Frustrated by protests and an inability to win over civil society, China has destroyed its ‘one country, two systems’ relationship with Hong Kong. To discuss if this is the end of Hong Kong or the beginning of something new, I spoke with Kong Tsung-gan, Author of the just-released Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle (published by Mekong Review).
Kong is one of my favorite writers on Hong Kong, and having covered Hong Kong’s protests for many years, offers hard-earned insights and observations on this incredible movement. Part 1 of our interview can be found here
All Photos are from Studio Incendo under CC 4.0. Please support their amazing work.
Asia Art Tours: The Hong Kong Free Press, recently published a thought-provoking article by Christina Chan. Her piece introduced me to the phrase – 好仔唔當差 “Good kids don’t become cops”. She then compares the failed fight against police corruption in the 1970s to the present where police have resisted multiple attempts to investigate their use of violence against Hong Kong Protesters and Journalists. Ms. Chan has this great line in the piece:
“Those in power are now sending a message that will significantly impact future police culture: Officers’ abuse of power and arbitrary use of force will go unpunished – and might even help their careers – as long as they are doing the state’s bidding.”
For those who are unfamiliar, could you explain more about the 1970s, and this phrase 好仔唔當差 Good kids don’t become cops”? And phrases we see now, such as 黑警– “Black Cops” (or other similar phrases) . What similarities or differences do you see between these periods of police biolence and corruption in Hong Kong’s history? Is this a case of History as first as tragedy, then as farce?
Kong Tsung-gan: That saying, ‘Good kids don’t become cops’, comes from a time when there was much greater social mobility in HK. HK people push their kids to study hard to get ahead in life. The idea then was if you study hard, you can go to university and end up with a much better job than being a cop. Becoming a cop was like a consolation prize, for the ones who weren’t good at studies. That stereotype has persisted. At protests, protesters often insult police officers for not being so bright. I don’t think the stereotype is especially true, especially nowadays. I would estimate the level of education in the police force is about the same as among the general populace. These days, if you don’t have a lot of other economic opportunities, becoming a police officer is one of your best options. For the level of education, it’s hard to beat the pay, the benefits and the job security. Last year, a record number of officers left the force, but it still was only in the hundreds, among over 30,000 officers. In a recent survey conducted by University College London of police officers, 63 percent said they wouldn’t consider leaving the force. This is not surprising: for most officers, just about any job they got after leaving the force would pay less, have worse benefits, and far less job security. Stretching from UK colonial days, police officers have a range of benefits such as special living quarters for themselves and their families unavailable to the general populace. Actually, I don’t agree with a statement I hear frequently that up until the most recent protests, HK police were considered ‘Asia’s finest’.
In fact, their reputation took a big hit during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and never really recovered. Of course, it has plummeted further over the past year. There has been a spate of recent arrests and investigations of police officers for suspected crimes unrelated to the protests, but the main reason for their bad reputation is their brutality, abuses, and utter lack of accountability in relation to the protests. The HK police force is very clean in terms of economic crimes such as corruption, bribery, extortion, etc. But it’s been culturally and spiritually corrupted by the role it’s been forced to play in putting down the protests and doing the bidding of the regime. HK police are HK people, like the rest of us. This is a point I always stress. But at the same time, increasingly they’re perceived as an occupying force. The way the city is blanketed with riot police on patrol even when there are not protests, the frequent arbitrary stop&searches of young people especially, their attempts to crush every protest before it even gets started, the fact that they are heavily armed though facing a population with almost no arms at all and largely peaceful in protest—all of these contribute to the impression of an occupying force.
When it comes to the protests, they long ago ceased being a law enforcement agency and have become the Party’s will enforcement agency. Still, now they face a dilemma: with the impending ‘national security’ laws imposed on HK directly by the Party in contravention of the Basic Law and all norms and expecations, the Party will openly station their authorities in HK and they will in all likelihood carry out joint investigations with the police. Of course, in practice, this means that they will be the boss of HK police, and HK police will be carrying out their direct orders. Even if on paper a distinction is maintained, this will be the de facto situation. At a protest the other day, someone shouted at the cops, ‘We’re HK people, you’re HK people. Don’t you understand that when these laws go through, you’ll be working directly for the Communists against us?’ It’s a good question. I don’t know if the police understand that. I think it may be starting to dawn on some. The top brass has welcomed the ‘national security’ laws publicly, but behind the scenes, there must be a lot of scrambling over what the possible repercussions will be. The police are taking on an ever greater political role and enjoy complete impunity on matters related to politics and protest. Within the police force, there are many different kinds, just as among the general population.
That said, I think ideology is pervading the force more strongly than ever before. Last year, several officers, off-duty, told me separately that they think HK would be better off if ruled directly by China. (The HK government is probably almost as unpopular among the police as among the general populace.) Now they’ll get their wish. But there are a lot of other officers who believe they are doing their best to preserve law and order in difficult circumstances. These are the ones who face the dilemma introduced by the impending ‘national security’ laws. Of course, at the protests, one meets police who appear to relish the opportunity to break heads, but one meets others who are doing their best to keep their cool and carry out their duties in as ‘professional’ way as possible. I’ve never gotten the impression that among police officers, there is much real understanding of the political situation in HK, and their professional environment certainly doesn’t encourage that. Of our many accomplishments over the years, one thing the HK freedom struggle never has been able to do is to get supporters of the regime to defect or withhold support. One wonders if the pressure the Party is putting on the police may cause it crack, but there’s no indication of that so far.
AAT: Being a student of Hong Kong and Global History where have you arrived in your own views on the police as a function of the state? And for the majority of Hong Kongers, do you believe that things can ever ‘go back to normal’ in terms of their relationship with the police, or would more radical/utopian reforms (such as abolishing the police) be a future that, if given the choice, Hong Kongers would be willing to consider?
KTG: I’m a bit of an anarchist at heart. In my utopia, there would be no need for the police, as people would be self-policing. If there are to be police, then they should be accountable to and supervised by citizens in a democratic state. Hong Kong people have for years been largely self-policing. They tend to be very disciplined, and compared to many societies, the incidence of anti-social behavior is relatively low. All too often, in a country like the US, police behavior toward poor and nonwhite people has been very different from police behavior toward wealthy white people. As horrible as the police murder of George Floyd was, I hope it can spur some reform. I am encouraged that one police officer has been arrested and charged and three have been fired. Perhaps just as important the governor of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights have announced a civil rights investigation of Minneapolis police going back ten years because they recognize there is a need for systemic change.
Those sorts of mechanisms have not been employed in Hong Kong, which is a non- and, increasingly, an anti-democracy. There has been zero accountability for police violence, which is a systemic problem, not just a matter of a few bad apples. In fact, there is a refusal on the part of the government and police to even recognize that it is a problem. The result is that the police force has been corrupted and suborned as a tool of the state to oppress its people. I remember clearly at the time of the police sieges of two HK universities, CUHK and PolyU, in November last year, I thought, This is it. The police force is essentially conducting war on the HK people. The HK police force must be disbanded, abolished, and whatever replaces it must be organized so as to be fully accountable to the people of HK. Of course, in the current situation, that is a pipedream. It would only occur if HK were a democracy, and we are far from that now and getting farther away. But this must be the eventual goal. With the impending imposition of the “national security” laws, there’s been a lot of talk of Chinese authorities cooperating with the HK police to conduct investigations into violations of those laws. This of course would bring HK police another step closer to being little more than an enforcement arm of the Communist Party’s will. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I’ve always thought that however bad things may get in the US, at least there is the possibility of positive change, with the state sometimes being on the side of that positive change instead of working against it. That’s the difference between the US and China, between the US and Hong Kong. It’s a basic, essential difference. It’s something that people shouldn’t forgot because it has to do with how precious democracy, freedom and human rights are. Yes, the US is a far from perfect country; yes, the US is a far from perfect democracy; yes, the US has deeply entrenched problems and legacies of racism and police brutality; but if you look at the history of the US over the past one-hundred years, you see so many people have pushed hard for change and there has been progress for racial minorities, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and women.
