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Hong Kong police resort to falsehoods in drive to reshape protest narrative

And, more than a year later, the police force changed its story of how long it took officers to respond to the attack, contradicting its own evidence to a government inquiry. Commuters and protesters at the subway station in Yuen Long say police did not appear for more than half an hour, despite hundreds of emergency calls, stirring suspicion that the assault was state-sanctioned.

The official effort to perpetuate falsehoods around one of the most consequential events of last year’s pro-democracy uprising resembles methods employed in mainland China, where authorities scrub mention of events such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and promote an official narrative through tightly controlled media.

In Hong Kong, authorities say the city is open for business despite widespread concern about a far-reaching new national security law, U.S. sanctions on local officials and the removal of the city’s trade privileges.

Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, Matthew Cheung, wrote to Western publications in recent days to state that his government is a “staunch defender of press freedom.” On Thursday, Hong Kong’s government effectively expelled an Irish journalist by denying him a work visa, without giving a reason.

The obfuscation brings Hong Kong more in line with the authoritarian mainland, where leaders have become adept at massaging narratives to their advantage — turning anger over official coverups in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, for instance, into a tale of the Communist Party’s victory over the pandemic.

While the truth is easier to access in Hong Kong — where the media is still somewhat free and YouTube, Facebook and other Western websites are still accessible — analysts say the information control will become more draconian with time.

“These outlandish claims, conspiracy theories, contradictory information and downright lies — if a government does that well, it can control the narrative,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a political scientist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, who studies authoritarian regimes. “The goal is confusion.”

Even if it doesn’t work, argues Haifeng Huang, a political scientist at the University of California at Merced, the act of propaganda — no matter how unconvincing — is used to demonstrate the strength of the government over its people.

‘Evenly matched’

On July 21 last year, as protests rocked Hong Kong, more than 100 men in white shirts — armed with sticks, bats and batons and some waving Chinese flags — chased protesters and commuters in a subway station in Yuen Long, a neighborhood known for organized crime. Dozens were injured, including a pregnant woman.

Only one side was armed — the white-clad men, who were later reported to have links to triad gangs — and the attack continued for more than 30 minutes before police arrived. When they did, videos and photos showed an officer placing his hand on the shoulder of one of the men, usually a friendly gesture. There were no arrests that night.

Triads have well-documented links as muscle-for-hire by the Chinese Communist Party. Following an outcry, Stephen Lo, the police commissioner at the time, said the force would review its “manpower deployment” after police admitted it took nearly 40 minutes to respond, and he pledged to gather evidence and make arrests. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, branded the attacks “shocking” and urged society to refrain from violence. Police raided triad gangs and arrested 44 people.

For former police officers and longtime observers of the force, the mob attack did more than any other event during last year’s protests to erode confidence in the police. Public support for the police slumped from 61 percent to 37 percent, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, and it has not recovered.

Gwyneth Ho, the reporter who live-streamed the event and, later, the attack that injured her, quit journalism, motivated in part by that experience. She contested legislative elections on a pro-democracy platform; officials subsequently disqualified her and postponed the vote for a year.

Lam Cheuk-ting, the lawmaker who was attacked in Yuen Long, has been among the most dogged in calling for police accountability in the wake of the incident. Supporters of greater democracy for Hong Kong held sit-ins on the 21st of every month to mark the attack, although these tapered off amid the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures.

Through official channels, Hong Kong’s police have sought to convince the public that they did not collude with gangs and that they remain impartial. The police complaints council, which experts have criticized as lacking independence, released a report this year exonerating the force over various incidents, including the Yuen Long attack.

This week, however, the police changed tactics. They arrested Lam and 12 others for participating in the Yuen Long incident and characterized the bashing of protesters and commuters by armed men as clashes between “two evenly matched rivals.” Three other people, including another pro-democracy lawmaker, Ted Hui, were arrested over a July 2019 protest in the Tuen Mun neighborhood.

In a news conference Wednesday, Chan Tin-chu, a senior police official, said the incident was not an “indiscriminate attack.”

“We have restored the facts,” he added.

On Thursday, Police Commissioner Chris Tang said the force had no intention of rewriting history. “History will judge itself,” he added. “We are based on facts, and we are based on evidence.”

Coercion and repression

Yet this week’s tactics mirror information-control strategies in mainland China, which has not had free flows of information in modern times.

Lam’s arrest typifies methods of coercion and repression, a “mode that kicks in when there’s more of a threat and when there’s something that’s very sensitive,” said Maria Repnikova, a political scientist at Georgia State University who researches Chinese propaganda.

Censorship, in the mainland context, goes “from telling a more positive story, encouraging reporting on an event in a certain perspective to ‘Don’t report on this, don’t be critical of this,’ and then potentially detention as the last resort,” she added.

The new police narrative has sparked anger from pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.

Speaking before a court hearing for Lam and Hui, who were both released on bail, Wu Chi-wai, who chairs Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, said authorities are ignoring public calls to address police brutality.

“Instead, they seem to be trying to rewrite history, but we all know history cannot be rewritten,” he said. “That is the trick of an authoritarian government, trying to ignore the people.”

Ho, the former journalist, said her hour-long live broadcast from the night filmed “almost all corners of the station,” from those dressed in white to the pro-democracy protesters and ordinary citizens.

“The only ‘side’ not filmed was that of the police, for they weren’t even present in the station during the attacks,” she said. “If stating facts is a crime under this government, the police can come and arrest me at any time.”

Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.

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