HONG KONG — The 29-year-old police officer was nearing the 24th hour of his shift last month, standing with his unit between a throng of protesters and Hong Kong’s most important government building, when the order came down: It was time to escalate.

Edward suited up. He donned his gas mask as officers readied tear-gas canisters.

The stinging clouds came thick and fast, along with rounds of rubber bullets. The crowd scattered. Officers rushed young masked protesters, thumping them with batons.

He did not want to follow those orders on June 12. This was not the side he wanted to be on.

Five years ago, Edward was camped out with other protesters on Hong Kong streets, calling for free elections. Those demonstrations failed to achieve their aims but invigorated a generation of young activists frustrated by ­China’s refusal to grant the semiautonomous city full democracy.

The Washington Post's Shibani Mahtani reports from Hong Kong as huge government protests took place on the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s return to China.

This time, Edward — who joined the force in 2015 because of the relatively high salaries — has been an officer stationed on the front lines of almost every major protest during weeks of anti-
government demonstrations in Hong Kong.

“I didn’t expect I would ever be standing opposite to the action,” said Edward, who asked to be identified by only his first name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “I understand the protesters. Really, I feel like I am one of them.”

Once known as “Asia’s Finest,” the Hong Kong Police Force has been caught between a furious public — angered by officials’ plans to allow extraditions to mainland China — and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government.

Hong Kong protesters clashed with police during a rally against mainland Chinese traders in Sheung Shui, not far from Chinese city Shenzhen on July 13.

The police have faced intense criticism of their tactics, from the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to tardiness in responding to emergency calls when an armed gang attacked people returning from a demonstration late Sunday.

Top brass now must contend with a force that feels isolated and embattled, a public that has grown increasingly hostile toward police, and younger officers like Edward who say they are shocked and saddened by the force’s actions and no longer want to do the job.

Some are thinking of leaving the force and are bracing for escalating violence in Hong Kong, according to current and former officers and security experts.

On Wednesday, China declined to rule out using troops in attempts to quell the unrest in Hong Kong, where protesters days earlier vandalized the Chinese government’s liaison office.

China’s Defense Ministry spokesman, Wu Qian, said it was “intolerable” that protesters appeared to challenge China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. He noted that the People’s Liberation Army garrison operates under a law that would mobilize troops to restore public order if requested by the Hong Kong government.

Concern for the police

A rare show of support for the force came Saturday when more than 100,000 people rallied to urge respect and praise for the police and sympathy for their handling of the political upheaval on the streets.

Dozens of relatives of police officers penned an open letter to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and her government, saying they were “overwhelmed by feelings of fury and distress.”

Police “have to follow certain orders from their superiors that are illogical, go against common sense and put their lives in jeopardy,” the relatives wrote.

In a meeting with police leadership, police associations demanded tougher measures against protesters, including the use of water cannons and colored pepper spray to “mark” protesters on the front lines. They called for a new law to prohibit demonstrators from covering their faces with masks.

“Safety of the police should be the priority,” they said in a summary of the meeting, the text of which was provided to The Washington Post.

The appeals and support came after police and protesters clashed July 14 in a shopping mall. Several officers, including one who had part of his finger bitten off during a scuffle with a protester, were among almost two dozen people hurt.

Riot police have found themselves overwhelmed and on the defensive on several occasions during two months of unrest. Edward said fellow front-line officers have to work shifts of 24 to 36 hours, with little rest or tactical planning before protests and without clear objectives.

“Officers are going crazy from the long hours,” he said. “There is a complete lack of training. We have never faced this kind of situation before.”

Hong Kong’s leaders, meanwhile, have held few news conferences and no public meetings throughout the crisis. Officials have largely avoided facing the dissenters — leaving police as the most visible public face of the government.

The government must “stop deploying police officers as human shields between the government and the general public,” the open letter from police relatives said.

The Hong Kong Police Force declined to comment on emailed questions on officer morale and police tactics. A spokesperson referred instead to news conferences held by police officials on preparations ahead of major protests.

'Operational failure'

The pockets of support for the police, however, were quickly overshadowed by a new slew of condemnation toward the force after another evening of chaos and violence on Sunday.

Ahead of an anti-government march, police had taken great precautions to barricade government buildings targeted in previous protests, including the police headquarters, the Legislative Council building and other offices. Thousands more officers were deployed, and the planned route of the march was shortened.

Yet protesters once again ­outmaneuvered police. They marched west beyond the government buildings and on to Beijing’s liaison office, which they vandalized and defaced, provoking anger from Chinese authorities.

Throughout the protests, ­police “have been taken by surprise,” said Clement Lai, who was a member of the force for 22 years and its superintendent and now runs a private security firm. “Their opponents have learned from their failures before. They’ve learned police tactics, but the police are lacking imagination.”

As riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters after a standoff at the liaison office, another scene was unfolding 20 miles away: Hundreds of white-shirted thugs, wielding sticks and batons, descended on the Yuen Long subway station to pummel protesters returning from the march. Not a single police officer was on site. Gates at the local police station were shuttered, and emergency phone lines were overwhelmed.

Two officers had initially responded to the mob violence in Yuen Long but assessed that the situation was too dangerous for them to enter without protective gear, Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said Monday. Lo said the police station’s gates were shuttered for “safety” and explained that police were stretched because they had been dealing with the protest on Hong Kong Island and couldn’t respond quickly.

The two officers returned with reinforcements about 20 minutes later. By then, 45 people were injured, some critically, and the mob had retreated to a nearby village.

Riot police later entered the village but did not arrest anyone that night. One commander on the scene that night said he didn’t know if police had responded to the incident later than they should have because he “wasn’t looking at [his] watch.” Photojournalists captured images of riot police in full gear having conversations with people who matched the description of the subway attackers, a contrast to scenes of police roughing up anti-government protesters on the front lines over the past weeks.

Six people were arrested by Monday night for “illegal assembly” related to the violence in Yuen Long.

But some, including former members of the police force like Lai, say the force’s reputation has taken a bruising.

“This has absolutely been a public relations failure, and an operational failure,” Lai said. “We ex-cops are frustrated, too. It seems like 175 years of professionalism has just gone down the drain.”

Finding a way out

An already bleak environment for officers has darkened. Some are openly jeered on the street. Protesters have left dog food outside police headquarters and gathering points. Police officers whose aggressive actions were captured on video have had their photos leaked on online forums and plastered around Hong Kong walkways.

After Sunday’s mob violence, memes and cartoons have cropped up depicting a chummy relationship between police and the Yuen Long attackers, who are widely suspected to have links to organized crime groups known as triads.

Edward doesn’t mind the memes. But he said he is most upset that his fellow officers were unable to keep Hong Kongers safe, and that they continue to launch aggressive clearance operations against protesters.

He finds himself wrestling with a painful internal question: How can he continue to crack down on people with whom he sympathizes?

He remembers how he felt during the 2014 protests, known as the Umbrella Movement, and still believes now what he did then — that it is “everyone’s responsibility to struggle and fight for a democratic society.”

“The government hasn’t done anything to solve the chaos in our society,” he said. “I understand citizens are angry, and I’m prepared for the bad feelings I have to face from them as a police officer.”

He is planning to quit the force and says some other young officers also want to leave. Whether he has another job or not, he won’t stay past mid-2020. After all, he said, he never wanted to be a police officer — aiming instead for the fire department or immigration — but it was the highest-paying job he could get at the time. Edward never studied at a university.

“I am looking forward to when I don’t have to look at the protesters face-to-face anymore,” he said. “And I can go back to being a part of them.”  

Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.