“CHINA’S REBEL CITY” — AGITPROP AT THE DAWN OF HONG KONG’S POLICE STATE
by Doug Chan.
As another tumultuous week passed in Hong Kong, during which security police froze bank accounts and made multiple arrests in retaliation against those identified with the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post released an hour-long documentary on YouTube that it had posted previously as a four-part series, China’s Rebel City: The Hong Kong Protests.
Packaged as a highly specious, and ultimately apologetic, piece of propaganda designed to smear Hong Kong’s protest movement and legitimate the Hong Kong Police Force and the establishment it defends as the guardians of law and order. This self-promoting, “exhaustive” and “gripping documentary on Hong Kong’s anti-government protests of 2019 and their far-reaching implications for life in the city,” stands logic on its head and, in many instances, disregards it completely.
The producer, SCMP Films, curated hundreds of hours of high-quality video captured by its videographers on the frontlines of Hong Kong’s incendiary summer of discontent. Prompted by a proposed law that allowed individuals to be extradited to mainland China, Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s drive to chip away at the city-state’s long-held culture backfired. Millions of Hong Kongers – accustomed to cherished political liberties of free speech, press freedom, judicial independence, and free assembly – engaged in historic, peaceful mass-demonstrations and kinetic street actions not seen in a generation.
Once lionized as “Asia’s World City,” the legendary window onto China had, by the time of the handover of sovereignty from Britain in 1997, had reinvented itself as a premier offshore finance center. The rule of law expressed through functional and transparent courts, a free press, the free flow of information, quasi-democratic political rights, a professional civil service, and relatively low income taxes comprised the foundation for economic success. Hong Kong convened talent from around the world and where so many professionals created an engine of transnational commerce and investment. That resulting financial stability still drives the mainland’s internationalization of the Renminbi and its dream as the world’s next reserve currency.
Two decades of simmering political tensions –fanned by the Xi Jinping regime’s desire to incorporate Hong Kong fully into the dominion of the Chinese Communist Party apparatus – erupted in a tumultuous summer of 2019. A mere 18 months later, the Hong Kong which had flourished before the pandemic has ceased to exist. Beijing’s unilateral imposition of a draconian national security law now represents to those who remain an uncertain transfiguration to something very different, palpably diminished and repulsive. Hong Kong journalist and TV host Michael Chugani declared after Rebel City went live on December 7, 2020, that Carrie Lam’s police state was systematically re-engineering Hong Kong’s “DNA” in the image of a mainland city.
“The city where I was born is becoming unrecognisable with each passing day,” Chugani wrote in the December 10 letters section of SCMP. “I never thought that peacefully shouting protest slogans such as ‘five demands, not one less,’ or singing the protest song Glory to Hong Kong could be deemed security threats.“
A view of Hong Kong Harbour. September 2015. Photo by Doug Chan.
Rebel City’s narrator, however, facilely declares that “it’s not over yet” for the “two camps” of Hong Kong’s political divide. Unfortunately, SCMP’s daily reports are proving the contrary. Internationally-prominent localists – whose voices Rebel City mostly, ignores — such as Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai – all sit in jail cells as of this writing. Others, such as Nathan Law, have gone into exile to plead the cause of free Hong Kong to a seemingly apathetic and distracted international community. In the meantime, Beijing’s blundering, neo-quisling government of Carrie Lam is making steady progress with leadership decapitation and “lawfare” (i.e., the misuse of the legal system). In addition to incarceration of dissenters, the “patriotic” transformation of schools, coercion of bureaucracies, intimidating media outlets, and workplaces are all calculated to transform Hong Kong’s institutions into blunt, authoritarian tools devoted to the dictates and demands of its new masters in Beijing.
Exhausting the view while avoiding the exhaustive
Taken as a whole, the magnitude and breadth of the editorial omissions made in Rebel City comprise the journalistic rot at the core of its attempted first draft of history. Relying on the strength of its top-notch videographer crews, SCMP provides a vivid, compelling and, ultimately, disingenuous presentation of the street troubles that boiled over in the summer of 2019 and continuously spilled out onto Hong Kong’s streets until the arrival of COVID-19.
Viewing Rebel City may be exhausting, but it falls far short – in spite of the hype – substantiating SCMP’s claim to “exhaustive” reportage and analysis of the demonstrations that roiled Hong Kong. The script, bearing the heavy hand of Chief News Editor Yonden Lhatoo, manages to sustain a narrowly-curated perspective that conveys simultaneously superficial and supercilious narrative.
