New chief, new tactics: Hong Kong police act more swiftly to round up masked radicals when protests turn ugly

Christy Leung

Security consultant Clement Lai Ka-chi was surprised, and impressed, by what he saw on New Year’s Day.

When an approved anti-government march turned violent in Causeway Bay, police ordered the rally stopped at 5.30pm, three hours after it began in Victoria Park.

Two hours later, after masked radicals vandalised more than five HSBC branches along the route and blocked roads in Wan Chai, officers swung into action on Hennessy Road.

They charged at the protesters from two sides, surprising them. More than 460 people were rounded up near the Sogo department store and made to squat with their hands raised or stand, facing the wall.

Such swift police action had not been seen in more than seven months of protests in Hong Kong.

“It was spectacular,” said Lai, a former police superintendent who helped set up the force’s Counter Terrorism Response Unit in 2009. “The force is now taking a more proactive and determined approach to curb violence, instead of being passive, reserved and defensive.”

The January 1 crowd was estimated at more than a million, and it was the first major rally since Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung took command of the 31,000-strong police force on November 19.

Senior Superintendent Ng Lok-chun said: “We hoped the rally could continue. But, unfortunately, the mob attacked the same bank again and blocked roads along Luard Road and Hennessy Road in Wan Chai. It was impossible for the rally to go on safely.”

Chris Tang took command of the city’s police force in mid-November. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

He said about 400 people were arrested, mainly for being part of an unlawful assembly, after organisers heeded the police order to end the rally early.

Four days later in Sheung Shui, police acted in similar fashion, detaining about 100 people after a rally ended at 3pm. About half of them were arrested.

Approving of the change in police tactics, Lai said: “It will discourage radical and non-violent protesters from coming out, because they know they will be either arrested or have their personal details recorded by police, making it easier to identify them in future.”

Acknowledging the new strategy, a senior officer with direct knowledge of the force’s operational plans said: “We used to play a drawn-out defensive game when dealing with radical protesters. We even let protesters continue marching in illegal rallies, dispersing them only when massive violence erupted.

Now, once violence occurs, we intervene early to cut short the rally, rounding up and detaining people to prevent the situation from worsening. We treat these as battlegrounds and aim to reclaim peace before bedtime

Senior police source

“Now, once violence occurs, we intervene early to cut short the rally, rounding up and detaining people to prevent the situation from worsening. We treat these as battlegrounds and aim to reclaim peace before bedtime.”

Acting earlier also meant police fired fewer rounds of tear gas and other types of crowd-dispersal weapon, the source added.

Some observers say Tang, the new police chief, appears to have changed tactics in dealing with protesters, compared with his predecessor Stephen Lo Wai-chung.

Aside from acting more speedily to curb protest violence and arrest masked radicals, the force has also embarked on a war against anti-police reports in the media – and especially in the Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily – to protest against what it says is misinformation, and state its view.

The protests, now in their eighth month, have led to the arrests of close to 7,000 people, the youngest aged 11. Masked radicals have besieged roads, wrecked traffic lights and set fires on streets, vandalised MTR stations, businesses and banks, and occupied universities.

Mobs have attacked police officers at the front line, hurling petrol bombs and bricks, and shooting at them with bows and arrows. Police have responded by firing more than 16,000 rounds of tear gas, 10,000 rounds of rubber bullets, 2,000 beanbag rounds and 19 live rounds.

About 1,700 people have been injured, including 550 officers.

Since Chris Tang took the helm at the force, officers have started taking a proactive approach to the unrest, moving in swiftly at the first sign of violence. Illustration: SCMP

Police have been accused of using excessive force, a charge the force denies, and there have been allegations that people have been mistreated or sexually harassed after arrest.

Tang assured top Beijing officials during his first official visit to the capital in December that police would handle the ongoing protests with both “hard” and “soft” tactics – being tough on violence but flexible on minor offences.

Senior Chinese public security officials said the central government gave the Hong Kong police force the “strongest backing” and hoped Tang would lead with determination to curb violence in the city as soon as possible, as well as maintaining the morale of his officers.

New moves, new risks

In recent weeks, police have taken to placing undercover officers near premises likely to be targeted by masked radicals during protests, such as HSBC and Best Mart 360 branches, to ambush the vandals.

On December 21, for example, protesters roaming malls in the tourist district of Tsim Sha Tsui as part of their “Shop with you” rally to scare off shoppers were themselves surprised.

About two dozen riot officers entered the massive Harbour City mall and teamed up with undercover officers who had been stationed inside all afternoon, as several hundred masked protesters roamed about. There were chaotic scenes, and police used pepper spray as protesters and plain-clothes officers scuffled.

“The police presence poses a deterrent effect and shows protesters that we are capable of netting them. They will have to pay a price if they break the law,” the source said. “The same for those who vandalised shops. They thought they could get away with it, but we were all around them.”

Security consultant Lai said the new tactics allowed police to nab culprits immediately and draw a line between peaceful protesters, who preferred to stay away from violence, and the radicals.

Officers dealing with a protester at Harbour City mall on December 21. Photo: Winson Wong

“But these measures also come with a risk,” he said. “It may put less skilful plain-clothes officers in a life-threatening situation if their identity is exposed. Protesters might take the law into their own hands and beat up the officers.”

New chief Tang is also battling against anti-police news. Between the time he assumed the top job in November and January 18, police have written 32 letters to the media to rebut what the force sees as fake or biased reports, compared with only six between June and November last year.

Hong Kong protest art goes on sale at independent Lunar New Year fairs

No fewer than 28 letters were sent to Apple Daily, which often features reports of alleged police brutality on its front pages.

The senior source said: “As fake information goes viral very quickly and can have damaging consequences, we must respond immediately.”

In a letter on January 9, the force rejected an Apple Daily report which said it had continuously violated international guidelines on the use of force.

Police have used fewer rubber bullets recently. Photo: Reuters

“Your newspaper always accuses police of brutality. We have reiterated that we use only the minimum level of force when necessary,” the letter read. “Over the past seven months, your newspaper has touched on protesters’ violence lightly but has kept smearing the force and inciting hatred against police with an evil intent. We regret your reporting and reserve the right to pursue action.”

Speaking in Legco on Thursday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor denied there had been any police brutality over the past eight months, adding the force should adopt more rigorous enforcement actions as more home-made bombs had been found lately.

As of December 13, the force’s Complaints Against Police Office had received 1,404 complaints against officers and was investigating. The results must be endorsed by the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC).

For now, the IPCC is also separately looking at complaints that police used excessive force at events on six occasions between June 9 and August 31. It is also looking into allegations that protesters detained in August at the San Uk Ling Holding Centre, near the mainland Chinese border, were mistreated.

The council is due to submit its report to Lam by the end of January, but the watchdog said on Thursday it could not publish the report as scheduled because of an ongoing court case.

‘New tactics divide society more’

Not everyone in Hong Kong is impressed with the new tactics, or the force’s efforts to safeguard its credibility.

Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai called Tang “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and more aggressive than his predecessor despite presenting himself as approachable.

Accusing police of making “groundless and arbitrary mass detentions” instead of distinguishing between peaceful and violent protesters, he said: “The new police chief has abandoned all guidelines and the tiny bit of prudence the force had. He sugar-coats police brutality and cruel tactics. It is like a girl hiding a knife.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung agreed that Tang was tougher than the previous chief, and noted that while more protesters were being detained, police were using fewer crowd-dispersal weapons.

Police use tear gas on protesters during the New Year’s Day demonstration. Photo: Sam Tsang

“Yet I don’t appreciate this approach,” he said. “Society needs reconciliation. If you are getting tougher, it only makes society more divided, and people will only hate the police even more.”

Police said officers fired 23 rounds of tear gas and 15 rounds of rubber bullets during protests on New Year’s Eve, and seven rounds of tear gas and nine rounds of rubber bullets on January 1.

In comparison, close to 3,300 rounds of tear gas and 3,200 rounds of rubber bullets were fired on November 18 when masked radicals occupied Polytechnic University in Hung Hom.

Asked if Tang or Lo did a better job, Hui replied: “They cannot be compared, because both are bad.”

Police officer among eight arrested next to Tuen Mun ‘Lennon Wall’

Security consultant Lai said police action so far had been far from an “extreme” response to the protests and violence in Hong Kong since last June.

“Honestly, police have been very lenient,” he said. “They have a lot of options, in terms of tactics and weapons – way more than you can imagine – but they have only used the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is available to them.”

Advising radicals not to underestimate the force’s ability to handle unrest, he said the response so far showed police were hoping to avoid mass casualties.

Lam Chi-wai, chairman of the Junior Police Officers’ Association, which represents two-thirds of the force, said Tang attached great importance to communicating with frontline officers and had done much to boost morale.

Last year, while Tang was deputy chief, he was seen at protest front lines alongside his officers, dressed in protective gear. Even after becoming commissioner, he was seen on Christmas Eve at high-risk protest spots such as Tsim Sha Tsui and Sha Tin.

Protesters trash a Best Mart 360 store in Yau Ma Tei. Photo: Winson Wong

Lam felt it was not fair to compare Tang and Lo, and did not see the new police tactics as resulting from the change at the top.

“The force reviews operations from time to time and changes tactics accordingly,” he said. “There is no value in making comparisons. Tang keeps our morale high and we are united.”

A second senior police source agreed that comparisons were unfair, pointing out that, as deputy chief, Tang commanded the “Tiderider” operation to deal with the protests.

“He was responsible for operations in the past and now. But as police chief now, he can act freely without having to weigh what his boss would think,” the source said.

The source added that the situation in Hong Kong had changed too.

“In the past, the protesters often outnumbered us, so it was not possible to outflank them,” the source said. “But things have changed. The city has restored a bit of peace and we can adopt other tactics.”

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