Police detain a group of people after a protest march in Hong Kong on January 1. Photo: AFP
by Albert Cheng
by Albert Cheng

Hong Kong police aren’t even doing their real jobs any more. Carrie Lam must restore discipline in the force

  • Mistrust of police is widespread as Hong Kong enters a new year. The chief executive believes she can restore order and win over the public again with the support of the central government and police. She’s very much mistaken
The political turmoil resulting from the extradition bill has lasted more than six months. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has officially withdrawn the bill, but still won’t set up an independent inquiry into police conduct during the protests. Obviously, it is due to the strong opposition of the police, who fear liability for their violence.

As police brutality continues, so the government continues to fall out of favour. According to the latest poll, only 12 per cent of respondents would vote for Lam if they could, while 81 per cent would not. Clearly, police are Lam’s last instrument of control. Hence her reluctance to go against them or green-light an investigation into their actions.

In fact, the government could have borrowed a solution from former governor Murray MacLehose, who handled the conflict between police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption back in the 1970s by granting a partial amnesty to officers involved in corruption cases before a cut-off date. The current administration could have done something similar, with regard to protesters and police.

But it didn’t, and that ship has sailed. After months of intensifying police brutality and complaints of unreasonable arrests, the public is in no mood to accept an amnesty for police. Some protesters have even declared that they would rather go to jail than allow police to get away with brutality.

Following the pitched battles at Chinese University and Polytechnic University, the radical camp was severely depleted and the streets were calmer for a couple of weeks. Again, the government could have held out an olive branch, taken police in hand and allowed the city to recuperate over the festive period. Instead, Christmas was stolen from Hong Kong.
Protesters and police, in uniform or not, turned up at malls. Arrests were made, and tear gas was fired. There was more chaos in Kowloon on New Year’s Eve, which marked four months since the Prince Edward station incident.
Then, the New Year’s Day protest march was terminated by police following vandalism of a HSBC branch. Hundreds were arrested in Causeway Bay. While some radical protesters may well have been responsible for the vandalism, were the police blameless? Could undercover officers have been stirring up trouble to justify the excessive arrests and scare off peaceful protesters?

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In this climate, it is no surprise that some Hongkongers believe the worst about police. Some of the public even believe arrested protesters have been “disappeared”, or killed by officers. Even though there may be no evidence to back up such claims, it is disturbing that many Hongkongers no longer trust the police.

Leaders and lawmakers from 18 countries have called on Lam to set up an independent inquiry into Hong Kong police actions. But what does Lam do? Well, she visited the police headquarters on New Year’s Eve in a gesture of support. A chief executive who insists on going against the public has only herself to blame for losing their support.

Lam mistakenly believes her “stop the violence, restore order” strategy can wear down Hongkongers’ resistance to the government. She thinks she can win the battle with the support of the central government and the police. However, the public has only become more sympathetic towards protest violence.

Seven months into the unrest, the first head has rolled. Wang Zhimin was abruptly replaced as the director of the liaison office in Hong Kong last week, although the central government had stood by him immediately after pro-Beijing parties’ landslide defeat in the district council elections.

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Lam is looking more like a lame duck. She should at least rectify the police situation and restore discipline. Allowing police to wear masks on duty is absurd. Even more nonsensically, at least one plain-clothes officer has been intercepted by police. Considering the recent spate of crimes in the city, are police even doing their jobs any more?

Hong Kong is in urgent need of a cure. Lam must realise that she has no hope of restoring social order without stopping police violence.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator