Hong Kong Police: A Few Bad Apples or a Big Bad Barrel?

Real Hong Kong News

10th February, 2016

Hong Kong Police: A Few Bad Apples or a Big Bad Barrel?


Photo: InMedia (a protester was hit in the head by a police during 8 Feb civil unrest, branded as Fishball Revolution, in Mong Kok – video of the incident, one officer asked his colleague who hit the protester: “why would you strike on the head?”)

Recent years have seen a spike in cases of Hong Kong police abusing their powers. Such cases have destroyed the previously excellent reputation of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), with many comparing the force to its pre-ICAC days. However, are cases of abuse and corruption within the HKPF due to the innate personality traits of a few individuals, or is there a problem with the system itself that turns good individuals bad? According to Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, the answer may be the latter.

Since the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong in late 2014, people began questioning the professionalism of the HKPF largely due to their inept and frequently criminal handling of protesters during the 79-day-long protest. Before Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed over from the UK to the PRC in 1997, the Royal Hong Kong Police (RHKP) enjoyed a remarkably good reputation in the territory and were well respected by the people of Hong Kong for their professionalism and the overall low crime rate in Hong Kong.


Photo: NBC News (taken during the months-long Umbrella Revolution when protesters are unarmed)

However, in the early years of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Police was notorious for systemic corruption: Its reputation was built in the wake of a massive clean-up programme following the establishment of the anti-corruption unit in Hong Kong, the ICAC.



Taken during Umbrella Revolution

It is no surprise that Hongkongers’ trust in HKPF has declined in recent months: but how has HKPF’s reputation, inherited from the RHKP, collapsed so dramatically? In common with any uniformed unit in any part of the world, the HKPF is seen as one body, rather than a collection of individuals: One or two news headlines cannot easily destroy the credibility of a uniformed unit in a day. However, the headlines which HKPF have made repeatedly over the past few years, including cases of rape and indecent assault committed by its officers, had begun to ring alarm bells. The abuses which took place during the Umbrella Revolution were merely the final straw.

Officers in the RHKP used to be trained like soldiers. They received extremely hard physical training and were required to fully understand the law. This training inculcated a strong esprit de corps – highlighting the fact that once in uniform and wearing their warrant cards, they would be seen as one: One person’s mistake adversely impacts the reputation of the entire unit. Hence, they exercised their authority with caution and understood that they were not the law but merely the means for the judicial system to collect evidence and to determine whether a suspect was, in fact, guilty of any crime.

Recent examples such as seven plain clothes cops beating one confined protester; superintendent Franklin Chu King-wai indiscriminately beating passersby on the neck with his baton (he retired early and received his full pension after his behaviour was reported in the news); a female protester being charged for assaulting a male officer with her breast (the news was mentioned in CONAN Monologue), and; an officer allegedly threatening to rape female protesters faking passing out after a protester confronted him on his verbal threat, were only a few of the absurd cases taking place during the Umbrella Revolution.


Photo: Protest Times (translated by Real Hong Kong News)

Since the months-long protest ended, many more police officers have made headlines accused of serious criminal charges including indecent assault, drug possession, and, almost comically: a traffic policeman driving when his license was suspended and explaining in his defence that he was “not familiar with traffic laws”. A defence which – unbelievably – magistrate Lam Tsz-Kan accepted!

All of these have made people question whether these individuals – whose job it is to uphold the law – actually recognise any law at all. Notwithstanding the fact that protesters and ordinary citizens are always put on trial at lightning speed (e.g. a retiree repairing bicycles for free was charged with illegal hawking – and subsequently found not guilty), police caught committing serious offences – as above – get away scot free. This has raised public concerns about the judicial independence.

Recently, when police officers have met with unfortunate ends (suicides or accidents), comments like “well deserved” have begun to dominate the public voice. We are undoubtedly observing a decline in the people’s trust of the HKPF. However, we continue to see police sympathisers saying that these officers were merely doing their jobs and that they are working-class individuals who are also suppressed by the regime and by the system.


Photo taken during Umbrella Revolution


Photo: Ming Pao (a traffic police fired two shots to warn protesters during Fishball Revolution on 8 Feb)

Are police officers simply doing their job by abusing detainees and suspects? Police officers are trained professionals paid by taxpayers. Although the current regime’s legitimacy is in question, the nature and professionalism of the police department must remain the same. Hence, they are expected to have a high standard in terms of their knowledge of law and consideration for suspects and detainees. If a police squad receives an order to carry out a questionable duty, for example firing tear gas against unarmed protesters, they should have the backbone to question these orders and refuse them – or at least deliberately miss the target: As we all know, claiming to be following orders does not stand as a defence under international law.

Some defend the police, pointing out that they are only human, and that it is only human nature that they snap under stress when meeting confrontation with, or verbal assault from, angry civilians. However, as magistrate Adriana Noelle Ching said in a trial (on a police officer’s corruption case): the police are paid well to do their job. They are well-trained professionals who are expected to be able to handle stressful situations and remain professional.

As said previously, an individual police officer’s bad behaviour can tarnish the reputation of the entire unit. Even though increasing numbers of police are in plain clothes, the uniform is a symbol civilians see as a label of power and authority. The question is, however, are these rogue officers (including the ones physically abusing protesters and committing other crimes) simply bad apples in an otherwise sound barrel, or is the police force rotten to its core?


