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While U.S. tackles police brutality, Hong Kong is in denial

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

Source: Washington Post. June 19, 2020. By Shibani Mahtani

HONG KONG — Every Hong Konger I've interviewed this past week — lawyers, protesters and teachers among them — has paused our conversation to comment on the push for accountability in U.S. police departments, and opine on why their aspirations for the same cannot be met.

After scenes of NYPD vehicles driving into protesters, officers in Buffalo shoving an elderly man to the ground, and peaceful demonstrators tear gassed outside the White House, advocates of U.S. police reform have cause for optimism. School districts are canceling contracts with the police; officials in Louisville suspended "no-knock" warrants that led to the death of Breonna Taylor; and a growing number of police officers have been charged or taken off duty for actions that critics see as excessive force.

There’s no such official reassessment in Hong Kong, where fury at police actions last year toward mostly peaceful pro-democracy protesters was made worse by the authorities’ refusal to acknowledge transgressions by police. As protesters became angrier and the clashes more violent, Hong Kong’s government gave full backing for riot officers to carry on, cheered on by state media that labeled the dissenters terrorists. In addition to arresting 9,000 people, the police unleashed 16,000 rounds of tear gas plus pepper balls, chemical-laced liquid from water cannons and other injury-inflicting tactics unprecedented in the financial center’s modern history.

An official report last month exonerated the police.

The result has been a deep erosion in public trust in a force formerly known as Asia’s finest.

Like in the United States, the police tactics were extensively documented and captured on video. Unlike in the United States, Hong Kong people have no way to replace their leadership, which is chosen by a committee that answers to the Chinese Communist Party. At a protest several weeks ago, I heard an elderly woman imploring a police officer to admit that the only one in charge was Chinese leader Xi Jinping — summing up the root of the protesters’ anguish as they watch Hong Kong’s promised freedoms slip away, replaced by Beijing-style authoritarianism.

As demonstrations reemerge after the coronavirus outbreak, police have responded in much the same way. Last weekend, a Hong Kong police officer forced his knee onto the head of a 16-year-old girl he had detained for distributing leaflets advocating school boycotts. Another officer was filmed mocking the “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” chants heard in rallies worldwide against racial injustice.

While the latter officer received a verbal warning, the overall official message to the police has amounted to: We’re behind you.

I covered criminal justice in the Midwest for the Wall Street Journal before this assignment in Hong Kong, and have no illusions about the long and complicated path it will take to sustain the scale of the reforms some in the United States are pushing for. The root cause of the anger, too, is without comparison. And there is the issue of Americans’ right to carry firearms, which makes the policing landscape very different.

But if perceptions of police brutality were a common motivator, driving people to the streets in both Hong Kong and the United States, then those in the Chinese territory have no victories to celebrate.

No officer has been charged or suspended for any infraction related to the protests last year, according to the city’s police watchdog. This includes the officer who shot a rubber bullet at a crowd of journalists and protesters, blinding Indonesian reporter Veby Mega Indah in one eye. The police have refused to divulge the officer’s identity, including to Veby’s lawyers.

The lack of accountability isn’t for want of trying. People filed more than 8,000 complaints against officers last year, though only 242 were referred to the watchdog — which cannot summon witnesses or compel officers to turn over evidence. (Experts in policing say the body, known as the Independent Police Complaints Council, falls short of international standards of accountability, while its chair is handpicked by Hong Kong’s chief executive.) Of all these complaints, only two officers have been “reprimanded” for using harsh language.

A Washington Post investigation last year in consultation with international policing experts found that Hong Kong police routinely breached their use-of-force guidelines. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, called the findings “untruthful,” “unfair” and “irresponsible.”

One of the five demands of the pro-democracy demonstrators is a fully independent investigation into the police response to anti-government unrest. Hong Kong’s authorities have refused to entertain the idea, though it has attracted support even among some pro-Beijing figures. Instead, the IPCC produced a report with limited scope that looked only at a handful of key events. Foreign experts engaged by the Hong Kong government to advise on the investigation quit the exercise.

“We were in the end manipulated and put in an awkward position,” said Clifford Stott, a policing expert from Britain’s Keele University who was part of the international panel. “There is no way I could have stood by that report.”

A reporter pointed out to the IPCC chairman, Anthony Neoh, that U.S. officers were suspended, charged and otherwise held to account after the George Floyd protests erupted in Minneapolis. He answered that the Hong Kong complaint system is sufficient.

The situation in the United States has given Hong Kong authorities, the police force and China’s government a convenient distraction. Regina Ip, a leading pro-Beijing figure in Hong Kong, said in a recent interview that her city’s police force was “totally unlike the United States” and said there was “no such thing as brutality in Hong Kong.” A pro-democracy group in Hong Kong edited that clip, following her statement with footage of officers pressing a man’s bleeding face into the ground, an officer on a motorcycle driving into a crowd of protesters and officers storming into a subway train, swinging their batons at commuters.

In Hong Kong, there is no November on the horizon, no opportunity to vote leaders out of office. Scenes of officers roughing up young people, stopping and searching anyone wearing black, and rounding up hundreds before rallies continue to emerge, week after week.

And as Beijing prepares to impose sweeping national security laws here that would effectively criminalize dissent, the hope that marked the million-strong peaceful gatherings last year has evaporated.

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