Hong Kong police's harassment of protesters tarnishes good name of Asia's 'finest'

Albert Cheng denounces officers' rough handling and the mass arrest of demonstrators following the overnight sit-in after July 1 rally

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 2:06am

The Hong Kong Police Force has been hailed as Asia's finest. But does it still warrant the title, given the heavy-handed way in which it recently dealt with peaceful protesters?

The force did not earn its reputation overnight. The British colonial administration drew a lesson from the bitter experience of the 1967 riots, and made painful efforts to clean up the police's corrupt image.

These efforts culminated in the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974. A partial amnesty was granted to officers suspected of corruption in 1977. Meanwhile, officers were given relatively generous remuneration packages so they no longer had an excuse to take bribes.

Since then, the force has transformed itself into a trusted, efficient and professional law enforcement agency.

Political neutrality is another major reason our police have been held in high esteem, both locally and internationally.

In 2012, CNN Travel named Hong Kong as the greatest city in the world. One of the 50 reasons cited was the liberal environment in which people were allowed to "vote with their feet" for any conceivable cause. "Compared to reactionary neighbours like Singapore and mainland China," it said, "Hong Kong is ripe for civil disobedience."

We have seen up to half a million residents marching on the streets without incident. It is not uncommon for demonstrators to chat with smiling officers there to facilitate the rallies.

However, police actions in the past few weeks have nullified much of its achievements over the years.

A total of 511 people were arrested for unlawful assembly and preventing police from carrying out their duties after the unauthorised overnight sit-in in Central following the annual rally on July 1.

About 490 of those arrested were set free after receiving a warning letter. It would seem that the purpose of the operation was to harass the protesters.

Organisers estimated that 510,000 people took part in the rally to push for their right to nominate candidates for the chief executive election in 2017.

The international media was peppered with photos of officers manhandling protesters. Some of those arrested complained of a lack of basic provisions while they were detained at the police college in Wong Chuk Hang. Their legal support teams waiting outside the makeshift detention centre were denied access to their clients for hours.

The police's decision to arrest five organisers of the July 1 rally also raised a lot of eyebrows. Among them was the driver of the lorry which led the march. He was accused of driving too slowly and leaving the vehicle with an idling engine.

Journalists' groups have also objected to police attempts to separate reporters from protesters. In one case, officers formed a human wall to block cameramen from filming how the demonstrators were to be removed. The police said later it was done to ensure reporters' safety.

This change in the police approach to peaceful demonstrations obviously comes from the top echelons of government.

Instead of guarding their political neutrality, the Junior Police Officers' Association issued a provocative letter to its 20,000-odd members last Sunday.

The statement quoted a term that is used on the mainland, which is roughly translated as "provoking quarrels and making trouble". The association also lashed out at unnamed members of the Legislative Council and the Independent Police Complaints Council for accusing officers of abusing their power.

Despite the association's self-righteousness, the latest survey data tells a different story. A recent opinion poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme pointed to a growing negative public perception of the police. The police department is ranked the lowest among five major disciplined services.

The force recorded a net satisfaction rating of 36 percentage points, the lowest level since the handover.

Despite this, the Leung Chun-ying administration and the police leadership have remained hawkish as the pro-establishment machine churned out heaps of propaganda praising the police. Leung dismissed the popular rally as "a waste of police resources".

There are worrying signs that the authorities are trying to brand the democracy protesters as public enemy No 1.

The late US attorney general Robert Kennedy once said that "every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on."

If we don't shout out now and demand that our police force stays politically neutral, the community may end up with law enforcement that no one deserves.

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