17 September 2019
Stephen Lo is being cast as someone different from Andy Tsang, whose last months as police commissioner were marred by accusations of police brutality. Photo: HKEJ
Stephen Lo is being cast as someone different from Andy Tsang, whose last months as police commissioner were marred by accusations of police brutality. Photo: HKEJ

A big question mark hangs over new HK police chief

Hong Kong has a new police chief in Stephen Lo, who offers some respite after his predecessor’s tumultuous stint.

Lo’s supporters lost no time casting him as someone different from Andy Tsang, whose last months as police commissioner had been marred by accusations of police brutality.

On Monday, a Chinese-language newspaper ran a full-page feature on Lo from his days as a student leader, competitive swimmer, class monitor and overall “good guy”.

Cecilia Tang, vice principal of La Salle College, describes Lo in the article as a high-flyer who would sit next to the teacher in class photos.

It’s the first glimpse by the Hong Kong public of the man. There have been scant details about him as a law enforcer.

If anyone had hoped the change of command would transform public opinion about the police in an instant, they were wrong.

On social media, netizens mocked Lo’s newspaper profile.

“During my school time, I was appointed as class monitor for 4 years, fully demonstrating my leadership skills. In addition, I was also the vice chairman of a club house,” writes one commenter.

“Is being a class monitor a very proud personal achievement that needs to be mentioned in this way? What about his track record in solving crime or any other professional achievement during his police time?” says another.

We don’t know if the rest of Hong Kong also feels this way about Lo but these posts probably reflect a wider perception on social media — that Lo’s public debut is more public relations spin than substance because his scholastic and athletic achievements have nothing to do with police work.

Some said the exercise was aimed at Beijing, although he needed no other official blessing than the one he got from the State Council which had confirmed him to a four-year term.

Others said it was an attempt to soften the image of the police force which faces pending cases against some of its men who are accused of violence against protesters.

On Monday, in his first public appearance since his appointment, Lo vowed to improve communication with the public and minimize misunderstandings.

He would not be drawn on whether he would handle protests differently. He did say that he and Tsang have similar goals in maintaining public order and ensuring Hong Kong’s security and stability.

With very little to go by, the public has very little on which to build its expectations.

Which is probably why rather than highlighting Lo’s law enforcement career, his media handlers chose something less controversial to introduce him to the public.

That could backfire the moment the public sees him as someone cast in the same die as Tsang.

When Tsang retired after four years as commissioner, he was largely remembered for ordering riot police to fire tear gas and pepper spray on student protesters and for rationalizing the use of force.

In a highly controversial comment at the height of a public clamor for an official apology, Tsang said no such thing is necessary because the officers were only performing their duties.

By contrast, officers were seen standing back when pro-government supporters attacked protesters demonstrating for democracy.

The police department’s handling of complaints against its own men is not helping matters either.

This week, it said it will not prosecute the alleged attackers of four broadcast journalists who were covering the protests, citing lack of evidence.

At the same time, it allowed suspects in a police identification parade to wear masks and shower caps when they were presented to witnesses and their alleged victims.

Lo hinted that further investigation will be made before the police take the next step, suggesting officials had been too hasty in dismissing complaints.

That is as far as we know about Lo the police chief. The rest is a big question mark.

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EJ Insight writer