As the showdown between police and protesters in Hong Kong has intensified, officers have used increasing force, deploying an arsenal of crowd-control measures and weapons, including tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, sponge grenades and bean bag rounds. Protesters have also stepped up their actions, hurling petrol bombs, vandalizing mainland Chinese banks and businesses believed to be pro-Beijing, throwing bricks at police stations and battling officers in the streets, in some cases with metal bars.
The protests erupted over planned legislation that would have allowed extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Police say they have fired over 6,000 tear gas rounds, around 2,400 rubber bullets, some 700 sponge grenades and over 500 bean bag rounds. Police have also fired live bullets on at least 11 occasions during the protests, injuring two people, a Reuters analysis shows.
While the number of protests has dropped in recent weeks, the violence has intensified. Reuters scrutinized hundreds of images of the protests, as well as dozens of police reports and video footage, and combined this research with reporting on the ground to document the weapons used by the police and protesters, and how the violence has escalated from day to day.
Use of force by police
On June 9, more than half a million people took to the streets in the first mass protest against the extradition bill, which has since been scrapped. It was also the first time police used pepper spray against demonstrators. Three days later, police used tear gas and rubber bullets for the first time in the protests. In total, over 1,400 people have been injured and over 2,600 arrested in the protests.
Police reject accusations they are using excessive force, saying they have acted with restraint in the face of escalating violence. The amount of tear gas used by the police, as well as the number of rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, are “all because of the violence we face,” Senior Superintendent Wong Wai-shun told a press conference in late October.
The first skirmishes between police and protesters broke out in the early hours of June 10 near the city’s parliament, after hundreds of thousands had attended a peaceful mass rally against the extradition bill. Many Hong Kongers feared the bill threatened the British-style independent judicial system that Beijing and London left in place in 1997, when China regained control of the former UK colony.
On July 1, protesters stormed the city’s Legislative Council, using metal poles, tools, and other heavy objects to hammer their way through reinforced glass walls into the building, where they ransacked the interior. Three weeks later, they defaced an emblem of Chinese statehood on the building housing Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong – a clear signal their ire was aimed at the Chinese leadership.
Over time, the protests have become more violent, with demonstrators hurling bricks and petrol bombs at police. Protesters say they are responding to police brutality, including mass arrests and the beating of demonstrators. Clips of the beatings have been broadcast live on television and circulated on social media, sparking widespread anger in the city. Police say they have acted with restraint and proportion to sometimes deadly threats. On Oct. 13, an officer was stabbed by a protester in the Kowloon district of Kwun Tong, police said.
“We are using the minimum necessary force principle,” Senior Superintendent Wong said. “You can see how tolerant our police force tries to be when handling the situations, and it’s because we don’t want to cause any unnecessary injuries.”
Much of the crowd-control weaponry used by Hong Kong is made by U.S. manufacturers, and their role has stirred controversy in Washington. This month, the House of Representatives passed the Protect Hong Kong Act, which would prohibit U.S. exports of tear gas and other riot gear to the city. A separate Hong Kong pro-democracy bill is before the Senate, which may add its own provision restricting exports of the gear. President Donald Trump, engaged in a bitter trade war with China, hasn’t said whether he would sign or veto the legislation.
Changing the rules
The Hong Kong police quietly loosened guidelines on their use of force in the run-up to demonstrations on Oct. 1 in anticipation of large-scale protests. The new rules gave police greater powers to deal with protesters, according to a Reuters review of the original document and the new one.
While most chapters of the Police General Orders are published online, Chapter 29 of the document, titled Force Procedures Manual, is not available to the public. Among other changes, the updated guidelines removed a line stating that “officers will be accountable for their own actions.”
The police have a range of weapons, many non-lethal, for crowd control. The charts show how their usage has increased during the protests.
The June 9 protests, in which more than half a million people took to the streets, was one of the biggest protest marches the territory had ever witnessed. It ended near the Legislative Council, the city’s parliament.
The demonstration was largely peaceful, but just past midnight several hundred protesters charged police lines around the legislature. Officers repelled them, using pepper spray for the first time in the current protests.
Pepper spray is a chemical agent made from oleoresin capsicum (OC), a chili pepper extract, that irritates the eyes, causing a burning sensation.
The Hong Kong police have used OC in at least three forms: hand-held canister sprays and, according to local media, small projectiles fired from paintball guns and a large pressure spray connected to a drum of solution.
There have been incidents, some caught on camera, of police deploying pepper agent in situations where there was no apparent threat. Local media footage from a June 12 protest shows a policeman repeatedly spraying a man sitting alone on a planter along a major artery in the center of Hong Kong island.
The police have also used water cannon trucks – known as Specialized Crowd Management Vehicles – to dispense water laced with an irritant. The trucks have two nozzles at the top that expel liquid, either in targeted streams or as fog, according to a paper presented to the Legislative Council’s panel on security. They can blast water or a pelargonic acid vanillylamide solution, a synthetic irritant known as PAVA.
The trucks were acquired by the government after pro-democracy protests in 2014 that paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days. The vehicles have also been used to spray protesters with dyed water, a tactic police in many countries use to identify demonstrators after rallies.
Following complaints about the effects of the spray, a police spokesman told reporters that the colored water was “not harmful to human health” and that the solution could be “washed away by a large amount of water.”
