Hong Kong’s police force struggles to find new recruits amid crackdown on dissent

3 Min
Hong Kong’s police force struggles to find new recruits amid crackdown on dissent

A Hong Kong police recruitment campaign aimed at persuading ‘brave and loyal’ candidates studying in mainland China to join up has netted just over 100 suitable candidates, with thousands of vacancies remaining empty, as young people say public regard for the force is at a low ebb in the wake of the 2019 protest movement.

Police launched a major recruitment drive among Hong Kong students in mainland Chinese universities in November last year, receiving 447 applications, 128 of which have been successful so far, the city’s security secretary said in a July 26 letter to the Legislative Council. The remainder are still being processed.

The drive came after deputy police commissioner Joe Chow told news site in October 2022 that the force had a total of 5,000 unfilled vacancies, citing “political, economic and labor challenges” to recruitment.

“Those who already have work experience must have not just the skills, but also similar values [to the rest of the force],” Chow said in the interview, adding that the force will be looking for “braveness” and “loyalty” in potential recruits.

Despite being allocated huge amounts of fresh funding in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, the force has been struggling to fill its additional vacancies, thousands of which have been filled by allowing officers to work past the usual retirement age of 55.

In total, 3,439 serving officers have been approved or approved in principle to extend their service to the age of 60, the security bureau letter told lawmakers.

For many young people in Hong Kong, one major factor prevents them from considering a career as a cop — the 2019 protest movement.

“When I wrote about my future career in primary school, I wrote that I wanted to be a Hong Kong police officer,” 19-year-old Jijai told Radio Free Asia. “When I was a kid, the cops in Hong Kong were very friendly, and I thought that was a way to help people.”

“Now I have completely changed my view, because … I realized that they are just puppets for the communist government of Hong Kong,” he said. “You’re not doing good if you do stuff to hurt your own people.”

“If I had no other option and I really decided on a government job, I’d apply to be a firefighter, because they have a much better image than the police,” he said.

Public anger against the police treatment of protesters began with the intense tear-gassing of unarmed crowds who had no escape route at the start of the anti-extradition protests.

It gained momentum when officers took 39 minutes to respond to hundreds of emergency calls when unidentified mobsters in white T-shirts attacked passengers and passers-by at Yuen Long MTR on July 21, 2019.

And it took on a much darker turn following the bloody attacks on train passengers by riot police at Prince Edward MTR on Aug. 31, 2019, after which the MTR refused to release video footage from trains and platforms despite persistent rumors that at least one person died in the attacks.

‘Like a police state’

By November, police were surrounding major university campuses only to be met with a barrage of makeshift weapons including bricks, bows and arrows and Molotov cocktails as besieged frontline protesters sought to prevent them from coming inside.

They were also criticized for their treatment of journalists throughout the protests, and their handcuffing of medics and first-aid volunteers during the siege of the Polytechnic University.

Wong Tzi-kin, a Hong Konger in graduate school in democratic Taiwan, said he would never consider a career in the police force, citing the Yuen Long attacks.

“I can just imagine the sort of work the government would ask me to do, especially now that Hong Kong has become like a police state,” Wong said.

“The police aren’t maintaining law and order or serving the people any more; they’re a political tool to maintain stability.”

He said wages are relatively high, however.

“The high wages may be very tempting, but nobody with a conscience is going to do that just for the money,” he said.

Exiled former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui said the police are no longer an asset to the government.

“Since 2019, the image of the Hong Kong police force has been a negative asset for the Hong Kong government,” Hui said.

“It doesn’t matter how much you try to tout it on [social media platform] Xiaohongshu, or how hard you try to clean up the narrative around Hong Kong, there is no way to make the police force look good,” he said.

“Even Hong Kong students studying in mainland China who are more able to accept the way things are there care more about their own dignity than about the monthly salary of H.K.$20,000-30,000,” Hui said.

“It shows the depths to which the public image of the Hong Kong police has sunk.”

—RFA, Aug 1, 2023