Welcome to SCMP’s brand of protest porn
At the 18-minute mark, the narrator intones that the spray-painting by a militant protest faction of the façade and emblem of Beijing’s Liaison Office on Hong Kong Island constituted a “turning point” and an “unprecedented insult and challenge to Beijing’s authority.” Rebel City invites the viewer to conclude that this street-action alone induced China’s communist party to bring down a bamboo curtain on its restive special administrative region. To the contrary, the historic record and context for the demonstrations suggest that the roots of Beijing’s decision to abridge the freedoms and autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kongers by the Basic Law (until 2047) predated the incident at the Liaison Office.
“. . . Hongkongers understand the mainland legal system all too well: Beijing’s “rule the country by law” (依法治国) is not the rule of law,” law professor and Executive Director of Human Rights in China Sharon Hom wrote in August 2019. “The massive crackdowns on human rights lawyers in mainland China in 2015, the abductions of Hong Kong booksellers in 2016, and the subordination of law to the Communist Party of China (clearly and officially reiterated in policy pronouncements) are clear warnings that Hong Kong must protect its rule of law and fundamental rights against Beijing’s encroachment.”
Paper cranes line the floor of the Causeway Bay mall on Sept. 30, 2019 in a protest on the eve of China’s National Day.
Not surprising, voices such as Hom’s and others observed that China had attempted to apply its “repression playbook” to Hong Kong as early as 2003. Rebel City, moreover, completely glosses over the city’s festering and local issue of police accountability; it omits any mention that the Hong Kong government’s own panel of international experts found that structural limitations on the city’s police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Council, represented a recipe for the Hong Kong Police Force’s continued use of excessive force and abuse of the citizenry.
“Recalling the stress, tension and fear of the days we show in part three made us extremely conscious of reflecting those emotions as fairly and authentically as we could,” SCMP’s director of video Mat Booth says of Rebel City. “For anyone who cares about our city, this is tough to watch, but it’s important to remember what we all went though.” Unfortunately, merely triggering post-traumatic fatigue and anxiety in its viewers fails to cure the deficiencies of the script which Booth’s production team was tasked to interweave throughout the video.
Booth previously worked with CNN for 17 years, before joining SCMP in 2017. His hiring three years ago set in motion SCMP’s strategy to pivot out of print and into more robust and viable video journalism. As CEO Gary Liu said at the time: “We always felt explaining China to the world required visuals.”
Given its near-legendary history as a Hong Kong-based newspaper operation, SCMP’s staff was already well situated to produce content, given what journalism.co.uk reported as the papers ‘vantage point’ on China. Booth and his team ramped up production, and SCMP reported in the fall of 2020 it had hit a milestone of one billion lifetime views on YouTube. More than 970 million of those views occurred within the last three years, with a corresponding growth in its subscribers from 27,000 to 1.45 million.
To a disconcerting degree, Rebel City represents yet another example of the maxim — garbage in, garbage out. To paraphrase another play about an autocrat, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves — more precisely, the dreck that passes for journalism. Even a cursory viewing discloses that Lhatoo (and his co-writer Chieu Luu), produced the specious, lugubrious script, with which Booth and his team were burdened for the Rebel City production. An hour’s visit to Rebel City will still leave the viewer asking “why?”
A bridge Lhatoo far
Yonden Lhatoo’s peculiar journey, from promoter of the now electorally-discredited “silent majority” meme in Hong Kong, to bully-boy propagandist for the imperium, came to a head last August in a lengthy feature by Timothy McLaughlin for The Atlantic, headlined “A Newsroom at the Edge of Autocracy.” McLaughlin’s piece described the sad and dismal decline of journalistic standards at the once-fine SCMP – precipitated, according to most of the current and former SCMP employees interviewed, by its chief news editor, Lhatoo. The Atlantic piece devastatingly described Lhatoo as “a former TV journalist who was described by current and former colleagues as an abrasive and mercurial presence prone to angry outbursts and frequent shouting, is part of a trio of senior editors seen as contributing to a sometimes caustic newsroom environment.”
McLaughlin reported staff’s allegations that Lhatoo had skewed stories, favoring Hong Kong’s inept government and hidebound establishment. During the height of last year’s protests, Lhatoo was “pushing a theory popular among pro-Beijing figures that there was a ‘silent majority’ in Hong Kong” who opposed the protests but had been “scared into silence.” His shading of SCMP’s coverage of the demonstrations finally compelled staffers to demand a meeting with senior editors to express their concerns about the editorial shenanigans. Chow Chung Yan, the executive editor, and Zuraidah Ibrahim, the deputy executive editor, essentially informed disgruntled staff to take-it-or-leave-it. “There was no attempt to try and reconcile anybody,” one person present at the meeting told McLaughlin.
