Serving with pride and care? 170 years of the Hong Kong Police Force

After standing off against protesters at Occupy Central a new dynamic exists between the public and its lawmen, but its outcome is uncertain. Time Out investigates
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On June 7, 1989, I made the front page of every Chinese newspaper worldwide,” says Mick Flanders, with deliberate poise. Flanders – not his real name – joined the Hong Kong Police Force in 1983 and is due to retire in the next four months. His 31 years of service have taken him through plenty of groundbreaking moments in the city’s formation, from 1984’s Sino-British declaration and the handover in 1997 to the recent Occupy protests, which have presented the force with one of its biggest challenges to date. 


Flanders was in our city during the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre – an event that shocked 1.5 million Hongkongers into taking to the streets. The protests were largely peaceful but there were flashpoints – and Flanders, a chief inspector in the force, was papped at one of the scenes. “The image was taken when I was part of a police tactical unit fighting a riot in Mong Kok,” he says. “The riot had been instigated by the Communist party and patriotic Triads. It had all been building up for months. We dealt with it with old-style policing – short, sharp tactics. Not the hand-to-hand combat you see nowadays.”

Flanders’ brief but widespread encounter with the media during the Tiananmen fallout in Hong Kong highlights the huge impact on the public that our police make when it comes to dealing with the sporadic-yet-critical protests and political events that have shaped the city over the past two centuries. Nowadays, of course, officers are documented by thousands of smartphone cameras and every wrong move is a potential PR pitfall. But this wasn’t always the case. The force in Hong Kong has a long history. In fact, 2014 marks its 170th anniversary, making it one of the city’s oldest institutions. 

Forming a force

Hong Kong Police 1890s

It was 1841 when Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer rst raised the Union Jack at Possession Point. The First Opium War between Britain and China was ongoing and crime was spiralling out of control. Gambling dens, brothels and opium dealers were springing up in Hong Kong as quickly as the population who used them expanded. The watchmen who walked the streets at night, banging gongs to keep away bad spirits and miscreants, just weren’t enough.

In response to the messy situation, The Colonial Police Force was of cially born on May 1, 1844. Back then, there were only 32 of cers serving a population of around 20,000 people. They had a pretty rough start but, in only a few short decades, the force, led rst by Charles May and into the 20th century by Francis Henry May, had signi cantly curbed crime in the booming city, as well as helping to eradicate the deadly plague that struck in the 1890s.

After many of the serving of officers were killed during the Second World War, the force had to experience a rebirth. With numbers diminished, facilities destroyed and Triads running the streets after the Japanese occupation, it was a tall order for Commissioner Duncan MacIntosh, who was appointed in 1946. In the following few years, a million refugees poured over the border from Shenzhen, eeing the Chinese Civil War. Riots broke out amid political clashes between the new arrivals, and looters and Triads revelled in the violence. As a direct result, the Police Tactical Unit was formed in 1958.

Communists and collateral

Hong Kong Police

The political unrest was a precursor of what was to come only a decade later. In 1966, a seemingly innocuous five cent rise on the Star Ferry fee set off four nights of rioting in Kowloon. In the following spring, thousands of pro-Communists marched on Government House, waving copies of Mao’s Little Red Book in the air. Many months of severe unrest followed. Crowds were broken up with tear gas, homemade bombs were found almost daily and there were multiple deaths on all sides, including a young girl and her brother who were killed by a bomb while playing in North Point.

John Moray-Sykes – not his real name either – joined the Colonial Police Service in 1962. He was posted to the frontier division in Sha Tau Kok between 1966 and 1968. There were many con icts on the border in this period amid genuine concern that China would invade Hong Kong. 

Moray-Sykes recalls one big skirmish with Communists over the border in the summer of 1967 – one of several that year. “I’m guessing it was around 10am, he says. “Everything was quiet besides the screaming of obscenities. But [the Communists] suddenly opened up with a machine gun and it sprayed our police post. The police officer behind our gun got a bullet right through his head and a Pakistani officer was also fatally wounded. Five officers were killed that day. They were my men, you know. One of them was the police hockey team goalkeeper.” In 1969, the Queen conferred the title of Royal Hong Kong Police upon the force as a reward for their handling of the 1967 riots – a title they kept until 1997.

