A crowd of more than 30,000 people gathered in Hong Kong this week to protest a prison sentence handed down to seven police officers convicted of assaulting Ken Tsang, a protester in the 2015 pro-democracy Occupy movement. Police officers and supporters of the police expressed their outrage about the verdict, calling on the government to outlaw insults against law enforcement. The large turnout recalled similar mass demonstrations in Hong Kong by police the in 1970s, when protesters demanded amnesty for officers accused of corruption.
With the support of pro-Beijing lawmakers, four major police unions are demanding new legislation to ban insults against law enforcement, which they say is necessary for officers to “reclaim their dignity.”
In a speech during the rally, one police officer compared the insults law enforcement officials face in Hong Kong to the persecution Jews endured in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
How I would describe it is: it’s like in the second world war. We are Jews, and we are being persecuted. We are like the Jews being persecuted by the Nazi armies. Am I right?
This comparison actually won the applause of many in the crowd, and thousands of his colleagues responded by beginning to chant “Yes!” in unison. Others were shocked, however, by what they felt was a spectacular distortion of history.
Both the Consulate-General of Israel and Germany have issued press statements expressing “regrets” about the Holocaust reference. Germany’s statement said:
The reported reference to the Holocaust shows a regrettably insufficient knowledge of historical facts. The Jewish population in Germany was persecuted by the State and all its organs during the Nazi dictatorship and millions lost their lives. Therefore the comparison between the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and police officers convicted for an abuse of power is utterly inappropriate.
Later in the rally, another police officer announced that he was fed up with the limits of professionalism, and then shouted at the crowd, “Fxxk your mother!” explaining that he wanted to give the audience a taste of what he and his colleagues encounter on a daily basis. Thousands of other officers soon joined him, chanting the obscenity over and over again.
The mass assembly resembled another demonstration by police 40 years ago, when police protested against an anti-corruption campaign. The rally in 1977 turned violent, resulting in attacks on five officers from the from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Eventually, then-Governor MacLehose conceded to police and granted amnesty to all officers who had not been investigated by Jan. 1, 1977. It was at this time that Hong Kong's government also started rebuilding its police force as a civil service with new standards of professional practice.
As police and their supporters took to the streets, Internet users shared photos comparing the 1977 and 2017 events, often expressing fears that police would sacrifice their professionalism for impunity from the law. Blogger Kursk Edward wrote:
Police rally in 1977 can be understood as a pledge for a new beginning. Eventually the government persuaded the public to give the police a chance to self-reform. Later on, the government introduced reform – improved their income, management and training, fought against corruption and improved the police’s image […]
40 years had passed. On Feb. 22, 2017, thousands of police officers protested. What are their demands? To support the seven convicted colleagues.
It's normal to support one’s colleague, but the assembly delivered a worrisome message: the police believe that the abusive use of power of their seven colleagues can be pardoned.
They think they can demonstrate in front of the public in defense of the seven cops’ abusive use of power. If they want to win respect from people, they should have accepted the court’s rule and reflect upon their practice. […] Where does their sense of righteousness coming from? Judging from the mobilization of the unions and the public speech delivered by the police management, this is probably a show to transform the [public servant] police team into state apparatus for political crackdown
The greatest irony is that, in this show, we also see the pro-Beijing political groups and triad affiliated members backing up the police.
Others pointed out that the proposed law banning “insults against police officers” is a move to sharpen the police's teeth and reinforce their privilege. A media worker wrote to the independent news platform Stand News:
The most ridiculous thing is they keep complaining about their hard working conditions — meaning the insults they sometimes hear. Yet, during the Umbrella protest, so many media workers were insulted by the pro-government protesters, and did they ever fight back? So many occupations in our society have to deal with the F words, they are not as well-paid as the police, and they are not “delicately protected” by the government. But as soon as seven cops are punished by law, police hold an assembly to complain about their hard work and suffering. Yet you can’t even answer a simple question: can you randomly beat up people when your work is hard and you're under pressure?
Lawyer Thomas Tse approached the issue from legal point of view, arguing that Hong Kong police have more than enough legal protections, as it is:
“Obstructing the duty of a police officer,” “resisting arrest,” and “police assault” — all these charges are based on police officers’ testimony. It is customary that when the police cannot find another law to charge an arrogant offender, they would use the above law.
So, if “insulting police officer” were passed, ordinary citizens would not have peace. Whenever they approached by police, they could only turn on their mobile camera to prevent a one-sided story. But such behavior would aggravate the antagonism between the two. That’s why [the law on] “insulting police officers” would further destroy the police's relationship with the citizenry.
In response to the mass rally by police, Civic Human Right Fronts, a coalition of local NGOs, protested in front of police headquarters, demanding that the commissioner respect the court’s verdict and sentence, and even apologize to the public for the officers’ misconduct with activist Ken Tsang.