Having been deflected, journalists who had been covering the protests began leaving the newspaper. Their complaints about the subversion of SCMP’s newsroom in the interests of the government played out on social media. The airing of all this dirty laundry caused the predictable heads to explode with the usual recriminations, expressions of outrage, and threats of litigation played out on Twitter and elsewhere. Curiously, SCMP provided neither a credible nor compelling refutation of The Atlantic story’s essential facts that SCMP had become a battleground for the struggle between the forces of the autocratic/oligarchic status quo and journalistic integrity.
As for Lhatoo, his masters allowed him to continue his brand of toxic news curation and curious notions of press freedom. In a May 16, 2020, column, he would call on Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s incompetent chief executive, to retaliate against “malicious journalists” by labeling them “fake news” and a “disgrace,” urging her to emulate Donald Trump’s false excoriations of the US press.
Facilitating statist interests
All of the foregoing prompts the informed viewer to contemplate Rebel City as slickly-produced, apologia for the thuggish policing and incompetent government that are greasing the skids for Hong Kong’s creeping authoritarianism. As a professional communicator, Lhatoo understands that deliberately and transparently misleading the public – akin to the bombastic and ham-fisted style of his counterparts on the mainland – would merely offend our notions of humans as rational. His vision of Rebel City realizes the best agitprop summons the psy-ops manual crafted by Joseph Goebbels and the Third Reich. Goebbels’ evil, creative genius conceived of an optimal audience that would participate actively in its self-delusion. Thus, Rebel City invites the viewer to act as a co-conspirator (rather than the object of proselytizing for CCP-China), in the creation of some tankie, hyperbolic fiction (as described by Nichols J. O’Shaughnessy) about “rioters” and “secessionists.”
Thus, Lhatoo’s Rebel City script avoids making the error of demanding that viewers believe the establishment’s talking heads in the guise of the Hong Kong Police Force and Asia’s Iron Lady, Regina Ip. Instead, Lhatoo, as a professional communicator, invites the viewer to become a partner in wishfully thinking that well-meaning Hong Kongers were self-deluded and influenced by internal radicals sponsored by outside influences.
Hong Kong Police Force detain passengers at subway station.
Disharmony in four parts
SCMP previously deployed Rebel City in four YouTube installments over several weeks. To anyone who actually followed the arc of the protests — even from afar with color-commentary from friends, family, and business associates — the problems with Rebel City become palpable in its opening seconds.
Part 1, subtitled: “Marching into the Unknown,” introduces the gallery of talking-heads on whom the documentary calls to bear witness to the events depicted in the video. This cherry-picking of “witnesses” represents precisely where Rebel‘s speeding MTR train starts running off the rails. At the four-second mark, a supposed frontline protester – clad in antifa-chic black hoodie, facemask and shades –appears on camera to announce “I don’t think politics can always be peaceful.”
After a quick-cut to a cop discharging a tear gas weapon, the comments of Joe Frontliner (whom the narrator calls “Solo”) are followed by o.g. lawyer and democracy advocate, Martin Lee. Thereupon, Lee asks out loud “How can you beat the Communists by using violence?”
After Lee’s query, Deputy Police Commissioner Raymond Siu fatuously declares “Nobody is above the law,” as the video cuts to scenes of protestors hurling Molotov cocktails into the street, interspersed disingenuously with a shot of crying victims (who were actually beaten by police), huddling in the interior of the MTR car.
The capper comes with senior police commander Rupert Dover’s declaring, “[w]ell, I think we’re very much caught in the middle of this one.”
The missing context of broken promises
Rebel City proceeds to provide a quick explanation about the extradition law which sparked the protests in June of 2019. After a couple of perfunctory statements from Lee, expressing his fears about the extradition bill proposed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the video switches to pro-Beijing lawmaker, Regina Ip.
Before her election to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Ip built her reputation as the red animal fur-wearing, stahlhelm-haired , and ever-prevaricatingperennial candidate for Chief Executive. She served as the SAR’s Secretary for Security from 1998 to 2003 — the same year she was driven from office in disgrace for her ill-fated attempt to introduce the anti-sedition bill in 2003. She thereafter returned to Stanford University for a master’s degree in East Asian Studies, burnishing her reputation as democracy professor Larry Diamond’s most conspicuous failure of his teachings. After returning to Hong Kong she completed a political comeback with her 2008 election to the Legislative Council.
