Beware the path to a police state, Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am

Are the police running out of control when it comes to civil liberties? Or is it more a case of the government relinquishing responsibility for ensuring that the police are firmly under the control of the executive?

There is no need to be alarmist over this, but there are some very worrying straws in the wind. Two raids this month demonstrate police overkill and convey an impression that the police are assuming a leading role in defining the limits of freedom of expression.

The first case concerns a raid on the offices of the Oriental Press Group to gather evidence about articles published almost a year ago in two of the group's newspapers. The articles are alleged to have promoted the use of violence when discussing opposition to the Interception of Communications and Surveillance Bill. The second case relates to an even more high-profile raid and arrests at the offices of the lifestyle department store G.O.D. which was alleged to be selling T-shirts printed with the '14K' logo that may infringe anti-triad laws.

It is hard to feel much sympathy for the articles in the newspapers, which seemed to rhetorically suggest that a 'beating' was preferable to reasoning. Yet it is hard to believe that a real case of incitement to violence could be made. And the question lingers as to why, if the matter was so pressing, it took a year for the police to start gathering evidence.

Meanwhile, at G.O.D. confusion seems to have arisen over what a sensible person might regard as glorification of triad societies and a piece of light-hearted fun. Indeed, if the police were that worried about glorification of triads, they would be rounding up large numbers of people in the local film industry who have made gang-themed movies.

So why are the police acting in this manner? The simple answer is that this is the sort of thing they do if they think they can get away with it. Police forces everywhere tend to be contemptuous of the political bodies that are supposed to supervise their work. They see themselves as the last bastion of defence against woolly-minded do-gooders. The camaraderie and genuinely difficult circumstances of working at street level to preserve law and order reinforce such arrogance.

If it is not checked, the path to a police state is created. This is why most governments believe the exercise of police powers needs to be carefully monitored.

The Hong Kong government, however, gives every impression of wanting to relinquish its monitoring role. This is especially clear when it comes to policing of legitimate public demonstrations where officers are everywhere collecting video footage of the demonstrators. And the police have a habit of imposing arbitrary and highly restrictive limits on the right to protest. Notoriously, there was the decision in May 2001 to prevent demonstrators from getting closer than 300 metres from the venue of the Fortune Global Forum. Once this precedent was established, the practice of keeping demonstrators away from the target of their protest became entrenched.

Lamentably, the government seems intent on delivering the message that preserving civil liberties is not its priority. Last year, during the passage of the electronic surveillance bill, the official bulldozer - reinforced by the tame votes of the pro-government block in the legislature - ploughed its way past no fewer than 200 amendments without pausing for debate. These revisions had been designed to strengthen human rights protection in the bill.

The government is led by a chief executive who is the son of a policeman and brother of a former head of the police; it is not surprising that he is likely to take a very sympathetic view of the force. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's underlings understand his reluctance to exercise constraint.

Yet, the police's respect for the public is not based on their unlimited powers but on the judicious exercise of these powers and a feeling that the force remains accountable.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur