Amid all the fuss rightly made about the police raid on Apple Daily one interesting innovation was, quite understandably, overlooked. Hong Kong now has “gangs”.

This is new. For many years, Chicago has had gangs, New York had gangs, even London and Paris had gangs, but in Hong Kong organised crime took other forms.

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For the “satisfied customer” stuff – vice, gambling, protection-there were triads, who engaged in occasional street fights with each other but otherwise kept a low profile: no drive-by shootings, no kidnappings of the rich and famous, no horses’ heads in the beds of innocent citizens.

Other crimes, like sex slavery and smuggling, were committed by “syndicates”.  These were a recurring feature of police press releases. Every week or so a “syndicate” was “smashed”. No doubt some future linguist will boost his academic status by tracking the origins of the syndicate smashing syndrome, which I believe is found nowhere else.

Syndicates were evidently either very robust or they bred like rabbits, because there seemed to be an endless supply.

“Police and triads are in love to do evil together.” Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Triads, on the other hand, went on forever. The same names cropped up time after time. As long ago as the 70’s, the official police line was that triads had been exterminated, or at least were “under control”. Yet it seems that in parts of Hong Kong like Wanchai, Mong Kok and Yuen Long they were not so much under control as in control. As indeed perhaps they still are.

But now: gangs! We owe this new departure to Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah, of the force’s new National Security Department. Talking about the Apple swoop, he told reporters that police had been investigating a gang which “promoted and actively called on foreign countries or international organisations to sanction or blockade Hong Kong.”

“We found that two men and one woman are running this gang in Hong Kong,” he continued. And so on for several paragraphs.

Steve Li. Photo: Police Facebook screenshot.

So there you have it. If you shake down local shopkeepers or run a brothel, you are a triad. If you smuggle prostitutes or drugs into Hong Kong, you are a syndicate. If you breach the National Security Legislation by telling people overseas what is happening in Hong Kong, on the other hand, you are a gangster.

It could perhaps be argued that this choice of terminology was inappropriate, given that a number of people had been arrested, so the use of language which presumed their guilt was objectionable as contempt of court.

But the arrests of Jimmy Lai and his mates was accompanied by a veritable barrage of prejudicial comment, with the professional police propagandists swiftly joined by amateurs like Lau Siu-kai. I am going to stop complaining about this. We should all simply be aware that if you are on the government’s list of candidates for persecution then your right to a fair trial has effectively already been abolished.

The government, its press poodles, and the police will say what they like, however prejudicial it may be.

Actually the police doing whatever they like seems to be a permanent feature of the new post-autonomy landscape. We can dismiss as mere tactlessness the twin spectacles of 200 policemen packing a staircase at the Apple Daily office while some of their colleagues were fining domestic helpers for being too close to each other on their day off. Actually, the helpers had copped it the day before. Learn your news cycles, people.

More serious is the matter of press accreditation. Some months ago, Carrie Lam said quite unequivocally that the government had no plans and no intention of introducing any kind of accreditation or licensing system for the press. Press freedom was a fundamental  value, she said with the usual platitudes.

This has not stopped the police force from introducing their own register of news media they will cooperate with. Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung revealed the existence of a list of “trusted” media, who are provided with improved access while the untrusted wait outside. This cleared up one mystery, which was why some reporters were excluded from a police press conference the week before. The “trusted” list was already in operation.

Chris Tang. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

Explanation for how you get on or off the list came from Tang: “It depends on the past performance of those media—whether they behaved in a way that the police deemed unprofessional… Criteria include whether their reporting is objective, whether they have participated in actions other than reporting, whether they would obstruct officers from performing their duty or if they would pose danger to officers.”

But this list is something the Chief Executive, no less, clearly said would not happen. What is going on here?

It used to be said that 18th century Prussia was not a state with an army, it was an army with a state. It appears that Hong Kong no longer has a government with a police force; it has a police force with a government.

Then there is the matter of searching journalists’ desks. There was nothing in the matters leading to the raid on Apple Daily to justify police intrusion into how the newspaper produces the news. Looking at the contents of reporters’ desks was, it was conceded, not justified.

Photo: Stand News.

The Police Public Relations Branch Chief Superintendent Kenneth Kwok offered a curious explanation: “At 11 o’clock I asked them all to stop… That… can show our determination to protect journalistic material.” It shows nothing of the sort. How long had officers been rummaging in reporters’ desks by the time Kwok’s orders reached them. An hour? Two hours?

Police raids are preceded by planning and briefings. If there was a genuine determination to protect journalistic material it would have been expressed at that stage and the officers conducting the raid would have known what they were supposed to do, and not to do.

Are we to imagine a dialogue at 10.55 am along the lines of:

“Ah Sir, some of our team members are turning over the material on reporters’ desks.”

“There are reporters’ desks in a newspaper office? Who would have thought? Tell them to stop immediately.”

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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.