'Asia's finest' a force still worthy of our respect

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2010, 12:00am

The Hong Kong Police Force, known as Asia's finest, is arguably one of the best in the world. It is highly regarded by the community, and has maintained a generally amicable relationship with the public since the handover. But, this rapport seems to be changing in recent years, especially after the emergence of the so-called post-80s generation protests.

Clashes between young protesters and police officers in several high-profile demonstrations such as the New Year's Day march and the marathon anti-express-rail protest outside the Legislative Council have triggered a wave of negative online comments against the force. Not only are some of these comments abusive, a few critics have even advocated the annihilation of the police force.

According to a University of Hong Kong survey, conducted in December, 67 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the force's performance, and only 11.6 per cent responded negatively. This shows that the force generally enjoys high approval ratings, compared with senior government officials.

But if we extract figures from a similar survey done in June 2007, there has been a noticeable drop in police popularity in recent years. In that study, an overwhelming 83 per cent gave their approval, while only a negligible 2.8 per cent were displeased. Still, I believe our police force is generally well regarded in our community.

Our force has a solid reputation for incorruptibility among law-enforcement agencies in the region. It is one of the most efficient and civilised forces in the world. And, thanks to their efforts, Hong Kong is one of the safest international cities.

But, we shouldn't forget the famous saying that 'Rome wasn't built in a day'. Their achievements are the result of many years of hard work. In the dark old days, corruption was a way of life in Hong Kong. It was the norm in all government departments, and the police force was no exception. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, syndicated corruption was prevalent within the force, and policemen were thought of by many as licensed hooligans.

In the old days, the colonial government was under no illusions that it was living in a borrowed place, on borrowed time, and conceded that, sooner or later, Hong Kong would revert to China. Based on that assumption, the administration took the view that the best way to run the colony was to have full collaboration with the locals. Consequently, it adopted a hands-off approach, which inadvertently provided a domain for corruption to flourish.

Then came the 1966 youth unrest and the 1967 riots, which became the wake-up call for the British colonial authorities. Fearing a further breakdown of law and order, the administration finally took action to rein in the widespread abuses and corruption in government. One priority was to weed out corrupt cops. The Independent Commission Against Corruption was set up in 1974 under the governorship of Murray MacLehose.

The reality today is we can't ignore the fact that there are still many corrupt officers around. But, at the same time, we must give credit where it is due and appreciate the good work done by the majority of them. In recent protests, police were criticised for abusing their power by overusing pepper spray on protesters, and using excessive force in crowd control. To be honest, if we look at the prevalence of police brutality in the US and Canada, we should be thankful for what we have here.

Those who challenge the system and the authorities will always see the police as suppressors. In our civilised society, most Hongkongers respect the law and strongly detest violence. We have to understand that, even though the police are not always on our side, they are not our adversaries.

It's a thankless job and, as long as officers are trying to maintain law and order in a legitimate manner, anti-government activists shouldn't treat them as enemies.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk