Sexual violence against Hong Kong protesters – what’s going on?

Content warning: Sexual violence

Scenes of protesters wading through clouds of tear gas or clashing with riot police have become sadly familiar in Hong Kong. But battles in the streets aren’t the only thing spreading fear among protesters.

Allegations of the sexual harassment and assault of protesters have been circulating since Hong Kong’s current protest movement began. There have been reports of assault in police stations, footage of police exposing women’s underwear during arrest and allegations of humiliating and unnecessary strip searches.

The few women who have spoken out about the issue have faced a massive backlash. Some have had their personal details leaked online; others have been targeted with fake sex tapes or received harassing phone calls. Although much of this abuse comes from anonymous trolls, the Hong Kong authorities have created a climate where such abuse thrives by smearing protesters and failing to establish an independent investigation into police misconduct.

How widespread is this problem?

Social stigma and fear of reporting make it difficult to paint an accurate picture of the prevalence of sexual violence – this is true anywhere. In Hong Kong, things are complicated further by the fact that many people do not want their families or employers to know they are involved in protests.

In October, Hong Kong’s equal opportunities watchdog reported it had received more than 300 “inquiries” since mid-June regarding allegations of police sexual harassment, but no complaints from alleged victims.

However, statements and research from local organizations suggest the problem is systematic. According to an online survey carried out by Rainlily, an organization that provides support to survivors, 67 respondents (58 women and nine men) reported experiencing sexual violence in relation to protests. This ranges from being subjected to sexually explicit language to “unlawful sexual intercourse out of threat or intimidation”, and both police officers and counter-protesters were identified as perpetrators.

Some protesters have spoken out anonymously, including at a 30,000-strong #ProtestToo rally over the summer.

But the issue has made it into global headlines largely thanks to allegations made by two brave young women, “Ms X” and Sonia Ng. Both have faced backlash and public criticism, illustrating the pitfalls of speaking out about sexual violence.

Ms X and Sonia Ng

On 9 November, Hong Kong police confirmed that a woman had filed a complaint on 22 October alleging that she had been raped by several officers in the Tsuen Wan Police Station. The 18-year-old woman, known only as Ms X, said she had an abortion after the incident and police, with her consent, took a DNA sample from the aborted foetus to help identify one of her assailants.

Disturbingly, following Ms X’s report, the police took out a search warrant to obtain Ms X’s medical records from her private doctor’s clinic, without her consent, including those long pre-dating the allegations,.

When Ms X found out what had happened, she challenged the search warrant in court and the magistrate  cancelled the warrant after reassessing the case.

Details of her case were leaked onto the internet in an apparent attempt to discredit her. Media reports also allege that Tse Chun-chung, the Chief Superintendent of the Public Relations Division of the Hong Kong Police, told select media that, Ms X was “a little bit mental”, although Tse has denied these claims.

According to Ms X’s solicitor, she “has formed the view that the Hong Kong police force cannot be trusted to impartially investigate her allegations or indeed any criminal complaints relating to police officers.”

Sonia Ng, a student at Chinese University, is the only Hong Kong protester who has accused the police of sexual violence using her own name. She says police officers hit her breasts while she was in detention. Her decision came at a price.

“People say things like, ‘Oh, she is promiscuous’,” says Sonia.

“Others have questioned whether I’m telling the truth, and they’ve said things about my family background and my mental health. People don’t want to acknowledge the issues I raised – they’d rather take out the person who raises them.”

Smear campaigns

Throughout the anti-Extradition Bill protests, Hong Kong authorities have written off protesters as “rioters” and “enemies of the people”. This kind of smear campaign, picked up by pro-government media and online forums, takes on a particular sexual element when women are involved.

In September, Executive Councillor Fanny Law claimed in a radio interview that women were offering “free sex” to protesters. Around the same time, a series of photos were circulating online showing naked women wearing face masks and purporting to be offering sex to protesters. The photo was later found to be a screenshot from a porn video, but the rumour continued to proliferate across social media.

In one example, a photo of a woman holding a sign saying “HK police, rape and murder” was photoshopped to read “HK comfort woman, free for sex with cockroaches”. (Cockroaches is a derogatory term used by some to describe protesters.)

Amy Ip, a journalist, told Amnesty about the campaign of online abuse that began when she spoke out against police. Amy interrupted a police press conference to criticize violent treatment of reporters by police at protests, reading out a statement alleging the media were being prevented from doing their jobs.  

Shortly after, Amy’s name, photo and other personal details, including her phone number, were published on social media and pro-government news outlets. Significantly, the photo circulated was of Amy’s press pass, which she had got just that day and which the police had taken a photo of.  

Then internet trolls started circulating a sex tape featuring a woman they claimed to be Amy, along with claims that she was “offering free sex” to protesters.

“For a few days I received anonymous phone calls at night. My whole family was so worried,” Amy says. “I was under the spotlight accidentally. My mum considered leaving the country.” 

Lack of effective investigation

Amnesty International has repeatedly called for an independent and impartial investigation into the behaviour of the Hong Kong police. The government points to an existing mechanism, the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), as adequate. But a panel of overseas experts appointed by the government said the IPCC lacks “the powers, capacity and independent investigative capability necessary to match the scale of the recent protests and the standards internationally required of a police watchdog operating in a city that values freedoms and rights.”

According to Ms X’s lawyer, she filed her report through proper channels, put up with invasive questioning and underwent medical examination as requested by the police, only to be subjected to an apparent smear campaign. 

Ms X now believes that the police are incapable of investigating themselves and she is not alone. Only two respondents told Rainlily they had reported what happened to the police. The most common reason for not reporting was a lack of confidence in the ability of the police to handle the complaint. The organisation is now urging the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to look into the issue.   

Allegations of sexual violence are one more pressing reason for establishing an independent, impartial investigation into the conduct of the Hong Kong police. The abuse of protesters has to stop.