This is often far from what’s needed, but it’s not nothing either. In HK, on the other hand, we have an intractable stalemate between a people who want self-determination and democracy and a dictatorial regime dead-set on not only preventing that but rolling back the freedoms we have. In spite of Trump and the state of the Republican Party and the current situation, I’m optimistic about the US because I believe it’s got the people, the civil society and the democratic institutions to overcome the human rights and democracy challenges it faces. I’m optimistic about HK too, but only because I’ve fought side by side with its incredible people for years and know that they won’t give up; but there’s certainly no way that positive change can be brought about within the current system or with the cooperation of the authorities.
AAT: For protesters who have been convicted, what does the Hong Kong Prison system look like? Within the prisons themselves, have networks of solidarity and support been built between protesters or other prisoners in solidarity? And for those who are released, is there a long-term support system in place to help them reintegrate into society? Or even to build a parallel society?
KTG: There have so far been 18 adult protesters who have been sentenced to prison and five minors who have been sentenced to juvenile rehabilitation centres. This is out of nearly 9,000 arrested and nearly 1,500 on trial. There are bound to be many more. These are lengths of the prison sentences look like so far: 4 years (1); 14 months (1); 12mo (5); 10mo (3), 8mo (1), 4mo (1), 3mo (1), 7 weeks (2), 2mo (1) 5 weeks (1), 20 days (1), 14 days (1). Most prisoners can have their sentences reduced by as much as one-third for good behavior, so many of these people probably won’t serve their full prison terms. The Hong Kong prison system is probably not so bad compared to many, and the Correctional Services Department is so far not guilty of the kinds of egregious abuses inflicted by police upon protesters in their custody, but there have been reports of abuse targeting protesters in prisons and recently Demosisto made a complaint to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights that three young protesters were tortured in Pik Uk detention facility while remanded in custody there awaiting trial. There is reason to expect that treatment of protest prisoners could get worse. One of the wonderful things about the HK freedom struggle is that there’s great solidarity among all and in particular with arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned protesters.
Everyone in the HK freedom struggle considers remanded and imprisoned protesters their brothers and sisters. Protesters regularly show up at Lai Chi Kok reception centre where most remanded protesters are in custody awaiting trial. When you are arrested and prosecuted, you have access to volunteer lawyers and your legal expenses will be covered. 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund has received over HK$100 million in donations for protesters in need. That takes cover of not only legal expenses but also medical expenses for injuries and emotional/psychological support. (Another fund, Spark Alliance, had over HK$70 million frozen by the police in a bogus investigation into ‘money laundering’.) Especially around holidays, there are letter-writing campaigns, and prisoners receive dozens if not hundreds of letters each. There are also Yellow Economic Circle businesses that will provide released protest prisoners with jobs and/or job training. It’s these sorts of structures that make the HK resistance so strong, but they will be tested with the large number of protesters moving through the courts. I don’t know how much solidarity there is between protester prisoners and other prisoners. Joshua Wong, in his latest book, Unfree Speech, has an interesting section where he discusses his relationship with fellow young prisoners. Hopefully, the presence of protest prisoners in larger numbers in the overall prison population will be an education for all concerned.
There are currently a little under 8,000 prisoners in HK prisons. More protesters have been arrested than that. The number of protesters on trial makes up more than one-sixth of the prison population. So there’s a chance that a significant percentage of HK prisoners could be protesters.
AAT: Within the protest movement currently, what historical figures (local, regional, or global) are looked to as icons for protest leaders? And are there any books or texts that have become indispensable for protesters looking for philosophical or spiritual inspiration or strength?
KTG: Interesting question, and the short answer is, no one really. Maybe the closest to an icon we get, especially for young people, is Edward Leung, former leader of Hong Kong Indigenous, now serving a six-year prison term. He’s the one who gave the movement the slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, which is one of those most frequently shouted at protests. The older generation reveres the usual apostles of nonviolence like Gandhi and MLK, but they have much less resonance among young people. Many young people don’t find historical freedom struggles that relevant to HK, among other reasons because there aren’t that many that had to do with a small people like HK people standing up to the biggest, most powerful dictatorship in the world, a brutal Leninist one no less.
