Politicizing the police, weakening the rule of law

July 27, 2018 17:10
Protesters call for protection of freedom of expression and association during a rally outside the Hong Kong Police headquarters on July 21. Photo: Reuters

To what extent is the Hong Kong police force being politicized? The question can no longer be whether or not politicization is taking place, given that the signs are all too evident. Yet this dangerous development is being largely shrugged off as somehow being inevitable.

Matters have come to a head with the action taken against the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), a tiny fringe group that probably has no more than a dozen or so members.

Yet, as the 86-page document handed to the party's two leaders by the police shows, the level of surveillance surrounding this organization has clearly been intense and the amount of police time consumed in doing so is really mind-boggling.

Justification for this has been made on grounds that the party is advocating a position that contradicts the Basic Law. Yet, despite intense surveillance the police could produce nothing more than a volume of 'evidence' showing how the party has been going about its business using perfectly legal means: participating in seminars, handing out leaflets, attempting to stand for election, etc. etc.

Not one shred of evidence has been adduced of initiating or taking part in disorderly or violent behavior. However the police leadership and the usual rabble of faux patriot supporters have turned the presumption of innocence on its head and said that the party needs to be banned because it might take part in violent or other types of unlawful activity.

The norm in policing is that investigations are made on the basis of 'reasonable suspicion'. If, in the course of an inquiry, the suspicion of unlawful activity turns out to be nonexistent the investigation is dropped. But in this instance the lack of evidence is given as a reason for demanding that the party’s leaders justify themselves and, most crucially, justify their beliefs.

To add piquancy to this mix the police defenders have been yapping about nipping the party in the bud, before any crime is committed. The implications of this need hardly be spelled out.

But the bottom line question here is: why are the police still involved in this matter? Surely once they have been satisfied that nothing illegal is actually being done their task is over. Clearly however the HKNP is 'guilty' of disagreeing with the government and clearly it has views that challenge the established order but, as matters stand, there is no law preventing the expression of such views.

On the contrary Article 27 of the Basic Law unequivocally states that ‘Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, freedom of association, and of demonstration…’

If the government's intention is to seek amendment for this part of the Basic Law, there is a way of doing this but this is not a job for the police force. Moreover if there is to be a debate over the ideas advocated by the HKNP this is also categorically not something for the police.

However the police are being increasingly drawn into politics by the way that they regulate anti-government demonstrations, by being called into the legislature and, most worryingly by the willingness of senior officers to make political statements.

There is precedence for all this but the Beijing flag-wavers are reluctant to cite it as it causes embarrassment. During the Cultural Revolution-inspired disturbances of the 1960s the police acted in an overtly political manner to crack down on leftist organizations (yet did not ban the unions and leftist organizations associated with this violence). The difference here, and it is vital, is that they were not dealing with imagined instances of violence but the real and very dangerous reality which included fatalities.

The situation today is very, very different yet the police are being called upon to play, if anything, a more active role in politics.

Once politics enters the arena of policing all bets are off and rule of law is challenged in very dangerous ways.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.