When it comes to public relations, it’s often the little things that let you down. Consider the unfortunate way in which the case of Mr Sunny Chiu and six other people ended last week.

Mr Chiu, a Shatin District Councillor, and two other council colleagues, together with four of their office assistants, were caught up in a mass arrest during a protest on July 1 last year. The protest was against the new national security law, the day after it came into force.

shatin district councillors DC charges dropped
Sha Tin District Councillors Li Chi-Wang, William Shek, Sunny Chiu (left to right). Photos: via Facebook.

The event took place in Times Square and was, by the standards to which we became accustomed, a pretty tame affair. Some people chanted… um… Foxes Don’t Nest On Limetrees, or the even more objectionable FRUIT, or as it is spelled in progressive circles FHROOT. 

No doubt there was also some singing of The Song, which is deemed subversive because it includes references to foxes and fruit.

If I may digress for a moment, since The Song is now banned protesters could consider that my Irish ancestors wrote many songs about freedom which are no longer needed in Ireland. Like this one, which, my Lord, cannot be considered subversive because it is clearly not about Hong Kong. We don’t have rivers.

causeway bay july 1 2020 (12)
Photo: May James/HKFP.

To return to Mr Chiu, he and his companions were taken to a police station, charged with offences under the Public Order Ordinance and released on police bail. Almost seven months go by. Last week he was contacted by the police and told that the charges would be dropped “for lack of evidence.” This is the police person’s tactful way of saying that you are guilty but we can’t prove it.

However we should be clear that this has no legal status at all. As far as the law is concerned Mr Chiu, like the rest of us, is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. In other words, in this case an innocent citizen has been plucked from his lawful occasions, hustled off to a police station, and subjected to months of anxiety and inconvenience, in error.

Mr Chiu was understandably a little sceptical about whether it was an entirely innocent error. In his Facebook report he claimed that police were using arrests and charges which had no prospect of being proven as a tool to persecute people they disapproved of. This would, if true, be entirely unacceptable.

arrests causeway bay july 1 2020 (19)
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Let us suppose for the moment that it was just an understandable mistake. Large numbers of people are milling around Times Square; it is difficult to distinguish who is protesting, who is spectating, who is shopping, who has turned up to monitor police tactics and who is a reporter. So slip-ups will happen.

Knowing our police force as we do, we will not expect anything faintly resembling an apology. As someone who would like to see the force respected and liked, though, I cringed at what came next: “Chiu has been instructed to go to the police station on Monday to pick up his clothing, a work mobile phone and a backpack, which were seized on the day of his arrest.”

Has he indeed? `Let us leave aside the interesting and unanswered question of why Mr Chiu’s clothing was seized, what, if anything, he was given to wear instead, and what the police thought they could do with said clothing … scan it for traces of subversion?

October 1 Causeway Bay Police stop and search
File photo: Tam Ming Keung/HKFP.

Still, having erroneously confiscated several items of an innocent person’s property, you would think it might have crossed someone’s mind that perhaps some more emollient approach was called for than “Come on Monday and collect your stuff.”

Maybe it would be a waste of police time for the force to return the items, by – say –  delivering them to someone’s office. Perhaps it would be a waste of public funds to get Gogo Van to deliver it on their behalf. But for pity’s sake, could Mr Chiu not at least have been asked to drop by at a time of his own choosing and convenience?

Surely we can avoid the appearance that police now work on the theory that anyone not wearing a blue ribbon is guilty; it just haven’t been decided what of … yet. In the meantime, we will treat you as a criminal.

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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.