Hong Kong / China (18/3). On the surface the answer is no. Like any other institutionalized governmental structure, the police profession is a rigid one. It is not designed by character to recognize rapid changes and react swiftly to the new landscapes.
The Hong Kong Police Force is poorly perceived by the public. The police do not view investing into its image as a priority. “It’s like the police is playing its music on a radio station channel blasting away, but everyone in Hong Kong is tuned out. Nobody is listening.”, said a reporter from a foreign press agency accredited in Hong Kong.
Beholden to Beijing the new command of Police Commissioner Chris Tang made some media blunders may not reflect the new Police Commissioners style of being the commissioner of the people and for its people. But perception is reality.
How is the new commissioner job performance so far?
Taken the reaction by the public so far, the commissioner is settling in. After a few tumultuous public council meetings which were basic accusation hurdled against him and the police force and his walk-out, the dinner with Jackie Chan was a media bomb. For a dapper public servant who looks like fresh from Savile Row he needs a bit sensitivity training.
The commissioner is learning fast that everything he does is political. His career may have prepared him, but he is now put under the microscope to return Hong Kong to stability. Unfortunately, he has lots of work ahead of him.
Chris Tang is known to be a bit of a thinker. Overly educated this tactical thinking mixed with his strategic approaches. In late August last year Hong Kong was on the verge of a break down. From the protesters point of view signs of a collapse of the government were present the police responded in force.
The previous command wasn’t to keen on having the city descending in chaos and send regularly an “all-is-fine” to the overlords in Beijing. Hubris ran wild in the command as it was in the political circles of Hong Kong. This should serve as a warning for future developments in Hong Kong and other governments in the region.
Warning from Beijing that the city has ‘signs of terrorism’ was rejected by the Hong Kong police. Marked as ‘yet another sign of propaganda from China’ the notion that Hong Kong has domestic terrorism was flat out rejected by command.
Only in recent days new language emerges. “Certainly [the attacks are] starting to bear all the hallmarks of homegrown terrorism.” Warnings issued back in August last year are now daily reality for the new police chief. Hong Kong is now in a race against the bomb. ‘The bombers need to get it right only once, the police has to get it right all the time’, goes a well known saying in counter terror circles.
According to senior bomb disposal officer Alick McWhirter the Hong Kong police handled nearly 190 explosives cases in 2019 – 60 per cent more than the year before – amid what they called an “almost unprecedented” bombing campaign. In early March, authorities seized more than two tonnes of explosives and chemicals and arrested 17 people, accusing the group of plotting attacks against police officers.
Materials for making homemade explosives that have been seized in the past year include triacetone peroxide, a highly unstable substance often referred to as TATP, that can be got hold of in Hong Kong “with difficulty”, according to McWhirter.
The white crystalline powder is the same material used in suicide bombing attacks in Manchester in 2017 and Brussels in 2016. Nicknamed the “Mother of Satan” by terrorists the TATP are visible signs how serious the terror cells have become.
And the clamp down after the command change in the Hong Kong police was needed. But so is the deep distrust of foreigners. Police command was repeatedly warned over the likelihood of terrorism is a new reality.
Voices were ignored and near misses is the current record. It is unclear if the extremist’s cells are eliminated or not. Recent arrests suggests they are not. Terrorism is likely here to stay.
Sources in Government house simple overwhelmed and in disbelief the riots went violently and enjoyed the broad support that it did. “The government officials and the police needed to cycle through the list of wrong analysis and ‘blame game” before the government, intelligence bureau from the mainland and in Hong Kong gotten the hint the riots are not just a bunch of unhappy has-beens from yesteryear and revolutionary wanna-be’s dressed up like Black blocs demonstrating for a better world.”, a source close to the matter said.
“Officials collectively were just not ready to accept the reality even if it stared the police in the face”, she said. “Terrorism comes in various forms not all of them are jihadists”.
Political grumblings, warnings of a reshuffle?
Some political observers note that senior and junior officials were all accountable for the poor performance of the administration during the anti-government protests and said a shake-up of top officials could not be ruled out.
“But a major leadership reshuffle will only happen when Beijing thinks it’s the best time to fit President Xi Jinping’s interests,” he said.
If the legislative council election elections in September this year again plagued with some more unrest and destruction a shake up even in the police ranks is not excluding the commissioner and his team.
Many sources in the police whisper wanting a closer link to integrate the police with the mainland Chinese. Ideologically many officers are fed up with the months the police force becoming the whipping boys for the protesters and western interests.
The lack of identifying terrorism what it is, and the lack of comprehension the riots in 2019 are the prelude for 2020 is viewed by many as structural deficiencies.
“Many in the (police) force could not understand why suddenly the blue line are enemy number one for Hong Kong?”. The police reacted as most police forces do. Keep the dirty linen in house and hope the anger blows over.
A former Hong Kong police officer was quoted in the Los Angeles Times, says the rift between the force and millions of citizens could be irreparable.
Wong’s remaining friends on the police force have stopped returning his text messages. One of them used to tip him off to leave a protest site before riot officers arrived.
This confirms long held suspicions the protesters receiving intelligence from within the force to plot their moves. But it also shows a deeper problem that the police are behind the information curve.
Quo vadis, Commissioner?
Chris Tang has a challenging year and times ahead. The months up to September will be testing again the police force. China will now increase the pressure on the Hong Kong police force. Intelligence capabilities, relationship with Beijing and the citizens of Hong Kong demanding change, and power. Naturally these interests will clash.
The purse for the Hong Kong police is tightly controlled by the administration and as 2019 has shown despite repeated warnings by various parties did not improve the police-public relations. Rumblings that the police not being trusted has not changed. Fixing both domestic and global perceptions should be a priority.
It will recruit another 2,500 bodies (if it can – given the present state of police relations with the public this may be a bit ambitious) in the coming year to add to its size, which is also, by international standards, large. More bodies, means more challenges to the leadership of the force such as building a smarter force. More bodies does not mean better policing.
For the moment the global media circus focuses on the Coronavirus, but the Hong Kong police should not be confused that the struggle is over.
It is the question if newly minted police commissioner wants to be remembered as the police chief is a reformer or kowtowing to Beijing. So far, the public is not convinced.