29 January 2020
Frontline police officers in Hong Kong have been under enormous stress ever since the outbreak of the anti-extradition bill movement. Photo: Bloomberg
Frontline police officers in Hong Kong have been under enormous stress ever since the outbreak of the anti-extradition bill movement. Photo: Bloomberg

How Chief Secretary Cheung inadvertently upset the police

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung and Home Affairs Secretary Lau Kong-wah, along with several other officials, met with the press at the Central Government Offices last Friday to discuss issues related to the terrible attacks that took place on civilians in Yeun Long on July 21.

It is said that the reason why the duo were accompanied by officials from the Social Welfare Department and the Transport Department during the press conference was that the government wanted to demonstrate to the public that it remains fully functional, and that there is no such thing as “a state of anarchy” in the city.

At the press conference, Cheung directly referred to the white-clad men who attacked civilians at the Yuen Long MTR station on July 21 as “rioters”.

He also said that he fully understands that the “citizens are very angry and indignant at the attacks in Yuen Long, and are therefore hoping to voice their anger over the blatant and gratuitous violence.”

Cheung’s comments marked a much stronger tone than that adopted by the government in its previous references to the Yuen Long incident, an apparent attempt to alleviate public outrage over the atrocity.

As far as calls from different sectors of society for the administration to conduct an independent inquiry into all the recent extradition bill-related events are concerned, Cheung didn’t reject the idea outright, but said he will continue to “ponder over it”.

It is understood that Cheung’s reference to the white-clad attackers in Yuen Long as “rioters” wasn’t an off-the-cuff choice of words, but rather, a decision made by the government after it had held internal discussions about the matter.

When asked by reporters whether the government would be willing to apologize to the citizens who were injured during the July 21 attacks, given that the police had refused to do so, Cheung immediately answered: “Yes, I’d absolutely like to apologize to our citizens for the way the incident was handled.”

He also added that “if our citizens want the government to accept responsibility for what happened, I believe it is on us.”

Cheung’s “apology”, which, according to some sources, wasn’t supposed to be part of his prepared speech, provoked a fierce backlash among the police.

Shortly afterwards, some senior law enforcement officers and constables posted their police ID cards online as a protest against Cheung’s remarks, casting doubts over whether the chief secretary is in any position to apologize to the public on behalf of the police force.

And some police unions have vowed to arrange for meetings with Chueng in order to air their grievances against his “inappropriate” remarks.

Knowing that things had come to a head after his public apologies, the chief secretary immediately reiterated on Friday afternoon that he totally supported the police and felt deeply grateful to them for their commitment to upholding law and order in the city.

To some people, the police might appear to have a bit overreacted to the Cheung’s remarks, and looked like as if they had a big chip on their shoulder.

Nevertheless, a figure within the government has explained to us that the police’s bitter reaction is understandable, given the fact that frontline police officers have been under enormous stress ever since the outbreak of the anti-extradition bill movement.

Several other government figures have also told us that it will provoke an even more ferocious backlash from the police if the administration succumbs to public pressure and agrees to conduct an independent inquiry, thereby creating another governance problem.

Hong Kong society appears to be sitting on a powder keg now, where any tiny spark, such as Matthew Cheung’s impromptu remarks, can immediately set off a catastrophe.

Another government figure stressed that there will be no end in sight for the current mayhem in society if the top decision-makers remain unable to come up with any viable solution.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 27

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.