A retreat in political neutrality is a reflection on Leung’s poor leadership

Albert Cheng says the discontent with police behaviour adds to the expectation that Hong Kong may see a replacement chief executive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 August, 2013, 4:09am

Since Leung Chun-ying took over as chief executive, the public image of the police force in Hong Kong has taken a bashing. The main reason is that, under commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung, the police have steered away from being politically neutral.

This has been clearly demonstrated by some officers' attempts to curtail press freedom at some events, such as by using their hands to block camera lenses.

Other actions have included overzealously detaining protesting university students and taking legal action against pro-democracy activists months after the alleged infraction, as well as standing by and allowing unruly members of the so-called patriotic groups to harass pro-democracy activists.

Unfortunately, all these actions have led to a public perception that the police are biased and have wandered from the fundamental principles of upholding and safeguarding public order and the rule of law.

Over the past two weeks, we have witnessed a widening rift between the police and the public.

First, at a public rally in Mong Kok on August 4, we saw police superintendent Gregory Lau Tat-keung, who was on pre-retirement leave, address the crowd and criticise a schoolteacher who swore at police officers during a separate stand-off a few weeks before.

The rally was also attended by other retired officers and by officers who were off duty. It's disturbing to see our police officers getting involved in such a high-profile political rally.

Then, when Leung visited Yuen Long recently to attend a forum organised by pro-establishment organisations, it attracted opposing sides and they clashed outside the venue. When some triad members attacked protesters and supporters of political parties, the police apparently stood by and did nothing.

These incidents are disturbing. As noted by Jat Sew-tong, chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Council, public discontent with the Leung administration is being vented on frontline officers. The relationship between the police and the public has reached a critically dangerous point.

As the backbone of our disciplined services and a main part of the civil service, the police force must remain politically impartial.

At the August 4 rally, the high-profile participation of some officers was a breach of the code of conduct of the civil service. The breach was unambiguously confirmed by the Civil Service Bureau in responding to press inquiries.

But last week, after meeting a number of police associations, the police force said attendance at the rally didn't breach any police general orders.

Strangely, the police commissioner and his immediate superior, the security secretary, have still made no public comment on the rally controversy. On the other hand, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the chief executive made clear their support for the police.

What is going on? It's fair to say that there's an expectation of imminent change in the top ranks of the government - the rumoured Plan B to replace the chief executive.

Names of potential candidates have been floating around. The usual suspects are prominent civil servants such as John Tsang Chun-wah and Lam, as well as the outspoken Legislative Council president, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing.

But lately the spotlight has shone on the rather ambitious Legco member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who has long set her eyes on the post. In fact, Ip strongly believes she is more than qualified for the job.

First, she has deep experience in the government and was once security secretary, in charge of the eight disciplined services, which is a big plus in the eyes of the central government. Even now, Ip is widely supported by the disciplined services.

On a political level, she has certainly contributed immensely. She pushed for the implementation of controversial national security legislation in 2003 and, when that failed, she took the blame herself and resigned from her post as security chief. A decade later, now as a directly elected legislator, she has fully redeemed herself.

Ip is politically aggressive and has made it clear she wants the top job. She is constantly in fight mode, waiting to pounce whenever there is a glimpse of an opportunity. Even though she is obviously not a supporter of Leung, he still had to appoint her to the Executive Council, Hong Kong's highest centre of power.

One of her biggest advantages is her squeaky-clean background - no personal or political scandal. Her image as a loving single mother will also help her win women's votes.

If there is really a Plan B to replace Leung, Ip is certainly a strong candidate.

This will no doubt put more pressure on Leung, who seems to be on the road to political self-destruction.

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