Sat, Aug 10, 2019 - Page 4 News List

How tear gas became the norm in Hong Kong


A protester throws a tear gas canister during a faceoff with police near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on Monday.

Photo: AP

As protesters blocked roads in Hong Kong’s central business district this week, something unusual happened: Tear gas canisters began raining down from the sky.

It was unclear where they were coming from, but police officers wearing gas masks were seen on the roof of a nearby building.

A video of the incident appeared to show aluminum canisters trailing smoke as they fell at least 10 stories, landing in the middle of hundreds of demonstrators.

The incident marked one of the more dangerous uses of tear gas in nine weeks of rallies that have rocked the financial hub and underscored the growing risks of a fatality as police and protesters become more aggressive.

The more that police fire tear gas, the better protesters become at countering it — leading authorities to deploy even harsher measures.

Any deaths would add more fuel to the biggest challenge to Beijing’s rule since it took control in 1997.

China has encouraged the police to use greater force to subdue protesters rather than meet their demands, which include an investigation into police violence and the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥).

“Nonlethal weapons are nonlethal only if they are appropriately used,” said Lawrence Ka-ki Ho (何家騏), an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, who is an expert in policing and public order management. “If you fear more, you may uncontrollably use more force.”

Police have already used far more tear gas than at any point in Hong Kong’s history and it is affecting more than just protesters. It has been used sometimes without warning in shopping districts, central neighborhoods packed with residential highrises and suburbs popular with young families.

Journalists covering the demonstrations have reported skin rashes and other health issues.

For the Beijing-backed local government, tear gas is an effective way to quell protesters who have become increasingly violent, brandishing iron poles, surrounding police stations and lobbing bricks and Molotov cocktails in clashes with police.

Lam’s administration has defended officers from the opposition’s allegations of excessive force and abuse, saying that police are using reasonable means to deal with extreme circumstances.

“All over the world, police always use tear smoke as a riot-control agent,” Hong Kong Executive Council member Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀) told Bloomberg News on Tuesday. “It’s actually a better instrument than using police batons or rubber bullets.”

The use of smoke looks dramatic, but is a relatively safer type of crowd control that prevents injuries that might come via other methods, said Steve Vickers, chief executive officer of risk consultancy Steve Vickers and Associates, and a former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau.

“The escalation of force is smoke before batons,” Vickers said. “It looks terrible on TV. You get big flashes and bangs, and it looks gruesome, but it’s the first level of force and the next is batons and bean bags and rubber bullets.”

Protesters are becoming more adept at developing tactics to neutralize the effects of tear gas, from wearing gas masks to clamping traffic cones and cooking pots over fizzing canisters. They have even affixed gas masks on older passersby.

A representative from Hings Group of Companies, which sells gas masks and other items in Hong Kong, said it has run out over the past two months amid a surge in demand.

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