However, despite the bravery and determination of the force in the 60s, corruption was still rampant at that time of huge social and political change. “Back in the 60s and 70s, people would try to stay on [the police’s] good side,” says Terry Chow – again, not his real name – a serving police officer. “They’d pass [the police] a gift while thanking them for their protection.” 

One retired superintendent, Tom Sandt – not his real name – recalls the system. “We had the occasional crime report – or we would have done if the intending complainants had not usually been intercepted in the lobby by a lurking CID man,” he says. “The complainants were usually to be seen leaving a while later having received ‘compensation’ from CID!”

Corruption had in fact been rampant in every echelon of society for a long time – ‘tea money’ was required to get anything done, even to call out the fire brigade. When Chief Police Superintendent Peter Godber, a hero of the 1967 riots, came under investigation in 1974 for corruption, he quietly vanished from the city. This led to mass protests and, ultimately, the inception of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. It wasn’t long before matters started to improve.

Training for the handover

Hong Kong Police

During the later colonial period, the police prided itself on tough training. “It was basically the toughest training in
the world,” says Flanders. “If you could get through the nine months of physical and academic training, you were pretty exceptional. When I joined the force, only one out of 2,000 applicants was successful. It was really tough.”

Interestingly, however, it wasn’t always the case. Moray-Sykes trained in the early 1960s. “When we arrived in Hong Kong it was all a joke,” he says. “You could even have a bootboy to do your boots! Morning PT was optional – it wasn’t supposed to be but they just didn’t care. We let this be known, I think. We said ‘this is daft’ and they’d tell us ‘you can’t get the young Chinese boys to put up with this sort of discipline’. But I think it was because of us that they had to clean it up. After us, they had to clean their own boots – and they didn’t have such an easy time.”

As the outlook and nature of Hong Kong changed, so too did the force. The handover was confirmed in 1984, marking the onset of a new era. And, as 1997 loomed, the force dropped its ‘Royal’ title and there was another shift in demographics and culture. “At that point you had the old people like me, with a great sense of pride and loyalty because we’ve been looked after,” explains Flanders, “and you’ve got the new modern generation of police officers coming up through the ranks who have been accelerated on the promotion path due to their age and the fact there was a lack of recruitment for a number of years. In 1997 alone, 900 expat officers left.” 

Post-97

No longer ‘Royal’, no longer a service under colonial rule – what next for the Hong Kong Police Force? As the paramilitary mentality was phased out, the force’s primary role shifted from rule of law enforcement to that of a service industry. But a rift opened – the city was still in the early days of embracing the new standard of ‘one country, two systems’, one which faced a considerable amount of resistance by the public and would, of course, continue to do so for many years to come. Thus the divide between the new force – one which was largely seen as now being directed by Mainland political pressure – and the public ever-widened. “It’s true that, since 1997, there has been invasive politicisation, especially among the senior local officers who have been groomed and trained in Beijing,” admits Flanders. “But the force has also become the butt of all discontent against successive administrations post-97. And that has been difficult for us.”

The handover also led to new tactical and training measures, which in turn resulted in a two-tier force – those serving under the pre-97 regime and those disciplined in the new service-industry model. The hierarchy of the recruitment process became dominated with theory-based sections, such as leadership training and a psychometric test, which, enforced in 2010, assessed personality traits. A former auxiliary constable, Rocky Wong, joined in 2008 and resigned in 2010. He, along with other classmates at the time, signed up when force members came to his university to recruit young blood after a rise in veteran retirements. “We had three months of intensive training and then we could take shifts regularly, so I’d do weekends,” he says. “Physical training wasn’t a huge part of it – it was mainly laws and regulations. I joined because I’ve always wanted to help people. But I have to admit, a lot of my friends just joined because of the good pay.” Many of his friends went on to become officials in the force. Currently a constable is paid between $19,545 and $31,265 a month. A senior inspector can earn up to $69,245.

