I don’t know whose idea it was that Hong Kong’s spokesman at a recent UN Human Rights Council meeting should be a Deputy Commissioner of Police, but the implications of this unusual arrangement are rather disturbing. I wonder what the council members thought of it.

Let us take a little detour. Many years ago I pursued a master’s degree in military matters which had been designed with an eye to attracting serving officers who might be interested in the intellectual aspects of their profession. As a result, it included a compulsory course in Civil-Military Relations.

This has been a tricky topic for as long as there have been such relations. Sun Tzu cannot have endeared himself to potential employers with the suggestion that “If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.”

And the question has come up in different times and places ever since. How far should the civilian powers dictate to the military, if at all, and under what circumstances can the military authorities appeal to some higher good than the sovereign’s will?

Sometimes a tricky variation was added by the presence of the ruler on the battlefield, giving orders to more experienced men with occasionally catastrophic results. On the other hand, a ruler who was also a military genius – like Napoleon or Frederick the Great – could solve the problem by uniting the civil and military powers in his own person.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

As far as the theorists are concerned the matter was eventually settled by the great Carl von Clausewitz:

At the highest level the art of war turns into policy – but a policy conducted by fighting battles rather than by sending diplomatic notes… No other possibility exists, then, than to subordinate the military point of view to the political.

Clausewitz’s idea that war is a part of politics, and that consequently in the last analysis the political authorities must take precedence over the military ones, is piously preached on officers’ training courses throughout the world. In Marxist contexts, it is phrased slightly differently, in terms of the primacy of the Party, but the effect is the same.

However, this was only a fruitful field for academic cultivation because while everyone agrees on the theory, it is frequently not followed in practice. During the Cold War, the military establishment in various countries often took over the state completely. They were egged on by whichever of the two contending sides disliked the existing civilian regime. The whole thing became almost routine.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

There was even a short practical textbook (Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, by Edward Luttwak) which outlined the usual procedure: tanks on the Presidential Palace lawn, take over the radio and TV stations, close the airport, etc. In small countries, it often turned out to be surprisingly easy. The leader of the coup was usually at least a Colonel, more often a general. But one West African government was overthrown by a mere Sergeant.

Flat-out takeovers do not concern us here, and indeed since the end of the Cold War, they have become much less common.

But this is not the only way civil-military relations can go wrong. In a slightly less toxic but still deplorable variation, the military stay, ostensibly, in their barracks but usurp the power of the civilian politicians, so that the army becomes more powerful than the supposed civilian government.

The finest example in our region, for the historically erudite, would be Japan in the 30s, with Indonesia perhaps a more recent specimen. The classic European case was Germany during World War 1, with power only handed back to the civilians so that they could preside over the surrender. In Turkey, for many years the army appointed itself the guardian of the legacy of Ataturk and civilian regimes were bullied, and occasionally overthrown, if they did not satisfy military views of what that legacy required.

The army, as over-mighty subject, is a more difficult disease to spot than a simple coup. After all, in an open society, the military has a perfect right to explain itself and agitate for what it needs and wants. The question is when this becomes excessive.

And the response is usually found in the answers to a series of questions. Is the relevant minister in the government actually a current or former military man? Does the military effectively control its own budget? Does it help itself to as much manpower as it wants? Does it run its own foreign policy? Does it shrug off – or persecute – civilian critics? Are its members subject to a separate judicial system?

Government headquarters, Admiralty. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Now, of course, Hong Kong has no armed forces about whom we can ask these questions. But if you apply them to our own fine Police Force you get some worrying answers.

The Secretary for Security is a former cop. The Force has just achieved a 25 per cent increase in a budget which is already, by international standards, extremely generous. 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. Consider also that some of the things done by police people in other places have been hived off elsewhere in Hong Kong: graft to the ICAC, copyright to customs, hawker control to food and hygiene, and so on.

The Force cannot, or cannot yet, entirely ignore civilian politicians. But it is notable that all of them – pro- and anti-government alike – called for a proper Commission of Inquiry into last year’s disorders, a routine response to colonial riots. And they called in vain.

File photo: Studio Incendo.

Then there is the matter of police officers who may have abused their powers, brutalised suspects, used weapons on harmless passers-by etc. In the majority of cases, these incidents are investigated only by other officers. The only punishment of which we hear is “a reprimand”, which doesn’t sound too swingeing. The minority of cases which reach the IPCC do not produce results which inspire confidence. In effect, the force is answerable only to itself.

Now we have a policeman turning up at a meeting of a UN body to push a line which differs in both tone and content from the government’s.

I fear I gave offence the other day by saying on an RTHK programme that our police force was beginning to look like the Pakistani Army. This is what I meant. The Pakistani Army is a power in the land. Civilian politicians cross it at their peril. It takes what it needs and runs its own foreign policy, to the occasional embarrassment of the civilian authorities.

Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

In this respect the Hong Kong Police Force is beginning to look quite similar: it has escaped from civilian control. Our Chief Executive Carrie Lam does not control it. On matters about which it has a view, it controls her. Under her protection, it need fear no scrutiny of its budget, its policies or its misbehaviour.

Chairman Mao famously said: “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.” Well at least in one respect we do seem to be moving towards one country two systems.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.