Date
15 December 2019
Protesters march along a road in Hong Kong on June 12 in an extradition bill fight. Authorities are said to be resisting calls for an independent inquiry into clashes that took place between police and some demonstrators on that day. Photo: Reuters
Protesters march along a road in Hong Kong on June 12 in an extradition bill fight. Authorities are said to be resisting calls for an independent inquiry into clashes that took place between police and some demonstrators on that day. Photo: Reuters

Why govt is hesitating on an independent inquiry into June 12

In the wake of the extradition bill controversy and the mass demonstrations by the public, senior government officials have been keeping a low profile, expressing their views in a quiet manner only through their official blogs.

As to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, after a week of avoiding the spotlight, she did not engage with the press on June 25 amid cancellation of a weekly Executive Council meeting. The cabinet meeting was cancelled last Tuesday, too, though Lam still called a presser that day to apologize for the extradition bill fiasco.

There is speculation that Lam won’t be appearing in public again until July 1, when Hong Kong will mark the 22nd anniversary of its return to Chinese rule.

Although the government has been trying to downplay the repercussions of the extradition bill saga in recent days, the firestorm of controversy is continuing to snowball in society.

In particular, there are mounting calls among the public for the chief executive to set up an independent commission of inquiry to look into whether the police had used excessive force against demonstrators on June 12.

However, it is said that the police are fiercely against the idea of establishing an independent inquiry panel on the clashes that took place nearly two weeks ago in Admiralty.

The police have been stressing that there is an established mechanism in handling public complaints about the law enforcement, such as the Complaints Against Police Office and the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), which can deal with the June 12 incidents, which saw police use strong-arm tactics such as firing tear gas and rubber bullets against violent demonstrators.

There is also a view that even if an independent inquiry is launched on June 12 clashes, the police shouldn’t be singled out, and that the panel should also investigate whether violent acts committed by some protesters were to blamed for the police tactics that day.

People who take this view believe the inquiry should look into both the police and the protesters simultaneously in order to find out the truth about what really triggered the clashes.

As a matter of fact, it is understood that the administration, too, has quite a lot of reservations about establishing an independent commission of inquiry into the June 12 incidents.

It is because, as a government source has pointed out, even if the scope of the investigation is broadened into examining the root cause of the clashes, other than just probing the police, it would inevitably touch a raw nerve among the law enforcement officers and affect their morale.

The police, be it the top brass or the frontline officers, have been infuriated by the encirclement of the police headquarters in Wan Chai by several thousands of protesters last Friday.

Besides, the government is also worried that if a report of the independent inquiry panel gives a clean chit to the police in relation to their handling of the June 12 protests, it could reignite public outrage.

As such, the source said, the government has to think very carefully about whether or not to set up an independent commission of inquiry.

In related news, 10 former IPCC members issued a joint statement on Monday, urging the government to establish an independent commission of inquiry to find out why the June 12 clashes happened, review the law enforcement effectiveness and make suggestions for improvement. 

As far as calls for “pardoning” the protesters arrested during and after the June 12 clashes are concerned, some within the police have criticized the idea, arguing that such pardon would amount to blatant disregard for the city’s rule of law and the existing system.

The police point out they are only charged with enforcing the law, and that the decision on whether or not to press criminal charges against any particular individual rests with the Department of Justice.

Also, it is the courts, not the police, which decide whether a suspect who is standing trial is guilty or not, they added.

Undoubtedly, the extradition bill saga has taken a heavy toll on the morale of the police, as they had to come into the picture on an issue that was basically between the government and citizens.

A government figure has conceded that the administration is now facing a “life-or-death” situation. In order to ride out the problem, authorities must adopt a new mindset and think outside the box, the person said.

It is understood that during a brainstorming session held at Lam’s official residence last Saturday, a suggestion was put forward that the government should open a dialogue with the protesters to work things out.

Nevertheless, a government source noted that it is easier said than done, as the administration won’t know who exactly to speak with from among the protesters. That is because the social movement against the extradition bill was largely a spontaneous and leaderless campaign.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 24

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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JC/RC

Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.