[Analytics] Why Hong Kong protesters view police as the enemy

Police and protesters clash as crowds try to make their way towards Beijing’s liaison office in the city. Photo: Sam Tsang. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

In a new series of in-depth articles on the unrest rocking Hong Kong, the Post goes behind the headlines to look at the underlying issues, current state of affairs, and where it is all heading. With society split into two camps, and online platforms strengthening mutual antipathy, we look at the psychology of hate, and its effects on how the young activists see the authorities. Jeffie Lam specially for the South China Morning Post.

Every evening at Muk Lun Street Playground in Wong Tai Sin, families with children and elderly in tow loll about for fresh air and young couples dawdle en route home. But last Monday, it was a battlefield.
As dusk fell, hundreds of agitated young protesters who had gathered there hours earlier were contemplating their next move. They had gone to the working-class district which houses the disciplined services quarters – where police officers and their families live – for a second siege after a first attempt two days earlier. With their helmets, masks and cling film as armour and a seemingly unending supply of projectiles, they succeeded in breaking multiple windows on the second and the third floors with bricks.

“Shame on the dirty cops!” they chanted. “Police are triads!”

During the night-time siege two days earlier, residents fought back by throwing projectiles – including water bottles, glass objects and even plastic bags of excrement – down at the protesters from the windows of the same building.

What began as a protest against the controversial and now-shelved extradition bill has metastasised into deep anger and hatred towards the police force, the government’s bogeyman as the administration refuses to accommodate any of the protesters’ demands.

The clashes have become almost routinised, with protesters provoking the police and the force responding with tear gas, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets to disperse them. The physical altercations are always accompanied by a haze of profanities fired by both sides. And since last week, confrontations have become more unpredictable, and therefore more dangerous, because of the uncertainty of the playing field, as protesters play a cat-and-mouse game with their guerilla-style tactics, making it hard for police to trap them.

The change from fear to loathing was on a slow boil, beginning with the June 12 clash outside the Legislative Council, when police used tear gas for the first time since the start of the opposition to the bill and resorted to rubber bullets which hit protesters and a journalist. Pictures depicting “police brutality” spread like wildfire online. By July 21 and many clashes later, another turning point came for the protesters when a white-shirted mob attacked passengers and protesters in Yuen Long MTR station. Police had failed to show up in time, and worse, video clips quickly circulated showing police vehicles in the same area when the men were gathering. If ever they needed evidence of police indifference or even collusion, the incident offered protesters incontrovertible proof which they capitalised on to win over those who might have otherwise sided with police.

The antipathy has spread across the city and split society into two camps, among colleagues, friends and even within families. The divide might be reminiscent of the tensions during the pro-democracy Occupy movement five years ago which pitted police against protesters. That enmity was never fully resolved, according to psychologists and political observers. But now, the atmosphere of hate is much worse, and the healing might take years, they warn.

Complicating the situation further is a perceptible shift in Hongkongers’ attitudes towards aggression. Where before they were known for their peaceful demonstrations, analysts and surveys suggest they now have a greater tolerance towards the use of force.

“It is very easy for us to be trapped in the ‘us versus them’ binary oppositional mindset amid this type of inter-group conflicts,” Dr Christian Chan, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU)’s psychology department, said.

“That is not helpful because most political conflicts are complex and do not only entail two parties, one all good and one all evil.”

‘Us versus them’

Kit’s heart sinks whenever he sees a pop-up notification on his phone. He knows it will probably be another message shared by his stepfather in their family WhatsApp message group. The stepfather has been assiduously forwarding articles, photos or videos that describe the protesters as thugs.
The 38-year-old editor, who declined to give his full name, has taken part in at least half of the protests since June 12.

“I’d always been restrained, until he said those who support the protesters should die,” Kit said as he recalled one of the many painful rows with his stepfather, a retired policeman.

“I tried to rebuild the trust over the dinner table – but it’s useless. As soon as we bid goodbye, he would go back to those pro-police videos circulating online.”

Kit finally decided to quit his family WhatsApp group.

Jacky Lam, an inspector turned law student, is wrestling with another form of social pressure. His friends on Facebook, who sympathise with the protesters, keep tagging him in videos or posts which showed what they see as police’s brutality. “I would just hide them,” he said, saying he wanted to avoid emotional arguments that would only create greater animosity among them.

Social media is amplifying the city’s divisions triggered by the political storm over the extradition bill, according to Dr Paul Wong Wai-ching, a social inclusion academic at HKU’s department of social work and social administration.

“Protesters and their supporters would post the eye-catching wrongdoings of the officers while the police’s supporters would play up the misdeeds of protesters,” he said.

“We used to say a ‘photograph is a representation of reality’ – but now even video cannot tell the truth.”

On July 30, hundreds of demonstrators besieged Kwai Chung Police Station, where 45 people who had been arrested over the protests a day earlier had been detained. At one point, a sergeant had caused consternation when he pointed a Remington shotgun, loaded with beanbag rounds, at the crowd. He looked like he had gone berserk.

But other videos circulating showed how the protesters had surrounded him and another officer, thrown projectiles and shone lasers at them. He fell to the ground and had his helmet snatched from him, according to videos and the police’s account.

It was one confrontation but with vastly different perspectives, shared by opposing camps.

Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at Chinese University’s journalism school, said the algorithms of Facebook and most social media offer people what they want to see to encourage them to stay longer on the site.

“This makes the social divide worse, because you don’t see the viewpoints of the other side, therefore making it more difficult to develop enough of an understanding or common ground,” he said. “It might also overstate the extent you think your side is ‘right’ because you see primarily people you agree with.”

Hong Kong society could be even more polarised if people use Facebook as their primary source of news and rarely get information from elsewhere. According to market research firm Statista, 4.4 million of 7.5 million people in Hong Kong – almost 60 per cent – were on Facebook last year.

Chan too feared the echo chambers produced by social media could intensify the polarisation of opinions.

“Both protesters and police would think that their side is the righteous one and that everyone in their in-group is doing the right thing for Hong Kong,” Chan said.

“The problem is, on top of the nebulous nature of the current situation, we are only fed a narrow facet of the complex reality. Everyone thinks they are seeing the full and complete picture when in reality no one actually does.”

Social psychologists have a concept called the “out-group homogeneity effect”, where people tend to perceive people outside their circles as more similar to one another than people in their circles.
In the case of Hong Kong, protesters might have a bias of viewing all police officers as equally brutal in handling clashes whereas the officers would assume protesters are all thugs – and such single-lens perceptions would only widen the rift.

Escalating violence

Hong Kong’s summer of dissent is set to continue with no resolution in sight, even as the government seems to be toughening its stance and meting out harsher reprisals against protesters.

On top of the political fiasco, Chan said a potent combination of psychological factors was also working to perpetuate the current inter-group conflict.

“Young people perceive a visible common enemy and internalise a messianic mission of defending Hong Kong, their home. Fighting along your band of brothers and sisters, in a clear and present danger, is inherently risky, but also inherently thrilling,” he said.

“Similarly, police officers are also determined to defend their comrades who were injured and assaulted. They also think that they possess the noble calling of defending Hong Kong, their home.”

As the protests have dragged on, hostilities between the two blocs – and also the use of violence – have intensified.

Protesters have so far besieged at least 12 police stations across the city, throwing bricks and even petrol bombs at them and leaving expletive-laden graffiti on the walls. They have hurled projectiles at officers on countless occasions.

Earlier this month, police arrested eight people, including independence activist Andy Chan Ho-tin, at a unit where they seized 10 baseball bats, 20 sharpened walking sticks, two bows, six arrows, metal balls and several cartons of protective gear – such as helmets, gas masks and arm guards.

The force meanwhile has been slammed by human rights watchers for inappropriately and excessively firing tear gas without considering the impact on neighbourhoods, even causing senior residents in nursing homes to be affected.

Before last weekend’s clashes in Tai Wai and Tsim Sha Tsui, where police again used tear gas, the force had already fired more than 1,800 rounds of it since June to disperse protesters, along with 300 rubber bullets and 170 sponge-tipped rounds.

The escalating violence prompted Edward Leung Tin-kei, a jailed pro-independence figure regarded as a spiritual leader by some anti-bill activists, to weigh in and call on the protesters not to be ruled by hatred.

But the antipathy has already solidified. Hongkongers have become more understanding towards the efficacy of violent protest, marking a significant shift in the city’s political values.

In a study jointly conducted by Baptist University, Chinese University and Lingnan University, more than half of 555 demonstrators polled at a Western district rally on August 4 said they should escalate their struggle if the government remains intransigent.

More than 88.8 per cent of them also agreed that the combination of peaceful rallies and clashes would maximise the impact of the movement.

There has been method to the mayhem: each protest event starts with a peaceful march, usually attended by tens of thousands, but soon ends with road blockades, stand-offs and sieges of police stations and then clashes led by a smaller group of hard-core activists. The peaceful marchers are willing bystanders, cheering the radicals on.

The weeks-long movement, covering a range of actions, from peaceful protests to more radical steps, has allowed citizens to play roles they are comfortable with, living up ironically to Karl Marx’s maxim of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

“No mat-cutting” – or in Cantonese “bat got zek” – has been one of the mantras of the movement, helping to unite the crowd. It is a motto calling on protesters, despite having different approaches, to neither blame nor distance themselves from each other for their common cause.

They have insisted on five demands, notably a complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent probe into the police’s use of force in handling protests. While the attendees of the peaceful marches are from a diverse mix of age groups, the frontline activists are mostly in their early twenties.

George Chu, a 40-year-old engineer, said it was a good thing for Hongkongers to be more tolerant over the use of force in protests.

“Police officers, with public power, have been using stronger weapons so it is only reasonable for protesters to escalate their actions,” Chu said when the Post met him at a Kennedy Town rally on August 4, an event that ended with tear gas again after a group of rally-goers staged another round of spontaneous road blockades.

While co-founders of the Occupy movement five years ago cited the civil disobedience movement of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and emphasised the importance of love and peace, Chu said taking heed of such advice was inappropriate.

“Gandhi’s opponent was Britain,” he said. “But we are facing the Communist Party, which will not reason with you.”

But veteran activist Avery Ng Man-yuen of the League of Social Democrats did not believe violence was the solution. (Ng’s party is known for its street actions and antics but about the only “violence” he ever committed was throwing a tuna sandwich at former leader Leung Chun-ying.)

Escalation of protests would lead not only to more of them paying a price, Ng warned, but could at the same time marginalise the movement as more supporters might not want to get involved further, fearing the cost to themselves.

“And after all, the protesters and the force are in an asymmetrical position – officers are equipped with bullets but protesters only have bricks,” he said. “Injuries eventually would be on our side.”

Over the past few weeks, the moderate faction of protesters have felt indebted to the frontline radicals who have been hurt and arrested. To support them, many moderates donated supplies, from food coupons to battle gear such as goggles, masks and helmets.

But Ng warned that such well-meaning acts could just end up hurting more protesters, causing more injuries and arrests.

“It’s a dilemma. They know the frontline protesters would clash [with the police] anyhow,” said Ng, who recently ended a prison sentence for leaking details of a corruption investigation into a government official.

“Offering them support might protect them for now but in another sense, it would also appear to be an endorsement of their actions.”

Ng said the hatred between the protesters and police was a vicious cycle and criticised the government for allowing the “inevitable tragedy” to worsen.

On the impact of their own acts of violence, Ng believed the protesters would not bother to think through the consequences of not having a functioning police force. They genuinely felt the ball was in the government’s court.

“We need to find out, did something go wrong at the commanders’ level or on the front line? We need an inquiry into the police’s operations,” he said.

“And the administration is the only player that can resolve this deadlock,” he said. “Does it want to wait until someone dies?”

Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said Hongkongers’ sense of loathing towards the police and their acceptance of disruptive actions – such as road blockades and vandalism – had grown markedly over the past two months.

“They have lost confidence in the police enforcing the law fairly and would question the legitimacy of all their actions,” he said, citing the recent protest against the arrest of a student leader for buying laser pens, which they deemed “offensive weapons”.

“They no longer think it’s reasonable to blindly obey the law when there is no punishment for the officers’ wrongdoings.”

