Challenges await Hong Kong's new police chief

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 12:51am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 1:29am

Depending on what benchmark is used, retiring police chief Andy Tsang Wai-hung will be remembered as either an outstanding commander who rose to the challenges in times of adversity, or as a loyal officer who helped turn the screw on civil rights and liberties in our city. During Tsang's four-year stint, staff morale remained high. The crime rate also dropped to a 41-year-low last year. Most importantly, police operations during the 79-day Occupy protests last year - the city's most serious political turbulence since the handover - were generally restrained and professional. Tsang has therefore, by and large, done a good job in keeping Hong Kong a safe and orderly place. But at the same time, public satisfaction with the force has plunged. Arrests and the use of force in connection with protests and rallies are on the increase. Relations with the media and the community have also been strained, with some saying civil rights and freedoms are now less respected. Concerns over the police becoming politicised are also growing.

The mixed views on Tsang and the force are not just fuelled by his outspokenness and controversial work style. They speak volumes of the changing socio-political environment. On one hand, the rise of political activism, as reflected in more clashes during protests, makes balancing freedom of protest with maintaining law and order more difficult. The challenge will become even daunting as the city moves towards full democracy. On the other hand, the force is expected to uphold civil rights and liberties guaranteed under the Basic Law. It must not be seen as aggravating conflict through heavy-handed treatment of activists or undue restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to protest.

The challenge is now passed onto his successor, expected to be deputy commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung. The leadership change comes at a time when the city is struggling to pass the controversial electoral reform package this summer. The growing political tension is expected to draw more activists to the streets in the run up to the vote in the Legislative Council. Lo is said to be a different character. Whether he copies Tsang's approach will be closely watched.

That Hong Kong remains a safe and free city in a politically charged environment owes much to a professional police force. Despite some high-profile cases recently, our crime rate is still among the world's lowest. It is incumbent upon the new police chief to ensure that this will continue to be the case.