HONG KONG — A woman was hit in the eye during a protest. Passengers were beaten on a subway train. A student was shot in the chest with a live round — and now is being charged with rioting.
Each increase in the Hong Kong police’s use of force during the antigovernment protests has been met with greater anger from the public and more combativeness from hardcore demonstrators, which in turn have prompted more intense tactics from the police.
After four months of spiraling unrest, the question now is whether police officers can handle more escalations in violence without escalating it further themselves — or if the city’s thinly stretched force is bound to continue adding to the chaos and frenzy of the protests. The 30,000-strong Hong Kong Police Force has become a symbol of what many protesters regard as the unchecked power with which Beijing governs the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
Many recent demonstrations have ended with a sad, predictable coda in which residents of all ages come into the streets to heckle and scream at police officers. A crowd gathered earlier this week around officers who had handcuffed a dozen protesters, mostly young women, in the Wong Tai Sin area.
“Don’t you dare lay a finger on those girls!” yelled Mei Wong, a 60-year-old resident. “You won’t have a good afterlife if you do.”
In a sign of the strain on officers, two police groups have called for the Hong Kong government to impose curfews or adopt other emergency measures that they said would help the police get a better grip on the situation. Hong Kong government officials have been discussing whether the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, should invoke emergency powers to impose a ban on face masks, said Ronny Tong, a member of Lam’s executive council, her top advisory body.
Wilkie Ng Wai-kei, chairman of the Hong Kong Police Inspectors’ Association, said that the “methods that the Hong Kong police have used in the past four months have not been effective in stopping the violent rioters.”
The police force has said that one of its officers shot Tsang Chi-kin, an 18-year-old student, in self-defense this week, and has described its officers as being under siege. On Wednesday night, protesters outraged by the shooting poured into the streets, vandalizing shops, blocking roads, and throwing firebombs into a police station. Many of them put their hands on their chests to express solidarity with Tsang.
Ng said police officers have been acting with restraint.
“In the past four months, the police have fired a gun at only one rioter,” he said. “If this were happening in other countries, many people would have been shot.”
On Thursday, the police said that Tsang had been charged with rioting and assaulting police officers — a development that is likely to further inflame tensions.
Furor over the police’s crowd control methods first erupted early this summer, after officers tear-gassed and beat largely peaceful demonstrators on June 12. The authorities seemed to pull back somewhat in response, including when protesters twice surrounded police headquarters.
But the sieges of the headquarters were an important turning point for the police, said Ray Yep, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. “I think they believe they have been humiliated.”
Since then, the police have stepped up the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and on-site arrests. The protesters have also become more provocative. In addition to hurling firebombs, they have attacked officers’ residences and taunted them by chanting, “The whole families of dirty police deserve to die.”
Senior police commanders say that they are working to ensure that officers act professionally despite the pressure. But certain incidents have raised questions — including from some former officers — about whether the force can keep its people from overstepping boundaries in the heat of the moment.
The police’s use of tear gas has been criticized as indiscriminate and excessive, with canisters fired in subway stations and from perches above crowds. Tempers flared again when a senior police official suggested that a man in a yellow shirt, whom officers were accused of abusing, was in fact a “yellow object.”
Some officers at protests have been seen obscuring or not wearing identifying badges, possibly to evade scrutiny.
Police representatives have also resisted efforts to be held to account for officers’ actions, one of the main demands of the protesters.