Video footage showing a group of Hong Kong police officers beating a pro-democracy protester has galvanized the city, ratcheting up tensions in demonstrations that have paralyzed large swaths of the city for more than two weeks.
The Hong Kong television station TVB showed about six plainclothes officers in police vests leading the man, later identified as Ken Tsang – a social worker and member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Civic party – away from a protest site, his hands bound behind his back.
The officers took him to a dark corner behind a nearby building and threw him to the ground. Some kicked and beat him, while others kept watch.
Pictures posted to Facebook showed Tsang in the aftermath of the attack, with cuts and bruises on his face and neck, and circular welts running down his back.
“This is an apparent abuse of police power that a society as civilized as Hong Kong would definitely not swallow,” Alan Leong, the leader of the Civic party, told CNN. “I would advise the commissioner of police to immediately arrest the six officers involved in that attack.”
Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Lai Tung-kwok, said the officers involved would be temporarily removed from duties, as authorities expressed concern over the clip and promised an investigation.
“The Complaints Against Police Office has already received a relevant complaint and will handle it in accordance with the established procedures in a just and impartial manner,” the Hong Kong information services department said in a statement on Wednesday.
The incident came as police launched a concerted attempt to disperse the pro-democracy protesters using riot shields, batons and pepper spray, prompting some of the most violent scenes since the demonstrations began more than two weeks ago. Police said they arrested 45 people and that four officers were injured in the violence.
It was the most violent crackdown since the first weekend of the protests, when police tactics – including the use of teargas – backfired by prompting more protesters to come out on to the streets.
The intervention, which included driving protesters from an underpass and removing protest barriers with sledgehammers and chainsaws, is being seen as the start of an operation to clear the protesters, and coincided with the harshest condemnation yet of the protests by Beijing.
Communist party mouthpiece the People Daily said the protests were “doomed to fail” and accused those involved of “exacerbating disorder” through “illegal acts.”
Also on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s most prominent tycoon, Li Ka-shing, broke his silence over the protests to urge the demonstrators to go home. Li, Asia’s richest man, said that if Hong Kong’s rule of law broke down it would be the city’s “greatest sorrow.”
“Since the handover, the ‘one country, two system’ formula has protected Hong Kong’s lifestyle,” Li said, referring to the formula under which the city has been run since its return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“I urge everyone not to be agitated. I urge everyone not to let today’s passion become the regret for tomorrow. I earnestly request everyone to return to their families,” Li said in his first public comments on the protests.
Wednesday’s police operation came hours after a large group of demonstrators blocked an underpass in the Admiralty area near government buildings that have been the focus of the protests. Demonstrators appeared to storm the short tunnel in reaction to police attempts over the past two days to chip away at barricades on the edges of the sprawling protest zone.
Lai Tung-kwok, the security secretary, defended the crackdown, saying in a statement: “A large number of protesters gathering at Lung Wo Road were found dashing to the carriageway, charging the police cordon and throwing objects. The protesters also snatched police barriers and set up roadblocks with plastic boards and drainage covers. As a result, police officers took swift actions to disperse those assembling unlawfully.”
Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old student leader who has become the face of the protest movement, said the video of the police beating meant trust between police and activists had hit an all-time low.
“The proper action police should take is to bring the protester to the police car, not to take him away and then punch and kick him for four minutes,” he told reporters.
Amnesty International also condemned the “vicious” attack.
“It is stomach-churning to think there are Hong Kong police officers that feel they are above the law,” Mabel Au, the director of Amnesty Hong Kong, said in a statement.
Professor Joseph Cheng, from the department of politics at Hong Kong’s City University, said the police operation was being seen as the start of a move to end the demonstrations.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program, he said: “These activities are broadly perceived as preparations for final clearing activities. What happened was the police wanted to remove the barricades and push the protesters to a smaller section of the road for traffic. The protesters tried to resist and tried to move another section. Minor clashes occurred.”
The protesters, who have being calling for the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and elections free of interference from Beijing, have posed an unprecedented challenge to the government.
