Stop State Violence: An Open letter to UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet

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Dear High Commissioner Bachelet,

We are a group of Hong Kong citizens who have, in one way or another, participated in the ongoing pro-democracy movement since June this year. We write in response to your remarks made on October 5th regarding concerns about increasing violence “from all sides” of the protests. 

While we welcome the U.N.’s call for an impartial probe into police violence, especially recent shootings of journalists, we are also worried that protestors’ actions have been unfairly and dangerously equated with that of the police. This is especially worrying because the continued support of the international community, including key organizations like the U.N., is crucial for the safety of our citizens, and the viability of the democratic movement as a whole. 

We would like to take this occasion to state the following four points regarding recent developments on the ground:

Targeted resistance against a repressive regime

There have been many recent reports of the city’s subway system, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), being vandalized and destroyed by protestors. Some shops and offices of politicians have faced similar treatment. These, however, are not random acts of violence. Recall that back in June, when the anti-extradition movement first started, protestors left spare change in subway stations so that other protestors heading home could pay the fare. When, in mid August, the police fired tear gas into a subway station--an incident that drew international condemnation as a potentially lethal misuse of tear gas--protestors went back to the station the next day, armed with cleaning equipment, and helped clean the station of poisonous residue. 

Since late August, however, the MTR Corporation has yielded to Beijing’s explicit pressure and has begun actively aiding the police in their crackdown operations. On August 24th, for example, the subway system shut down unexpectedly, leaving peaceful protestors stranded and exposed to arrests and police violence. Since then, despite its many shutdowns at key moments when protesters and citizens needed transportation to safety, the MTR Corporation has continued to transport the police via special trains. Moreover, the MTR has allowed the police to utilize their spaces--such as their control rooms as operation stations, underground stations as resting areas--while closing their gates on unarmed protestors. Most disturbingly, after the brutal and widely condemned police attacks on random passengers in Prince Edward Station on August 31st even as citizens and lawmakers demanded that the MTR release its CCTV footage so as to enable transparency and accountability, the MTR nonetheless refused to do so, and instead passed the footage to the police. 

Protestors’ change of attitude towards the MTR Corporation and recent acts of vandalism against the company have to be read in light of these developments. Often, setting up barricades at subway station exits--sometimes even setting them on fire--is the only way that protestors can protect themselves against sudden police raids, which have increasingly relied on the active cooperation of the city’s only underground transport system. 

Similarly, there have been reports that certain businesses and offices have been targeted. Specifically, these are Chinese firms such as the Bank of China, and pro-Beijing politicians’ offices. As symbols and sites of the economic and political power of the Chinese authoritarian regime, these establishments are far from random victims of protestors’ anger. Rather, protestors’ vandalism has for the most part been principled and selective, and other businesses have generally been left unscathed. In fact, protestors have designed multiple widely circulated guides identifying businesses that ought to be supported--usually shops that have given free supplies or ‘shelter’ to protestors in need-- and others that have colluded with the police, or are backed by pro-Bejing capital. Lastly, it is important to emphasize that, as of today, no looting of vandalized shops and businesses by protestors have been reported.

In short, far from random and spiraling acts of violence, protestors have been exercising principled and restrained violence against specific property. In fact, since mid-August, the Hong Kong Police have admitted that some undercover police officers have infiltrated movement, disguised as protestors. This has sparked outrage, in part because these cops-disguised-as-protestors could engage in random violence and vandalism in an effort to smear the movement.

Acting in self-defense as law enforcement is no longer impartial

There have also been reports of beatings of police and pro-Beijing citizens. But in most, if not all, of these cases, protestors were acting out of self-defense. Two especially high-profile cases are worth noting: first, a video circulating online since October 4 (when the anti-masked ban was announced, triggering protests across the city) shows an off-duty cop being dragged out of his car, beaten, and nearly set on fire with Molotov cocktails. What happened immediately before is key: the cop had driven his car into a group of protestors, hitting some of them. When protestors surrounded his car, the cop panicked and pulled out his gun, shooting a fourteen year old schoolboy in the leg. The crowd proceeded to beat and attempted to disarm him to prevent more shootings. 