For some reason, Rebel City fails to mention that Ip served in the same alternate-reality bubble of Carrie Lam’s Executive Council – populated by fools and Beijing sycophants — from which Lam was operating that summer. Instead, the interviewer simply allows Ip to pontificate freely that “fear and anger and hatred and distrust of mainland China” drove one million Hong Kongers into the streets in June.
Unfortunately, anyone looking for Rebel City to fact-check or provide any context for Hong Kongers’ deep distrust of their government will find Lhatoo’s script woefully lacking. Nowhere does the video explain to the viewer the tragically ambiguous China-U.K. Joint Declaration of 1984, which laid out the reversion plan for Hong Kong. In the Basic Law that elaborated the plan, Beijing pledged Hong Kong people would enjoy the rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Beijing, moreover, promised to uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong, continue its independent judiciary in a common law-based, legal system — not the mainland’s one-party system.
The stillborn democracy
Rebel City devotes scant attention to Hong Kong’s political-legal culture as it existed prior to 2019 or even 2014. Perhaps more significant, the script completely glosses over the key structural driver for Hong Kong protests – its profoundly unrepresentative government. In fact, diplomatic documents, declassified in 2014, show Britain had tried – contrary to the blame-messaging still rage-tweeted by Beijing — to implement universal suffrage for Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1980s. The UK backed away from democratic reforms under threats from China that demanded the preservation of Hong Kong’s oligarchic status quo. As such the mainland is depicted by default as a harmless bystander instead of instigator.
Nowhere does Lhatoo’s script recount that only some of LegCo members are selected by popular elections. So-called “functional constituencies” comprise half of the legislative body, reflecting various economic and professional sectors (e.g., bankers, lawyers, real estate companies, manufacturers, educators, etc.). The system practically guarantees a majority of pro-Beijing lawmakers is elected by a small minority of voters. As Lhatoo himself observed in his fanboy column from 2017, the current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, was picked by 777 out of 1,194 votes by an election committee that was controlled by Beijing’s sycophants.
Nevertheless, the liberal order of civil and political rights, that had served the citizens of Hong Kong even prior to the handover of sovereignty to China on July 1, 1997, continued. The system of governance, while not perfect and obviously flawed, at least proved sufficiently workable.
Hong Kong’s combination of low taxes, coherent laws overseen by a functional court system, relatively transparent securities regulation, and currency peg to the US dollar served the citizens of Hong Kong and the international business community well. By 2014, however, the reservoir of Beijing’s unfulfilled and broken promises had overflowed, particularly in the Basic Law’s promises for direct elections of its legislative and executive branches of government.
Prior to 2014, and when organizers of a demonstration wished to exercise their right of free assembly under the Basic Law, they would present a plan to the police and, absent any reasonable objection by the police, the demonstration would proceed. Demonstrations became a daily feature of Hong Kong life in the two decades after the handover. Hong Kongers turned out in unprecedented numbers – approximately 500,000 — in July 2003, to successfully contest the controversial anti-sedition law proposed by Ip. That march called the world’s attention to a corps of post-handover-born, student activists. The now-jailed Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow gained overnight international followings in that year.
Demonstrators on November 28, 2019. Photo by K.C. Leung.
Against this context, Rebel City whiffs on ascribing blame for the unrest where it should remain due to this day, Beijing’s bad faith in delaying implementation of the Basic Law’s provisions that guaranteed universal-suffrage elections for Hong Kongers.
The dramatic Umbrella protests of 2014, during which young activists displaced the old-time democracy movement leadership, ended in a stalemate over how the city’s chief executive should be selected in competitive elections. Hence, the functional constituencies remained in control of the LegCo.
While democrat Martin Lee provides measured commentary in Rebel City, he had long been eclipsed as a leader or strategist for the democracy movement. Even the progenitor of the Occupy Central and Umbrella movement, the formerly tenured, but now-fired, law professor Benny Tai, would have provided a better counterpoint to the deranged sound served up by the cops and authoritarians.
Rule by the few
The economic and social distortions created by Hong Kong’s oligarchic governance represent either the laziness or fundamental cowardice that underpins Rebel City’s narrative. As Brookings Institution senior fellow, Richard C. Bush would write 90 days after the first large demonstration of 2019:
“In part because of the design of this system, there has been a high concentration of economic and political power in Hong Kong. It has one of the highest Gini coefficients — measuring inequality — in the world. A relatively small number of families and companies control a lot of the wealth and a lot of the political power. Not surprisingly, the public had a high level of alienation against the establishment because of the unequal distribution of wealth and power. One way to rectify the situation was to get more democracy.”
