The poor Hong Kong Police. For a while, in the 1990s and 2000s, they were probably one of the most popular forces in the world. Surveys consistently showed them to be people’s favourite government department. No-one called them ‘pigs’ or ‘filth’. They had a reputation (at least) for a reasonable degree of competence. Accusations of brutality were rare. Nearly everyone saw them as fair and even-handed.
Little anecdote… A bit under 10 years ago, radical activist ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung was part of a sit-in protest in Victoria Park. Fearing it could drag out, the authorities told participants they could leave but not return to the spot. This was a problem for Long Hair, as smoking had just been banned in parks, and he needed the occasional cigarette. After hearing the law-abiding radical activist’s pleas, the cops came to an arrangement whereby he could step just outside the barriers for a quick smoke and then go back.
Times have changed. The Chinese Communist Party does not do politically impartial civil service. In the Mainland, any government agency is a political tool, and in the last few years Beijing has ordered Hong Kong to fall into line and use public services to fight political opponents. Chinese officials apparently insisted that the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement was on a par with some sort of coup attempt, and the order was passed on to the police. When the protest began, the cops turned it into global news – and shocked Hong Kong – by firing dozens of rounds of tear gas and going nuts with pepper spray. In the following months they beat protestors, turned a blind eye to thugs who beat protestors, tried to take ‘chalk girl’ away from her family and arrested innocent people.
Since then, the police have participated in melodramatic and staged arrests of government opponents, discovered a ‘bomb-making’ plot that apparently never was, failed to cooperate in the investigation into the Ken Tsang case, fired shots in the air in the Mongkok fishball riot, tried to hush up the compensation payments to wrongly arrested people and otherwise humiliated themselves. Young people who would once have respected the police now mock them. The United Front pays grungy old uncles and aunts to don blue ribbons and mount clunky pro-police demonstrations.
And the latest: the dangerous fiends suspected of possessing offensive weapons with intent were actually environmentalists doing some recycling project to help old folks – which, bizarrely enough, as the sleuths might just have noticed, was exactly what they looked like. The Commissioner insists the gallant boys in blue were right to think the greenies were mutant psycho terrorists, meaning that he knows another screw-up when he sees one.
What has happened is that the Liaison Office has sent the word down via Chief Executive CY Leung that the cops must protect Hong Kong and the nation and help to crush evil foreign-backed splittist counter-revolutionaries. Being dutiful, literal-minded and not really into nuances – and presumably emboldened by the sort of esprit de corps of uniformed services – the police have gone ahead and followed orders.
The police still arrest suspected bad guys, and when not serving the Communist Party come across as professional and courteous. But their reputation and image have nose-dived. Another Liaison Office success story.