But the shift need not mean the end of peaceful protests in Hong Kong, he said.

“The non-violent protesters still make up the core of the movement,” he said. “The radical actions now are stemming from the hatred of the police and the Communist Party. I doubt if they will always resort to such means in the future.”

Mental well-being at stake

The deepening divide can be expected to take a toll on residents’ mental well-being regardless of their political stance, if past tensions in society are any guide.

A 2015 study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, found more than 47 per cent of 1,208 local respondents had reported moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety following the Occupy movement, while 14.4 per cent showed signs of depression. One in 11 reported “poor’ or “very poor” health.

Further analysis revealed that respondents who reported “personal and social resource loss” were more likely to report higher anxiety and depressive symptoms and greater odds of having “very poor” health.
“Such resources could be one’s optimism or their relationship and intimacy with others,” said Dr Hou Wai-kai, director of Education University’s centre for psycho-social health, who co-authored the study.
“Social upheavals would definitely have a significant impact on the mental health of ordinary citizens.”

Agreeing, Wong said everyone was vulnerable at this stage, including those who had not taken sides and stayed silent.

“The people around them, who have taken sides, might slam their inaction as ‘not caring about the city’. One wouldn’t be better off by staying silent,” he said.

Wong, also a research fellow at the Hong Kong Police College, argued it might be unfair to expect frontline officers to manage their emotions round the clock just because they were trained to maintain law and order.

“It would be a legitimate expectation if the society was calm. Officers now, however, are subject to physical and mental abuses, threats and bullying of their family members,” he said.

The provocations they faced, he admitted, required of them a very high level of self-control and emotional management. Thus, seeing officers swearing at protesters or even reporters was worrying, he said, suggesting they were at the end of their tether.

“They could not or do not bother to control their emotions or take the feeling of citizens into account,” the clinical psychologist said, citing such incidents as evidence that officers also needed to be better trained and have more attention paid to their mental well-being.

Wong urged the government to consider launching a pilot dialogue by inviting respected figures to take part in it, before broadening it to include wider sections of society. “Such a dialogue is likely to be conducted in a peaceful and rational manner, as you can control what’s going to happen,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chan, also a clinical psychologist, urged Hongkongers regardless of where they stood politically to reach out to their social circles for emotional support, spend time with family and friends and re-establish healthy everyday habits.

Those feeling tired from watching the never-ending loop of clashes and clearances should take a break from social media and tune out sensational feeds from their news diet. He also advised Hongkongers and the two sides to get more – yes, believe it or not – sleep.

Young demonstrators had been staying awake at all hours of the day, keeping track of their activities on encrypted messenger Telegram and Reddit-like site LIHKG – an online forum that is effectively a virtual command centre of the movement. Similarly, police officers, who had been mobilised to multiple locations and sometimes on 17-hour shifts, were also often seen lying on the ground, resting wearily after clashes with protesters.

“Numerous scientific research data have suggested that sleep deprivation could amplify biases and affect our ability to think. It also hampers our ability to regulate emotion,” he said. “We err more easily when we don’t get enough sleep.”

Most importantly, though, Chan also appealed to Hongkongers to stop dehumanising each other, such as calling police officers “dogs” or protesters “yellow zombies”. The latter was a derogatory term first popularised during Occupy to describe pro-democracy protesters.

Dehumanisation – the process in which people see the other as less human than their own group – would help justify the use of violence and extreme means, he warned.

“We need to retrieve our common identity,” Chan said. “We are first and foremost human beings and Hongkongers before we are protesters or police officers, or supporters of either side. Let us remind ourselves of our common humanity.”

He recalled a line from a favourite hit by English rock band Pink Floyd: “And after all, we’re only ordinary men.”

The title of the song? Us and Them.

So, when can all sides come together as one whole again? Psychologists like Chan have no answer.

But perhaps it is when playgrounds can return to being safe spaces, not battlefields. And when the Wong Tai Sin playground where violence broke out last Monday can live up to its name in Cantonese, Muk Lun: “harmonious neighbourhoods”.

Share it

Exclusive: Beyond the Covid-19 world's coverage