Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Martin Purbrick
by Martin Purbrick

What lessons can be learned from the Hong Kong police’s handling of the 2019 protests?

  • Hong Kong can be a case study for other societies of what can happen when police hold excessive powers and there is insufficient oversight
  • Has the force paid a high price in terms of public trust and accountability?
The discovery of a senior assistant commissioner of police inside a suspected vice establishment in Wan Chai has raised concerns regarding both the integrity of such a senior officer and the processes that the Hong Kong Police Force use to impartially investigate such incidents.
The public reaction has highlighted how the traditional trust-based model of policing in Hong Kong has broken down after the expansion of police powers since the 2019 protests. This breakdown of trust is not unique to Hong Kong, and trust in the police has declined in liberal democracies as they are unable to adapt to rapid changes in society.
In the United States, there is a renewed focus on policing, resulting from racism and the widely publicised killings of black people, notably George Floyd, by white police officers. This has led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to “ defund the police” as a means of achieving radical change that would not come from minor reforms.
In Britain, there is concern that police powers granted to enforce pandemic lockdowns have disproportionately harmed communities of colour and eroded civil liberties. This is illustrated by data showing that the Metropolitan Police increased the use of their powers to stop and search people with no grounds for suspicion.
Hong Kong has seen an expansion of police powers to enforce Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, which have also been used to prevent political protests.

The Hong Kong example of expanded police powers is a lesson to other societies of how trust-based policing can lead to more authoritarian government, excused by the purported necessity to combat existential threats. In Hong Kong, the government and the police portrayed those existential threats as violent protests and then a deadly pandemic.

The decline of public trust in the Hong Kong police has been dramatic. In 2012, the Public Opinion Research Institute reported that the support rating for the police was 67, with 100 meaning very satisfied and 0 very dissatisfied. That rating dropped to 35.3 in November 2019 and was only 40.3 last November.


Thousands of Hongkongers defy ban and gather to mark Tiananmen anniversary

Thousands of Hongkongers defy ban and gather to mark Tiananmen anniversary
The huge drop in confidence was caused by the prolonged failure to respond effectively to the protests in 2019. The police failed to understand the new forms of protest organisation and spent most of 2019 confounded on the streets as protesters proved more nimble than officers.
The police’s deep-rooted public order strategy meant officers were unable to change tactics and could not distinguish between peaceful and violent protesters. They expanded their use of force as they failed to manage the protests.
A further worsening of public trust resulted from officers being unaccountable to independent scrutiny with no impartial investigation of complaints against them. This issue was highlighted again recently after an internal investigation found that the senior officer who was in the suspected vice establishment had not committed any wrongdoing.
The police investigate their own conduct, and the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) does not get involved if no complaint is made. The IPCC’s statutory function is to observe, monitor and review the handling and investigation of “reportable complaints”, not to review issues of police conduct or how these are investigated.

Hong Kong lacks an independent and impartial body to deal with the investigation of police officers’ conduct. Hence, there is a lack of accountability for officers.

Hong Kong cannot be said to be an example of an expansion of excessive police powers in a liberal democratic society, given that it is not a democracy and certain liberties are increasingly questionable. However, it is an example for other countries of what can happen when police hold excessive powers and there is insufficient oversight.
This is relevant to liberal democracies as they face increasingly widespread protest movements related to major issues such as climate change. Protest tactics are dynamic, disruptive, and often confound the police and challenge them to not use massive levels of force in response.

The danger is that when police fail to manage widespread protests, they will ask for more enforcement powers and consequently government will become more authoritarian. It is a serious question for democratic societies to ensure that the growth of protests and the police response enables liberal democracy to continue.

The Hong Kong police have stepped beyond the line of authoritarianism and will not regain the support of many people who were involved in the pro-democracy protests in 2019. However, they can regain some confidence from people who were not involved in the protests but were disturbed by the police response and lack of accountability.


Police tear-smoke warning souvenirs offered at Hong Kong National Security Education Day

Police tear-smoke warning souvenirs offered at Hong Kong National Security Education Day

Regaining trust will require the police to accept a genuinely independent process for the investigation of complaints of criminality and misconduct by officers.

Such investigations can be conducted by police officers, but the organisation must be outside the reporting line to the police commissioner and instead report to a separate, independent authority.

The measures taken by the police to regain public confidence – such as childish social media campaigns, open days with children playing with guns at the Police College and statements that are not credible to much of the public – have often done the opposite.

There are lessons to be learned from how the police in Hong Kong have so dramatically lost public trust and enabled government to become more authoritarian. This is precisely why other societies need to study and understand what has happened in this city.

Martin Purbrick is an honorary fellow at the Keele Policing Academic Collaboration at Keele University. He was a Hong Kong Police officer from 1988 to 2000, where he served in the special branch engaged in counterterrorism and the Criminal Intelligence Bureau in intelligence analysis of triads and organised crime