On June 12, tens of thousands of protesters gathered at the legislature, erecting barricades in the streets, and stockpiling food, water, medical supplies, hard hats and goggles. Some dislodged bricks from the sidewalk in preparation for a stand-off with the police.
When clashes broke out that afternoon, police first used pepper spray, then fired volleys of tear gas – 240 canisters in all, a high point at that stage. They would also fire 29 rubber bullets, 33 sponge projectiles and 3 bean bag rounds that day.
There are two documented ways in which the police have used tear gas during the protests – canisters thrown by hand towards protesters and projectiles fired from grenade-launcher guns.
Spent canisters seen by reporters at demonstrations show that the Hong Kong police have used a type of tear gas known as CS. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “riot control agents,” of which CS is among the most common, can cause blurred vision, coughing, choking sensation, chest tightness, skin reactions and nausea.
Protesters have employed various measures to counter the effects of tear gas. These include brandishing umbrellas as shields against the spray, wearing masks and goggles, and covering their arms in plastic wrap to avoid skin irritation.
On Oct. 1, as the protests reached a new crescendo with demonstrators pouring into the streets to protest China’s National Day, police fired 1,407 tear gas canisters. That dwarfed the 87 tear gas canisters fired during the entire 11 weeks of pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Pennsylvania-based teargas maker NonLethal Technologies Inc came under fire in the United States after a spent canister bearing its name was shown in a photo taken at a Hong Kong protest scene and posted on social media. When Reuters asked company president Scott Oberdick about the criticism over its teargas sales to the city, he hung up.
Instructions for CS issued by NonLethal say that it should only be used outdoors and not fired directly at people as it can cause serious injury or even death. The company declined to answer questions about the product’s use.
Protesters have been filmed getting hit directly by CS canisters, as a video (below) taken on July 28 shows. On Aug. 11, police dispensed rounds of tear gas in Kowloon’s Kwai Fong metro station, rail operator MTR Corp said.
Security consultants with backgrounds in Hong Kong policing said that while frontline anti-riot units had mostly acted with care and professionalism in deploying non-lethal weapons, there were too many examples of ill-discipline and these had dented public trust.
“We’ve seen officers apparently lose control at times with the issuing of punishment beatings when offenders are on the ground and tear gas rounds being fired directly at people,” said one former officer, who remains in close touch with working colleagues.
“It’s been a long, hot summer and discipline is under severe strain, but this kind of thing is playing out in the glare of social media and is taking a toll.”
The Hong Kong Police Force has an array of non-lethal projectiles at its disposal for crowd control, including rubber bullets, sponge grenades and bean bag rounds.
According to United Nations guidance on the use of “less-lethal weapons,” these projectiles “should generally only be used in direct fire with the aim of striking the lower abdomen or legs of a violent individual and only with a view to addressing an imminent threat of injury to either a law enforcement official or a member of the public.”
On Sept. 29, an Indonesian journalist was blinded in the right eye by an unidentified projectile.
Hong Kong police have been using different types of rubber bullets, one from 12-gauge shotguns and the other from 38-mm grenade-launcher type guns. The shotgun variation fires a single solid rubber projectile with fins to steady its flight. The larger type ejects three rubber discs known as baton projectiles in each round.
The rubber-fin projectile “is designed to be direct fired, producing blunt trauma and pain compliance,” according to product specifications by one manufacturer.
The multiple projectile round is supposed to be fired at an angle into the ground in order to dissipate energy before making contact. In its guidance on less-lethal weapons, the UN warned that, “Skip-firing off the ground causes an unacceptable risk of serious injury due to their resultant inaccuracy.”
On Sept. 29, demonstrations escalated into running battles with the police in Hong Kong’s business districts of Central, Admiralty and Wan Chai. Protesters erected burning barricades in the streets and hurled petrol bombs at police.
In an effort to push back protesters, officers responded with a range of weapons. But on this day they fired more sponge grenades than any other day for which the police have released data.
Sponge grenades are 40-mm rounds that consist of a plastic base and a rounded tip. They are used at relatively short ranges – up to a few dozen meters.
According to the website of one manufacturer, sponge grenades are designed to cause blunt trauma pain.
Bean bag rounds
Like the smaller rubber bullets, bean bag rounds are fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. According to the website of one bean bag manufacturer, the effective range for firing the munition is 25 meters. The company issues the following operational warning: “CAUTION: Shots to the head, neck, thorax, heart, or spine can result in fatal or serious injury.”
The first shooting took place on Oct. 1, as Hong Kongers protested in multiple locations across the city on China’s National Day. Separated from his unit, a Hong Kong police officer tried to escape black-clad demonstrators pursuing him. In the ensuing melee, an officer raised his pistol and fired, striking an 18-year-old secondary school student, who was swinging a pole at the officer. The student was wounded in the chest. Police said the officer acted in self-defense after his life came under serious threat.
A few days later, a 14-year-old boy was shot in the leg when a plainclothes policeman fired his gun after coming under attack by protesters, local media reported.
The standard issue sidearm for Hong Kong police is a Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 caliber revolver. Some officers in special units carry semi-automatic pistols, like the 9-mm Glock 17, according to photos from the protests. Reuters couldn’t determine the models of the firearms used in the two shootings.
“In the absence of a political solution, an escalating cycle of violence seems most likely, whereby increased demonstrator aggression elicits greater use of force by the police and ever more aggressive attacks from protesters,” said Steve Vickers, a risk consultant and a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau.