Commentators Analyze Why Beijing Held Rare Press Conference to Support Hong Kong Police

August 5, 2019 Updated: August 5, 2019

Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung apologized on July 26 for the police’s delayed response to the mob violence at the Yuen Long train station, when men in white t-shirts attacked passengers with poles and metal rods, injuring dozens. Police had arrived on the scene 40 minutes after initial emergency calls. By that time, the assailants had already left.

Hong Kong citizens welcomed the apology, but several police associations soon released statements asking Cheung to take back the public apology, and instead apologize to the police.

After the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a Beijing agency, praised the police at an unusual news conference on July 29, Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung and representatives of four police associations met with Cheung the following day. 

Ronny Chan Man-tak, president of the Hong Kong Police Superintendents’ Association, stated after the meeting that both sides “openly shared” and that the association understands Cheung. He also said that Cheung supported the police and understood the hard work of police officers. He said that the police would not apologize for how the Yuen Long attack was handled and expected Cheung to explain to the public what he actually meant on July 26.

As to why the police was angered by Cheung’s apology and why Cheung’s support of the police was announced by a police association, senior journalist Fong Tak Ho said, “It’s obvious to me that [Hong Kong leader] Carrie Lam and Matthew Cheung have been dominated by the police. Matthew Cheung had such a high-profile meeting with the police and was questioned by police. And the police have openly expressed their expectations that Cheung would clarify his words. Such a semi-coercive approach shows that the police are stronger politically than the administration.”

Fong thinks that the main reason for the police’s emboldened approach is the July 29 news conference where Beijing expressed its backing of the police. “Hong Kong is an executive-led government. The ultimate leader of the police is Carrie Lam. However, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office didn’t give Carrie Lam the same level of respect as the leader of a police force that was given much praise at the news conference. This was quite strange,” Fong added. 

Reasons for the News Conference

A group of police officers self-identified as “police officers who love Hong Kong” sent media an open letter on July 30. The letter stated that the top leadership pushed the supposedly neutral police force into a political storm and caused the police to be sandwiched between the administration and Hongkongers, with a tanking morale. 

Another open letter from police family members to Carrie Lam said, “[Police officers] have to obey some illogical and unreasonable orders from the top and have been put in life and death situations. The frontline officers are forced to bear the consequence of wrong policies by the administration. This has caused the police-citizen relationship to deteriorate rapidly to the point of no return.” 

“Under the current circumstance, the CCP needs to support the Hong Kong police to resolve the fractures within the police force,” said columnist Liao Shiming. “Carrie Lam has lost her credibility. If Lam speaks in support of the police, the police would face even more anger from the public.”

According to Liao, signs at the news conference indicate that military intervention for now is out of the question for Beijing. Therefore, the morale of the police is the key to maintaining stability.

Has Hong Kong Police “Reddened”?

Police have since confirmed that assailants at Yuen Long have triad backgrounds. Hours prior to the attack, many white shirt men were seen in the neighborhood carrying China flags or wearing red arm bands.

As online videos revealed that the police arrived late at the Yuen Long subway station and allowed white T-shirt thugs to leave the scene without checking their IDs, as is the usual procedure when dealing with protesters, the public has begun to question whether the police is collaborating with local pro-Beijing triads. 

Fong Tak Ho said that Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in public: “I am aligned with the police…I won’t betray the Hong Kong police force,” after the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters on June 12. 

“Such words prompt us to question whether Carrie Lam still holds the power to direct the Hong Kong police,” Fong said. 

The recent open letter from police officers asked the top leaders to resign in order to save the reputation of the police force. The letter named a few high-level officers working with the local mafia and called out Chris Tang Ping-keung, deputy director of Hong Kong police, and accused him for corruption.

“The recent violence in Yuen Long, collusion between the mafia and police were not a coincidence. All of these revealed that the local villages, police, mafia are deeply connected,” the letter read. Local villages in the New Territories area of Hong Kong have a long history of working with local mafia.

The letter named Yau Nai-keung, the assistant district police commander of Yuen Long, as working with local mafia and turning a blind eye on the white T-shirt mob. It also alleged that deputy director Tang regularly accepted bribes from the local mafia. 

The question whether the Hong Kong police has “reddened”—or become aligned with Beijing—has been raised years ago.

Former Commissioner of Police Andy Tsang Wai-hung was invited to study China affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing during his post as the District Commander in Wan Chai in 1998. Tsang studied advanced national affairs at the Chinese Academy of Governance in 2004. Such courses instill the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and policies in students.

Li Jiangzhou, former director of the No. 1 Bureau in the Ministry of Public Security, took over the Police Liaison Department of the Hong Kong Liaison Office in 2016. The No. 1 Bureau is the National Security Bureau. Li was dispatched to Hong Kong after the umbrella movement.

“Because the No. 1 Bureau has been involved in Hong Kong and Macau affairs all along, Li is familiar with how the police work in Hong Kong,” Fong Tak Ho said. “I’m a bit suspicious. Does Li merely serve as a liaison? Or is he the actual Chinese Communist Party secretary in Hong Kong?” he added.

Forty-four People Charged with Rioting

A day after the news conference, the police announced that 44 out of the 49 protesters arrested on Sunday would be charged with rioting–an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Following the news, about 700 gathered outside of the Kwai Chung Police Station, demanding the release of the arrested protesters.

Rioting is a relatively “low threshold” charge but a sentence with a long minimum term, according to Fong. Edward Leung, a Hong Kong activist who advocated for the city to declare formal independence, was sentenced in 2018 to six years in prison based on the same offense. “Basically a person may spend the majority of his or her youth in prison,” Fong said.

Local commentator and seasoned journalist Johnny Lau Yui-siu, who worked for the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po from 1972 to 1989 and recently retired as Bureau Chief, expressed the opinion that Beijing is unlikely to use military intervention to quell recent protests but will want to increase the power of the police and stabilize the police as a “dictatorship machine.” he said. 

Fong pointed out that the police has escalated the prosecution of protesters possibly due to the vocal support from the Hong Kong and the Macau Affairs Office.