The hawk who won't say sorry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am


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Accusations that Andy Tsang Wai-hung has been heavy-handed in dealing with public protests after barely nine months as the city's police chief - particularly during last month's visit of Vice-Premier Li Keqiang - should come as no surprise.

Tsang, 52, was in line for the post ever since his promotion to assistant commissioner in 2003, after which he acquired a reputation for a leadership style described by fellow officers as 'hardline, smart, capable and decisive'. Among protesters, however, he is known as the 'bald eagle', for what they see as his extreme hawkishness.

On January 11, his first day as police commissioner, Tsang responded to such criticism by saying: 'Some people describe me as being hawkish; I do not quite understand what they mean.'

Concerns over his approach reached a peak in the Legislative Council last week, with Tsang summoned to explain police tactics during Li's visit.

Tsang had said 2,000 to 3,000 officers were deployed each day to provide security for the vice-premier.

Tsang's approach became evident soon after he took charge of the 30,000-strong police force, with major protests turning into confrontations between demonstrators and police, ending up with mass arrests and showers of pepper spray.

A protest on March 6 over the government's annual budget plan resulted in 113 arrests. Among the many who received a dose of pepper spray was an eight-year-old boy who was at the event with his mother.

Tsang stood his ground. 'I don't think we have done anything wrong,' he said, comparing the demand that police apologise to a fairy tale.

On July 2, another lengthy protest also ended in confrontation, with 231 people arrested, the most since a demonstration against World Trade Organisation policies in December 2005.

'He is the toughest police commissioner against protesters I have seen since 1989,' said lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, referring to the year he began organising the annual June 4 protests.

Lee said there had been a distinct change in how police handled demonstrations after Tsang took over as commissioner from Tang King-shing.

'The biggest difference is that once Tsang took charge, he wanted everything to be under his control. He does not discuss with us any changes [in protest arrangements] and does it all on his own,' he said. He referred to how police 'took over' Victoria Park during this year's June 4 candle-light vigil.

Organisers said police had closed the main entrance too early and diverted the crowd to narrower and longer roads - in an attempt to lower the number of participants.

Lee said that, in the past, it was the organisers, and not the police, who decided which entrances or passages should be open or closed.

When Li visited the University of Hong Kong campus on August 18, 'police took over HKU, which is a private area. It was just like a mini curfew,' he said.

Three protesting students were pushed into a stairwell by police officers and held for an hour, leading to concerns they were wrongly detained.

Tsang defended the action when he appeared at a panel at Legco. 'We were only assisting the school to prevent the students entering a security area ... the officers and guards demanded that they leave but they refused.

'They swore at the officers and entered and left the staircase many times. There is no basis to say it was false imprisonment.'

One of the detained students, Samuel Li Shing-hong, said one of them had used foul language to express his anger, but it was not directed at any police officer. He also said no one had allowed them to leave the stairwell.

The Legco panel also questioned Tsang about the arrest of a Lam Tin resident wearing a June 4 protest T-shirt during Li's visit to the district on August 16. His explanation led some to call for his resignation, saying he had been untruthful.

Tsang said the plain-clothes officers who carried out the arrests had identified themselves, which the resident denied.

Footage of the incident provided by Now TV also showed discrepancies in Tsang's account of the incident.

Tsang said a police officer who had blocked a camera had done so inadvertently, out of 'basic instinct' when he felt a 'black shadow' approaching, but Now TV's footage recorded someone as saying, 'this is a reporter, look after him' shortly before the camera was blocked.

His comments have been mocked in internet forums, but Tsang has received support within the police force.

Benjamin Tsang Chiu-fo, chairman of the Police Inspectors' Association, said officers were angry at lawmaker Wong Yuk-man, who threw a June 4 T-shirt into Tsang's face at the end of the Legco meeting.

'It was not only an insult to Tsang, it was an insult to the whole police force,' the chairman said.

By contrast, the commissioner's predecessor was known as 'Sorry Sir' after making apologies to the victims of three police scandals, lowering police morale. Tang apologised to drivers who were ordered by officers to form a 'human roadblock' to stop illegal racing cars in Kwun Tong, to victims who were molested and raped by a detective in Mong Kok's police station, and to a Fanling school after its name was leaked as the scene of an undercover drugs operation.

'I do not think Tsang should say sorry over the handling of protests because officers did not do anything wrong,' said one officer, who asked not to be identified. 'They were just doing their duty.'

He said officers admired Tsang because he consistently defended them in front of the media. 'He is not hawkish, he just maintains a very firm stance.'

He said having Tsang as their boss could boost the force's morale, which suffered when Tang was in charge.

Lawmaker James To Kun-sun, chairman of Legco's security panel, said Tsang's long service as a detective might have shaped his attitudes towards protesters. 'He has been tough against criminals, but protesters are not criminals,' he said.

Tsang joined the force as an inspector in January 1978 after studying at Raimondi College in the Mid-Levels. He met his wife, an interpreter, in the force. They have two sons and a daughter. He served as a detective for several years before he was promoted to management. From 1993 to 1995, he was seconded to the Metropolitan Police in London with the rank of detective superintendent.

After the handover in 1997, Tsang worked as the Wan Chai district commander and led the organised crime and triad bureau from 2000 to 2002. During that time he smashed a syndicate led by Kwai Ping-hung, then Hong Kong's most wanted criminal, who was arrested in 2003.

But another, retired officer who has known Tsang for many years held a different view.

'If the force could handle protests properly, it would leave more resources for fighting crime, which ought to be the core business of police,' he said.

'One-tenth of police manpower was wasted on security measures [during Li's visit]. It is as if the force does not need to take care of other matters.'

He described Tsang as 'smart and logical' and someone who considered himself an excellent debater. 'But it was not a debating competition in Legco. He has to take care of the backfire from the media and society. I think he is a bit self-willed.'

Asked whether there was any political consideration behind Tsang's handling of protesters, he said: 'Tsang well knows who is writing his report card - it is not the citizens nor the media; it is most important that Beijing is happy.'

Lawmaker To agreed that Beijing would prefer police chiefs who were tough, given that protesters were getting more radical in their tactics.

'Before there were less clashes; now protesters charge at police officers more often,' he said.

He said he was worried the conflict between police and protesters would increase, as Tsang had four years to serve before completing his term.

A special four-man taskforce has been drafted in to the force's office that handles complaints in order to deal with residents' concerns. Ten complaints have been lodged so far.

The office says it will deal with all complaints impartially.