Fanning the embers

April 21, 2020 08:49
Restrictions imposed to combat the virus is squeezing the commercial lifeblood out of Hong Kong.Photo: Reuters

What, one may reasonably ask, was the purpose of arresting 15 Hong Kong supporters of a liberal democracy?

According to the Police Commissioner Chris Tang, it is simply carrying out the duty of the police to enforce the law.

What about the timing? Coming hard on the heels of the two Central Government bodies’ criticism of the behaviour of the pan-democrats in Legco, it is difficult to resists the temptation to interpret the arrests as a show of intractable force at Beijing’s direction.

Hong Kong has arrived at a condition of such extreme political and social polarity that the democratic supporters and the autocratic supporters will draw conclusions consistent with their respective bias, regardless of the outcome of any trial of those arrested.

In the extraordinary societal circumstances dictated by the Covid-19 pandemic what did the government aim to achieve by this move?

Contrary to some criticism, the arrests were not actuated by the police of their own volition; according to Commissioner Tang they acted on the advice of the Department of Justice, that is to say the government’s legal advisors.

Whereas the current Secretary for Justice is a stranger to criminal law, one has to doubt that the arrest of such high profile members of the community would not have her seal of approval.

An impartial observer would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know that the restrictions imposed to combat the virus is squeezing the commercial lifeblood out of Hong Kong.

To date, such inadequate steps as have been taken by the government to ease the economic distress have benefited the corporate entities, not those most hard pressed, namely the employees laid off or fired. This only serves to confirm the impression that Hong Kong is governed for the benefit of the rich, not the poor or even middle classes of society.

It does not need a degree in statistics to know that those suffering most at the present time are the great majority of the city’s citizens.

People being encouraged to stay at home, avoid public gatherings or groups of more than four, are forced into an unnatural form of social isolation. As one leading psychiatrist observed, this will lead to a significant increase in psychiatric illness.

Whether one likes it or not, we are all living in Petri dishes of discontent in which disaffection multiplies exponentially.

At such a time and in such circumstances how was it anticipated that these mass arrests would impact on a seriously troubled community?

Five of those arrested were for their activities in announcing unauthorised marches in September and October 2019. Even the most retarded mister plod would not have needed over six months to identify them.

It is no part of my brief to analyse the merits of the evidence against each of those arrested, that will be for the courts to determine when, and if the cases reach the stage of prosecution.

No, my concern is that this government just doesn’t care about the groundswell of public anger that will be generated by the kind of mass arrests which we ordinarily associate with a communist takeover.

Under this historically well documented syndrome, the first to be arrested or, as in Mainland China, to just disappear, are the dissidents, lawyers, journalists and academics.

Participation in or announcing an unauthorised march hardly counts as a major crime. This is particularly ironic when the refusal of authorisation rests with the police.

There must be countless Hong Kong residents who were hoping that the enforced isolation and restriction on movement consequent upon Covid-19 would allow time for more temperate thought by both government and those in opposition to reflect on how best to reconcile their sharp differences of opinion.

Only the lunatic fringe would welcome a return to violence and vandalism. There is a huge appetite amongst the people of Hong Kong for a return to pre-protest normality.

On the back of the communal endeavour to overcome the vicissitudes of the virus, any sensible government would have been contemplating measures to meet the basic needs of a society that has been badly wounded by internal conflict.

The police have a duty to prevent crime and to arrest those suspected of offending. How that duty is performed is central to public recognition and appreciation of their role.

A police force has to be accountable to the public that it serves, if not, it no longer qualifies as custodian of the peace, it becomes merely the instrument of a brutal regime.

Accountability has to be seen to be operative. Neither the Complaints Against Police Office nor the Independent Police Complaints Council are perceived to be sufficiently impartial to give integrity to that accountability.

It is imperative to restoration of the public recognition of the integrity of the police force that it is seen to be accountable.

Of the four remaining demands made by the protesters, by far and away the most critical has been for a broad ranging independent inquiry into the protests, including allegations of the abuse of power by the police.

Just because the Police Commissioner denies that there has been any such abuse does not make it so.

The reduction in the temper of the protest movement consequent upon the Covid-19 virus provided a unique opportunity for government to exploit the calm and to announce the appointment of an independent judicial commission of inquiry into the protests.

If there was no such abuse of power, there is nothing to fear, but justice has not only to be done but be seen to be done.

Can there be any rational justification for not seizing this opportunity to restore both peace and prosperity instead of fanning the embers of enmity by such ill-timed arrests?

What keeps this government’s ears apart? Barely any measurable grey matter if this latest madness is anything to go by.

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Queen's Counsel