Law Yuk-kai has been the director of local NGO Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor (HKHRM) since its inception two decades ago. Passionate about police reform and social justice and fresh from meetings at the UN, Law steers clear of personal questions – even regarding his age.
HKFP: You recently visited the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva where a number of recommendations were given regarding the reform of Hong Kong’s police force and their use of force during the Umbrella Movement. How likely is it that these reforms will be implemented?
Law Yuk-kai: There will be difficulty in getting the reforms into implementation. I don’t think the authority has the willingness to really reform the system for the sake of complying with international standards. They will say our system is as good as you have set, or they will say Hong Kong’s situation is different, that we have a special reason and that it’s best for HK.
This comes against the background that the HK authorities have little legitimacy. They have no legitimacy by election, that is no electoral mandate, and no legitimacy by performance. The authority now relies heavily on the police force to maintain social order. This dependency on the police gives the force a lot of say. They get money for expansion of their empire when they want it, they get sizeable increases in number of people and also in terms of equipment and other facilities.
The authority itself doesn’t have willingness or incentive to bring the police under proper control and thus, those recommendations from UNCAT would normally be ignored. Their requests are usually restrictions on operation – like they [the police] cannot keep everything to themselves, have to publish guidelines on use of force, which they have insisted should be confidential and internal. We also have problems in getting other information on basic technical features of new equipment including water cannons. You can tell that the police are getting VIP treatment from the HK government. Nobody is willing to force them to improve and there is not much incentive from within to improve.
We are also concerned about the cases of police beating up people in compliance with the order to disperse, referring to the clearance of protestors as well as the case of Frankly Chu. In his case it was quite clear that it was unnecessary force – battery of citizens by a senior police officer. Yet police have been making excuses. The weird or crooked interpretation of facts in the law to protect Frankly Chu is a clear evidence that the police want to shield these people. Then, the fact that the seven police officers have gone through so much difficulty before they go to court… The UNCAT’s meeting is an important factor contributing to the prosecution of those officers, of course combined with other local and international pressure. Yet, we don’t know if the case will be handled properly in court.
The worst was during Occupy, when the sheer use of force by the police was quite outrageous. The UN was quite shocked that even those retreating got beaten up – this is unnecessary force. For a while, the police lost control, leading to atrocities by frontline officers. They used batons as standard means of force. For drawing a gun, they have to write a report, but for drawing a baton they don’t have to report.
It [the UNCAT recommendations] might force the police to be more cautious in the future, or at least slow down their degeneration into a sheer, brutal state machinery.
HKFP: What would be an example of a method of reform of the Hong Kong police?
Law Yuk-kai: One possibility is to ask the authorities to acknowledge and carry out the promises made two decades ago to enact laws similar to those in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act in the UK. The background of HK and UK police is similar in that in the past they were restrained by judges’ rules. The 1984 British Criminal Evidence Act attempted to codify police powers and procedures so that the police would have clear powers to do some things, yet there are safeguards built into the procedure to protect suspects and innocent people.
There are 44 outstanding issues agreed to implemented in Hong Kong; some may well be implemented. For instance, the ability to get a DNA sample from a suspect increases the power of the police so they are ready to implement this amendment. But for arrests and searches, they still rely on the current Police Force Ordinance. There are a number of abuses as well, such as strip searches in the past and detainment in temporary holding areas in police stations, which is arguably unlawful.
Legally the powers of the police are quite uncertain and should be clearly spelled out by introducing legislation similar to that in the UK.
HKFP: Your website says you aim to “promote better human rights protection in Hong Kong…and to encourage greater human rights awareness through education.” “Human rights” is a very broad agenda, and a lot of your recent work at the Human Rights Monitor seems to revolve around police brutality and consequent reform of the HK police force. What about domestic helpers, refugees, asylum seekers, sexual minorities, etc?
Law Yuk-kai: We give higher priority to issues concerning freedom of expression, association and assembly. We also respond to LegCo business or other reform issues. If there is anything within institutional, legal and policy reform and has important bearings then we address it asap. We also take care of things like Falun Gong, and things too remote to most people that no one cares about, like Article 23, children prisoners/juvenile homes like in Tuen Mun, piracy, rights of minorities and people with disabilities.
HKFP: You are funded by a US non-profit. Does this affect your independence or agenda?
Law Yuk-kai: We have a number of sources of funding including senior lawyers and non-profits like the National Endowment for Democracy. It is the right of NGOs in Hong Kong to reach out for external funding. Our policy is that we do what we want. If people like our work, they support us; if they don’t, it’s fine. We also get funding from the Hong Kong Basic Law Steering Committee [a committee set up by the Hong Kong government]. *laughs*
HKFP: Any thoughts or reflections on the Umbrella Movement? Was it a success or a waste of effort?
Law Yuk-kai: It opens new horizons for social movements in HK. Things are no longer as predictable as we had before when the civil movement was dictated by more conservative/traditional pro-democracy campaigners.
The younger generation has a strong determination to achieve the ideals they long for. They are not as calculated as we have been. They don’t see establishments as so established; to them these are collapsible given enough strength or will. This process is beyond control of anybody, even the youth themselves.
The young or more creative protesters are ready to confront authority and are not so limited by constraints we have imposed on ourselves, consciously or unconsciously. It is not easy for authorities to deal with them because they only know how to deal with traditional protesters. The youth may pay a higher price as well but they are more willing to pay this price. Their selflessness makes them more frightening to the authority. At the same time they may not know too much about China as they have not yet gone through that kind of debate or struggle with the Chinese authority. As observers who weren’t directly involved in the frontline or strategy planning of demonstrations, we must say that these may both act as strengths and weaknesses of this generation.
One suggestion for them is to read more works of Antonio Gramsci on political organisation. You have to organise to generate greater force, in response to things like collective bargaining in the movement. The movement has a lack of organisation which makes it difficult to seek a stronger leadership catering for a coalition of groups of quite different orientations. When one group takes up the obligation to bargain with the authority and is picked by the authority to bargain with, they will expose that group to serious difficulties and they will not be able to mobilise more resources and support from other groups.