Why the government is hesitant to launch an independent inquiry

August 05, 2019 08:14
The administration appears not totally against the idea of establishing an independent commission of inquiry into recent violent incidents related to the anti-extradition bill movement. Photo: Bloomberg

Former Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang and the Hong Kong Bar Association have joined calls for the government to conduct an independent inquiry into the clashes between the police and protesters since June 9.

It appears establishing an independent commission of inquiry as a means to resolve the ongoing political crisis has already become a consensus among various sectors of society. And it seems both Beijing and the SAR administration haven’t completely ruled out this option.

Roundtable lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun told us last Thursday that he once again raised the idea of opening an independent inquiry into the anti-extradition bill movement when he met with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor earlier in the week.

And, as he put it, it struck him that the government appeared to be not totally against the idea, but that it probably won’t consider setting up an independent inquiry of a higher level and with a broader scope of investigation than the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) until after the protests have subsided.

As to how Michael Tien has got that impression, he actually didn’t specify, only saying that he felt it that way probably because the chief executive at least didn’t reject the idea outright during their conversation.

As a matter of fact, according to numerous sources in political circles, quite a number of special “envoys” from the mainland have come to Hong Kong in recent months to meet with local business and political figures, during which these mainland messengers also brought up the issue of establishing an independent inquiry.

The envoys’ interest in the topic perhaps indicates that it is an option on Beijing's table.

Those who are in favor of conducting an independent inquiry believe that it might not be able to allay the anger of all anti-extradition bill protesters, but it can at least win over some of the more moderate people in society, thereby easing the tense atmosphere in the city.

However, it is said that the administration has two major concerns about pressing ahead with the idea, and this could explain its inaction so far.

One, the government is worried that even if it agrees to launch an independent inquiry into the violent incidents, it is quite unlikely that it can have it both ways – pleasing the protesters and vindicating the police at the same time.

In the worst-case scenario, the protesters may still continue with their resistance movement while the police would be deeply alienated when an independent inquiry is conducted.

Another concern of the government is that the chief executive has publicly vowed that she will never “sell the police out”, not to mention that the city's four police unions have strongly advised her against setting up an independent commission of inquiry.

As such, if the administration adopts this option at this point, or anytime soon, it will definitely be seen as a sudden and complete about-face that is going to infuriate the police force.

On the other hand, how can Carrie Lam and her cabinet defuse the current crisis if they continue to reject calls for officially withdrawing the extradition bill, not hold a single official accountable for the poor handling of the legislative push, and refuse to establish an independent commission of inquiry?

Judging from the recent moves by the authorities, it appears the government is now fighting a war of attrition, or more precisely, “waiting”, in an apparent attempt to try to wear down both the morale and energy of the protesters until they finally capitulate.

Meanwhile, sources said the government is arresting protesters and pressing the very severe rioting charges against them as a new form of deterrence.

Yet it remains to be seen whether this deterrence will really work, or may simply backfire on the government and further fuel the raging tensions in society.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 2

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.