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The strain of endless shifts and vilification by various elements on both sides of the political divide have damaged police morale.

Political impasse is putting Hong Kong police under unfair pressure

Steve Vickers says the police have so far done their duty admirably in the face of mass rallies, but they cannot be expected to hold the line indefinitely. A political solution must be found

Hong Kong is now in its fourth week of intense political and, to a lesser extent, civil disorder. This period is among the most significant in the city's recent history, bearing comparison only with the 2003 protests in terms of its political importance.

Despite the situation being entirely political in nature, however, the Hong Kong and mainland governments have been content, at least until very recently, to leave the only direct contact with the protesters to the police. This stance is a striking abdication of responsibility, and its consequences have proved to be very predictable.

The police force has come under crushing pressure to manage an immensely volatile situation. The strain of endless shifts, vilification by various elements on both sides of the political divide, and little thanks have damaged morale - especially among the junior officers working hard on the streets. The force finds itself trying to hold the line in the midst of a political stalemate that is not of its making.

Worse, a number of incidents have weakened confidence in the police leadership. First, the force's public relations department failed to explain swiftly and clearly why police officers used tear gas on September 28 - a tool much less likely to cause injury than batons and charges. Unfortunately, this lapse galvanised large numbers of previously uninvolved Hong Kong people to join the demonstrations spontaneously, so as to act against police brutality - at least as they saw it.

A serious consequence seems to have been a panicked blanket ban by the government on the use of tear gas altogether. This hurried decision has, in turn, forced the hard-pressed police to rely on close-quarter tools such as batons and shields in hand-to-hand tussles with protesters in Mong Kok - leading to predictable casualties on both sides, a resultant escalation of violence, and a raft of photographs damaging to Hong Kong's image.

A second, perhaps more serious, own goal was an alleged assault on protester Ken Tsang Kin-chiu that was caught on camera and broadcast on TVB; the images added considerable fuel to the flames, and further undermined trust between the police and the protesters. There can be no doubt that these incidents have directly affected the tactical public relations war against the police, and, by extension, the Hong Kong government.

However, on the other side of the ledger, it is clear that the bulk of the Hong Kong public is squarely behind their police force - "warts and all". Ordinary people can see that the apolitical force is caught uncomfortably between a protest movement - which started off as a peaceful civil disobedience campaign, but which is now morphing into something more ugly and extreme - and elements both within Hong Kong and on the mainland intent on bringing that campaign to an end.

It is also clear that ordinary people have had enough of the cycle of demonstrations and disruption, not to mention the increasing violence on the streets, especially in Mong Kok. Indeed, the police have already had to contend with triad thugs paid for and organised by murky forces, thugs who see the attacks on protesters as a chance to further their own agendas. Emotive allegations that the police were in some way colluding with these elements are simply not borne out by the facts.

The involvement of triad societies has created a different problem, however, which will require attention in the longer term. The government and police must now take action against the upper echelons of those triad societies that have become far too prominent since the 1997 handover - or contend with a rise in criminality that presents a new threat to Hong Kong.

For now, the police must concentrate on holding the line. Failure to do so will invite the mainland security apparatus to intervene overtly. Fortunately, the risk of any such action is still remote, notwithstanding claims that foreign forces are behind the protests. But Hong Kong's security, and future, is still more precarious than at any time for several decades; stability, and the status quo, should not be taken for granted.

The governments in Tamar and Beijing must both understand that the Hong Kong police cannot be expected to hold the line indefinitely - on multiple fronts and between different factions. The strain may prove too great, and further missteps could follow, which in turn would simply stoke tensions on the street. The greatest threat in the coming weeks is thus that agitators on either side become more desperate or emboldened, acting against a backdrop of waning public support. In short, the absence of a political solution heightens the risk of a downward spiral.

So, no, our police are neither angels nor demons. The young men and women at the front line are, by contrast, the very best protection we have in the face of intractable political issues and bad faith among politicians on all sides. Indeed, those politicians could learn much from the selflessness and dedication of these police officers.

Under the present rules of engagement, however, and without a political settlement, they will not be able to hold the line forever.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Under pressure