Hong Kong’s police force has softened its stance after labeling last Wednesday’s clashes between officers and protesters as a “riot.” The change came after an estimated two million people demonstrated on Sunday demanding the Chief Executive and police drop the term riot, among other demands.

Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung met with the media on Monday night and said that of the 15 people arrested for alleged violent offenses, five were riot-related. Another 17 were arrested for other alleged crimes such as loitering and failing to produce an identity card.

Lo downplayed the protest at the Legislative Council building which he earlier classified as a riot, after pro-government camps changed their stance amid the increasing anger among Hong Kong people towards the alleged excessive force used by police on the young protesters.

Lo said people who took part in the peaceful demonstration need not worry about being charged with rioting.

“There were clashes outside the Legislative Council and we saw rioting. I didn’t say people who gathered on Harcourt Road took part in rioting,” Lo said. “We are not saying the whole public event was a riot. Most protesters were peaceful.”

On the night of June 12, the police chief said in a press conference and a statement issued by the police force that the clashes at the LegCo building was being classified as ‘riot’ and it was echoed by chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in a statement and video on the same night, where she said: “Clearly, this is no longer a peaceful assembly but a blatant, organized riot, and in no way an act of loving Hong Kong.”

Lo repeated the ‘riot’ label on June 13, saying the police force classed it as a ‘riot’ at 3:30 pm when the clashes happened. Two days later, the Chief Executive did not change her stance and agreed with the police classification of a “riot” at her press conference.

The police chief also came under fire after being repeatedly asked whether he would apologize to protesters for labeling them rioters, but he refrained from giving any concrete answers.

Noting that the threshold for prosecuting anyone with rioting was high, Lo explained that the police would have to gather sufficient evidence and seek advice from the Department of Justice before such a charge could be made.

According to Public Order Ordinance, when any person taking part in an unlawful assembly – when three or more persons assemble together and conduct themselves in a disorderly and intimidating manner intended or likely to cause a breach of the peace – the assembly is a riot and the persons assembled are riotously assembled.

Any person who takes part in a riot shall be guilty of the offense of rioting and shall be liable to a sentence of up to 10 years in jail.

In 2016, clashes erupted during the Lunar New Year holiday after a dispute over the clearance of food vendors in Kowloon’s Mong Kok area. In pitched street battles, mobs attacked police officers with bricks and sticks. About 30 people were charged with rioting, including Hong Kong independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei, who was jailed for six years.

Meanwhile, the police had been heavily criticized as a large number of photos and video clips surfaced on social media showing riot police using batons, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds against protesters in situations where the officers did not appear to be threatened.

A clip that went viral on Monday night showed a group of protesters gathered in front of Citic Tower on Tim Mei Avenue, which was zoned as a lawful assembly point, being forced to retreat when riot police fired cans of tear gas into the crowd.

The video clip showed that only one glass door out of three into the commercial building was opened. Protesters rushed into the building in panic, trying to escape the tear gas.

Witnesses accused the police of trying to create a stampede, adding that the tactic the police used could have killed a lot of protesters in the circumstances.

Other footage showed protesters and journalists being roughed up or pepper-sprayed for no apparent reason, or officers shouting verbal abuse.

Refuting charges that the police might have used excessive force, Lo said it was up to commanders at the scene, who used their professional judgment to see what kind of weapons should be used. He reiterated that the measures taken were “appropriate” for officers to enforce the law and deal with the situation.

Police fired about 150 cans of tear gas, several rubber bullets and 20 bean bag bullets during the operation on Wednesday.

“If anybody thinks my colleagues had any wrongdoings, they may pass the information to the Complaints Against Police Office.”

However, from the video clips and photos, the riot police did not wear any police warrant cards or show their identification numbers. The protesters questioned how could they identify officers and file complaints.

Protesters rush to Citic Tower as police fire cans of tear gas from behind. Photo: YouTube