chapter  9
Police powers
ByDAVID K.S. NG
Pages 18

In Western societies, the relationship between society, the law and police is regarded as ‘the triangle of tension’ (Edwards, 2011: 6). This tension appears to be universal as the police and the policed may at times be seen by some to be standing in opposing positions. However, the Hong Kong Police’s role is rather unique as they witnessed and experienced rapid changes in the society in the past few decades that were of a scale unmatched by most other societies. After the two civil disturbances in the 1950s and the 1960s, the economy of Hong Kong took off in the 1970s, when Hong Kong became an industrial and manufacturing port. Then, it transformed to become a financial and service regional centre in the 1980s, before the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Once regarded as a utilitarian society where people were apathetic about

politics, the citizens of Hong Kong were happy with a stable political, social and economic environment ensured by the British colonial government that allowed them to simply make their living. Lau (1984: 13) described people of Hong Kong as ‘utilitarian familism’. He explained that many people were, in some sense, refugees fled from Mainland China before 1949 in order to escape communism, they counted on family members or relatives to support their welfare and did not expect much from their government. The colonial government and its paternal style of governing were taken for granted and relatively few challenges against its authority were staged. People simply enjoyed a stable environment in which they were left alone to continue to work hard to improve their standard of living. During this period, the primary task of the Hong Kong Police was simply to maintain law and order under a rather homogeneous society. Police power was rarely an issue. While the economy of Hong Kong continued to thrive in the 1980s and the

1990s, higher educational opportunities and social upward mobility were also enhanced. The society became more diversified, the public demand and expectation of the government also increased. People began to expect a more accountable and transparent government. In tandem with this development trend, the colonial government adopted a more open approach and was more

responsive to public demands. In the same period, the Hong Kong Police first introduced community policing, and then later the service-oriented approach. Community policing in the Hong Kong Police was introduced in 1974 when the Police Community Relations Office in each police division (now district) was set up. The service-oriented approach was launched in the mid-1990s. Facing the return of sovereignty to Mainland China in 1997, many people of

Hong Kong began to raise their political concerns about the future, and society became very divided. Many people pledged loyalty to the Beijing government, and became very supportive of the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government, whilst some people were concerned that the capitalistic free society of Hong Kong might sooner or later be eroded by communism, or at least by the notionally communist government of Mainland China. To ensure freedom and democracy under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement, such people became keen on challenging governance by the government of the HKSAR, querying whether autonomy was being maintained, and if the People’s Republic of China was controlling the former from behind the scenes. Under such a conflicting political environment, some people in Hong Kong are becoming more and more prepared to adopt a more confrontational attitude to advocate for human rights issues. We can see similar situations around the world where people are launching large-scale protests against their governments. These include the Jasmine Revolution that took place in Tunisia in 2010, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the USA in 2010, and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in early 2014. These movements are believed by some to have far-reaching impacts in the

globalised world, and in recent years there has been increasing demand in Hong Kong society for greater public participation in government. For a number of years now, after the handover of sovereignty, protests made by people against the Hong Kong government have not ceased. Some protests have been getting more openly confrontational, and this culminated in the Occupy Central movement that started in September 2014. Although the protesters started to express their dissatisfaction with the proposed political reform package at first, the police were caught in the middle, and subsequently became a subject of protests themselves with the consequence that police legitimacy became severely challenged. The political reform package was about the Hong Kong chief executive election arrangement for 2017. The controversy related to how to achieve universal suffrage. Hong Kong is now facing a series of post-1997 governance crises. Many stu-

dies have been conducted to assess the causes of these from different perspectives (Lui and Wong, 2000; Cheung, 2005; Chiu and Lui, 2009). No matter what the reasons may be, the Hong Kong Police, being the forefront executive arm of the government of the HKSAR, charged with the responsibility to uphold law and order, can be perceived as a suppressive power against the people of Hong Kong. When people protest against the government, lawfully or unlawfully, the police are always there to maintain law and order. Just to regulate any public

order events and to ensure public safety, the police may find themselves caught up in confrontations with the demonstrators, when they might be compelled to enforce the law in a manner that could be construed as using their powers against the people. The demonstrators may in turn find the police acting in excess of their powers. Under the current political environment, the Hong Kong Police are often standing in between the Hong Kong government and the people challenging the governance of Hong Kong. The amount of pressure the Hong Kong Police face may be viewed as some kind of thermometer that partly reflects the intensity of political conflicts in society and the amount of people’s support to the government of the HKSAR. Police power is becoming a contentious issue in Hong Kong. The dilemma is,

at least to some people: ought police powers be significantly curbed or do we still want the police to do their job well and can we still expect the police to effectively discharge their duties to maintain law and order, prevent and detect crime, protect lives and property? This short chapter attempts to offer a few insights for a better appreciation of police power in the context of socio-political changes in Hong Kong.