When thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to Hong Kong's streets last year, their movement was dubbed the "Umbrella Revolution," after they faced down clouds of tear gas with their umbrellas. The UK government raised concerns with China over events in the former British colony, and after months of unrest the protests ended peacefully this time last year. Hundreds were jailed and scores injured.
Now VICE can reveal a secret army file, which shows how British soldiers planned to deal with unrest when Hong Kong was still a British colony in the 1980s. The file, discovered at the National Archives, shows that the British army's plans to handle a similar situation were actually much worse. While the Chinese police used tear gas, the British Army would have preferred bullets.
Military officials from the Porton Down chemical weapons establishment in Wiltshire visited Hong Kong in 1981. They compiled a secret report, comparing crowd control plans in the Far East colony with tactics used in Northern Ireland, which had been rocked by riots that summer following the deaths Bobby Sands and nine other Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike.
Security forces in Northern Ireland fired a record 29,695 plastic bullet baton rounds in 1981. Between April and August that year, these weapons resulted in the deaths of seven people, including a 12-year-old girl, Carol Ann Kelly, who was shot dead walking home from the shops carrying a milk carton. Despite these fatalities in Northern Ireland, the secret document, written in September 1981, shows that British soldiers in Hong Kong planned to be "very much more aggressive than the present tactics in Ulster" if faced with a riot.
Major Duncan Briggs, of 6 Gurkha Regiment, told his visitors from Porton Down that, "Theoretically the escalation would be: Talk, Photograph, CS [tear gas], Baton rounds, Shotgun, and then Small Arms fire." However, Briggs told his visitors that in reality his men would skip the less lethal option of using tear gas and resort straight to opening fire: "Practically the steps would be: Talk, Photograph, Baton rounds, Shotgun, and Small Arms fire", he said. To be clear, "Small Arms fire" means actual rifles shooting real bullets, not plastic ones.
The secret document shows Briggs regarded tear gas as "a reserved option to be fired at the back of the crowd to avoid the necessity of the SF [Security Forces] donning gas masks." In case there was any doubt about the deadly consequences of Brigg's plan, he concluded that, "Small arms fire would be directed into the crowd for lethal effect."
The chilling report was written nearly a decade after British paratroopers had shot dead 14 unarmed civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland on Bloody Sunday. Just last month, detectives arrested one of the former soldiers on suspicion of murdering three members of the march.
I showed the Hong Kong document to a leading human rights NGO in Belfast, the Committee on the Administration of Justice. Daniel Holder, its deputy director, told me that, "Plastic bullets were used by the security forces in Northern Ireland in public order situations with deadly effect, especially for children. Rightly, yet selectively, such weapons have never been deemed 'appropriate' for use on the streets of Britain in similar circumstances. What this document reveals is that 'very much more aggressive' responses including the use of live ammunition were deemed appropriate for the people of Hong Kong."
Holder added that, "The state has a duty to equally uphold the rights of all in its jurisdiction, including a duty not to take their lives, yet it is evident the more you are on the periphery and away from the core of the state the less such rights are respected."
Major Briggs's gung-ho attitude towards crowd control does not appear to have compromised his career. He was later promoted and made Commanding Office of the 6th Queen Elizabeth's Own Gurkha Rifles. The regiment's website carries a photograph of Briggs giving the Queen a tour of their barracks in 1989.
The Gurkhas are a revered regiment in the British Army, with its Nepali soldiers highly prized for their discipline and fighting ability. Private security giant G4S has even set up an section of its company, G4S Gurkha Services, comprised of veterans. The company's website claims that they "excel in protest management." The G4S offshoot was recently used by fracking company Caudrilla to guard against protesters at its controversial shale gas exploration site in Balcombe, West Sussex.
The secret report makes clear that such an aggressive approach was not isolated to Major Briggs but went right up the chain of command. A brigadier also "pointed out that the general philosophy for the BF [British Forces] in Hong Kong in an IS [Internal Security] situation was a couple of steps up in Northern Ireland and the UK. A more aggressive stance would be taken to quell rioting."
The brigadier explained that differences included, "the freedom of action which is necessary in Hong Kong... they were not going to be Aunt Sallies as the Army were in NI [Northern Ireland]." The brigadier must have thought that soldiers in Northern Ireland just passively turned the other cheek during riots, because "Aunt Sally" is a traditional English pub game where people lob sticks at a dummy of an old woman's head. The document also states that armored personnel carriers "would be used aggressively" against crowds in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong-born Anna Lo, who is now a politician for Northern Ireland's Alliance Party, told VICE that, "The history of policing and security force activity in Northern Ireland highlights the dangers of applying military tactics in a civilian context."
The colony had already seen deadly riots in 1967, after police arrested striking workers outside an artificial flowers factory. By 1981, the secret report shows that army intelligence in Hong Kong were concerned that "economic problems due to inflation will lead to disturbances which, because of high density of the population, could rapidly escalate to large riots."
The Ministry of Defence told VICE that it would not comment on the Hong Kong document, describing it as "theoretical speculation." However a spokesman insisted that, "our Armed Forces operate under strict rules of engagement which are legal, proportionate, and appropriate to the situation."
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