Wong Chun Wai

Hong Kong protests:Why are the police seen as the bad guys now?

Hong Kong's police officers, regarded as among the cleanest and best paid in the world, are not used to being seen as public enemies. They are supposed to be the good guys but, overnight, they have become a subject of scorn. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-P
Hong Kong's police officers, regarded as among the cleanest and best paid in the world, are not used to being seen as public enemies. They are supposed to be the good guys but, overnight, they have become a subject of scorn. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is not a good time to be a policeman in Hong Kong. Working a minimum 18-hour shift, they have to be physically and mentally fit to deal with protesters.

They also have to exercise incredible self-restraint to put up with the kind of indignity - and abuses - hurled at them each day.

The police in Malaysia would probably shake their heads in disbelief if they could see what their Hong Kong counterparts have had to face over the past three weeks since the protests started.

If we were to believe the reports from the Western news agencies, we would think the Hong Kong police to be a brutal lot, and the students merely a bunch of idealistic and harmless protesters seeking to make their voices heard.

But it is not as simplistic as that. The students are not simply following a blind cause. They have reasons to believe that unless their points are made known, the results that follow may create more long-term problems for their society as a whole. Their intentions are noble even if the resulting chaos may not be what they anticipate.

As the protests enter the fourth week, the tension has risen by many notches. Tempers have become shorter as the stakes have escalated. The authorities and protesters appear to be in search of a typical Chinese face-saving exit but don't quite know how to achieve it.

On Tuesday, the first round of talks between Hong Kong officials and the students was held with no clear outcome.

The students reiterated their demand for an unrestricted choice of candidates in the election for the territory's chief executive in 2017, something Hong Kong and Beijing officials deem impossible.

The divide can be clearly seen even in the way the talks were conducted. The protest leaders, one woman and four men, were young and wore jeans and black T-shirts with the phrase Freedom Now written in English.

The government was also represented by four men and one woman - all in formal business suits.

But now that both sides have finally come to the negotiating table, it is expected that there will be more talks towards a solution acceptable to all. But everyone concedes that the protests cannot continue despite the bravado of students telling CNN or BBC on camera that they will occupy the streets forever.

The students' biggest challenge is to convince Hong Kongers, especially the businessmen and older people, that their fight will not hurt the economy, even as millions of dollars have already been lost.

Much more than that, Hong Kongers are seeing an unprecedented political culture which they find disturbing. A video that has gone viral on Hong Kong social media shows a cop facing a crowd of protesters shoving their middle fingers in his face. Yet, even faced with extreme provocation, he walked away nonchalantly.

There have also been reports that bags of urine had been hurled at the policemen.

At the Sai Yee Street junction in Mong Kok, I saw a group of protesters accusing two officers of police brutality after a woman purportedly fell to the ground. The two cops were confronted by a rowdy group, and when one of the cops said the woman appeared unhurt, the angry mob retorted that they were just cops and not doctors, and had no right to make that remark.

The crowd soon went into a frenzy, obstructing a bus and then putting up barricades at the junction. The two constables ended up diverting traffic to another road. The woman "victim" suddenly disappeared into the crowd and was not a focus anymore as the protesters took control of the street.

At another road in the district, I saw a large crowd of loud demonstrators heckling the police.

A policewoman made a tactical mistake. Using a loud hailer, she warned one of the leaders, in Cantonese, to shut up. It created a storm, as the protesters charged that the authorities were stopping them from speaking up, implying democracy was dying. Shouts of "running dogs" soon grew louder.

Posters that proclaim "Pekingnese not allowed", in reference to mainlanders, have appeared on the streets. Those familiar with the history of China would know of a popular park, Huangpu, that was closed to the Chinese people between 1890 and 1928. That was the time when Western powers controlled China and a sign on the park's gate read "No dogs or Chinese allowed".

The new poster may be a clever play on words but it would be painful for those Chinese who still remember what it was like to be humiliated by the West in the 19th and 20th centuries, that they are now being humiliated by their own people.

Some say the sign was a myth but fans of the late gongfu legend Bruce Lee will recall the film Fists Of Fury, in which an angry Lee took down the sign.

But as I walked down Occupied Mong Kok, before the barricades were removed on Sunday by the police, it was obvious to me that anti-mainland sentiments were seething with raw anger.

A woman told listeners that she is a Chinese and not a Chinese national, and that she was proud that she spoke Cantonese and not Mandarin. I also saw mainlanders, who were apparently tourists, arguing with the protesters.

But public attention is also on the 28,000 police officers. Seven of them were caught on video beating up a protester, who belonged to the Civics Party, in a dark street corner.

It sparked public outrage and the seven cops were suspended. The cops appear to have toughened up their crowd control, using their batons more frequently. Dogs are also being used now, and anti-terrorist units too.

The force's four staff associations sent this message to its members last Friday: "We are in the midst of troubles, unprecedented in our careers. Officers have been and remain subject to extreme antagonism, intimidation, emotional, mental and physical stress, severe fatigue and danger.

"We wish to remind you all that we, the Police Staff Association, stand united as a federation in offering our collective full and unwavering support to officers who require our assistance.

"We will continue to endeavour to aid officers to the very best of our ability. We are One."

The cops in Hong Kong, who are regarded as among the cleanest and best paid in the world, are not used to being seen as public enemies. They are supposed to be the good guys but, overnight, they have become a subject of scorn.

At 3am, when I finally managed to flag down a taxi to take me back to the hotel, I saw a few workers from the nearby Yau Ma Tei fruit market shaking the hands of some policemen, praising them for doing a good job.

One thing is certain - Hong Kong will never be the same again. In the aftermath of these protests, it will be a city that will be divided politically.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK