Police shoot pepper spray at protesters inside a train in Hong Kong, 2019 (Image: AP/Ring Yu)

Every morning of the past week I have woken up to a new video of police violence in Hong Kong.

There was one where police in full riot gear stream into an MTR station and start attacking people on a train — the closing shot is of a couple who have been pepper-sprayed clutching each other as the man screams and screams in pain. There are multiple videos that show large groups of police holding down a single civilian to the floor. “Six strong men to catch a boy,” my friend writes in a follow up message. In one of these videos a young man is lying, face down in the cement, in a pool of blood begging to be let up. He says that one of his teeth has come out.

I was born in Hong Kong. My friend has lived there her whole life. For the last three months we have been in more frequent contact. She tells me what it’s like on the streets, marching for the future of Hong Kong and hoping to get a response to the five key demands that protesters have adopted.

On Wednesday night, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the thing that kicked off the protests all the way back in March. But the response wasn’t one of celebration; the concession was widely seen as too little, too late.

Protesters have now moved on to the other demands which were being very obviously and deliberately overlooked: most visibly, the police violence. They are demanding an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality. But the concern isn’t just coming from Hongkongers; in August, the UN Human Rights Office weighed in on the way police were using weapons and urged restraint.

In Lam’s statement she takes on the demands one by one, then offers four “actions” of her own. She brushes off the demands for amnesty for arrested protesters and the request to not classify the protests as riots. On the demand for universal suffrage she uses a whole lot of words to say nothing at all.

She looks into the camera and says that the classification of whether the last three months have been “protests” or “riots” doesn’t matter. It’s strange, then — if it really doesn’t matter, why not grant protesters this demand too, engender some goodwill? In her next breath she addresses the demand for “dropping charges against protesters and rioters and shelving prosecutions”. The use of the word “rioters” can’t help but feel like a jab. The statement is littered with little digs like this. She uses phrases like “I have explained” and “is not acceptable” often enough that it feels like a scolding. 

It is Lam’s response to the protesters’ demand for an independent commission of inquiry into police violence, however, that is the most disappointing and ominous. In her Wednesday night statement she doesn’t entertain the idea for a second, saying that the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) is already looking into it — that they exist for this very reason. She has since doubled down on this at a subsequent press conference. 

As pointed out in this open letter from June, published by Amnesty International, the protesters won’t be satisfied by an IPCC investigation:

“Between 2004 and 2018, CAPO [Complaints Against Police Office] received 6412 complaints alleging police assault. Only four cases were substantiated by CAPO, while over half of the cases were dismissed without actionable conclusions. Between 2010 and 2018, among all of the cases on police misconduct substantiated by the IPCC, the police responded by referring only one case for prosecution, while officers in the majority of cases were only given ‘advice’.”

In the letter they specifically ask for an independent commission not run by the IPCC. It’s hardly surprising given the IPCC’s history. It is also perhaps not as independent as its name would suggest — CAPO is the branch of the police that oversees complaints, and IPCC is the civilian group that oversees them. Who decides who is on the IPCC though? The chief executive. 

There’s a moment of hope at the end of Lam’s eight-minute statement. “Fellow citizens,” she says, “lingering violence is damaging the very foundations of our society…” For a second I think she is finally going to acknowledge the reality of the situation — the disproportionate response of the police; the use of tear gas in MTR stations, affecting people not involved in the protests; the woman who almost lost an eye. Then, she finishes her sentence: “… Especially the rule of law.”

There has been violence on both sides. It’s true. But, from what Hong Kong’s chief executive has said, it seems likely only one side is going to be penalised for it. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey