Hong Kong’s crisis of confidence in the rule of law and law enforcement

Yonden Lhatoo warns that the pillars on which the city was built have been shaken by two highly contentious court cases involving police and graft busters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 3:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 6:26pm

Hong Kong, we have a problem. And it’s a serious one that threatens the very foundations of our city.

On Wednesday night, some 33,000 serving and former police officers and their supporters held a rally that one attendee described as “the largest-ever single gathering of police officers the world has ever seen”. The last time our city saw its finest in such distress and open defiance against the establishment was back in the 1970s when the Independent Commission Against Corruption was set up to tackle rampant bribery among the force. A mass purge of corrupt officers caused such resentment among the ranks that angry policemen even tried to storm the ICAC headquarters in protest.

Watch: More than 30,000 gather in support of police officers jailed for beating up protester

This time, the catalyst is the jailing of seven officers who punched, kicked and stomped on a hog-tied activist in a dark corner of Tamar Park at the height of the Occupy protests of 2014. The assault, captured by television cameras, sparked outrage in a city where men in blue are usually expected to be perennial pacifists.

Independent judicial process deserves the utmost respect

Look up videos depicting police brutality in far more advanced democracies and this particular incident could be a walk in the park by comparison, but we hold our police force to higher standards, and those seven officers deserve to go to jail for what they did.

We hold our police force to higher standards, and those seven officers deserve to go to jail for what they did

But understand where their supporters are coming from. More than two years after thousands of protesters blocked roads and broke multiple laws for 79 straight days in the name of democracy, this is the net result of justice so far: seven police officers behind bars and slaps on the wrist for everyone else. Not one of the leaders of the movement has been punished.

Throughout the Occupy protests, frontline police officers were not only forced to stand by and watch people break the law with impunity, but also expected to protect the lawbreakers from irate members of the public whose livelihoods were affected by the road closures. Nobody was sure what was right or wrong any more.

Another ugly fallout from the jailing of the “magnificent seven” – as some have dubbed them – is the backlash against the judiciary.

The British judge who put them behind bars has been vilified and subjected to threats and racist abuse online, contempt of court be damned. One lawmaker, protected by parliamentary privilege, even branded the judge a “white skin with yellow heart”, a play on the colour symbolising the Occupy movement and the racist insult “yellow skin with white heart” for Asian people with Western values.

It’s not only our police force that’s at the crossroads. The ICAC itself is causing consternation after a stunning revelation during the trial of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who has been jailed for 20 months for misconduct in office.

The frivolity of Donald Tsang’s corruption case does Hong Kong’s reputation no favour

Experts question Hong Kong graft buster’s decision not to probe bank boss in Donald Tsang investigation

A High Court jury could not reach a verdict on a bribery charge against him, but it emerged that a key figure named by the prosecution, Bank of East Asia boss David Li Kwok-po, was not even approached by the ICAC during its 44-month investigation.

The graft-buster’s director of investigation explained in court that it was because they did not expect him to cooperate. Seriously? This is the ICAC we’re talking about, with its supposedly sweeping mandate to go after “tigers” and “flies” alike, in keeping with President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) national anti-corruption drive.

“Never in my judicial career have I seen a man fallen from so high,” the presiding judge said when he sent poor Donald to jail.

And never in my journalistic career have I seen this city facing such a crisis of confidence in the rule of law and law enforcement, the pillars that prevent us from sliding into certain ruin.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post