Hong Kong: Hey, sorry about that whole water cannon thing

After more than twenty weeks of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, no amount of government suppression seems to be able to send the demonstrators back home. But there was a slight crack in the armor of the city’s leadership this weekend when the powers that be made a very public apology. On Sunday, a water cannon was deployed in front of one of the city’s mosques and it sprayed down worshippers standing on the sidewalk in front of the building. For that, Carrie Lam and the police chief say, they are truly sorry. (Associated Press)

Hong Kong officials apologized to Muslim leaders Monday after riot police sprayed a mosque and bystanders with a water cannon while trying to contain pro-democracy demonstrations in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and its police chief visited the Kowloon Mosque to apologize to the chief imam and Muslim community leaders.

They left without commenting, but mosque leaders told reporters that the officials had apologized.

After the private apology at the mosque, police officials went on to offer a public apology at their daily press briefing. So all’s well that ends well, right?

Maybe, but there’s more going on here than the simple description provided by officials suggests. First of all, that water cannon was shooting more than just “water.” And the choice of targets and the timing of the deployment make this look like something far more dubious than normal police riot control protocol.

If you take a look at this Facebook video you can see the entire event play out.

The water from the cannon is mixed with a blue dye of some sort. It not only stains the walls of the mosque and the sidewalk but sends pedestrians scrambling to flush the substance out of their eyes. Many described a burning sensation.

Also, why was the cannon deployed in this case? If there are protesters (or even rioters) setting up roadblocks, shutting down traffic or breaking windows, you can almost understand a decision by the police to resort to some more strident riot control tactics. But none of that was happening in this case. The streets were clear, traffic was flowing normally and their targets were people standing on the sidewalk talking. At least one member of the press was also blasted with the blue dye.

It’s difficult to believe that the fact they were targeting a crowd in front of a mosque was just coincidence. While many of the residents of Hong Kong are clearly fighting for freedom and democracy, the government there still answers to Beijing. And Xi Jinping has a strict policy when it comes to religion. He’s been cracking down on Christians and Buddhists, but he’s really had it out for the Muslims, particularly the Uighurs.

The official position of the Communist Party is to stick to atheism, and they’re engaging in a policy that’s known as “sinicization.” Under this theory, the government insists that Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian leaders move to “fuse their religions with Chinese socialist thought.” Those who don’t comply are subject to official government repression. And since most of the religions have no interest in such ideology, they’re all targets, particularly the Muslims.

With all that in mind, this incident doesn’t look anything like riot control. It was an unprovoked attack on worshippers gathered on the sidewalk in front of a Mosque. Hong Kong’s leaders may have apologized, but it appears that their police are enforcing strict policies coming straight from the top in Beijing.