Again, SCMP fails to address the question of why mass protests became a public necessity for petitioning the city’s nonresponsive executive and legislative branches of government. Given Lhatoo’s video editorials from that time, Rebel City’s failure to even attempt an examination of the causes of the mass demonstrations in June 2019 appear quizzical.
In its alternate reality, Rebel City opts to steer its viewers to presume that spontaneous combustion over the extradition bill set the stage for June 2019’s civil disobedience to block the pro-Beijing majority from entering the LegCo to approve the flawed legislation. In fact, the protest represented merely a resumption of the public airing of political grievances identified during Umbrella occupation.
On June 17, 2019, Lhatoo’s video editorial condemned the “young men dressed to the nines in ninja-gear” whom he encouraged viewers to regard as “criminals, thugs, hooligans, agitators or miscreants.” However, he also observed that Hong Kong’s youth were “despondent about the lack of upward mobility in a city where the wealth gap is obscene. Home prices are unaffordable, and the rich and powerful seem to get away with everything.”
Even if he was speculating on the causes for youthful disaffection in June, Lhatoo in June, and knew by July 2019 (when the SCMP board published its editorial) that the ongoing protest “remains a political crisis that can only be solved politically. It should not be repackaged as a law-and-order issue in which police are used to solve what is essentially a political problem.”
Coincidentally, the editorial’s headline described the Hong Kong police as “caught between a rock and a hard place” – the same words used by HKPF commander Dover on camera.
Fetishizing lawless police operations
The flawed, but still functional, governance of Hong Kong from 1997 to 2019 reflected itself in the devolution of Hong Kong’s professional policing practices. Prior to 2014, many commentators praised the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) as “Asia’s finest,” a professional, western-style police agency, widely respected and trusted for its restraint and, more significant, its political neutrality. The HKPF’s failed use of tear gas against Occupy Central protesters in late September of 2014 had shocked Hong Kongers at the time, and, as a result, induced tens of thousands more protestors to join the Occupy demonstrations. Nevertheless, public opinion still favored the HKPF, although a 2017 poll had found almost 40 percent of Hong Kong students appeared to support more militancy in support of political rights.
Hong Kong’s 2019 summer of discontent exposed glaring deficiencies in leadership, training and tactics, and disciplinary procedures for the HKPF. Rebel City correctly attributes paralysis (but ignores the clueless incompetence), by Carrie Lam’s government for interposing the HKPF as the only organized response to the political issues posed by the anti-extradition bill protests.
“Carrie Lam decided to go against the will of [then] 1.03 million Hong Kongers. Her only weapon was the police force,” protest organizer Jimmy Sham tells viewers.
Police disperse university protesters. Photo by Lam Yik Fei.
Rebel City’s treatment of police operations in parts 2 and 3 where SCMP fails to decry, or even impart any understanding of, the role heavy-handed and uncontrolled police operations played in escalating violence on the streets and destroying police morale. In fact, the Hong Kong and international press had reported widely that rank and file officers were complaining about poor leadership and support from the government.
Kettling in Sha Tin
While the incident at the New Town Mall in Shatin would become eclipsed by even more egregious misconduct by police units later that summer, the HKPF’s nighttime invasion of that shopping mall on Sunday, July 14, illustrated the deterioration in professional policing standards and the tactics of violent escalation which Rebel City’s biased, cops-as-victims script ignores completely.
When police announced after a peaceful, mass rally in Sha Tin earlier in the day, protesters left the roads and headed to nearby malls to take refuge and leave the area by means of the MTR subway. According to eyewitness accounts, police entered the New Town Plaza in full riot gear – without warning or a warrant — over the objections of mall security staff. In response to the HKPF’s incursion and in response to indiscriminate pepper-spraying, some protesters threw umbrellas, water bottles and other objects to defend themselves and resist arrest. In the meantime, other police units had entered the mall and blocked access to the subway entrance. The resulting scuffles resulted in the hospitalization of 22 people (including innocent mall patrons) and 40 arrests.
Civil Rights Observer, a human rights group which sent witnesses to the protests, accused the HKPF of engaging in “kettling,” a controversial police tactic aimed at containing crowds without providing any pathway for nonviolent individuals to leave the scene. Police professionals worldwide have criticized kettling for its potential to increase violence and risks of bodily injury to police and civilians.
