In aftermath of HK protests, top cop’s biggest challenge is fighting police smears amid rising crime rate

01-Dec-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

On November 3, construction worker Poon Yung-wai was sentenced to 160 hours of community service for spreading rumours online that police officers molested and raped women held at the San Uk Ling Holding Centre during last year’s social unrest.

The 38-year-old admitted he made up the stories he posted on Facebook between September 19 and 21 last year, and became the first person prosecuted over provocative social media posts since anti-government protests erupted in June last year.

Prosecutors accused him of inciting others to besiege the holding centre. Convicting him, magistrate Peony Wong Nga-yan said his offences were serious.

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Hong Kong’s crime rate has skyrocketed over the past year, but police have had to deal with a surge in attacks on the integrity of the force itself, through rumours, false accusations and widely circulated clips that allege wrongdoing by officers.

One year into his job as commissioner of police, Chris Tang Ping-keung told the Post that tackling smears against his officers and refuting false information had become a daily task and the force’s biggest challenge.

What worried him was that bogus claims demonising the 32,000-strong force could render its law enforcement efforts ineffective and breed lawlessness.

“Our work fighting smears cannot stop,” Tang, 55, said in an interview on November 18 to look back at his year as chief. “Smears affect our colleagues a lot as they aim to erode the pride of police officers.

“There has also been much fake information which misleads people and encourages them to break the law. This is a scourge on society and I must correct it.”

Since he took command on November 19 last year, police have issued 51 clarifications targeting rumours on social media, and sent 124 letters to the media objecting to fake or biased reports.

Its social media communications division has grown from 30 officers in July to nearly 50 this month. The team monitors online platforms round the clock for rumours or misinformation to be refuted quickly. Police briefings or objections to misinformation are run live on Facebook.

The division head, Superintendent Lau Siu-pong, described its Facebook output as a mix of news and advertising, providing residents with the most up-to-date information.

In August, for example, it defended the arrest of a Hong Kong Immigration Department employee in Wan Chai, after a video clip went viral and online users condemned the “abduction of an innocent citizen in broad daylight”.

The clip showed at least five plain-clothes officers escorting a woman into a car. The woman is heard shouting as an officer tells her: “We have already arrested you.”

In court two days later, the woman was revealed to be a 25-year-old clerical assistant accused of uploading the personal details of more than 200 police officers, government officials, judges, lawmakers and their family members on social media between last December and August this year.

Responding to the online attacks regarding the case, police said: “We condemn those who spread fake news and for such despicable behaviour. We also appeal to members of the public not to trust fake information.”

More recently, opposition district councillor Cary Lo Chun-yu, 35, was arrested on November 25 for allegedly wasting police time after claiming in an online post that he had been detained and denied the chance to meet his lawyer.

Police said the so-called arrest never happened, and Lo apologised for “any misunderstanding and public panic caused”.

Security consultant Clement Lai Ka-chi, a former police superintendent who handled the Occupy protests which shut down parts of Hong Kong for 79 days in 2014, agreed with the force’s new social media offensive, saying it had to keep pace with technology used by young Hongkongers.

A snapshot of an arrest action is described as officers beating up an innocent person

Clement Lai, security consultant

He said the smears and false accusations against police had worsened since 2014, when only a small number of protesters spread bogus claims, mostly about police operations near protest sites.

These days, he said, residents from all walks of life spread untrue posts and anti-police messages on an unprecedented scale over social media.

“A snapshot of an arrest action is described as officers beating up an innocent person. A routine anti-triad or anti-gambling operation is described as arrests targeting particular groups,” Lai said, adding that such smears and misinformation created an impression of officers as law breakers while suspects are presumed to be innocent victims.

“Officers might now feel added anxiety over the way netisens judge them, whether they might fall into traps and be attacked. It will slow down their work and weaken the force’s law enforcement powers.”

Increased crime ‘a price to pay’

Tang’s first year at the helm saw Hong Kong’s overall crime figures rise by 16.6 per cent to 52,859 in the first 10 months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

Reports of blackmail surged most, almost tripling from 379 to 1,064. Robberies almost doubled from 119 to 242 and cases of deception, including various kinds of scams, rose sharply from 6,641 to 12,900.

The number of arrests of young people aged 10 to 20 shot up from 1,965 to 3,151 between January and September. A quarter of them were arrested on protest-related charges.

Tang said the higher crime rate was “a price to pay” for the social unrest, which encouraged people to achieve their goals through illegal means.

With officers from the 6,000-strong riot squad returning to regular duties since July, the force had stepped up street patrols and getting a grip on crimes such as illegal parking, nuisance, thefts and burglaries.

Tang said it was important to resume community engagement and bring back the sense of being law-abiding, particularly among students.

Noting that bullying incidents in schools had become particularly alarming, he said: “School kids used to mock their peers but now they slap their victims’ faces fiercely.”

In August, eight students aged 13 to 15 were arrested in Tuen Mun on suspicion of bullying a 13-year-old who refused to buy them a HK$700 (US$90) meal. The case came to light after a video emerged, showing a group kicking and hitting the boy for several minutes.

‘Police have to work harder’

Tang took over as chief at a time when police morale was at rock bottom and the force was stretched tackling protests that went on for months. Officers responded to increased vandalism with tear gas, water cannon and by arresting suspects, only to be accused of using excessive force and brutality.

Curbing the protest violence and restoring order remain Tang’s top priorities.

Investigators are still combing through reams of CCTV footage to bring protest suspects to justice. “Any lawbreaker should be ready to be arrested anytime,” Tang said.