In another video on October 6th, a taxi driver was beaten by a group of protestors. Again, protestors were acting in self-defense--the taxi driver had deliberately plunged his car into the crowd, severely injuring at least two, one of whom is still in critical condition with both legs broken as we write. 

It’s important to remember that the events of the past few months have led most protestors to believe--and with good reason--that law enforcement has failed in the city, and that citizens must do what they can to protect themselves and one another. Early in the movement, on July 21st, a gang of men clad in white rampaged through a train station and launched an undifferentiated attack on passengers. Police officers on the scene were filmed leaving, and later a politician was filmed thanking the violent gang for their help. There are multiple occasions caught on camera where the police let go of thugs who had attacked civilians instead of arresting and charging them. In addition, there are reports where protestors have been seriously wounded by individuals and groups wielding knives and other weapons, but the police has not responded with any investigations. In one incident, the protestor who was attacked may be permanently disabled. 

Allegations of police collusion with gangs with triad backgrounds have persisted in the past few months, and in such an environment, protestors rightly believe that they must act in self-defense when necessary. 

A city in fear: Escalating and unaccountable police violence and brutality

Furthermore, police violence has been escalating at alarming levels. On October 1st, a 15 year old schoolboy was shot at close range by a police officer claiming to “to feel threatened for his life”, despite the fact that the boy was armed with a thin plastic tube for a weapon, and a swimming board for a shield. The police commissioner immediately came out to say that the shooting was “legal and reasonable”. It was leaked to the public later that the police had revised their manual on the use of force just the day before, relaxing the threshold for using lethal force. 

As a report by Amnesty International details, the police--especially the anti-riot police and the Special Tactical Squad--are routinely employing excessive violence in making arrests, resulting in broken bones and other potentially fatal injuries such as neck and head injuries. Some protestors in custody have been severely beaten and threatened with torture. At the same time, children have been arrested for wearing masks and carrying items such as “laser pens”, and in one case, the police filed for a court order to remove two children from their parents’ care. 

In this situation, we believe that the violence employed by protestors--again, mainly in self-defense and targeted resistance--cannot, in any meaningful sense, be equated with that of the police. The police are not only equipped with a wide range of lethal weapons, they also have the backing of the political system and the highest officials of the land.  It bears remembering that back in August 29th, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam explicitly promised the police that “no independent investigation” into alleged police abuse will ever be opened. 

Masking as self-protection against unrestrained state surveillance and control

Lastly, the recent ban on masks, established through the Chief Executive’s invocation of emergency powers that have not been used since the British colonial era, is the latest affront to citizens’ freedom of speech and assembly in an already extremely tense political crisis. It is important to note that, under a surveillance state such as China PRC, which is increasingly employing facial recognition technology to make arrests, and Hong Kong, which is now implementing similar technology, wearing a mask is often the only way to protect oneself from arbitrary retaliation and to exercise one’s freedoms of speech and assembly. Let us underscore this point: the circumstances under which masking is used by Hong Kong protestors is very different from the circumstances of liberal democracies, where political freedoms are in general upheld by the state. 

In your remarks, you said that “we cannot accept people who use masks to provoke violence”. We agree. However, as explained, it is seldom masked protestors who provoke violence-- but rather, it is often the police, all of whom are masked and who are no longer required to wear identification numbers on their uniforms and enjoy complete anonymity, who are caught on camera employing excessive violence against protestors, random citizens, and even journalists. The new ban on masks does not apply to them. In effect, the ban is further exposing citizens to unrestrained and unaccountable violence from the state.

In sum, we call upon the U.N. and the broader international community to condemn state and police violence in Hong Kong, and the continued suppression of political freedoms and basic human rights of the people of Hong Kong. In doing so, we urge you to take care in not  equating protestors’ restrained actions with that of state authorities. Doing so not only erodes much needed international support for Hong Kong’s democratic movement, but also fuels a narrative, largely based on unfounded and false claims, that further legitimizes the state’s continued crackdown and unwillingness to address the demands of the movement. 

Thank you for your kind attention.

Sincerely,

The undersigned