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Hong Kong Gets a New Police Chief, But Old Debates Rage Over Reform Package

Hong Kong’s unlovable police chief Andy Tsang gives way to successor Stephen Lo. Tsang is inevitably associated with the decline in the last couple of years of the force’s reputation for calm professionalism and political neutrality. Before the Occupy/Umbrella movement, the Hong Kong Police generally did not: use tear gas; beat up pro-democrats in dark corners; look the other way when pro-Beijing thugs assaulted reporters; let identity parade participants wear shower caps and masks; arrest kids as a form of intimidation; or freak out like schizoid bed-wetters when groups of people stood outside Mongkok shops. Now they do.

People hoping that things will improve under Commissioner Lo assume that this fall from grace was Tsang’s personal choice. But if we put the new-look, tough-on-dems-and-students HKP in context, it doesn’t look that way. The context is: official scaremongering about ‘foreign interference’ in Hong Kong; pro-Beijing media demonization of academics; the use of hired pro-Beijing counter-protesters and bullies; press-ganging of business groups into signing alarmist anti-Occupy public statements; and, recently, a United Front campaign of criticism of judges for not joining in the purge. Seen this way, the cops have simply been brought under the same Beijing-led guidance as so much of the bureaucracy and establishment.

Lo says he will ‘enhance communication’, which is the default promise of any official who for whatever reason can’t or won’t change from a doomed course.

Another departure is that of Lu Ping. It is a reminder of how times have changed that even pro-dems recall old ‘Lu Lu’ with some affection. China was perhaps stronger on principles back then and therefore more quietly sure of itself, compared with today’s leadership, gripped alternately by paranoia and hubris.China was perhaps stronger on principles back then and therefore more quietly sure of itself, compared with today’s leadership, gripped alternately by paranoia and hubris.

For a bit of light relief, along comes pro-tycoon Liberal Party lawmaker James Tien. It’s not often you see his name in the same headline as the word ‘deep’, so make the most of the Standard‘s piece. It is, of course, inappropriate; the newspaper suggests that James is making a sacrifice by stumping up HK$250,000 to pay for an opinion poll on the political reform package, when such a sum is small change to the textiles scion.

He is hiring Robert Chung’s HK University POP polling group – whose unflattering findings have long irritated government officials and the pro-Beijing community (to the extent that United Front yappers have called for an alternative organization to do opinion polling right). By using the detested HKU group, Tien embellishes his reputation as a ‘maverick’ of the pro-establishment camp. His logic is that HKU POP is trusted by pro-democrats, who will therefore be persuaded if and when they learn that the public strongly supports the proposed political reform package.

(The last I heard, the POP pollsters rely on surveying only that part of the population with a landline phone, which some statistics experts consider an imperfect sample, if better than other local surveys. Would it be horribly cynical to wonder whether both pro-dem and pro-Beijing camps perhaps prefer not having too accurate a reading of what the public think?)

Yet it is hard to see public opinion shifting decisively in favour of the package. Beijing official Zhang Xiaoming asks government supporters to do more to support it. He insists the reforms are democratic and constitutional and all the rest. The pro-dems of course denounce the package as the opposite. The battle is over symbolism and structure and theory, and either you find it interesting and have made up your mind, or it bores you numb. No-one mentions what either accepting or rejecting the reform package might mean in practice for quality of governance in Hong Kong – the one thing that could shift perceptions.

Big Lychee

Watching the sun set, little by little, on Asia's greatest city – with a dash of Hemlock.