“Calm down! Calm down! To your left. Move towards your left,” the police officer shouted at the crowd.
He was in a road littered with bricks, empty rubber bullet casings, abandoned trainers and busted umbrellas. Tear gas canisters rained down, creating chaos as the crowd of Hong Kong protesters tried to escape the suffocating clouds.
This was near Polytechnic University during the most ferocious conflict in six months of protests that turned streets criss-crossing the city of glittering skyscrapers into no-go zones of burning barricades and wrecked subway stations.
The clashes between police and protesters had turned increasingly violent, but this police officer yelling at the crowd wasn’t in the ranks of those firing tear gas – he was right among the melee of black-clad protesters.
And he was carrying an unconscious young man with a friend, a professional paramedic. Both were off-duty and had crossed the protest lines, driven, they said, by a desire to help those caught up in the violence.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the officer showed his police badge and identification, but requested to be known by the pseudonym Eric to explain his activities. His companion requested the same, also showing his official ID and asking to be referred to as Peter.
They explained that they switch into neon yellow vests, biker helmets and nylon surgical masks to work in the protest zones and use their professional training to assist the injured and traumatised.
What became known as the Polytechnic University siege in November turned into a week-long stand-off between riot police and protesters boxed into the campus in Kowloon, across the harbour from Hong Kong Island.
For most nights that week, both men said they would finish work, change clothes, and head to the streets surrounding the campus; helping those injured and dodging tear gas canisters fired by police on the other side.
In describing the most chaotic night, Peter said: “Riot police were shooting non-stop from a footbridge above. Tear gas canisters were flying over our heads. We were carrying an unconscious young man who had been hit by a tear gas shell and there was nowhere to hide, even alleyways were filled with tear gas.”
Eric said he needed to use an asthma inhaler that evening after getting face-fulls of the gas.
“I just want to help people like a real policeman is supposed to do, but I can’t do that now with my uniform on,” said Eric as he struggled to explain the emotional conflict he found himself in. “But when I am a volunteer medic, I can at least go out and tell Hong Kong people: ‘Don’t worry, I’m here to help. There’s no need to panic’,” he said.
While the protests began as rallies against a bill that would have allowed extradition of suspects to mainland China, they turned into broader anti-government demonstrations. But Eric and Peter said it was a specific incident that prompted their volunteer work among protesters.
On July 21, protesters vandalised the front of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, pelting it with eggs and defacing the building with black spray paint and offensive graffiti. This infuriated pro-Beijing supporters as it left China’s national emblem outside the office splattered with black paintballs.
The same evening a gang of as many as 100 men with steel bars and clubs assaulted members of the public at Yuen Long subway station. They are thought to have targeted protesters returning from the city after the attack on the liaison office.
But film footage taken at Yuen Long also shows two uniformed police officers walking away from the scene as the subway attacks took place. This incident became a turning point for the already deteriorating police-community relations.
Eric and Peter said the Yuen Long attacks, which were widely broadcast on social media, convinced them to take up their off-duty work, even at the risk of being identified or arrested by the police at protests.
“After seeing my two colleagues turning their backs on citizens in need, I really couldn’t just sit by,” Eric said. “It’s a police officer’s duty to protect the citizens and enforce the law.”
The Hong Kong Police Force said it would not comment on individual cases when asked if such work by off-duty police officers violated any protocols.
“In general, all members of the force, including on-duty and off-duty officers, have an obligation to uphold the force’s professional and positive image in order to maintain public confidence,” the public relations branch of the Force said in an emailed response.
“Any police officer’s action or conduct which brings the force into disrepute, or is in breach of the Police (Discipline) Regulations or internal orders of the force, may result in disciplinary review,” said the email, which was attributed to the duty officer and didn’t provide a name.
The July 21 attacks marked a shift in public discontent with the force and preceded a sharp rise in violence, as well as online threats against police officers and their families. Use of petrol bombs and vandalism increased, leading to more forceful responses by the authorities.
And so the spiral of violence fed on itself. Police officers attacked in demonstrations drew their firearms, with the first warning shot fired on August 26.
In subsequent conflicts, three protesters were shot and injured by live rounds, a police officer was admitted to hospital after being slashed in the neck by a box cutter, and another officer was shot through the leg by an arrow.
When questioned about the violence against his fellow police officers, Eric said the protests began as demonstrations against the government and its policies, not the Hong Kong Police Force.
He argues that the police have become a political tool and this has led to violation of Police General Orders that govern officers’ conduct, which in turn has fed the violence and brought the force into disrepute.
He cited the case on November 11 when in a confrontation with demonstrators, a station sergeant fired three live rounds, one of which hit a protester. Eric said in his opinion the circumstances of the firing of the weapon violated Police General Orders, yet no action was taken.
“I think it’s understandable that the protesters escalate their use of force against the police because in the past few months, the officers oftentimes didn’t follow the Police General Orders and continue to escalate their use of force,” he said.
Amnesty International in September criticised Hong Kong’s police for what it called “retaliatory violence” against arrested protesters and cited specific complaints.
The police responded at the time that anyone with a complaint against treatment in custody could file through official channels and said it did not comment on individual cases.
Eric and Peter said they planned to continue with their volunteer work despite the risks. And that’s not just the threat of violence but also to their careers. A number of civil and public servants arrested at protests have reportedly been suspended.
“At one point in my first trip out in the field, a police officer in anti-riot gear glared at me. Thankfully we didn’t know each other but that was my first encounter with such hostility from one of our own men,” Eric said.
The pair said they travel light, carrying about 10 kilograms of basic first-aid gear each, to keep a low profile and move quickly with crowds– unlike official first-aid teams who move in groups and carry heavy equipment for dealing with medical emergencies.
Initially, Eric and Peter said they didn’t use masks and helmets, but changed strategy.
“We thought long about this because of our identities. It’s not just a matter of personal safety and career concern but our families’ livelihoods if we ended up losing our jobs for it,” Peter said. “So we pack light and try to avoid the front line to minimise the chance of arrest.
“As first-aid volunteers we are limited in what we can do out of uniform. As a volunteer, I can’t handle severe levels of trauma,” he said.
Whether in uniform or out of uniform, Peter said he identified with the people he met at protests as Hong Kong citizens first, just like him. “When I saw that university students were willing to fight for Hong Kong’s future, I couldn’t just sit by and watch,” he said.
Eric said his volunteer work created inevitable tensions at his day job. Though he’s not assigned to the 5,000-member Tide Riders police operation at the front line of protests, he is tasked with providing backup.
He said he estimated about 20 per cent of his colleagues had shown some understanding towards Hong Kong’s young protesters, but most on the force saw them as rioters, backed by the US.
“So I mostly just keep my mouth shut at work. I often go through a shift without speaking more than 10 sentences to my colleagues – we just have nothing much to say to each other,” Eric said.
Then he gets abuse on the streets.
“I tend to just look away and avoid eye contact when people give me verbal abuse when I’m in uniform,” he said, adding that in his view the hostility from the public reflected missed opportunities to improve relations.
“If the fallout from the July 21 attacks had been handled better, things wouldn’t have evolved to this point today,” Eric said. “The only option for the government now is to set up an independent commission of inquiry into police activities during the protests and make all accountable under the law,” he said.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has rejected the idea of an independent commission, which is now one of the protesters’ core demands. Beijing has also been unequivocal in backing Hong Kong police, saying stopping violence and restoring order are the paramount priorities for the city.
Hong Kong’s new police chief Chris Tang Ping-keung has said the same, stressing that he would only support the ongoing investigation by the force’s watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Council or IPCC.
The credibility of that investigation took a knock on December 11 when international experts advising the body said they were withdrawing. That was a month after they said the IPCC lacked the necessary authority to conduct a full investigation.
Eric said that while trust in the police force may be at a low, that’s not the full picture.
“I want Hong Kong people to know there are good police officers out there,” Eric said. “They really want to do their best to serve and protect citizens.”
Sign up now for our 50% early bird offer from SCMP Research: China AI Report. The all new SCMP China AI Report gives you exclusive first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments, and actionable and objective intelligence about China AI that you should be equipped with.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Independent panel probing Hong Kong protests will not have subpoena powers, government minister says
- Hong Kong deputy leader says police will fully cooperate with protest inquiry and hints at changes to role of complaints body
- Hong Kong: a city locked in stalemate with no end in sight