Jerome Favre/EPA

Hong Kong: how the police trained for riots – and why their response to protesters has been so violent

Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill, the catalyst for three months of protests, was officially withdrawn on September 3 by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s beleaguered chief executive. Its withdrawal was a key demand of protesters, concerned it could lead to extraditions to mainland China.

But in her recorded television address, Lam refused to give way on the protesters’ other demands – notably for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality. However, she did appoint two new members to the government’s Independent Police Complaints Council panel which is currently investigating the violence.

The violence in Hong Kong in recent weeks has led to fears that Beijing is gearing up for a crackdown against the protesters. Direct intervention by Chinese forces is permitted under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution”, if Hong Kong declares a state of emergency – which it hasn’t yet done. The garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army stationed in central Hong Kong was recently reinforced and the People’s Armed Police has been seen massing and drilling just over the border in Shenzhen. This lends credence to what the protestors see as a “last stand” to save the city they call home.

Hong Kongers are used to a home where the rule of law, rather than the law of the ruler, prevails. This is a legacy of riots in 1956, 1966 and 1967, when the Hong Kong police force adopted an increasingly paramilitary character.

Following the 1967 riots, however, the rule of law, human rights and liberalism became the touchstone of government legitimacy. From the 1970s onwards, it engaged in a swathe of welfare, educational, and legal reforms designed to rebuild links with the community and trust in the police. As I’ve outlined in my own research, the strategy worked. Hong Kong came to be regarded as a stable, peaceful, prosperous and orderly society, its 30,000-strong police force a trusted and friendly guardian.


Read more: Hong Kong protests: history lessons for Beijing from British colonial era uprising


Ready for riots

Behind the scenes, however, the police force strengthened its anti-riot capability. Since 1958, it has invested in a specially trained paramilitary unit, the Police Tactical Unit, based in Fanling – whose training ground was shared with mainland forces just before 1997. Besides such specialist squads, all members of the Hong Kong police are trained to kit-up and be riot-ready within 11 minutes, giving the police an extraordinary force-wide public order capability.

The classified Hong Kong Riot Training Manual – copied by the UK’s Metropolitan Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – sets out the sequence of public order policing. Traditionally, tear gas has been the weapon of first choice, the intention being to encourage the crowd to disperse along routes deliberately left open by the police. A visual and audible warning is given in Chinese and English. In order to prevent individual officers from being captured by the crowd, going into the crowd to effect an arrest was discouraged. Regular riot training instilled such practices across the entire force.


Read more: How the UK imported the Hong Kong Police's riot control tactics


But the 2019 protests have taken the police response to another level. Though China blames “foreign forces” for fomenting the 2019 protests, they are grounded in domestic issues. A wiser government might have adopted a more hands-off approach from the start, but instead, the government deployed the police in paramilitary formation, using tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, and pepper spray to deter the demonstrators.

Blue dye was used in water cannons aimed at protesters on August 31. Jerome Favre/EPA

Predictably, this hasn’t worked: a cycle of protest, repression and further protest developed. The return to a hardline approach stems from police handling of the 2014 mass protest known as the Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement. Under pressure to end weeks of peaceful protest, the then-commissioner of police, Andy Tsang Wai-hung, and his deputy, Alan Lau, sanctioned the use of tear gas against the protesters. Hong Kong was in shock. A generation brought up to respect the police could not believe that “their” police force was now using such repressive tactics against them.

Nicknamed the “vulture”, Tsang already had a reputation as a hardliner. Said to be held in high regard within the police force, he nevertheless became a highly divisive figure. His retirement in 2015 was an opportunity for the government to appoint a more conciliatory police commissioner, Stephen Lo, to heal the divisions between police and society.

But in an unprecedented move, the force brought Tsang’s former deputy Lau out of retirement on a temporary contract specifically to handle the 2019 protests. Lau has continued Tsang’s “gloves off” approach.

As a force with its origins in colonial days, the Hong Kong police is an arm of the state: individual officers have no individual constabulary power. They must obey orders even when they think they are unjustified. In 2019, this has meant obeying orders to fire tear gas while deliberately blocking routes of dispersal. They have also fired tear gas in closed or confined spaces, contrary to international standards which only permit its use in open spaces.

Police have also fired rubber bullets at close range, and gone into crowds with batons raised. In two incidents, officers have fired live ammunition in the air as warning shots. A special unit – the “raptor squad” – has been designated to work undercover to target high-profile activists and detain them at a special detention centre at San Uk Ling, near the mainland border.

The capture of police violence on mobile phone video and social media has not reined in the violence. Instead, the fact that the police are prepared to be filmed using such brutal tactics shows they understand they are immune from redress.

Hard to regain trust

However, the protesters remain resilient and undeterred. They too have learned lessons from 2014 – they are leaderless by design, both to prevent the police picking off the movement’s leaders and any falling out among different factions. They regularly outwit the police with their “like water” approach, inspired by Bruce Lee, dissolving away before the police arrive only to pop-up unexpectedly elsewhere. Their ingenuity and creativity have captured the public’s imagination.

The government’s repressive approach, by contrast, is backfiring. Many who might otherwise stay at home have been so angered by the government’s policing tactics that they too now come out in protest. They scan all walks of life, from housewives to lawyers, accountants and businesspeople, and school and university students – and their orderly conduct undermines Beijing’s depiction of them as a violent, radical mob.

Frontline police officers not only face fatigue but doubts about the wisdom of exposing their families to public antagonism, as they continue to follow orders to fire tear gas into crowds which may contain neighbours, friends and relatives. The trust in police and rulers painstakingly built up in the aftermath of 1967 is being undone, and it is hard to see how it can be regained.