Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has only a life-threatening global pandemic to thank for a weekend, during which Hong Kong’s streets were not once again filled with tens of thousands of angry protesters demanding her resignation and barking out their familiar rallying cries of “Five demands, not one less” and “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.”

Standing before a backdrop emblazoned with the words “The Truth About Hong Kong,” on Friday the city’s embattled leader, now seen by most Hongkongers as little more than a Beijing marionette, gave us nothing of the sort. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Instead, as human-rights groups in Hong Kong and around the world cried foul, Lam fully embraced a long-awaited 999-page Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC)  report on the force’s widely criticised response to 10 months of anti-government protests that turned out to be the whitewash everyone expected.

This so-called investigation into police brutality was over pretty much before it began when a panel of foreign experts recruited to oversee the probe stepped down late last year after stating that the IPCC did not possess the “independent investigative capability” to carry it out. 

Their withdrawal prompted demands for an independent inquiry into alleged police misconduct during the protests that have been repeatedly rejected by the chief executive. Lam again slapped away these demands last Friday despite the chorus of outrage greeting the hopelessly skewed IPCC report, which cleared the force of any wrongdoing, effectively reissuing its carte blanche of impunity.   

Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

Sure, the report offers some token “room to improve” rebukes for the police – encouraging them, for example, to be a little swifter in their response the next time a gang of white-clad thugs wielding bamboo sticks and iron rods launches a vicious attack on protesters and innocent bystanders in Yuen Long. 

Henceforth, perhaps the police could arrive before every single one of the attackers has fled the scene. But, of course, there was no collusion on July 21 in Yuen Long.

As for the notorious police clearance operation at Prince Edward Station on August 31 – which led to mass arrests, untold injury and frenzied rumours that police had killed several protesters and concealed their deaths – again, the report offers the gentle reproach that officers could have made a more expeditious response that night. 

It also recommends that the force review its guidelines and practices for the media – but this is as close as it comes to acknowledging what truly happened after police expelled all reporters and camera crews from the station so that no one could observe their dirty work. 

Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

In the end, no one died at Prince Edward, the report concludes, and the operation was wholly justified. 

While the former part of that conclusion appears true, many would disagree with the latter. 

How about the police response to the July 1 storming of the Legislative Council chamber, when previously hyper-aggressive officers turned inexplicably passive, acting as mere spectators as protesters trashed the city’s legislature to the tune of HK$40 million (US$5 million)? 

Yes, that was unfortunate, according to the police lapdog, but: good job overall. 

And, if you were hoping that any of those cops you have seen on YouTube tear-gassing, pepper-spraying and laying their batons into protesters and terrified passersby on street corners, mall escalators, MTR trains and elsewhere would be held to account, sorry, that’s not going to happen because investigating the conduct of individual police officers is beyond the scope of the statutory powers of the IPCC.

That means the officer who shot and critically injured an unarmed protester in Sai Wan Ho back in November is off the hook. 

Isn’t that convenient – and precisely the reason the international advisory panel, which now vows to issue its own report, turned its back on the investigation five months ago? 

IPCC chairman Anthony Neoh’s maintains that the Hong Kong Police Force has no “systemic” problem, but he – like the weak-willed investigation he oversaw – misses the point. 

Indeed, the system may be fine, but it obvious to all who are watching that far too many police officers are perverting and abusing that system by their naked displays of animus against protesters who, admittedly, have stretched them to their physical and psychological breaking points over the last 10 months. 

In sympathy with the police, it must be said that the Lam administration – so deeply unpopular and reviled at this point as to be deemed illegitimate – has placed them in the impossible position of defending the indefensible. 

Anthony Neoh. File photo: inmediahk.net

It all started with mass demonstrations against the now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in common-law Hong Kong to be transferred to mainland China, where the Communist Party is the law. But police are presently standing as the last line of defence for a routinely maligned and humiliated chief executive whose approval rating has dipped below 20 per cent.

Surely, most cops don’t like her, either, but it is their unenviable task to beat back her multitude of detractors, some of whom have tossed not only profanity-laced vitriol but also bricks and petrol bombs their way.  

Police have responded by labelling protesters as “cockroaches” and by indiscriminate blasts of tear gas and pepper spray, not to mention baton whacks. These tactics make no distinction between the violent few and the peaceful many among anti-government demonstrators, while also victimising innocent bystanders and journalists covering the story. 

But you won’t read anything about that in the IPCC report. Rather than confronting the dangerous divide between the city’s police force and its people, the report chooses to ignore it – even, in a slavish echo of a tagline police spokespersons have been peddling for months now, going so far as to raise the spectre of protest “terrorism.”

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University at Hung Hom on November 17. Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

Well, as coronavirus restrictions have eased over the past few weeks, the “terrorists” have reemerged in a series of peaceful mall protests. But so have the police with their strong-arm tactics targeting not just protesters but also the media covering their protests.

As the Covid-19 threat continues, however, these protests remain necessarily small, making the pandemic the Lam administration’s best friend.

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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.