The Gap Between the PLA and HKPF is an Order to Shoot

A recurring them one comes across reading about British thinking about Hong Kong is how vulnerable they felt. In World War II, for instance, the British and Commonwealth forces collapsed in the New Territories and Kowloon just two after Japanese soldiers began their assault. The negotiations that led to the Joint Declaration are riddled with threats lobbed by the Chinese that they could simply take Hong Kong back by force in a day or two whenever the British pushed too hard on democratization. They took the threats seriously, by all appearances.

I recently came across an essay written in July by someone taking the pseudonym Philadora that reminds us that the British felt the same way about their own population. Because there weren’t enough soldiers stationed in Hong Kong to put down a revolt, and nothing like a national guard nearby to call upon, they transformed the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) into a paramilitary organization. One might call it a crypto-gendarmerie. What Hong Kongers experienced from 1968 to 2014 was a police force acting out its public-facing – most presumed only – mission of law enforcement. Scratch away at the surface, as we’ve been doing since mid-June, and one finds that it was an organization trained and designed to respond as a paramilitary force in exactly this kind of situation.

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Many of us have been saying the city is a ‘police state’ or under de facto martial law for some time. Philadora lays out six ‘facts’ to support his case that Hong Kong is already a ‘military government.’ What follows is not a direct translation of the original essay. Instead, I pull key points and analyses from an essay that often delves into too much speculation and condescension. The six ‘facts’ are contexts that, when taken together, paint one of the best descriptions for what we’ve been seeing on the streets in Hong Kong since June.

The first ‘fact’ addresses the demographic composition of HKPF in comparison to the rest of the population. He correctly points out a fact about Hong Kong that I’ve seen repeated many times but never contextualized or explained: Hong Kong has one of the highest police per capita in Asia with 30,000 officers policing 7.4 million people. Singapore, in contrast, has only 9,000 full-time officers policing 5.6 million people. One key difference is that Singapore has an army of 72,000 it can call up in addition to 31,000 auxiliary units.

These 30,000 full-time officers provide the Hong Kong government with a large and loyal police force, though of questionable quality. HKPF recruits from a segment of the population that, on average, fared poorly in Hong Kong’s education system. The government offered them a stable career path and a middle-class salary that would be attractive even to a Hong Kong University graduate. Anecdotally, they recruit people from socio-economic backgrounds who have a “law of the jungle” mentality and enjoy using force to look and feel powerful. However, I would nuance this to add that the police we see chasing, beating, and shooting at protesters are a self-selecting group of people.   

The second ‘fact’ is that the 30,000-strong force is all trained in Police Tactical Unit (PTU) methods. This is to say that while we think of PTU as an ‘elite’ paramilitary unit, every police officer in Hong Kong has been trained to use live ammunition, less-than-lethal weapons, and deploy in riot gear for crowd control. The section concludes by arguing that because every police officer in Hong Kong is armed, “the only gap between the PLA and HKPF is a single order start shooting.”

A retired HKPF veteran acknowledged not only this training but plans on the book for Force Mobilization (FORMOB):

There is a playbook for escalating the posture of the force – it’s the well-resourced and tested Force mobilisation plan… virtually the whole organisation goes on an anti-riot footing. The auxiliary duties get activated with all officers working 12-hour shifts. Regular policing is limited to emergencies and major crimes.

SCMP article on police morale

The third ‘fact’ is that the lack of institutional checks over the Hong Kong Police Force. The complaint referral system is entirely internal. Hong Kong’s famed independent anti-corruption organization, ICAC, is largely toothless against the scathing critiques now being lodged against HKPF officers and commanders. Only the most extreme transgressions where officers are identifiable and the evidence is made public are ever prosecuted. Even then sentences are light or reduced and officers are rewarded with donations.

Philadora goes so far as to argue that the Commissioner of Police is more powerful than any political leader in Hong Kong and describes what an academic would call a principal-agent problem. Nobody can make the Commissioner of Police do anything they don’t want to, just as the Commissioner of Police can decide not to do things the government wishes. He cites the break-in at LegCo, one of the most perplexing incidents of the entire anti-Extradition Bill movement, as an example. The argument presented is one I’ve heard from someone who was there: the police let it happen. The first-hand account I heard is that photos were going around showing LegCo packed with thousands of police who all abandoned their posts.

