Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 November 2019

From Paris to Hong Kong, police recalibrate tactics in the face of mass protests

Law enforcement units in the former British colony have decades of experience in managing unrest

A protester is detained by police at Po Lam Station on September 5, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Getty
A protester is detained by police at Po Lam Station on September 5, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Getty

After 14 weeks of protests, Hong Kong’s youthful demonstrators show few signs of giving up their anti-government fight.

In the midst of the global financial centre's worst political crisis in decades, Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam backed down on Wednesday, withdrawing the unpopular proposed extradition law that sparked unrest in the city.

It was the latest twist in a summer of turmoil that has seen a movement respond to police tactics with new methods of getting their message out, leaving the authorities scrambling to catch up, and protesters have vowed to continue even after Ms Lam's surprising U-turn.

“The people of Hong Kong will not be cowed by the CCP" – China Communist Party – two of those arrested, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow, wrote in an article for the New York Times that was scathing about the police.

The escalation has put a spotlight on how the Hong Kong force has coped with lessons painfully learned five decades ago. Riots in 1967 against British colonial control provoked the widespread use of repressive police strategies to quell the disturbances, according to a paper by Hong Kong academic Lawrence Ho.

A police officer holds up pepper spray as he attempts to disperses protesters out of the platform at Po Lam Station on September 5, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Getty
A police officer holds up pepper spray as he attempts to disperses protesters out of the platform at Po Lam Station on September 5, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Getty

These strategies failures of that police operation led to efforts to increase public trust in the force and to stamp out endemic corruption. The reforms paved the way for commanders to cope with mass demonstrations by reducing, not fuelling, tensions.

Protests since the 1980s have seen officers wearing soft hats and carrying bottled water to help demonstrators, wrote Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. But he said the work had been undermined by the conduct of the Hong Kong authorities in ordering a crackdown on protests against a proposed extradition law. Dousing by water cannon, crowd control by teargas and the arrests of prominent activists are among the tactics used.

For its part, China defends the conduct of the police and points to the violent behaviour of some protesters.

Debates over how to manage large marches have also raged around how the French police handled the Gilets Jaunes protesters, when one man was maimed by a large rubber bullet round. British police have also faced questions over the containment of protesters in London’s Brexit marches and the anti-capitalism protests. One man died in the City of London in 2009 after he was struck by an officer with a baton. But he was later cleared at trial.

Protestors clash with police officers during an anti-government demonstration called by the Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) movement on January 12, 2019, on the Place du Capitole in Toulouse, southern France. - France braced for a fresh round of "yellow vest" protests on January 12, 2019 across the country with the authorities vowing zero tolerance for violence after weekly scenes of rioting and vandalism in Paris and other cities over the past two months. (Photo by PASCAL PAVANI / AFP)
Protestors clash with police officers during an anti-government demonstration called by the Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) movement on January 12, 2019. AFP

The Chinese government faces the prospect that celebrations next month to mark the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the People’s Republic of China will play out against a backdrop of civil unrest and violence in the former British colony.

The looming deadline heaps further pressure on the Hong Kong authorities’ attempts to defuse tensions and throws a spotlight on the frontline activities.

The student boycott follows a weekend marred by some of the worst violence since unrest escalated more than three months ago, with protesters burning barricades and throwing petrol bombs, and police retaliating with water cannon, tear gas and batons.

The tactics have marked a shift from decades-old police practices.

“The trouble in Hong Kong stems from a clash of political culture, and the police are just caught in the middle, trying to maintain law and order,” Keith Lomas, chairman of the Royal Hong Kong Police Association, which represents former officers, wrote in an email.

Experts said Hong Kong’s policing model has changed little since 1997 when the British handed over control of the territory to China, under an agreement that enshrined a principle of “one country, two systems”.

China has warned that it has the power to quell protests swiftly if the situation became “uncontrollable” for Hong Kong authorities.

Several editorials in Chinese state media last Monday condemned the protesters. One published by the state news agency Xinhua warned that "the end is coming" for protesters who should “never misjudge the determination and ability of the central government”.

“The Hong Kong police want to get this under control or they may have to cede to the People’s Liberation Army,” said Dr Chris Cocking, principal lecturer at Brighton University and an expert in crowd behaviour.

He said they had ratcheted up their response to the protests more swiftly than in 2014 when pro-democracy protests were largely peaceful. “One of its distinctive tactics is that it has been able to turn all its officers into a public order force in a few hours,” he said.

The force still receives training from Britain, along with China, but not in crowd control, according to the UK’s College of Policing. The UK agency declined to detail in which areas it provides training because of tactical and commercial sensitivity.

But the tactics adopted by police in Hong Kong have been based on long-standing techniques aimed at calming angry crowds that have been put in place in the UK.

Based on the work of psychologists, Britain has introduced police liaison officers to strike up a rapport with protesters during highly-charged confrontations involving heavily protected riot police.

A climate change activist waves a flag as police officers keep watch during the ocupation of the road junction at Oxford Circus in central London on April 19, 2019, the fifth day of an environmental protest by the Extinction Rebellion group. - Undeterred by over 400 arrests, climate change activists continued their demonstration into a fifth day in London with a small protest at the country's main Heathrow Airport, along with the ongoing protest camps at other iconic locations around the British capital. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)
A climate change activist waves a flag as police officers keep watch during the occupation of the road junction at Oxford Circus in central London on April 19, 2019. AFP

The Hong Kong police has used a variation of the tactic – using banners urging protesters to disperse – but the coming together of both sides has been marked by individual acts of violence that have been captured by television cameras.

Chris Greany, a former London police commander who led the investigation into riots in London in 2011, says: “Hopefully at every step along the chain there is a point of negotiation. What you want to do in every conflict is to de-escalate. It feels ultimately that something has to give on all sides.”

Protesters in Hong Kong signalled that they were some distance from compromise. “I think this situation is a deadlock now,” Summer, a 20-year-old student taking part in a demonstration told Reuters. “Both government and protesters won’t back down.”

Updated: September 8, 2019 06:11 PM

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