Public Safety

After the events of the last week, I don’t think it is possible for any fair-minded person to view the ongoing civil disturbances in Hong Kong in unequivocal black and white terms.

Back in June it was relatively easy. The government was clearly in the wrong in pressing ahead with controversial legislation after only cursory public consultation and ignoring evidence of widespread unease. The students were heroes in preventing passage of the Bill by physically blocking access to the legislature. The police were heavy-handed in dispersing the crowd.

In the ensuing weeks, the government just appeared stubborn over refusing to use the word withdrawal. The mysterious disappearance of the police during the Yuen Long incident in July left their reputation in tatters. But meanwhile the gratuitous vandalism by the protesters and the targeting of sovereignty symbols seemed unnecessarily provocative, if to an extent understandable.

Since that time, the situation has become more nuanced. The recent escalation by the black shirt protesters in the level of violence and disruption they are ready to inflict on the general public is alarming and unacceptable. Dropping heavy objects from height onto fast moving traffic is not how to secure democracy. Slashing a policeman’s neck with a box cutter is a very long way from the peaceful protests with which the exercise began.

The two incidents which occurred last Monday, and reaction to them, is very revealing and not reassuring. In the morning a police officer shot a protester with a live round. In the afternoon, a protester splashed flammable liquid on a member of the public and set fire to him. Most of the media, including the international names like CNN, BBC and the Financial Times, focussed on the first incident. I found this surprising. Around the world, policemen open fire all the time – in America it is practically a daily occurrence. Yet how many instances are there of trying to burn people alive? It is over 40 years since I was a reporter in this town, and news sense is always a matter of opinion. But I would have led the coverage with the second incident rather than the first.

Much emphasis was placed on the fact that the protester who was shot was unarmed when he approached the police officer. This is correct but it is not sufficient grounds to condemn the policeman automatically because it ignores the circumstances. The officer had already arrested one protester and was still grappling with him in a headlock. Why was the second protester approaching the struggling pair if not to intercede in the arrest? Moreover after viewing the tape several times it seemed to me the second protester from his arm movements had in mind to seize the policeman’s weapon. We do not know for certain, of course, if that was his intention, nor can we say for sure what he would have done with the gun if he had taken it into his possession. But we have had ample opportunity to view the tape and form a conclusion, whereas the policeman had only a split second to respond to the perceived threat. I cannot say hand on heart that I too would not have pulled the trigger.

Contrast this with the second incident. A citizen chased away protesters who were trashing his local light rail station and continued to scold them on a footbridge outside. Someone whose life and safety were not at all at risk then deliberately threw the liquid over him and set fire to it. That is cold-blooded attempted murder.

Of course this is only my interpretation of the events and others will have their own opinion. But I hope we can all agree that the present circumstances are unacceptable for everyone. There continue to be instances of police abuse of power and dangerous behaviour by protesters. Urgent action must be taken to restore public order and safety. It can only be a matter of time before there are more deaths.

The government should take the first step to de-escalate the situation by doing the two obvious things which are within its power: announce that an independent commission of inquiry will be established in early 2020 to examine the whole saga including violence by all parties; at the same time steps are being taken to restart the political reform process. The counter argument that such an announcement would project weakness because it would be seen as giving in to protesters’ demands is spurious. Doing the right thing is not a sign of weakness.

The police need to find better leadership, and improve their tactics. They need to reflect on why so many ordinary members of the public see them as the enemy and are ready to boo them.

The protesters need to scale back their violence towards ordinary members of the public including the police. Driving away fellow Chinese from the country’s only truly international financial centre is an act of folly which serves no purpose.

The police force by itself cannot restore law and order. It needs the support of citizens and in present circumstances some reinforcement. Nobody in his right mind would want to deploy the People’s Liberation Army or the People’s Armed Police. It might make a nice gesture to call London and Washington’s bluff by asking them to lend us some of their experienced police officers for a few months while our guys get a rest. If that is deemed unacceptable on sovereignty grounds, how about hiring some of those international contractors prepared to undertake security work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is not acceptable is for government officials to simply wring their hands, and do nothing.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung cannot understand why the public is still angry. The public cannot understand how he and other senior officials still have a job.