The argument moves from here to something I’ve long thought too: Carrie Lam isn’t protecting the police, she went to the police for protection on June 12th. The overall dynamic presented by Philadora is one of a protection racket. The reason an independent investigation is a red line for both police and Carrie Lam is that conceding on this would, in effect, be turning on the very people she turned to for help. Police have said as much themselves, saying things like “Carrie Lam would have been lynched without us.”

The fourth ‘fact’ is HKPF’s privileged position within the Hong Kong SAR government. For the police, “the law is a tool for governing citizens” but is “at most a code of reference” for them. They’ve been caught using a backdoor into the Hospital Authority network (and left their hospital stations in protest to the reaction), they openly criticize the judicial system, and individual officers are given complete discretion in how to use their less-than-lethal weapons. They are suspected of throwing Molotov cocktails as undercover agents, vandalizing MTR stations, and a recent video from Tai Po shows a police van doing donuts at an intersection nearly hitting protesters. Against regulation, they all stopped wearing warrant cards this summer to make individual complaints impossible.

The fifth point is that previously has been one important check on HKPF: police have been prohibited from unionizing since the colonial-era. An organization that already has so much power and impunity would become a ‘shadow government’ were they able to go on strike as well. Philadora aptly notes that this safeguard has been shattered. Staring on July 15th, police organizations have been issuing statements that implicitly threaten to stand down or go on strike if demands aren’t met.

In that first case, they invoked “mental health” and suggested that police shouldn’t be sent to the frontlines without more weapons and equipment. Another letter garnered a quick retraction and apology from Chief Secretary Mathew Cheung when he empathized with citizens outraged by police behavior on the night of July 21st. More worryingly, we learned after the first protester was shot by police that police guidelines on lethal use of force had been changed the night before the incident. This was, again, preceded by a letter from the Junior Police Officers’ Association demanding such a change.

The final ‘fact’ concerns what the author describes as the ‘militarization’ of HKPF, by which the author means there is no civilian oversight over HKPF. John Lee, a former Deputy Commissioner of Police, was appointed Secretary of Secretary when Lam came to office. The bureaucracy managing HKPF is itself run by a cop

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To wit, what we see today is the result of organizational structures, plans, and training that the British colonial regime built into the DNA of the modern Hong Kong Police Force. The force is as large as it because HKPF was designed as a police force, national guard, and gendarmerie rolled into a single organization. The generous salary and benefits the Hong Kong government provides to people with few education credentials create a very loyal workforce (or at least make quitting and alternate career routes very difficult).

They’ve long enjoyed virtually no institutional check on their power and ex-HKPF officers now run their administrative bureaucracy. During a crisis of legitimacy like this, the Commissioner of Police is clearly more powerful than the Chief Executive. Below him, however, groups like the Junior Police Officers’ Association representing frontline officers are making demands of both HKPF and the government with implicit threats to strike. Their demands are usually met within a day or two, even if it involves changing the use of lethal force guidelines without notifying the public. Ultimately, if setting thousands of ‘feral’ cops loose to beat, gas, and shoot a hostile public into submission seems like it comes from a different era – because that’s exactly what we’re seeing.

I am also persuaded by the argument that there’s little need to send the PLA in because HKPF, in all it’s brutality, is fit for purpose as an instrument of repression. Both the People’s Armed Police and HKPF have the means to execute an order to begin firing live ammunition into frontlines. There are reasons to think even that won’t be necessary. Two recently acquired water cannons, which have yet to be put to full use, are available when HKPF or Beijing to decide that they’re ready to accept risk the escalation that comes with dozens of critical injuries and deaths. Frontliners and entire streets could be cleared in minutes with those canons.

Of final note is an uncertainty about what to call our current political situation were we to assume all the arguments presented are true. One of the limits on HKPF’s power is a judiciary that still demands certain evidentiary standards, grants bail, and has largely chosen not to impose draconian maximum sentences on arrested protesters. Tens of thousands of protesters would likely be detained in camps by now were this a ‘real’ or full police state without the rule-of-law still prevails in Hong Kong inside courtrooms.

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