By John Burns
Selectively enforcing the law increases uncertainty among the public, brings the government and the police into disrepute and undermines the rule of law.
On July 1 when the Hong Kong government refused to enforce the law as protesters broke in and trashed the Legislative Council Complex (the police watched it happen from inside the building and then left), the Hong Kong government abandoned its duty of care for the community in order to discredit a small number of violent protesters and paint all protest as violent and radical.
This kind of inconsistent law enforcement increases mistrust of the government and the police and allows citizens like us to question incidents such as the discovery of explosives in a Tsuen Wan industrial building. Was it a coincidence that the discovery was announced to the public the day before a mass protest rally that the government sought to discredit, again to score propaganda points? Mistrust is highly corrosive.
In the aftermath of the July 1 LegCo violence, many police officers have expressed disbelief that the slow-motion storming of Legco was allowed to happen when it could so easily have been prevented. In response, the police commissioner has said of the armed camp that the government and police HQ compounds have now become, that the safety of police officers is his first concern. The goal of ensuring public safety hopefully at least comes second as the government wages a pitched battle with the community.
We do not need to look far to see that the government is relying on its strategy for handling the 79-day Occupy movement in 2014, which again involved selectively enforcing the law to discredit protesters. In the Occupy case, police could easily have cleared the streets around Admiralty and the government HQ yet did not, in a deliberately cynical move to divide the community, turning one group against another. This is the colonial tactic of divide and rule.
On the same day that the government allowed protesters to trash LegCo, the CE promised us a new style of governance that is more open, responsive and accommodating. Three weeks on, there is no sign of it; rather the government continues to use the coercive powers of the state to divide and rule, dismissively branding mostly peaceful protest as radical and violent. The government stoically refuses to adopt those measures that could resolve the crisis, such as taking political responsibility for the extradition bill fiasco. This is a winner take all strategy, the exact opposite of what we were promised. What we have seen so far is the tired, colonial face of our government that seeks to govern through mobilising one segment of the community to attack another.
More and more voices in Hong Kong are calling for an independent commission, led by a respected and impartial person, to investigate the extradition bill saga and especially the role and behaviour of the police in it. The CE has refused unequivocally this demand. She understands that such a commission would further undermine trust in the government, for it would make transparent the CE’s role in selective law enforcement and in creating the current disastrous relationship between the police and the community.
Not to establish such a commission, however, imposes high costs on the community. We are robbed of our right to know what happened, how the government has led and trained the police, and used them for propaganda and political purposes. Only through these means can we begin to rebuild trust in the police which is necessary for our survival.
The police are taking heavy criticism which should be directed at the government and its advisors. The police deserve our respect and support; instead, the current irresponsible government has turned policing in Hong Kong into political theatre.
John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU’s Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.