A 1000-page Travesty
May 19, 2020
This past Friday was a busy news day for Hong Kong—and it had nothing to do with COVID-19 or its economic fallout.
In late morning, the pro-Beijing camp orchestrated a coup d’etat in the legislature’s house committee to make way for a national anthem bill. Hours later, the Education Secretary ordered the scrapping of a university entrance exam question accused of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.” In the same afternoon, a 22-year-old received a four-year sentence for throwing umbrellas at police officers and became the first to be sent to jail for participating in the 2019 protest movement.
But those were mere blips in our dizzying news cycle compared to the biggest story of the day: the release of a long-awaited report on the police’s handling of last year’s protests and social unrest.
The report was compiled by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), Hong Kong’s statutory police watchdog. And its effort had been doomed from the start. In December, all five members on an international panel hired by the IPCC abruptly resigned over its lack of investigative powers. After that, progress was stalled first by a court challenge of the body’s authority and then by the Coronavirus outbreak.
Months of suspense and anticipation culminated in a high profile release on Friday afternoon. As soon as the document was uploaded to the IPCC’s website, anxious citizens like myself devoured the thousand-page behemoth like it was a report card on Hong Kong’s governance and social justice. By the time we scrolled to the end, there were unblinking eyes and slack jaws.
For starters, the report glossed over a number of egregious and widely publicized incidents of police misconduct, such as when one officer plowed his motorcycle into a crowd of protesters and another dropped an oil drum-sized garbage can from a footbridge on unsuspecting demonstrators.
Armed assaults on citizens were diminished to “street fights” and“brawls,” while delayed responses and inaction by officers during an attack of thugs were sugarcoated as “miss[ed] opportunities to provide visible police intervention.”
What's more, the IPCC’s lack of investigative powers helped to exonerate the police. In many cases, the watchdog’s inability to call witnesses or conduct other forms of independent inquiry led it to dismiss the allegations based on “a lack of supporting evidence.”
To rub salt in our wounds, the report, which makes no recommendations regarding disciplinary or prosecutorial actions against offending officers, shifted the blame to the complainants themselves.
The IPCC repeatedly characterized protesters as “aggressive,” “radical” and “lawless,” and called their action “vigilantism” and “incipient terrorism.” While there is “room for improvement” in their performance, the police were portrayed as victims of physical violence and cyberbullying.
In fact, there was so much emphasis on the protesters’ supposed “escalating violence” and “blatant propaganda” against law enforcement that the document read more like a study on protesters’ misconduct rather than the police’s.
To fully appreciate the level of our frustration and outrage, you have to go back to May 2019 when large-scale demonstrations erupted over a controversial government proposal that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China. Months of violent clashes between riot police and protesters followed, turning Asia’s leading financial hub into a smoke-filled urban battlefield.
By the time the extradition bill was scrapped in mid-June, demonstrators had turned their attention to other political demands. Police violence and their seeming impunity, now confirmed, became the focal point. The issue continued to draw demonstrators to the streets in great numbers: armed officers were caught on video shooting a cocktail of rubber bullets, sponge grenades and even live ammunition at protesters, journalists and passersby. Stories of the arrested being physically or sexually abused by officers came to light.
A survey conducted last November found that nearly 70% of Hong Kong residents disapproved of the police’s handling of the anti-extradition protests, while another poll showed that over 80% supported the setting up of an independent commission to look into the excessive use of police force.
An independent inquiry would certainly have touched a raw nerve with the police. Afraid of losing their support when she needed it most, embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried to placate angry citizens by leaving the issue to the IPCC. She repeatedly called on the public to “have faith in the established mechanism” to bring justice and accountability.
But after holding our collective breath for nearly a year, all we have now are sighs of disappointment. Amnesty International blasted the IPCC report as “impotent and biased.” Clifford Stott, one of the overseas experts who quit last December, called the document “part of a wider set of coordinated announcements designed to deliver the new ‘truth’.” He said its release among a barrage of distressing news stories on Friday was an attempt to divide the public’s attention.
This outcome is perhaps hardly surprising. The IPCC has long been criticized for its conflict of interest and limited powers. In 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concerns that “investigations of police misconduct [in Hong Kong] are still carried out by the police themselves” and that the IPCC “has only advisory and oversight functions... and the members are appointed by the Chief Executive.”
The solution to festering public discontent and a severely discredited police force is by establishing an independent commission of inquiry—one of the so-called “five key demands” made by protesters. Numerous local civil society groups and international human rights watchdogs, including the Hong Kong Bar Association, Amnesty International and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, have all expressed support for the proposal.
With the IPCC’s image now conclusively shattered and signs that mass demonstrations may flare up once again as the lockdown eases, it is the only option left on the table.
This article was published in the Nikkei Asian Review under the title “Police report on Hong Kong protests is a shameful whitewash.”