The crowd-clearing operations in Sha Tin’s major mall, by denying peaceful protesters the opportunity to leave police confrontations by the MTR, turned an ugly, violent corner in the protests. This, and the later incidents recounted in Rebel City, should have prompted its producers to at least pose questions and challenge viewers about the exercise by police of authority under color of law. One of the “Five Demands” that summer called for police commanders and officers who exceed or abuse such authority to be held accountable administratively (either through internal affairs sections or by civilian review boards), as well as in the criminal and civil courts.
In a modern, democratic polity, the choice between prosecuting protesters who violate the law and imposing discipline on police officers who violate departmental general orders regarding crowd control practices is neither a contradiction nor a binary choice. Both sets of proceedings can occur concurrently, and the parties to each type of proceedings have a variety of legal remedies at their disposal. Nowhere does the documentary even attempt to address Hong Kong’s profoundly dysfunctional checks and balances on police functions. Rebel City to its shame not only falls flat regarding police accountability. By indulging Lhatoo’s obsession with frontliner kinetics, it effectively embraces the police-state tyranny depicted in its own video and under which Hong Kong suffers today.
Cops in spin-control
Public anger over the selective exercise of police powers and excessive force had reached a boiling point in August 2019. On August 10, riot officers clashed with protesters in more than half of the city’s 18 districts – from mid-afternoon into the early hours of Monday.
Again, Rebel City offers little explanation for the government’s failure or refusal to propose a political solution or settlement, or at least engaging with opposition lawmakers for a program of reform. Instead, SCMP’s documentary veers off into cop-land by relying heavily on a series of uncontroverted assertions by now-Assistant Commissioner of Police Rupert Dover. The British-born Dover had joined the former Royal Hong Kong Police Force in 1988 as a probationary inspector. As a Chief Inspector, he had participated in police operations in response to the 2014 protests and by 2019 was the incident commander for the 2019 protests outside the LegCo.
Armed with nothing but spin, Dover gamely tries to explain at the outset of Rebel City’s third part that he received no orders to prevent younger demonstrators, who had split off from another peaceful mass march on July 1, from breaching the entrance and entering the LegCo’s chambers, which they proceeded to vandalize with graffiti and banners. (Lhatoo’s script and Commissar Regina describe the action as a “sacking.”) Again, Dover offers no explanation for the withdrawal of riot-equipped police from the entrance to the LegCo. Whose orders? No orders? Thanks for the Reichstag Fire, Rupert.
Rise of the unaccountable police state
The choice of the police spokesmen for Rebel City is particularly odd, as the producers offer no explanation for failing or refusing to interview the then-serving Police Commissioner Stephen Lo (Wai Chung). Lo’s absence from the documentary is telling, particularly as the documentary attempts to recount and explain various police intelligence and operational failures to prevent or intervene in attacks on innocent bystanders by triad thugs in the Yuen Long MTR station on July 21. (The HKPF’s slow response to the “Yuen Long incident” became a protest cause celebre, even prompting an apology from the Chief Secretary of Administration.)
Viewers will also see familiar footage from protests at Hong Kong’s airport and night time scenes of frontliners throwing gasoline-filled bottles into the streets to slow down approaching police formations. The visuals only highlight the documentary’s failure to offer any coherent discussion about issues of police accountability which Rebel City never seems to explain clearly; its facile portrayal of cops caught in the middle, or muddle, represents its most abject failure as a documentary.
For example, on one night in August, Hong Kong media outlets widely reported the following summarized by reporter Chris Yeung in this sampling of alleged police abuses:
Television footage that went viral on social media showed a police officer put a sharp bamboo into a protester’s backpack after he was arrested. In other footage, police officers turned a blind eye to alleged gangsters chasing and beating up passers-by.
An officer was seen shooting pepper balls at close range against protesters as they were leaving the scene in Tai Koo MTR station. Another also reportedly shot a protester with a bean bag round in Tsim Sha Tsui, causing the rupture of her right eyeball.
In Kwai Fong, officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets inside the MTR station. In a statement, the MTR Corporation said it was “very regretful” that the safety of passengers and staff had been put at risk.
Rebel City will disappoint any viewers seeking an explanation for the particularly brutal beating of non-resisting subway car passengers by a police tactical squad during the infamous August 31, 2019, incident at the Prince Edward underground platform. Asst. Commissioner Dover merely explains away the incident as a product of police frustration with protesters fleeing from police by way of the city’s world-class subway system. He disingenuously asserts the MTR was a “no-go” zone for police, which was patently false. Moreover, he makes no mention of whether any officers were disciplined for the excessive use of force captured clearly by several cameras.
