Nine public hygiene unions have asked the government to consider passing a law to protect all public officers from insults.

The call came after four police unions held a rare closed-door rally last week. Tens of thousands of union members and their relatives, as well as pro-Beijing figures who attended the event, demanded the criminalisation of behaviour insulting police officers.

police rally
Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) Unions Alliance, representing nine unions of FEHD employees, sent a letter to the Chief Executive Office on Monday requesting the government extend the coverage of the proposed law to all law enforcement officers.

The alliance said the “heavy sentencing” of seven police officers found guilty of assaulting pro-democracy activist Ken Tsang during the 2014 Occupy protests would have a “significant and adverse impact” on the morale of other law enforcement agents.

‘Divided’ society

Spokesperson for the alliance Simon Ng Chung-kong told HKFP that FEHD officers frequently face resistance and verbal abuse when enforcing the law against hawkers, restaurant operators and other relevant bodies.

“Swear words come naturally to Cantonese people. We understand that not every expletive is meant to be abusive, but sometimes people give our officers a very hard time,” Ng said. “But we can’t fight back even when we are provoked.”

He said a big challenge facing FEHD officers is that the public often criticises them for lacking sympathy if they enforce the law strictly. “Hong Kong society is very divided,” he added.

food and Environmental Hygiene Department conflict
North Point business operators resisted law enforcement action by FEHD officers in 2016. File

The FEHD is often accused of “selective law enforcement.” Critics claim that officers often target elderly people but are soft on parallel traders, who often occupy pavements in hotspots such as Sheung Shui and Tuen Mun.

The department came under fire last October after its officers gave an elderly cleaner a HK$1,500 fine for dumping waste water outside a refuse station. The fine was dropped following wide media coverage and public opposition.

‘Intensify division’

In response to the alliance’s demand, labour rights activist Alex Kwok Siu-kit said the government “should treat every occupation equally” so that other sectors that frequently face humiliation – such as firefighters, medical personnel, public transport drivers and teachers – are also included.

“Every sector should make the demand and threaten legal action against the government for discrimination if it fails to cover all of the sectors,” he said.

Fund manager Edward Chan of the professional group Financier Conscience questioned why police officers should be treated differently than other occupations, as every occupation faces verbal abuse to a varying extent.

edward chan
Edward Chan. File Photo: Financier Conscience, via Facebook.

“So who decides which occupation needs legal protection? It will only intensify social divisions. I’d even say this is discrimination by occupation,” Chan told HKFP.

He described the proposed law as “ridiculous.” He said: “It is very difficult to draw a clear definition of ‘insult.’ If the law is not objectively drafted, it will be easily abused by some police officers. It could lead to a reign of white terror.”

He added that police officers already enjoy a range of powers that can be used against people who resist arrests or even “touch” officers.

But Chan thinks that the proposal lacks wide public support and is only used by some pro-establishment figures to score political points. “The government should not add fuel to the controversy, which will only further divide society,” he warned.

Lawyer Kevin Yam of the Progressive Lawyers Group told HKFP last week that while the offence of contempt of court aims at protecting judicial independence – a pillar of the rule of law – “it is unclear how the [proposed] legislation has any deeper purpose beyond making police officers happy.”

Though pro-Beijing lawmakers such as Priscilla Leung and Elizabeth Quat want to push for the legislation, Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung has not directly commented on the issue.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.