Pre-97 officers and inspectors have been disappointed by this relatively new turn in the way the force is run. “Everyone is treated with kid gloves,” says Flanders, “and the modern generation of young inspectors are frankly of a totally different calibre. They get told off and they burst into tears. The new force doesn’t have enough backbone to say ‘sorry, our role is to uphold the rule of law’. As Deng Xiaoping said, ‘if one nail out of 100 stands out, it gets hit with a hammer’.”

Terry Chow, who only joined the force two years ago, has a different, more sympathetic view on the shift, one that addresses the psychosociological changes within the industry and in society. “In the academy,” he says, “they’d tell you that when you’re facing people, you can’t just use excessive force. If you did, there would be hell to pay from your superiors, let’s not even mention the public. That was our fear – that we would be guilty of excessive violence. On the job, there were situations when we’d see illegal activity but we couldn’t really do much about it. For some reason, it seemed as if we were always the ones in the wrong, even though all we were doing was trying to manage the illegal activities going on.” 

Since the handover, specialised cases – the 2003 outbreak of SARS being one, as the force is called upon to help carry out quarantine and evacuation plans – and ever-present underlying community conflicts like youth drug abuse and syndicated crime have been addressed, but on a daily basis the force’s focus has swung on servitude to the public. Instead of busting grimy human trafficking or drug rings, police take calls from those reporting data theft or are asked to come in to ‘break up traffic’. This is both an indication of a more peaceful society as well as greater demands from the public. While reported violent crimes dropped from 20,508 in 2004 to 18,227 in 2013, cases of deception – internet fraud, tax evasion – rose from 6,158 in 2004 to 11,103 in 2013. “I don’t even understand why people report quite a lot of these stupid things,” says Chow. “The police would be called over a private squabble. It was ridiculous. Things were different before. Right up until 1997, in their glory days, the police really garnered a lot of respect, a lot of authority. People worshipped them. The mob feared them. But now, there’s been a reversal. The citizens have all the power. All we can do is help where we can – and sometimes that means standing there while people swear at us.”

Sitting ducks then, and targets for public ‘abuse’. But despite this – and whispers of Mainland political governing – relatively few challenges since 1997 have meant the city has remained pretty much unrocked. The force, it’s been assumed, has had a good handle on its two-tier system, as well as its transparent ties to the PRC. Post-97, its public image has been a relatively good one.

But that was until Occupy Central...

An unlawful assembly

Hong Kong Police

Inside the Admiralty protest area, on October 28, a young fresh-faced student is making a placard in preparation for the one-month anniversary of the demonstrations. In large black letters she scrawls ‘Never forget 928’, echoing a commemorative slogan used to reflect on instances of mass genocide or tragedies – the Holocaust, 9/11 and 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre. The ‘928’ refers to the rst incident in which police volleyed teargas cannisters into crowds – September 28. “My friends were teargassed,” says the young protester. “One was pepper-sprayed in the Lung Wo tunnel. I don’t understand why the police did this. Aren’t they supposed to protect us, not beat us?”

Elsewhere, at one of the hundreds of the Alliance for Peace and Democracy ‘blue ribbon’ booths stationed outside shops, schools and MTR stops around the city, Fung Kim-tang is collecting signatures for a petition to support the police and stop the protest. There are about 1.8 million signatures, all collected between October 25 and November 2. “We want the police to recover our normal lives,” says Fung, stressing that it’s been difficult to travel and resume usual daily routines with the protests happening. “Some people’s lives have completely been destroyed by the occupation. I don’t like the violence [towards the protesters] but I understand what they’re doing. We want to support the police so they can recover the roads.”

It seems that along with exposing ugly sentiments in class divisions and capital imbalance, Occupy has also snapped a thread between the public and the force that has long been unravelling since 1997. The once ‘apolitical’ police are now viewed as a bargaining chip – masked enemies to the protesters, heroes with the power to enforce the law by anti-Occupy parties, and a cover shield by the government and CY Leung, who stated in an interview with TVB that eld commanders ordered the tear gas on September 28, but he was involved in the decision to curb its use.