By September 2019, experts in professional policing policies and practices had noticed HKPF operations had devolved to such an extent that its crowd control practices served as a virtual field-training manual for not only various forms of sanctionable police abuse, but also a primer on how incompetent civilian government can allow a police department to destroy itself from within.
“The evidence leaves little room for doubt: in an apparent thirst for retaliation, Hong Kong’s security forces have engaged in a disturbing pattern of reckless and unlawful tactics against people during protests,” Amnesty International’s East Asia director, Nicholas Bequelin, said, including “arbitrary arrests and retaliatory violence.” Amnesty’s report found that “time and time again, officers meted out violence prior to and during arrests, even when the individual had been arrested or detained”, contrary to international law.
Unfortunately, Rebel City dismisses the hundreds of video-recorded incidents that essentially confirmed Commissioner Lo’s alleged negligent or deliberate abdication of control over the HKPF in favor of its brutal tactical commanders. Rebel City’s star police witness, Rupert Dover was one such commander.
In a better documentary team’s hands, viewers would have seen the real-time video of incidents such as HKPF officers’ spraying a legislator at point-blank without warning while the official is engaged in a conversation with a squad leader. The video, for example, omits the September 29, 2019, incident where Special Tactical Squad members video-recorded stopping, subduing, and searching a mentally-disabled individual to his knees for no apparent reasonable suspicion other than perhaps his black t-shirt. Earlier that same day, press and distressed civilians observed police firing tear gas munitions from a pedestrian bridge down onto protesters. The discharge was not only inadvisable, but calculated to increase the lethality of supposedly less-lethal munitions.
Police making their own rules
As the summer’s demonstrations ground on into fall of 2019, the fears expressed by international police experts that the Hong Kong government was tolerating police abuses were confirmed. HKPF officers were now operating without fear of disciplinary consequences or public accountability. Each incident bred anger among, and retaliation by, members of the public which further endangered cops and citizens. Much of Rebel City’s latter half depicts the sad results in dramatic fashion. To its detriment, SCMP’s script utterly fails to provide any professional critique to Dover’s self-serving, play-by-play commentary in the video.
Having setup the comparison, Rebel City cynically offers in rebuttal the solitary voice of “Solo,” described as a “hardcore protester” at the “frontlines of clashes with police.” While the black-garbed Solo observes with ample video evidence that excessive use of force by police had led him and his comrades to “fight back and fight for justice,” his testimony hardly presents a sympathetic counterpoint to commander Dover’s exculpatory explanations that his police units were simply trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
This production choice reveals Lhatoo’s curatorial skills in service of the police state as even more insidious. He’s sending the message that police apologists such as Ip, along with cops Dover, and Siu, are the good-guys, and the bystander mother whose apartment windows are leaking tear gas represents the mythos of a suffering silent majority. For its villain, Rebel City serves up the frontliner Solo, with a fellow traveler in the form of washed-up democrat, Martin Lee. The Minneapolis police department sure could have used Lhatoo’s services to deal with George Floyd and the de-fund the police movement.
In their haste to show the infamous police sieges and nocturnal battles around the Chinese University of Hong Kong and PolyU campuses, Lhatoo and SCMP completely ignore Hong Kong’s government had by the fall of 2019 loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to its own documents. It represented a deliberate effort to “stamp out” anti-government protests.
As reported by Reuters, ”’… The updated [Police General Orders] guidelines also removed a line that said “officers will be accountable for their own actions”, stating only that “officers on the ground should exercise their own discretion to determine what level of force is justified in a given situation.’“
Rather than address the inconvenient truths SCMP’s documentary provides a facile rationale for Carrie Lam’s invocation of emergency powers, coupled with the secret revocation of the police accountability clause in the HKPF’s general orders
Thus, by October 1, when a panicked police officer used his sidearm to shoot an 18 year-old demonstrator (armed with a thin PVC tubing rod and a boogie board shield), in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong’s government had effectively unleashed the rogue elements in its police force. The decision was further validated by what SCMP describes as the “bolder no-nonsense” policing tactics by the HKPF’s current and more media-savvy, hardline Police Commissioner Chris Tang.
Rebel City effusively fetishizes Commissioner Tang and the HKPF in part 4 when it declares that the HKPF “is no longer the demoralized and embattled agency struggling to control the protests.”