Some of the more prominent pro-democracy leaders are big readers, but in general HK people aren’t readers or students of history, nor are most protesters. We really are making this up as we go along. That’s probably a disappointing answer, but it’s the way it is. I often tell young people they should read and study more. They laugh. They know they should, but they’re not very interested, they’re too busy. A lot are interested in studying the struggles of small peoples for self-determination. I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with young people about Northern Ireland, the Basque country and Catalonia versus Spain, Kosovo, Kurdistan, Chechnya, and places like that, and they’re often strikingly knowledgeable. One reason they’re interested in those places is that the people fighting for their freedom there were often armed, and among many young people, the question of whether resistance to Communist oppression must become armed resistance is one they find to be of great relevance. Again, that may not be the sort of thing a lot of admirers of the HK freedom struggle abroad like to hear, but it’s the way it is, a sign of just how far the Communist Party has pushed HK people to the edge.
AAT: Lastly, with recent developments where do you see the protests heading in the next year? And for any individual who wants to help outside of Hong Kong, but is also against their own government locally (Against Trump, a Boris Johnson and so on) , how can they help as individuals for the Hong Kong without simply calling on their government to act?
KTG: It’s really hard to know where the freedom struggle is going, especially since the CCP pushed the “nuclear button” with the “national security” laws. Not only that, but all protests are currently banned in HK, our right to peaceful freedom of assembly indefinitely suspended. I believe HK people will find a way, but I don’t know what that way is. The title of my second book on HK was As long as there is resistance, there is hope, and that is what I firmly believe. If HK people keep resisting, keep fighting, somehow someway one day we will win. As to the second part of that question, I should first say that whether you are against your own government or not, it is important to call on it to act, as a way of holding it accountable to the country’s professed ideals and values. Political leaders abroad, no matter who they are, need to know that people care about Hong Kong. If pushed, even the more recalcitrant governments could be moved to act.
Many countries are beginning to see more than ever that an empowered Communist Party is against their own interests and may threaten them in various ways. Discussing the situation in Hong Kong as an international issue and not an “internal matter”, as the Party calls it, is important. Framing the issue as a part of a global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, with HK on the front line, is also important. We know that millions of people abroad have shown enormous support and solidarity with the Hong Kong freedom struggle, and this is appreciated immensely. People, organizations and politicians in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, North America and Europe have shown tremendous support. International solidarity is a very very important part of the struggle.
People should tell acquaintances, friends and allies about Hong Kong and draw their attention to it, especially in these times when attention is distracted by so many other matters closer to home. People should hook up with Hong Kong solidarity organizations in their area (there are dozens across East Asia, Europe and North America), support them and act with them. People should contact their elected officials and press them to make statements and craft legislation to support the HK freedom struggle. People should help prominent and outspoken Hong Kong people like Joshua Wong and others to amplify their voices by sharing their posts on social media. People should realize that the HK freedom struggle is long and hard and so anything that can be done to institutionalize support is important. For example, Tibet support groups have been active for years and helped to carry on the struggle through thick and thin. I’d like to see the same thing happen with HK support groups. There’s Hong Kong Watch in the UK, which is a good start, and there should be others like that elsewhere. Progressive people should work within their organizations to raise the issue of Hong Kong. Progressives in many countries have not spoken up for HK as much as I might wish.
The Communist Party wants the rest of the world to forget HK, and international solidarity plays an important part in not letting that happen. I personally think it’s important to have a global vision when we think of the values that are dear to us, democracy, freedom, human rights, equality, justice. These are universal values billions worldwide hold dear. If you live in a place where those values have been realized, at least to some extent, you should not take them for granted. You should realize how precious they are, especially for those deprived of them. You should work to make them a greater reality wherever you live and work in solidarity with oppressed people elsewhere, whether in Hong Kong or in many other places around the world, to help them realize those values. The world is not lost, and people should not become cynical or hopeless. The world does hang in the balance, however, and the direction it goes in the coming years and decades will depend on us.
For more with Kong Tsung-gan, please check out his new book released on Mekong Press.
You can also listen to our Podcast interview w. Kong, where we discuss the psychology of Hong Kong’s police and judges? Why have they enacted such violence on the city they call home? Listen and hear Kong’s thoughts.