Trustworthy Inquiry Needed to Restore Order
“I've tasted tear gas. I've been hit by a rubber bullet. I set roadblocks.” Seven years ago, this would not be something a typical Hong Kong citizen could say truthfully. However, in 2014, everything changed. Many citizens in Hong Kong were shocked after police began using aggressive tactics during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. These included tear gas, pepper spray, brutal beatings of citizens, etc. Hong Kong ruined its old reputation of having one of the most citizen-friendly and gentle riot police across the entire globe, mainly because its police are beginning to be trained by China instead of Great Britain, who occupied Hong Kong from 1841 through 1997. The trust between the residents of Hong Kong and its government and police, which took a long time to build after the 2014 protests, is crumbling because the Hong Kong government is allowing unapproved wiretapping, more and more violent tactics, and refusal to allow other countries to intervene in response to the ongoing 2019 protests. In my opinion Hong Kong should immediately declare an official and independent inquiry into police behavior to decrease tensions between the government and the citizens.
In the beginning, the protests were quite significant, but had not reached their peak: only around 1 out of 10 people joined the rally against the extradition bill that China had proposed, which would send Hong Kong prisoners to China. However, things blew up after the police’s aggressive actions against protesters were discovered by the public. They began clearly relaying their five demands to the government: rejection of the extradition bill, universal suffrage, an end to calling the protests “riots”, amnesty for the arrested protesters, and an inquiry into police behavior.
Despite one of the main problems being the police’s brutal tactics, many citizens are also being attacked with wiretaps (an interception of communication systems) that are mostly performed without legal permission, and are therefore being denied their privacy. With the growing intensity of the Hong Kong protest, unapproved wiretapping is becoming more and more common. Wiretapping is needed extensively in situations like the current one, but that doesn’t mean wiretapping without legal permission is allowed. The number of requests for legal permission to wiretap has increased from 1,303 in 2017 to 1,343 in 2018. The number of cases of wiretapping (in general) increased from 86 in 2017 to 183 in 2018. Most importantly, the number of cases of unapproved wiretapping increased from 18 in 2017 to 27 in 2018. Although this increase may not necessarily be a direct result of the current protests, it shows that police are expanding their aggressive tactics past just physical ones.
Current trends in police behavior suggest that these numbers are bound to increase. What’s even more outrageous is that officers that wiretap without permission do not receive as severe a punishment as they deserve. One law enforcement officer continued to listen in on a conversation that could have contained confidential legal information because he thought that the subject concerned was lying, but he was only given a verbal warning since he said he had “no ulterior motives.” The extensive amount of unapproved wiretaps is concerning, but what is even worse is that punishments given to officers that wiretap without legal permission often are not harsh enough. All this means that Hongkongers cannot trust the government and the police to give them the privacy that they deserve.
Moving on to the most important problem: the negative change in police tactics that started during the protests in 2014 and has not stopped. If anything has changed, it has gotten worse. The Hong Kong police have lost their old reputation of being the best at crowd control. Hong Kong police were once renowned for being gentle when dealing with protests. During the late 1900s, Hong Kong police were taught that acting with restraint and seeking tips from the public was the best way to deal with protests. As BBC reporter Gerry Northam recalls, after the protests of 1981, which, according to The Conversation–an academic-centered journalism site–“saw the most significant urban disorder in England for a generation,” the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) from England invited the director of the British police forces in Hong Kong to teach other UK police forces about crowd control methods, since the British Hong Kong police had much experience with protests and riots. They kept heavy arms inconspicuous and did not take aggressive actions against the crowd. They wore soft hats and had bare hands when talking with protesters. However, the reputation that the Hong Kong police had taken so long to build crumbled in just a few months during the protests of 2014. On one occasion, police fired 87 rounds of tear gas, leaving protesters stunned and outraged. More violent tactics began to emerge since the Hong Kong police were starting to be trained by China. Not to mention that this year, those tactics expanded to include beating (with clubs), tear gas, pepper spray, beanbag rounds, and, as stated before, wiretapping. It’s shocking how fast Hong Kong police went from being experts at crowd control that were superior even to the British police, to the most controversial police force in the world.
A successful inquiry into police behavior is needed to put Hong Kong in a more peaceful state, even if it doesn’t fully solve the problems the protest has created. An inquiry into police behavior is the most sensible step for the government to take right now. Unfortunately, police inquiries require trust and power and the IPCC doesn’t have that. The US Kerner Commission in 1968 was able to make impressive suggestions for police reform because it had public trust; there were civil rights representatives among the commission staff. The 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry consisted of international experts that held public trust and was able to fairly recount what happened during the Bahraini uprising in 2011. It also gave pointed recommendations on how the police could change, though none of the suggestions were ever actually implemented. Many Hongkongers don’t trust the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Council) to make a fair judgment, and they also don’t have enough power and significance to make a difference. Hong Kong should announce an independent commission of inquiry that holds public trust. Many other successful commissions of inquiry were independent and had judges appointed from multiple countries that held public confidence. Hong Kong should immediately perform an inquiry into police behavior because it will meet one of the protesters’ demands and help reform the police. But, the way Hong Kong is currently going about an inquiry–asking the IPCC to conduct it–is not the right way, since even the IPCC itself says it lacks the power to conduct a proper investigation into police behavior in the recent months. Hong Kong should announce a fully independent commission of inquiry, with international judges appointed not only by Hong Kong but also other countries that hold public trust.
Although the center of the protest is in Hong Kong, it's not just the citizens that are protesting. America is also trying to push a bill called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (of 2019) through Congress. This bill will allow the government and President to investigate the behavior of Hong Kong citizens and government, and will also allow America to “impose property and visa-blocking sanctions on foreign persons responsible for gross human rights violations in Hong Kong.” This bill will allow Congress to investigate “whether Hong Kong is upholding the rule of law and protecting rights enumerated in various documents”. There are two main documents which will be investigated: the charter of Hong Kong to England (the Sino-British Joint Declaration) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created by the UN that documents the “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” This bill will allow Congress to investigate behavior in Hong Kong up until 2027.
Although the protest was sparked by the extradition bill, it raged into a full-fledged inferno when the police’s actions to deal with the protest were discovered by the public. With aggressive tactics including unapproved wiretapping, tear gas, pepper spray, beanbag rounds etc., the government has no excuse when it comes to the right protesters to have to retaliate. In order to stop this chaos, the Hong Kong government should immediately declare an independent inquiry to reform and restrict police behavior, and also to meet one of the protesters demands. If an inquiry is performed, it could greatly reduce the duration of the protests to perhaps mid-summer. Allowing foreign countries to help could also improve the situation. However, if none of these suggested changes are implemented, Hong Kong is in real trouble.
United Nations. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Date unknown. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html
116th Congress. “H.R.3289 - Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.” CONGRESS.GOV. Date unknown. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/3289
Dooley, Brian and Wilson Leung. "Trustworthy inquiry into police behavior can put Hong Kong on the path to peace.” Hong Kong Free Press. November 22, 2019.
Ting, Victor. “Breaches in Hong Kong police surveillance operations ‘shocking’, says lawmaker James To, warning trust in force is already at rock bottom.” South China Morning Post. December 3, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3040290/breaches-hong-kong-police-surveillance-operations-shocking
Sataline, Suzanne. “From Asia’s Finest to Hong Kong’s Most Hated.” The Atlantic. September 1, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/09/hong-kong-police-lost-trust/597205/
Cocking, Chris. "How the UK imported the Hong Kong Police’s riot control tactics.” The Conversation. October 3, 2014.