Police conduct at anti-Occupy protest will be watched for hint of bias

Albert Cheng says officers' recent heavy-handed treatment of pro-democracy protesters has thrown in doubt the force's tradition of neutrality

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 1:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 2:41am

The Alliance for Peace and Democracy expects a turnout of 98,000 for its march on Sunday against the Occupy Central movement. This will present the biggest test for the police's political neutrality since the handover in 1997.

There is a growing body of evidence that the police have become increasingly heavy-handed in dealing with the pro-democratic camp's protest actions. This low level of law enforcement tolerance used to be reserved for the Falun Gong.

However, in the past couple of years, pro-democracy activists have also been subject to undue police obstruction in their street actions.

For instance, an unprecedented 113 Occupy Central supporters were arrested in the wake of the last July 1 rally.

Backed by China's propaganda and united front machine, the alliance managed to collect some one million signatures against Occupy Central within a week at the more than 600 stations they set up across the territory.

Some pro-democracy activists had challenged the alliance and argued with their organisers at individual signing stations. The police responded by sending officers to protect the anti-Occupy teams. Officers, both uniformed and plain- clothed, were seen in the vicinity of the signature collection points, apparently to ensure that their activities were not disrupted.

In contrast, pro-democracy groups have been harassed on matters ranging from protest routes to locations of their makeshift stands on the streets. Pro-democracy protesters involved in even minor physical scuffles may now end up in court.

The authorities have habitually denied that there is any police partisanship, but observers say otherwise. Now it is up to Police Commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung to convince critics that the force under his command is indeed not politically biased and will use the same stringent yardstick for the pro-establishment rally on Sunday.

The Police Inspectors' Association last month admitted that many officers, in their personal capacity, had signed the petition against the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.

Clause 34 of the chapter on conduct and discipline in the Police General Orders stipulates: "A police officer shall at all times abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of his duties, or which is likely to give rise to the impression amongst members of the public that it may so interfere." In particular it states that "a police officer shall not participate in political activities".

The orders define political activities as to include, "lending support to, or participation in political activities of a political organisation".

Like Occupy Central, the anti-Occupy campaign is by any definition a political activity. It has the backing of the entire pro-establishment machine. The police, however, have got a dictionary of their own.

Military intervention in politics is a major destabilising factor in any political system. Without proper institutional safeguards, military leaders can dictate who should lead the government. Civilian rulers' political life spans are at the mercy of those who command the soldiers. To prevent military interference, the army must remain politically neutral. It should neither seek or be given a political role.

Hong Kong does not have an army of its own. The People's Liberation Army deployed here is under the direct command of Beijing. Under the Basic Law, it does not have any role to play in the day-to-day domestic affairs of the SAR.

In the context of Hong Kong, political intervention must not be allowed to come from the police. If the SAR government allows the police to become politically participatory, it would be like unleashing a wild beast from a cage. There will be dire consequences.

The politically neutral tradition of the police has been established over the years since the 1970s.

However, there have been subtle changes in the role of the police since Leung Chun-ying has taken over the helm. The police are now keen to charge leaders of the pro-democracy movement whenever they can.

What happened to Melody Chan Yuk-fung, a trainee solicitor and a volunteer at the office of the Occupy Central movement, is a case in point. She was arrested in May 2013 for taking part in an unlawful assembly, some 22 months after she had participated in the July 1 march in 2011. The police's new attitude is seen as a means to intimidate the Occupy supporters and discourage their sympathisers.

On the other hand, those from the pro-Beijing camp have not run into similar problems.

The Leung administration's tactics to rely on the police to silence dissenting voices is like playing with fire. The police handling of Sunday's march should be monitored with magnifying glasses.

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