As deputy chief of Hong Kong’s “prison flying tigers”, an elite group of officers from the correctional services, Lily Cheung* did not expect to be in the thick of frontline action amid the city’s ongoing civil unrest, until she was called on a “historic mission” two months ago.
Now she is prepared to deal with the worst violence she could have ever imagined.
“I wanted to safeguard the city where I was born and help police restore Hong Kong. But over the past months I dare not even remove road barricades myself, fearing attacks by opponents,” Cheung told the Post in an interview.
Speaking at the Correctional Services Department headquarters in Wan Chai, she added: “I said yes to the new challenge immediately when my supervisor approached me ... I already expected to be doxxed and attacked on the streets randomly, and also during operations in the worst of cases.
“Yet I am honoured to be part of this historic mission.”
Cheung’s biggest concern at the time was the safety of her family, but their unwavering support has turned into the biggest motivation for her in the new role.
As part of the Correctional Emergency Response Team trained to escort high-risk inmates and deal with prison riots and other emergencies, Cheung was among 200 riot control specialists loaned to the police force to ease the burden on staff stretched to the limit by anti-government protests.
The prisons group is among 300 elite unit members appointed in November by police – with others from customs and immigration – to shore up manpower.
The Post was told that another 100 correctional staff were enlisted last month to join the uphill battle.
Since the protests broke out in June, masked radicals have besieged roads, set fires on streets, vandalised MTR stations, businesses and banks, and occupied universities.
Police had arrested nearly 7,000 individuals and are accused of brutality.
Among demands of the protest moment, which was sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill but has since morphed into a wider anti-government campaign, is the call for an independent probe into police conduct.
Deemed as the enemy, officers are often verbally abused, with more than 3,000 members of the force doxxed – a form of attack in which a person’s private information or that of his or her family is released online.
One bright spot among Cheung’s grim work was an event in Tamar Park in Admiralty, where she recalled that thousands showed up in a rally to support police. Cheung said she was surprised by the stamp of approval from some members of the public.
For her teammate David Lee*, however, his group was cursed at by opponents at the same site.
Lee, who has a one-year-old child, said: “A woman stopped in front of us and told her 10-year-old kid that we were dogs and that we beat up people randomly.
“It did not upset me. My duty is not about arresting people who scold us. But as a father, I was surprised by her behaviour in front of a child. It made me think of the importance of education for the young.”
A woman stopped in front of us and told her 10-year-old kid that we were dogs and that we beat up people randomly ... As a father, I was surprised by her behaviour in front of a child.
David Lee, correctional services officer
Chan Ho-ming, commander of the department’s special constables, said he always reminded his team to stay calm and avoid verbal confrontations as the city enjoyed freedom of speech. Officers should remain highly alert but only take action when someone violated the law, he added.
“I told them that we can’t anticipate the length [of how long we will be on loan to police]. There could be nothing major happening, or we may face the worst violence on our first day of duty,” Chan said.
Soon after the government announced the manpower boost for the force, online users had suggested to intercept and attack the motorcade of special constables.
Chan said he had contacted police to handle doxxing cases of his officers.
With manpower within their own ranks thinning as officers are seconded out, correctional services chief Danny Woo Ying-ming thanked his remaining staff from different sections for their courage to shoulder extra responsibility in their prison duties.
Chan said the new arrangements allowed more flexibility within the department and enhanced training for his officers.
When on duty, special constables are armed with weapons such as batons, pepper spray, pepper ball launchers and rifles loaded with beanbag rounds. But authorities said none of these had been used by such units on protesters so far.
Lily Cheung said: “One day my family called me and asked if we had sent arrested protesters across the border through Lo Wu. It shocked me. You can see how influential the propaganda of opponents is.
“Though my family is very supportive, they were misled by online rumours and wondered if I hit people too. I rebutted every accusation.
“I exercise my duty according to the law and my conscience is clear.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
This article ‘My conscience is clear’: elite officers from disciplined forces roped in to help police amid Hong Kong’s protest violence share their side of the story first appeared on South China Morning Post