Hong Kong’s ‘new normal’ leaves residents looking over their shoulders

Hong Kong’s leaders say things are back to normal after the pro-democracy protests that rocked the city and its inhabitants in 2019. They’re right — in some ways.

Families can once again eat dim sum without inhaling tear gas. Financiers are back to trading. Canto-pop blasts from stadiums rather than the streets and the queues snaking outside luxury shops have returned.

But one thing that has not abated is the heightened state of security that the protests engendered. And the widespread police presence feels especially strange in a city with one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Last month, for example, thousands of police were deployed to the annual Standard Chartered marathon. Groups of officers surrounded a handful of runners, objecting to their outfits for carrying political slogans — including such apparently radical sentiments as “Hong Kong, come on!” They were forced to change clothes.

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The police presence is also heavier on a daily basis. “Stop and search” is not unusual if you are young, male and Cantonese, with groups of police stationed outside train stations.

The city’s police budget has risen by more than 20 per cent since before the 2019 protests and the constabulary are now nearly as well-funded as London’s, with roughly the same number of officers. In the UK, the mayor’s office for policing and crime had a budget equivalent to $5.2bn in the last financial year. The equivalent of $4.2bn was announced for Hong Kong’s officers in February, if you include the amount earmarked for protecting national security.

If you don’t count the new enthusiasm for national security, there is arguably a difference in workload, however. London’s police dealt with nearly 800,000 incidents of crime in 2020 compared with about 60,000 in Hong Kong. Hong Kong had a fraction of the number of murders London saw.

Hong Kong’s police gained both resources and political power in the wake of 2019’s unrest, when they were seen as under-equipped to deal with an organised and popular pro-democracy movement. In June, Chris Tang, the former police chief, was promoted to security secretary while a former officer, John Lee, became the territory’s second in charge.

In the wake of the protests, China passed a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong, increasing its power over the territory. Beijing claimed that the protests were engineered with the help of foreign governments. That law, and mass arrests of pro-democracy activists, effectively neutered the opposition and halted the unrest. So now, there is a question of how much use police will get out of their new resources.

Last month new Swiss-made liquid pepper spray guns were shown in front of TV cameras. The guns are more powerful than tasers and are intended to contain future riots. But police suggested that, for the first few months at least, the biggest workout the guns might get would be to contain bar fights on Hong Kong Island, where drunken finance types have been known to get rowdy after a boozy night in Wan Chai.

Police spend a fair amount of time enforcing the city’s Covid-19 policies, which have saved residents from the high death tolls seen elsewhere but been criticised as inconsistent. The city has had close to zero cases for months, but is enforcing some of the strictest social distancing rules outside Singapore as the city’s government seeks to keep its border with the mainland open to allow the economy to recover. Authorities have denied permits for outdoor activities, citing the pandemic, despite bars and restaurants remaining open. Protests have no hope of a permit but even a trail-running event was banned.

Despite sluggish vaccination rates, authorities are pushing compulsory use of the official tracing app. Many Hong Kongers, wary of surveillance, have been buying second phones to download the app on, minimising the possibility of personal data collection.

Police also have their informers’ hotline to attend to. So far it has received 200,000 tip-offs to possible breaches of the security law. A local friend tells me it’s at the back of their mind each time they sit down to dinner with new friends. So, yes, the yum cha trolleys may be rolling again, but many are still looking over their shoulder in Hong Kong’s new normal.

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