Within the force, however, one opinion is clear: Occupy Central is the biggest challenge, physically and psychologically, that the current generation of officers have ever faced. As we go to print, 324 individuals have been arrested in the past month, casualties are in the hundreds – including police officers – and more than a thousand complaints have been received about the force’s handling of Occupy, the highest numbers relating to ‘unnecessary use of authority’. On one hand, the police are struggling to allow themselves to be seen as both military-trained professionals and, at the same time, as negotiators of peace. A schizophrenic flip from bad-cop to good-cop. 

“There’s a gradual continuum of the force we are trained to use. Negotiate, tear gas, baton, pepper spray,” says Flanders. “If you tie the force’s hands behind its back, it’s going to go horribly wrong. People misunderstand why we have tear gas. It’s not to punish. It’s not to injure. It’s to disperse the crowd in one direction away from the gas so they clear the area.” Flanders clarifies that, on September 28, an exit strategy was not properly cleared for protesters. Terry Chow agrees: “In my opinion, the use of tear gas was
too quick.”

Many in the force are suffering from fatigue and stress, it’s claimed, which in some cases has led to demoralisation. In a written statement by Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok, it has been noted that ‘since the onset of Occupy Central, the police have received requests for psychological counselling from a total of five police officers’. And despite some in the media criticising the force for keeping quiet over the seven policemen who appeared to be beating up a civil servant in Tamar Park last month, the officers we speak to are more than vocal about the incident. “Honestly, those men made a serious mistake,” says Chow. “But, to me, they just cracked under the pressure. If you’re in this job, then something like Occupy Central will make you think ‘why do we have to stand and watch while the citizens are allowed to do all these things?’ They are breaking the law. Are we supposed to just let them occupy whatever they want, whenever they want?”

Perry Lau, a civil servant closely involved with the force, says he’s saddened more than angry. “We expected that even during a protest, we would respect each other. If you want to protest, that’s fine,” he says. “But my colleagues and I asked: why do you need to humiliate the police in the process? Why search our cars? Aren’t we people too? Some of my colleagues were sobbing as they asked.” And Rocky Wong, although he still has dreams of joining the force again despite leaving in 2010 due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’, speaks of one incident that chilled him. “I saw with my own eyes as a girl fell down in the Lung Wo tunnel,” he says. “She wanted to get back up and run but a police officer caught her and battered her. I still believe in the force as protectors of our society. But in that very incident, that moment, I was very angry.”

The beat goes on...

Hong Kong Police
Photo: Daniel Lee

So, 170 years of operations and the image of professionalism and intelligence that was built over the years for the public – all seemingly destroyed in just one month. Amazingly, though, many policemen and women on the frontlines of Occupy have said that the protests have actually drawn them closer together. “I would say that the sense of solidarity in the police force has increased,” says Lau. “Everyone feels more united. I feel it myself. Why? Because when I see them suffering and I give them a thumbs up, they are just so happy to have the support. There’s a sense that everyone just wants to deal with this as best they can. They want to show the world that they are professionals and that they are a good police force.” Recently the police PR bureau released a series of videos championing the force in action, perhaps aiming to win back public respect. Despite this, investigations are still ongoing with regards to the policemen suspected of excessive force in Tamar Park, and with the media and public eye trained firmly on the force’s next move, the women and men in blue face rocky times ahead. Even Lau has a few sombre conclusive words. “To tell the truth, I think policemen in the future will have a difficult time,” he says with a sigh. “Going back to any relationship where you know there’s a crack... even if you repair it, the scar will always be there.”

We tried to be apolitical but now, because of the protest, you’re either pro-police or anti-police,” says Flanders. “There are no winners here. Absolutely no winners.”

Additional reporting by Judd Boaz, Lisa Cam, Layla Ho and Jessica Li. Upon request, all names of those interviewed have been changed.

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