2 Years on From Hong Kong’s Prince Edward ‘831’ Attack: From Police Violence to Police State

August 31, 2021 Updated: August 31, 2021

Commentary

Two years ago today, the Hong Kong Police Force—if one can still call them that—ran riot in the Prince Edward subway station in Hong Kong, indiscriminately attacking passengers on the metro as they sought out pro-democracy protesters.

The video footage of the terror unleashed by a police force once regarded as “Asia’s finest” shocked the world, and it shocked me for several personal reasons.

First, when I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover, I always regarded the Hong Kong police as not dissimilar to the British police—not perfect, but professional. I never had much reason to be in contact with them, but on the few occasions that I did, I found them civil and courteous. On a couple of occasions, I visited Pakistani asylum seekers who ended up in Tsim Sha Tsui police station cells, and I was permitted to bring them (at their request) McDonald’s meals. The cops were always friendly. On a few occasions living in the city from 1997 to 2002, I asked a Hong Kong policeman for directions. At the time, I had no reason to fear or disrespect the Hong Kong police. Today, they sicken me. Today, they’ve morphed into nothing more than a gang of thugs.

The second reason I feel this personally is that I know Prince Edward station well. I used to pass through it often on my way to work in Kowloon Bay, when I was a journalist at the Hong Kong iMail. It’s four stops beyond Tsim Sha Tsui, where I used to go every Sunday to worship at St. Andrew’s Church, and it’s just past Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok, areas where I often went with friends.

And thirdly, a young activist who was beaten and arrested at Prince Edward two years ago today—now known as Jim Wong, previously “Hon Bo Sun”—has become my friend. Indeed, last year—just over a month before the first anniversary of the Prince Edward incident, known to Hongkongers as “831”—I met Jim as he arrived in London. We had dinner together. At the end of dinner, he asked me to take a photograph. I assumed it was for personal records only and not for publication, but he then asked me to post it on social media. He explained that people thought he was missing or dead, and he wanted to let them know he was safe. He told me to tweet: “#HongKongers: I just want to tell you: ‘Hon Bo Sun’ from 831 is not dead. He is alive and well. And it was a privilege to spend the evening with him today.”

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People light candles at a tribute wall at the entrance to Prince Edward MTR station in Hong Kong, on Sept. 7, 2019. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

For these reasons, today is an anniversary that weighs heavy in my heart. As does everything that has happened in Hong Kong since then.

In the past two years, the speed and severity of the crackdown in Hong Kong has caught everyone by surprise: from the crack of the truncheon, the bang of rubber bullets and the smell and smoke of teargas at protest sites, the expulsion of democrats from the legislature, the imprisonment of politicians and activists under the draconian National Security Law, the murder of the Apple Daily, and new film censorship laws recently introduced. Hong Kong’s freedoms have been dismantled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with a speed and vigor only outstripped by the Taliban’s march on Kabul and the coup in Burma (also known as Myanmar) that reversed a decade of fragile political reform there overnight. Perhaps that’s why Xi Jinping’s regime is so quick to embrace the jihadists in Afghanistan and the generals in Naypyidaw, recognizing them as kindred spirits, peas in the same pod.

Since the 831 attacks, Hong Kong has become a place of daily, permanent terror. Not necessarily always of the physical brutality seen this day two years ago, but nevertheless with a climate of fear. The permanent question is whether something you might do—something that would in ordinary times be perfectly normal: talk to an overseas friend, speak to a foreign journalist, comment on a new policy proposal, express an opinion—might land you in jail.

That’s not the Hong Kong I knew. And it’s not the Hong Kong that was meant to be. When Hong Kong was handed over to China, it was on the principle of “one country, two systems” that was proposed by Deng Xiaoping. That lasted for much of the first decade after the handover, and in the past two years has been ripped up, binned, and set on fire completely.

By writing for this courageous newspaper, The Epoch Times, I know full well I will receive abuse—as I did when I wrote weekly for Apple Daily, the newspaper I loved writing for every week for a year up to the week before it was killed. But I am proud to write for newspapers brave enough to stick their heads above the parapets and call out the CCP, something too few are willing to do. And I know enough Falun Gong practitioners to know that, contrary to the CCP’s propaganda, they embody the principles of “truthfulness, compassion and forbearance”—values that the CCP hates.

Does that mean I endorse every article published by this newspaper, or every opinion articulated by Falun Gong practitioners? Of course not, in the same way, that I didn’t necessarily agree with everything the Apple Daily published. But what unites us is far more profound than anything that differentiates us—it’s a basic, fundamental belief in freedom: of expression, of religion, of thought, conscience and belief, of assembly, of association, and of the media. The freedoms for which so many in China yearn—and which Hongkongers have had stolen from them.

As we look around the world, we have good reason to think that freedom is on the back foot.

When we look at the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we see the free world handing the people of Afghanistan over to repressive Taliban rule, after two decades of occupation that had seen big advances in women’s rights and other freedoms.

When we look at the crisis in Burma, we hear an ominous silence from the free world. Despite the eagerness of the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and others to embrace the democratic reforms in the country a decade ago, there is no apparent energy or will to defend those fragile freedoms in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe in Burma today.

And when we look at Hong Kong, what has been done in response to a blatant betrayal of a people and of a treaty obligation? Yes, Britain has made a generous immigration offer to Hongkongers and should be applauded for that, and others have followed suit. Yes, the United States has imposed some sanctions. But what we really need is a collective effort by the free world to impose the toughest, most targeted, most robust sanctions possible on officials in Beijing and Hong Kong. This would send a message that police beating passengers on a metro at Prince Edward station is unacceptable, nor is the jailing of democrats, the silencing of civil society, the closure of a newspaper or the destruction of media freedom.

Even if our leaders, for now, appear to be in retreat, let our friends in Hong Kong—including my friend Jim Wong—remind us that those who are fighting on the frontlines of freedom have not given up, and so nor should we. Let us continue to #FightforFreedom. Otherwise, we’ll all be ruled by a police state that bashes heads at metro stops at whim.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Benedict Rogers
Benedict Rogers
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.