The consequence of this editorializing is to preclude any rational dialog about dysfunctional systems of police accountability or consideration of whether the de facto disbanding of the HKPF as a western-style, professional police organization was avoidable.
The questions will be lost to history, as recent events have shown that such a dismantling serves the subversive calculus by mainland officials to transform Hong Kong’s constabulary into an urban garrison of the Peoples Armed Police Force. Today, the HKPF emulates its paramilitary sister-agencies on the mainland. As on the mainland, where abusive policing serves and maintains the political monopoly of a despotic, institutional dictatorship of the CCP, today’s HKPF is being rebuilt to instill fear and impose the Party’s will in Hong Kong.
The diminished future
As the number of YouTube views of Rebel City increase, the figureheads of Hong Kong’s “leaderless” protest movement are either in jail or in exile. Officers for the national security apparat have been perp-walking newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai in shackles — a practice Hong Kong correctional officers formerly reserved only for major thieves, murderers, and drug lords. Beijing’s prosecutors have invoked section 42 of the new National Security Law to oppose bail for Lai; apparently a court must be sure the conduct for which he’s accused will not be repeated.
“In other words,” Apple Daily reporter Alex Lam writes, “gov’t wants to detain Lai so he can no longer tweet, do interviews or write his opinions. Court duly obliged. This is the state of our freedom.”
Hong Kong’s diminished future, and that of its nascent democracy movement, remains in doubt. In the meantime, one can only hope that the judgment of history will relegate Rebel City, to the special place in hell reserved for SCMP’s errant editors and state propagandists. The writers of Rebel City already knew Beijing’s plan for speeding the city’s subservience to the greater whole, and they created a documentary that effectively rationalizes that plan.
Hong Kong represents democracy’s present susceptibility to death from all enemies, foreign and domestic, as well as a cautionary tale about the future perils of exercising choice in an era of inter-imperial rivalry between the US and China. Some posit that the city’s only viable path during this pandemic winter of discontent requires starting a cultural resistance akin to the experience of Poland under the Soviets. That path could be long and difficult. As Hong Kong’s previous masters would have reminded them, the history of Great Powers is written on the bones of little peoples. Today, the city described by journalist Matthew Brooker as “[d]esigned for obsolescence but wanting more life” has reverted once more to a colonial status.
Emboldened by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee commitment to quash rebellion on its southern border and a new National Security Law, Carrie Lam is preaching a toxic integration with the mainland. For Hong Kong’s anxious and angry youth, Beijing is moving quickly to conform secondary school curricula to the mainland’s patriotic vision, with the aim of domesticating future generations– brainwash, rinse and repeat. A year after democracy activists won a landslide victory in the district councilor elections, Beijing plans the wholesale disqualification of candidates to avoid further embarrassment.
Many have already voted with their feet. A new wave of Hong Kong exiles and emigrants – some prominent leaders, such as activist Nathan Law, and others wanting to breathe free – have departed for Southeast Asia, Australia, and Taiwan. They long for home, endure, and hope for the end of Xi’s now eight year-old imperium, or even the collapse of the Party. Their wait may be long, as China can measure its dynastic declines in centuries.
Photo by Sheng On, a reader of @StandNewsHK
“It sounds so naive really,” a traumatized frontliner “Ted” told Al Jazeera from his new refuge in Taiwan where he is studying politics at a local university. “But I wanted to gear up myself. So that when Hong Kong needs me, I can step forward and help.”
Events may prove Hong Kongers in this lifetime can regain the opportunity to resume bending the arc of the moral universe back toward justice. Forty-two minutes ago, as this review was being written, Studio Incendo reported that Herbert Chow, owner of the local children’s wear chain Chickeeduck (who had installed a Goddess of Democracy statue in one of his mall stores), opened a new branch in Tin Hau, emblazoned with Yellow Economy protest art and stocking story books about democracy and civil education. Chow says he wants to bring “hope.”
Others, resigned to tyranny’s triumph and contemplating the rest of their lives in the Chinese diaspora and elsewhere, should find solace in the poetry of Richard Wright from another time and place, yet still resonant:
I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom
Having sacrificed so much for freedom’s elusive promise, they can only hope.
Author’s Bio: Doug Chan has practiced business law for the last four decades, concentrating on transactions involving offshore company formation, international product distribution and supply arrangements, asset protection planning, and strategic counseling for foreign and domestic companies operating in, and from, Hong Kong and East Asia. He is a former San Francisco Police Commissioner and disciplinary hearing officer, and he currently serves on the city’s Civil Service Commission. The views and positions expressed herein are entirely his own.