At their peak two weeks ago, organizers said as many as 200,000 people thronged the streets for peaceful sit-ins. The numbers involved have since dwindled.
Positions on both sides have been hardening since the government called off negotiations last week, citing the unlikelihood of a constructive outcome given their sharp differences. Leung has said there is “almost zero chance” that China’s government will change its rules for the election.
Meanwhile, Owen Jones writes for The Guardian that the "Hong Kong protesters remind us why democracy is worth fighting for":
Democracy is the living, breathing product of struggle: of people organizing together and using their collective strength to drive back the power of those above, often at great personal cost and sacrifice. This is the drama now being played out on the streets of Hong Kong.
As is always the case with such struggles for popular sovereignty, they are being taunted and demonized by the powerful. “They are doomed to fail,” screeches the official organ of the regime. “Facts and history tell us that radical and illegal acts that got their way only result in more severe illegal activities, exacerbating disorder and turmoil,” claims Beijing’s tyrants.
Curious, given they owe their own place in power to a revolution predicated on “radical and illegal acts.” Their rather Orwellian proclamation that “stability is bliss and turmoil brings havoc” is another favored trope of embattled rulers: that if the people dare to challenge unaccountable power and an unjust order, then chaos and mayhem will ensue.
The protesters in Hong Kong have a simple, inarguable case. The regime wants to approve which candidates run in the territory’s first elections based on universal suffrage. The people want to freely choose their own leader without any restrictions. In asserting their basic democratic rights, protesters have been met with teargas and brutality.
But their determination in the face of a regime with a demonstrably murderous record should worry China’s ruling elite. When their barricades are dismantled, they simply set up new ones.
History is littered with the corpses of those who fought for democracy. Peterloo in Britain in 1819; Hungary in 1956; Mexico City in 1968; the Caracazo in Venezuela in 1989; and – of course – the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In that infamous bloodbath, protesters sang The Internationale – the emblematic socialism anthem of resistance and struggle – and yet were portrayed as capitalist counter-revolutionaries.
This is how China’s dictators try to maintain their legitimacy. They are a developmental dictatorship, using their unique, hybrid model of state-directed capitalism to transform Chinese society and lift millions out of poverty. They have avoided the chaos and collapse in living standards that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism to its former territories.
But this is bunk. Democracy or progress is a false binary choice: they are inextricably linked. Others point out that Hong Kong’s former British rulers denied them democracy, too: which they did. That does not make Beijing’s refusal to surrender to a movement now demanding that democracy any more legitimate.
In China itself, there is evidence of people reclaiming the country’s formidable tradition of resistance. Waves of strikes hit the country in 2010, as workers took industrial action at Honda and Toyota plants. But this year, there appear to be record numbers of striking workers. In the second quarter of 2014, there was a 49% jump in industrial action compared with the same period last year.
Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese workers took strike action in Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces. Workers are demanding independently controlled unions, not adjuncts of the regime. Technology such as smartphones is enabling workers to bypass the dictatorship-controlled media.
These protests and strikes are a reminder of a simple truth. Democracy is a universal right, not a privilege reserved for westerners. Cultural relativism – that deems democracy is only appropriate for some cultures – is inherently racist, effectively claiming that some people are incapable of ruling their own societies.
That does not mean the western model is the ultimate form of democracy: it certainly is not. Yes, westerners enjoy democratic rights that were won – again, at great cost – by ancestors who fought the powerful.
But we have a democracy of caveats: popular sovereignty is relentlessly infringed by corporate interests, and our “free media” is in actual fact a media run by a small set of moguls who are part of a status quo they inevitably defend. Social gains – such as workers’ rights, the welfare state and public services – are being dismantled as wealth and power are distributed to those above.
But those protesters filling the streets of Hong Kong should be considered an inspiration for all of us who champion and cherish democracy as a universal cause. They will be demonized, ridiculed and even brutalized by an illegitimate regime. Yet it is clear who history will inevitably judge to be the victors. Beijing’s tyrants know that too. No wonder they are so scared.