Hong Kong has become a kind of police state. The civilian administration headed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been conspicuous by its absence as the police force set about punishing protesters, and journalists and bystanders often to with repeated volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets discharged at short range even as demonstrators were retreating.
On July 21 the police sat idly by for almost an hour as thugs from criminal gangs set about attacking demonstrators and passers-by at a shopping mall/train station in Yuen Long, a town in the New Territories district. The attack was known in advance by the police and was supported by the representative of the Heung Yee Kuk, a feudal body of so-called “indigenous” inhabitants who occupy a privileged position and land rights based on ancestry although they are only a small part of the population.
The following day the number-two in the administration, Mathew Cheung, apologized for the failure to act earlier against the white-clad thugs who made no attempt to hide their identities. This reasonable attempt to calm the situation was immediately denounced by groups representing police officers. Cheung was forced to backtrack, showing that the police, not the administration, were in command.
The police then went on to underline this status by banning a march planned for Yuen Long to protest the attack by the thugs. Thousands protested anyway, leading to further volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades. Numerous arrests ensued for taking part in a “banned” demonstration.
The following days saw further demonstrations on Hong Kong island where the police again used volleys of tear gas against crowds who were remarkably resilient and retreated only slowly as the heavily-armed police advanced against them, huge phalanxes with larger shields, gas masks, body armor, helmets, truncheons, tear gas and rubber bullet-firing weapons.
The idea that the government bore any responsibility for what have now been several weeks of intermittent chaos and violence in which the main victims have been demonstrators, not police, has been lacking. Indeed the silence of the government other than to condemn the protests and leave matters to the police force showed it is paralyzed. It has consistently refused either to sack officials or appoint a commission of inquiry into all the recent events.
The latter refusal has been the direct result of police pressure. The police commanders have much to answer so they are determined to head off an independent inquiry though one would, it is widely believed, go a long way to reduce the level of public participation in demonstrations.
The standing of the police among the public has fallen sharply as viewers have been able to see at first hand the events on the streets. Even a group of Administrative Officers, the elite of the civil service, has seen fit to express alarm at the course of events and discontent among lower level public servants is widespread. Lower-ranking civil servants have planned a rally for August 2 to demand government changes and an inquiry into all aspects of recent unrest and staff of the Mass Transit Railway have condemned what they saw as inadequate attempts to protect them their passengers from the Yuen Long violence.
While the government itself has been largely silent, initiative has passed to Beijing’s Liaison Office and the party’s mouthpieces in Hong Kong. The Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Pao newspapers, praised the police -- “patriotic forces” – such as those in white at Yuen Long, blaming the disturbances on “foreign forces” and hinted that the Peoples Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong stood ready to intervene if requested.
On July 29 the Liaison Office gave an unprecedented press conference to back the government and the police in particular, appealing to the population at large to condemn the protests. But there was nothing very new in its comments and it seemed there was no way demonstrations would stop in the near future unless the government backed down on some issues. Given the extent of discontent and the determination of the radical elements to risk jail and injury to keep up the fight, it could be awhile before protests lose momentum. Even if they do, the seeds of later resurgence will remain.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s absence from the scene raised other questions. Was she too shell-shocked to appear in public? Or was she in effect a captive, unable to resign but unable to act? While the city saw repeated scenes of conflict on July 28, she was attending a ceremonial parade of youngsters attending a PLA camp.
The following day when the focus was on the Liaison Office press conference, she went to a Women Power Forum where the local women “leaders” were mostly the offspring of tycoons headed by Macau gambling heiress Pansy Ho and including assorted Honorary Advisors such as former Chief Executive C.Y. Leung and other retired Beijing-obedient officials. Lam was in effect hiding among establishment figures while most of Hong Kong, even including the pro-government editors of the South China Morning Post, were calling for leadership.