Mass protests that have besieged Hong Kong all summer show no signs of foreign influence or interference, according to the city’s police force, signalling a split between Beijing and the police.
The remarks from Hong Kong police directly contradict Beijing’s claims that unidentified foreign forces, deemed “black hands,” are fomenting protests in the city that form the most serious political crisis since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“From the operational angle, I cannot see that at this stage,” said a senior police official who agreed to speak to foreign media on condition of anonymity, when asked if there were any signs of foreign funding or organising of the protests that have brought millions to the streets.
This was in contrast to the stance stated by the Chinese government on Thursday.
“Foreign forces must stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, said on Thursday. “Stop conniving in violent offences – they should not misjudge the situation and go down the wrong path; otherwise, they will lift the stone only to drop it on their own feet.”
For weeks, Beijing has denounced protesters as pawns of the West for plotting a “colour revolution” with external help as part of a remarkable propaganda campaign to discredit the movement while issuing ominous videos showing troops engaging in paramilitary exercises in a neighbouring city.
It’s a significant shift from early June when mass rallies began and government censors scrubbed mention of the protests – a hugely sensitive matter, representing the biggest challenge to Xi Jinping since becoming leader of the ruling Communist Party in 2012.
Satellite photos show what appear to be armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles belonging to the China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police parked in a sports complex in the city of Shenzhen, across the border in Hong Kong, in what some have interpreted as a threat from Beijing to use increased force against protesters.
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China’s Defense Ministry has pointed to a legal provision that would allow Hong Kong-based People’s Liberation Army troops to be deployed for "public order maintenance" at the request of the city government. The troops, called the Hong Kong Garrison, released a promotional video earlier this month that showed soldiers partaking in a "riot drill" in which they fired tear gas and water cannons at people who appeared to be protesters.
However, three senior Hong Kong police officers said that they weren’t aware of plans for Chinese forces to snuff out mass demonstrations in the city, and denied rumours that mainland police were already working in the city in a small roundtable with foreign media.
They also said they weren’t sure if they would be informed ahead of time if mainland platoons were to be deployed in Hong Kong, a move that would be reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square massacre when Chinese troops fired on student protesters.
Experts say the Chinese government is working to prime public opinion for a potential crackdown, though such a move is still believed to be a last resort as it would confirm that Beijing had failed to win over the seven million in Hong Kong, and risk severely damaging the city’s image as a global financial hub.
For now, the police have stressed that they are more than capable of handling the situation with stocks of crowd-control measures, such as tear gas canisters, in plentiful supply.
“At an operational level, we have considerable depth,” said one of the senior police officers.
Hong Kong has 3,000 officers available to be deployed on any given day specifically to handle the protests – roughly ten per cent of the entire police force – with hundreds others in reserve. Only 200 officers of one unit of 2,400-strong have been seconded to deal with the unrest.
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The force has also deployed its elite “Raptor” unit, but the official declined to disclose the size of the contingent.
As protests have entered the third consecutive month, the force is combating fatigue and stress, as police have become a target for both protesters and the public for increasing violence in the city.
Largely peaceful rallies are now sinking into near-daily clashes between some protesters and police, with the crowds pitching bricks, petrol bombs and metal street signs at the officers who then volley tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge rounds.
Residents have heckled police for disrupting their neighbourhoods; some have even inadvertently been tear gassed as officers attempt to clear the crowds. Watching the battles have become somewhat of a spectator sport among locals, perched on overpasses or sidewalks, emerging from restaurants or subway stations to find themselves in the middle of standoffs.
About 60 police officers have resigned since the protests began in early June for a variety of reasons though the numbers were “slightly higher” than usual. No police have been disciplined for the use of excessive force thus far. Police are also trying to make more arrests to quell the demonstrations; more than 700 people have been swept up, some as young as 13 as the rallies continue.
And despite increasing ire for what protesters call police brutality, the force has continued to defend its actions. On Tuesday, one officer pulled a gun as he fell to the ground after protesters grabbed his baton and beat him down – a move the senior officers said was justified.
Many police officers now fear for their own safety as well as that of family as harassment has increased. One of the senior officers said his young teenage child had been intimidated in public because of his job. About 300 officers have also had personal information about them, friends and relatives posted online – known as doxxing. Some officers have even received late-night food deliveries – timed to hassle them at odd hours.
“Morale will go up and down. There will be periods when the guys are in the dumps – maybe it’s the accumulation of working hours, or verbal abuse,” said one officer. But rather than splintering, the police instead have “become incredibly cohesive…[despite] facing almost universal adversity.”
Use of lethal force would be considered appropriate if police feel there is a threat to life, the officers said.
Protesters first took to the streets against a now-suspended extradition proposal that would have sent people to face trial in mainland China, where Communist Party control of the courts contributes to a 99.9 per cent conviction rate. Their calls have since grown to encompass broader political reforms, including direct leadership elections.