Photo: The News Lens (a police officer threw bricks at protesters during Fishball Revolution on 8 Feb)

Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s 1954 novel and a thought-experiment on the corrupting power of social conformity without oversight, provides a starting point for this debate. It suggests that any human is capable of doing things unimaginably evil given the right situation (or conditions). All that is required is a sense of “otherness” or out-group on the part of the persecutors towards their victims.

Beginning in 1961, Dr Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments – soon after the Nuremberg trials – showing that the majority of people would obey an authority figure in performing acts which conflicted with their personal conscience.

Professor Philp G. Zimbardo, who led the (in)famous Standard Prison Experiment in 1971, and later talked about the “Lucifer Effect” in connection with the abuses meted out by American soldiers to prisoners in Abu Ghraib, highlighted the “perfect conditions” that “breed” evil. Zimbardo argues that seemingly isolated events like these are actually part of a larger system of evil. In his book The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo listed seven factors which enable what we might otherwise call moral people, to do evil things:

  • De-individualisation
  • Anonymity of place
  • Dehumanisation
  • Role-playing and social-modeling
  • Moral disengagement
  • Group camaraderie and emergent norms
  • Power differentials between guards and prisoners
  • The evil of inaction: passivity of the “good guards”

Altough Zimbardo’s focus was on abuses at the Abu Ghraib Prison, we shall explain how the same seven factors are present in the HKPF:

HKPF’s uniforms de-individualise police officers. Since officers work as a team they create “anonymity of place” – especially where in recent protests, deliberately or innocently, police have concealed their warrant cards and police badges in order to avoid being identified by civilians, individual anonymity creates anonymity of place as individuals of the unified group cannot be individually identified.

Police officers, including high-ranking ones, call protesters and suspects “scum” and many other vulgar terms in public and on social media, and treat detainees (arrested at protests, in particular) like animals by offering them disgusting food and providing them squat-toilets and blankets that stink (confirmed by protesters), the “sub-human” treatments are obvious form of dehumanisation. Again this was a popular tactic used by Hitler’s SS when dealing with Romany gypsies and Jews in the run-up to the Final Solution.

Role-playing and social-modeling is down to the general public’s perception of the police. This means that whoever stands on the opposite side is “evil, and law-breaking rioters” A perfect form of realistic role-play and social modelling that restricts one group of people’s behaviour yet offer the other the privilege to carry out acts that would be seen as “outrageous” if carried out without a police badge or uniform.

Moral disengagement is bolstered by a lickspittle media, and the government calling protesters “rioters” and “irrational”, labeling those who speak out against the authorities as “baddies”. Meanwhile group camaraderie and emergent norms begin to strengthen when police pepper-spray protesters and then beat unarmed protesters with batons. The power differentials between police officers and civilians are self-explanatory, yet it is worth noting that this is closely related to the moral disengagement and role-playing and social modeling conditions mentioned above.

Last but not least, despite the fact that we occasionally see anonymous police officers condemn their peers’ behaviour on social media, their continuous loyalty to the bad barrel, the HKPF, for whatever reasons (e.g. pay or status), is no different from the evil of inaction as identified by Professor Zimbardo – these police officers “with a conscience” do nothing to stop the force escalation or other wrongdoings of the HKPF, not even resigning in protest.

Does the evil-doing of some police officers represent “bad apples”? Or does it highlight that the source of this evil-doing is down to the “bad barrel”?


Reference materials:

Professor Philp G. Zimbardo talks about Lucifer Effect in Abu Ghraib

Passion Times’ article on HK Police Force: Recount of 2015 Hong Kong police’s “Extremely Ugly” major events

Video of Superintendent Franklin Chu, retired with full pension soon after complaints were filed against him beating passersby with baton during Umbrella Revolution (Chu is yet to be charged)

Video of a group of police officers beating and kicking a reporter from Ming Pao Daily during Fishball Revolution on 8 Feb despite the fact that the already shouted out that he is a reporter. He suffered from injuries on his head and hand, and received a stitch at the hospital.

Pastor Bob Craft witnessed a young woman surrounded by a group of police in public


Editor’s Note:

As of February 2016, the seven police officers who were caught beating a handcuffed protester during Umbrella Revolution have still not been charged. The case was reported in 2014. Here’s more about the “Seven Cops”.

A protester confronting police officers for not arresting pro-government individuals who had been beating him in public, was arrested for assaulting the police officers.

A protester’s testimonial about police brutality and lies at Hong Kong University: “when the officers shouted “stop pushing and kicking, stay calm” at the protesters in front of cameras, they started kicking our shins and ankles”.

Photos of the “entertainers” at a Hong Kong Police Force event went viral: The dancers closely resembled Chinese Dama dancers. Netizens’ reaction?: “Oh, this is why the police defend the Chinese Dama dancers”.

News about a police officer found guilty of using the fact that he was a serving officer to coerce a prostitute into having sex with him.

Wong Wai-hung, a police officer, went on trial after found having sex with his son’s friend, a 13 year old girl.

A news article about an off-duty police officer caught filming up girls’ skirts


2 responses to “Hong Kong Police: A Few Bad Apples or a Big Bad Barrel?

  1. Pingback: Fishball Protests–The Fateful Turn to Violence | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Beyond·

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