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Moscow vs. Hong Kong ‘BBC Russia’ compares the police crackdowns in Russia and China

Anton Karliner / Novaya Gazeta / Sipa / Scanpix / LETA

Simultaneous civil unrest in Moscow and Hong Kong presents the state authorities in Russia and China with similar challenges, but just how do the police crackdowns in these two cities really compare? To get a better idea, BBC Russian Service correspondent Artem Voronin spoke to activists in Moscow and Hong Kong, and asked them about how law enforcement is responding to protesters, comparing police tactics in Moscow and Hong Kong along five lines: cruelty, rioting criminal charges, the use of provocateurs, battle formations, and officers from out of town. Meduza summarizes Voronin’s report.

Cruelty

Moscow: The police have beaten protesters in street confrontations and attacked demonstrators already in custody. Arresting officers even broke Konstantin Konovalov’s leg, while he was out jogging hours before a planned protest, and state investigators later concluded that the officers acted lawfully. In his first public comments about Moscow’s opposition demonstrations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the police response has been “absolutely justified,” and argued that it’s protesters who are guilty of resorting to violence.

Hong Kong: According to Joshua Wong, a student activist and the secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosistō, the level of police violence escalated significantly, after demonstrators started occupying the city’s airport. Wong speculates that the police are using greater violence against some protesters (for example, officers recently fired rubber bullets at close range and used tear gas in a subway skirmish), while refraining from a full-scale crackdown at the airport. Wong thinks this dual approach is meant to intimidate the airport occupiers. 

Tommy Cheung, who helped lead student protests in 2014, says, “The strategy has changed. Before, they simply cleared the streets with tear gas, and they stopped when it was done. Now they chase down activists, to arrest them or beat them.” He says police officials have also started calling protesters “cockroaches,” apparently to dehumanize them and justify greater cruelty against demonstrators. According to Cheung, the authorities are even arresting anyone who seeks medical treatment for wounds caused by the police's rubber bullets.

Rioting

Moscow: Russia’s laws against rioting stipulate strict penalties: up to eight years in prison for participation, and up to 15 for organization. Officials in the capital have now charged 13 people with participating in supposed riots on July 27 (activists and human rights officials dispute this characterization of the day’s events), and all but one (a diabetic who was hospitalized after the police confiscated his insulin) are now in pretrial detention.

Hong Kong: Tommy Cheung says there are now 44 people charged with rioting, and each faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Hong Kong’s laws against civil unrest, moreover, define rioting extremely broadly. According to Amnesty International UK, the defendants in this case cannot expect fair trials.

Provocateurs

Moscow: Reviewing footage of Moscow’s July 27 rally, videoblogger Alexey Romanov spotted a young man who called on demonstrators to attack the police, and then disappeared, in an apparent effort to give the authors a pretext to escalate their crackdown on the peaceful assembly. (Meduza has also learned that a PR consultant may have worked with members of Moscow’s law enforcement to obtain activists’ contact information, which was then used to encourage them to rally groups of “physically fit people, exclusively guys and men,” in order to “fight back against the devils in uniform.”)

Hong Kong: Joshua Wong says the police have embedded spies in the opposition. On social media, activists have shared videos that show men dressed as protesters apparently aiding the police, and some suspected provocateurs have come to protests with foreign flags.

Battle formations

Moscow: To arrest protesters, small teams of officers typically advance from a police cordon and then drag a targeted demonstrator back behind the police line. Two officers usually arrest a single protester, while as many as four officers are used against activists who resist. If demonstrators cling to each other or resist once in custody, they’re kicked, punched, or hit with clubs, until they surrender. When moving against entire crowds, police advance in a line, to force protesters from a certain area. There are usually two lines of police, with a second line hitting protesters by reaching over the shoulders of the first advancing line. Officers also divide crowds into smaller “sectors,” making protesters easier to control, while trapping activists inside police lines, where they can be arrested.

Hong Kong: The protests in Hong Kong are far larger and more intense than in Mocscow. Demonstrations have been almost constant for roughly 10 weeks, and activists clash openly with the police, both of whom are equipped for serious acts of violence. While Moscow’s protest confrontations have happened mostly in close quarters, the fighting in Hong Kong is nearer to trench warfare, where the police establish perimeters from which they fire tear gas. When going on the offensive, police advance with shields in rows, or small groups move forward behind a shielded officer, and then pounce on protesters in close combat. The protesters, meanwhile, are outfitted in helmets and homemade padding, and are often armed with bats.

Out-of-town officers

Moscow: According to the VKontakte group Police Ombudsman, 400 officers from Vladimir, Kaluga, Rzyan, Tver, Tula, Smolensk, Yaroslavl, and outside Moscow were brought in to police Moscow’s July 27 rally, when the authorities suppressed what they later said was “mass rioting.”

Hong Kong: According to Joshua Wong, officials have brought in officers from mainland China and dressed them in the uniforms of local law enforcement. He says this could be because the protests are now so large that local police cannot handle them, but it’s also the case that regional officials, not China’s Central Interior Ministry, controls the local police. If the city declares a curfew, Joshua Wong says, it will be mainland police who enforce it.

Summary by Kevin Rothrock