He claimed protesters might vandalise his shop if they found out he had handed over the tape, and he would be regarded as being in cahoots with police

Police source

Tracking down protest wrongdoers is no easy task. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an inspector related how he found security footage at a shop in Wong Tai Sin that could help in the case against a protester accused of possessing offensive weapons.

But the shop owner refused to hand over the video, fearing retaliation by anti-government protesters.

“He claimed protesters might vandalise his shop if they found out he had handed over the tape, and he would be regarded as being in cahoots with police against innocent people,” the inspector said.

The incident showed that police had to do more to gather evidence to bring a criminal to book. “This doesn’t only increase our work, but also gives criminals a chance to get away. No one is a winner in such a situation,” the inspector said.

As of the end of October, 10,148 people aged 11 to 84 had been arrested in connection with the social unrest and almost a quarter had been prosecuted. Of the 726 people already dealt with, over four-fifths were convicted, with the stiffest penalty being a four-year prison sentence.

The unrest calmed down this year under the combined impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated social-distancing measures, and a sweeping new national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing at the end of June.

The force set up a National Security Department in July to enforce the new law which forbids acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, carrying penalties of up to life in prison. As of November 21, 24 men and eight women have been arrested under the legislation.

In her policy address on November 25, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said Hong Kong represented “a gaping hole” in China’s national security, and it was an urgent priority to restore constitutional order and protect the political system from chaos.

She also said police were prepared to take a more lenient stand with those under 18 arrested over the protests and not involved in serious offences, provided they admitted their wrongdoing.

‘I do not like picking fights’

Tang is not short of critics. Andrew Sham Wai-nam, co-founder of Civil Rights Observer, a civil society group that focuses on police use of power, accused Tang of turning a blind eye to his officers’ wrongdoings or accusations of brutality by the public.

He said Tang should make accountability and repairing the distrust between police and the public a priority.

“As the top commander, he needs to face accusations by members of public, instead of shifting the focus to something else,” Sham said.

Tang has not flinched from trading shots with district councillors, opposition figures and journalists who speak ill of the force.

Among many examples, Tang in October dismissed suggestions by activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung that the force conspired with mainland authorities to kidnap 12 Hongkongers held in mainland China facing “trumped-up and malicious accusations”.

The 12 were wanted in Hong Kong in connection with protest and national security cases, and were captured at sea in August by the Chinese coastguard while trying to flee to Taiwan.

In a Facebook post, Wong claimed they faced “secret trial, torture and detention”.

At a media briefing, Tang called Wong’s accusations malicious and said of the 12: “No one kidnapped them. They were the ones who were fleeing. They absconded to avoid criminal proceedings in Hong Kong.”

A powerful person who controls a media organisation openly requested foreign countries to sanction Hong Kong and China. Everyone knows about it

Chris Tang, police chief

Asked if he was too quick to speak out, and risked appearing aggressive and oversensitive to criticism of the force, Tang said: “I do not like picking fights, but I must tell people the truth. People should be given the other side of the story to show the harm caused by lawbreaking.”

Dealing with the media has turned out to be another battlefield.

Of the 124 letters sent by police to media to refute false or biased reports, 105 (85 per cent), went to Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily, which regularly splashed reports alleging police brutality or wrongdoing on its front page.

Tang said: “A powerful person who controls a media organisation openly requested foreign countries to sanction Hong Kong and China. Everyone knows about it.”

He refrained from naming Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying when he accused “media forces” of sabotaging police efforts to enforce the law. Lai was arrested in August under the national security law for alleged collusion with foreign forces.

The force has also tightened control on journalists it is prepared to deal with.

Since September, media access to restricted areas and press briefings has been limited to outlets registered with the government or internationally recognised media.

It sparked an outcry, because police no longer recognised press accreditation by local media groups or journalist associations.

On November 13, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung turned down an application by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) to hold a protest over the arrest of a journalist at government broadcaster RTHK.

Tang defended the arrest saying police acted on a complaint and enforced the law by the book. The journalist was accused of wrongdoing while searching for car owners’ personal details in a public database.

“We act on reports,” Tang said. “I cannot give up prosecution just because someone is working for a radio station.”

‘Pathetic’ to put politics first

Since the arrival of the national security law, eight of the 19 countries that had extradition agreements with Hong Kong have suspended the arrangements, citing concerns of political persecution.

They comprise the members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as Finland, Germany and Ireland. France halted ratification of an extradition treaty that had yet to be finalised.

Tang said many countries had their own national security laws, and slammed those providing a safe haven for criminals. The harm done by suspending extradition treaties was mutual, he added, affecting the handover of fugitives between both jurisdictions.

“Placing politics above the law is very pathetic,” he said, adding that it only benefits criminals when other countries grant asylum to Hong Kong fugitives.

At least 181 Hongkongers have been reported to have applied for asylum in five countries as of September, 136 of them in Australia.

Civil Rights Observer member Sham said those who chose to leave distrusted the city’s legal system and were afraid of unfair trials.

“Even normal citizens not facing any criminal charges now want to leave the city,” he said.

Unmoved, Tang criticised the fugitives for fleeing, saying they lacked the courage to face the consequences and vowed to continue pursuing those suspected of wrongdoing during the protests.

“Shouldn’t lawbreakers bear their responsibility or defend themselves in court? If they think they are innocent, tell the story to the court. Hong Kong enjoys a fair legal system trusted by many.”


Category: Hong Kong

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