Hong Kong policeman who fired his gun now faces death threats

Police officers stand guard during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong's tourism district of Tsim Sha Tsui, on Oct 27, 2019.
Police officers stand guard during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong's tourism district of Tsim Sha Tsui, on Oct 27, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Surrounded by Hong Kong protesters who were using weapons to attack him and other frontline police officers, Jacky got scared.

For hours, his unit had clashed with demonstrators in running street battles that became increasingly violent. They had already used non-lethal weapons like sponge-tipped bullets, bean bag rounds, pepper spray and tear gas, but nothing managed to disperse the crowd.

So Jacky took out his gun and fired a live round.

"It was the first time I felt that way - not that I would necessarily die, but that something was going to happen to me and my unit," he said, speaking to a news outlet for the first time since the incident.

"It's the thing I had to do at that moment."

For Jacky, however, the danger didn't end.

Protesters upset about widespread allegations of police brutality quickly identified him and posted personal details of his family online. Two days after the incident, the calls started flooding in. Some people threatened to rape his wife and young daughter, while others said his whole family should die.

"Do you feel heroic?" one person asked. Others simply cursed at him.

He switched off his phone after a day, but then the emails came in droves. Some were death threats: One message online offered a HK$500,000 (S$87,000) bounty to kill him.

Jacky quickly moved out of the police quarters where he was staying and into a secure location. He didn't leave the room for three weeks afterwards, he said. But for him, what happened to his daughter was even worse: Shortly after he pulled her from school, her desk was painted black and vandalised. She hasn't been able to return.

 
 
 
 

"I don't regret having to save my colleagues, but regret that it ended up having an effect on my daughter," Jacky said, adding that the psychological pain of the personal attacks after his information was leaked was far worse than battles with protesters involving Molotov cocktails, bricks and corrosive acid. "I don't know how our society has come to this." Jacky is currently on leave and police are investigating the shot, as they do anytime an officer fires a weapon.

He asked for his full name not to be identified and for specific details of the shooting incident to be excluded in order to protect his identity. He spoke earlier this week in a 90-minute interview at police headquarters.

Since protests began in June against China's increasing grip over the city, Hong Kong's once-respected police force has found itself caught between a Beijing-backed government that doesn't want to give into demands for more democracy and demonstrators who are resorting to increasingly violent tactics to spur change. The unrest, which has plunged the city's economy into recession, has shown no signs of ending anytime soon.

As the protests drag on, police have come under fire for increasingly aggressive tactics - many of which were caught on video by hundreds of journalists and protesters with smartphones.

Officers have faced criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, US lawmakers and Amnesty International, which accused the force of abusing detained protesters with what amounted to "torture."

Protesters also reported sexual assaults in detention centres that police have vowed to investigate.

While nobody has been killed so far on the front lines of the protests, several incidents of live fire have left protesters seriously injured. Police so far have justified the use of live ammunition in cases where officers were under direct attack.

Beyond the physical violence, protesters and police alike have been victims of "doxxing," when personal information is maliciously leaked online.

In August, former Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying promoted a website offering cash bounties to identify demonstrators. The following month, a Weibo account of China's state-owned CCTV accompanied its post about a doxxing website with a call to "unmask" protesters.

A protester who goes by the name Mas said his name, birthday, social media accounts and phone number were disclosed without consent last month shortly after he was detained at an Oct 6 protest.

"Luckily, they didn't disclose my address," said Mas, who asked not to have his full name disclosed to protect his identity. "The only worry for me is about harassing my family members."

Hong Kong's privacy commissioner said roughly one-third of the 3,525 doxxing complaints and cases handled by its office were related to police or their families. At least 11 people have been arrested in relation to doxxing police officers, which can lead to charges of disclosing personal information without consent, incitement or access to a computer with dishonest or criminal intent. No arrests have been for doxxing protesters.

"It's a very powerful psychological weapon," said Superintendent Mohammed Swalikh of the Hong Kong Police Force's Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau, who has also been doxxed. "People get radicalised online. You get behind and you start doing things that are difficult to do in the real world. It's like getting behind a mask. People start spreading it and it goes very quickly and widely."

Doxxing concerns prompted riot police to stop wearing ID badges months ago, because they allowed protesters to discover their personal identity. The anonymity of police donning masks and swinging batons fueled outrage among protesters over a lack of transparency. The police introduced a new version of badges last week that are only identifiable within the police force based on rank, and can be used for hashing out complaints by the public.

Because the leaderless protest movement has been organised through internet forums and encrypted messaging platforms, where some of the personal information has been leaked, authorities have sought to shut down some of these online venues.

 
 
 
 

The High Court granted an interim injunction on Oct 25 to protect police from doxxing by banning the publication of their personal information, raising concerns that the issue may be used to censor the Internet. A week later, a court granted a temporary injunction to block messages inciting violence on Telegram and LIHKG, two popular online platforms among protesters.

Legislator Elizabeth Quat plans to raise a question in the Legislative Council on Nov 6 to urge the government to enact legislation to combat "messages on the Internet which are fake and jeopardise public safety," legislative documents show. Beijing's allies are seeking to censor platforms used by protesters to communicate, lawmaker Charles Mok said by email.

"They may be thinking about screening of content as well as filtering of websites," he said. "That will effectively bring the Great Firewall to Hong Kong. Doxxing of police will of course be their convenient excuse."

For officers like Jacky, the situation between police and the public has gotten persistently worse. On June 9, when the protests started, he could hear protesters swearing at some of his officers.

"That night, I still thought our job as police was to facilitate these protests," he said, noting that he was struck by how young some of the protesters were. "I was asking them to leave. 'Why don't you go home? Do your parents know where you are?'"

As the government refused to withdraw a bill allowing extraditions to China, the police found themselves acting as the de facto public face of Chief Executive Carrie Lam's administration. Soon protesters began to throw bricks, Molotov cocktails and other projectiles at police, who responded with volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets, bean-bag rounds and water cannons. At one point, Jacky found himself working 34 hours straight.

Asked about demonstrators' key demands, including an independent inquiry into the violence and police abuse, Jacky said he didn't mind one as long as it didn't focus solely on officers. He cited a commission of inquiry into the deadly 2012 collision of ferries off the city's Lamma Island as an example of a report that could offer recommendations to prevent a recurrence of the incident.

"It's reasonable to have an independent inquiry," he said, while adding that "the scope of the inquiry has to be broad."

Expressing a sentiment shared by many officers, Jacky said politicians could've done a better job handling the issues that have inflamed the protests. And despite getting doxxed and attacked to the point where he fired his gun, he still advocates restraint while out on the streets.

"I have to constantly remind my junior officers that they may be shouting at you, but technically they're not shouting at you," Jacky said. "They're actually shouting and expressing their anger at the government."