and trust has been highlighted by the "We Hongkongers" survey of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI). The survey asked, "There are views in the society saying the Police Force have engaged in unprofessional behaviour such as conducting indiscriminate arrests and going out of control in these few months. How much do you agree or disagree with this view?" The response was 67 percent of Hong Kong people agreed with this view.

The Police are in a Catch 22. The Police use force when provoked by violence from protesters because their orders and manuals state that this is what they must do. But use of Police weapons (tear gas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades, water canon) against entire crowds causes political protesters to be incensed by what they see as excessive force and in turn increase their use of violence. The Police are subject to their own rules and orders and cannot change because those rules require that they obey commands. There are two key problems for the Police causing their Catch 22.

Firstly, the rules of use of force for the Police can only be changed by senior management. The Police are a disciplined organisation and orders come from the top down. For change to come in an organisation, ideas must come from the bottom up, from the creative thinkers in middle management. The US military is an example of a disciplined organisation that went through change in doctrine. Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US military strategy was based on the "Powell Doctrine" of use of overwhelming force, but changed to the "Petraeus Doctrine" based on less emphasis of use of force and more on protracted managed conflict. Petraeus left Iraq, where he famously asked journalists "Tell me how this ends", and next oversaw the publication of Field Manual 3-24, "Counterinsurgency", stressing how the US military expected leaders to think as well as fight. The manual included counter-intuitive guidance such as "Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction." Hong Kong and Iraq are very different situations, but the Hong Kong Police should learn how to encourage creativity in middle management so that strategy and tactics adjust quickly to changing circumstances.

Secondly, front line Police officers have engaged in violence against anyone in protest areas, and not been subject to effective management control. There is far too much video evidence showing front line Police anti-riot officers using excessive force against anyone they catch. This should have been stopped early in the conflict, but Police management either failed or were unwilling to control their officers. The indiscriminate use of force, often as punishment rather than to arrest, has directly caused the public loss of confidence in the Police.

The state has a monopoly on violence, which means that any other violence is unlawful. However, violence by the agencies of the state, mainly the Police, must also be within the boundaries of the law. This is why the concept of the rule of law is so important. It is obvious that violence from protesters must lead to their arrest as everyone is subject to the law. The rule of law concept means that the ruler also is not above the law, and hence the Police are also subject to prosecution if officers break the law. This accountability is currently missing.

The only way for the people of Hong Kong to have trust that both violent protesters as well as the Police are subject to the law is for a Commission of Enquiry to look into all violence during the 2019 protests. It is evident that some protesters have used violence, and this should be investigated and reported by a Commission of Enquiry. It is also evident that the Police have used levels of force that are far beyond the expectations of society, and this must be reviewed. Members of a Commission of Enquiry must be independent from the Government, ideally drawn from the Judiciary.

Hong Kong people need to know the truth of why there has been such violence, including why the Police have used such force. Only with a Commission of Enquiry can Hong Kong escape from the Catch 22 that now traps us all.

By Martin Purbrick, a former Royal Hong Kong Police officer who served in counter terrorism in Special Branch and triad society research in the Criminal Intelligence Bureau