After ten weeks of protests, the tension in Hong Kong between citizens and police is palpable. The former British colony once had a constabulary lauded as one of the best in the world. But those days seem long gone.
Today, after a series of controversial clashes and arrests, the force is the subject of intense criticism for their alleged excessive use of force, their failure to act against pro-Beijing mobs, and the use of tear gas to disperse crowds on occasions when restraint might have been wiser.
Many realize, of course, that the police currently have the worst job in the city – caught in the middle of a bitter ideological divide between elderly communist leaders and young pro-democracy activists, with entrenched support on either side.
On Wednesday night, police fired tear-gas again at a relatively peaceful group of several hundred protesters who had gathered near Sham Shui Po subway station in Kowloon to burn offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
According to the Chinese calendar, Wednesday was ‘Hungry Ghost Night’, when the realms of heaven and hell open and ghosts roam the earth. The Chinese make effort to appease the ghosts and ancestors by burning joss paper and incense on the streets.
Local residents and young protesters joined a gathering to burn joss paper, some of them with joss money printed with images of the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and police chief Stephen Lo.
A woman explained the unusual offering by saying: “We need to give this to police because they are as evil as ghosts,” Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
They chanted a slogan against the police and shined laser lights at the local police station, but there was nothing to suggest protesters had any other action in mind. But this relatively harmless gathering saw further rounds of tear gas flying into local streets while residents enjoyed this old ghostly tradition.
Many of the elderly and children were forced to leave the area – coughing and with eyes red from the tear gas. Commuters were also affected inside Sham Shui Po MTR station.
Video showed the police firing tear gas canisters in directions where no protesters were seen on the streets.
More rallies planned
Such is the mood in Hong Kong. Indeed, the city is bracing for another weekend of large-scale marches and rallies to protest against excessive use of force by the police after chaotic scenes at the airport and other dramas which have sparked a serious public backlash.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized two massive-scale anti-extradition marches in June, has called on Hong Kong people to assemble again for a peaceful march on Sunday, while a student group and citizens on the online forum LIHKG will organize a rally together on Friday night.
The Civil Human Rights Front has sought permission to stage its sixth protest at 2.30pm on Sunday at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, with a march to Chater Garden in Central. It wants to highlight alleged police brutality and “collusion with triads.” The police force has yet to give their request a green light.
Permission to stage other marches related to the now-suspended extradition bill in places such as Yuen Long, Tsuen Wan, Tai Po and Sham Shui Po was denied in recent weeks, but people still showed up and marched on the streets, which led to clearance operations and clashes between officials and protesters.
Public anger seemed to reach boiling point on Monday after news emerged of officers firing tear gas in an MTR station and a woman shot in the eye with suspected bean-bag round from close range.
That led to thousands of protesters staging a sit-in at Hong Kong airport, which blocked people from getting on flights on Monday and Tuesday. This drew the attention of world leaders, and US President Donald Trump even linking a trade deal to “humane treatment” for protesters in Hong Kong.
The Human Rights Front has stressed that its proposed march on Sunday would be conducted in a peaceful, rational and non-violent manner.
To try to regain support from the general public, they have asked that people not wear protective gear such as helmets, goggles or facemasks. And they say there should be no occupation of roads or throwing objects.
Occupy Central founder
Benny Tai Yiu-ting, founder of the Occupy Central movement, said on Thursday he was proud to be standing with anti-extradition bill protesters, who have “sacrificed themselves to defend Hong Kong’s core value”.
Tai – one of the nine leaders jailed on public nuisance charges for participating in the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement – was granted bail pending an appeal for his conviction over leading the Occupy Central Movement in 2014.
Tai said he was sure Hong Kong could get through its current difficulties because there are so many citizens willing to do things for the city, which showed their love for the place. He refused to talk about recent violence at the airport, saying he needed more information before speaking on that.
Asked if he will join the march on Sunday, the legal scholar said he would spend more time with his family first.
Call for UK, US support
Meanwhile, a student group – Hong Kong Higher Institution International Affairs Delegation – and citizens from the online forum LIHKG named “Stand With Hong Kong” plan to stage a rally at 8pm on Friday in Chater Garden in Central. They want the British and US governments to take action against forces suppressing people’s rights and freedom in Hong Kong.
They say the UK should declare that China has breached the 1984 Sino-British Joint-Declaration, a binding international treaty. They also asked the US Congress and UK parliament to enact legalization imposing sanctions on individuals responsible for the suppression of rights and freedom in Hong Kong.
Police have given a ‘no objection’ letter to the rally proposal, and even said they will help to block the road if there are a lot of participants join in.
The two groups hope that foreign countries will stop selling weapons to the police and will cancel exchange activities with the city’s law enforcers.
Students and a group of online citizens are organizing a rally in Central on Friday. Photo: Facebook
Later on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s much-criticized government offered a large package of economic measures to alleviate people’s burdens amid this stressful time, when protests have hit tourism and the economy hard.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan announced HK$19 billion (US$2.44 bn) worth of tax cuts and other measures in a move many say is a bid to ease public discontent.
But Chan said the move aimed “to tackle the current economic difficulties and the coming economic headwind. It is not related to the political difficulties that we are facing.”
Over 1.3 million taxpayers will have all taxes waived this financial year, while a similar number will share HK$1.84 billion in savings.
People getting welfare for old age or disabilities will also get an extra monthly payment, while tenants on low incomes in public housing will have their rents waived for one month.
Meanwhile, households will get an electricity subsidy of HK$2,000 each, and all kindergartens and schools will receive a subsidy of HK$2,500 in the next academic year.