A year after taking over as Hong Kong’s police chief at the height of the anti-government protests of 2019, Chris Tang Ping-keung has identified tackling the “smearing” of the force and restoring its reputation as the biggest challenge ahead, besides dealing with a higher crime rate stemming from the social unrest.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Post, the police commissioner also rejected any notion of the force being used for political persecution when pressed on concerns about a recent wave of opposition lawmakers being arrested over various offences.
“It’s all about the behaviour. I arrest you if you break the law, organise a rally despite our objection or get violent in the Legislative Council chamber,” Tang said. “Maybe, to a certain extent, it reflects the law-abiding consciousness of a particular group of believers.”
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The 55-year-old veteran was sworn in as the head of Hong Kong’s 32,000-strong police force on November 19 last year.
That was a time when morale had hit rock bottom and police were stretched to their limit tackling massive protests sparked by the government’s since-withdrawn extradition bill. Violence by radical protesters was at its peak and police themselves were accused of using excessive force and questionable tactics.
Tang was credited with bringing in a more resolute style of leadership and restoring confidence among demoralised frontline officers.
A year later, he now heads a more assertive force as the protests have died down under the combined impact of Covid-19 restrictions against large gatherings and a new national security law that has empowered police to get tougher on protest-related offences.
Hong Kong’s overall crime figures rose by 16.6 per cent to 52,859 in the first 10 months of this year, compared with the same period in 2019. Reports of blackmail surged the most among all categories, almost tripling from 379 to 1,064.
The number of young people arrested, aged 10 to 20, also shot up from 1,965 to 3,151 between January and September. A quarter of them were arrested on protest-related charges.
The police commissioner said the higher crime rate, while having improved over the past month, was a “price to pay” for social unrest, as it bred lawlessness. School bullying had become particularly alarming, he noted.
With officers from the city’s 6,000-strong riot squad having returned to regular policing duties since July, Tang said, the force was now getting a grip on smaller crimes.
“With faith, we go farther” was the new motto, he said, and along with crime prevention, community engagement to repair police public relations was also a priority.
Tackling a “smear campaign” to demonise police and render their law enforcement efforts ineffective would be a tough challenge, Tang said, but the force would not let those behind such attacks succeed. He also defended his style of being quick to speak out when asked if he was being too aggressive and oversensitive to criticism of police.
“I do not like picking fights, but I must tell people the truth. People should be given the other side of the story to show the harm caused by lawbreaking,” he said. “There has been much fake information to mislead people and encourage them to break the law. This is a scourge to society and I must correct it.”
Tang accused unnamed media forces of sabotaging police efforts to enforce the law.
“A powerful person, who holds control of a media organisation, openly requested foreign countries to sanction Hong Kong and China. Everyone knows about it. He was once arrested by our National Security Department for collusion with foreign forces,” he said.
He did not name Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who was arrested in August for alleged collusion with foreign forces.
“Facing such a complicated situation in which media attacks on our law-enforcement effectiveness are in full swing, our work in fighting smears cannot stop,” he said.
He defended the arrest of a journalist at government broadcaster RTHK over a search for car owners’ personal details in a public database. While the case has sparked an outcry among media groups, Tang said police had acted on a complaint and enforced the law by the book.
“We don’t target a particular entity. We act on reports. I cannot give up prosecution just because someone is working for a radio station,” he said.
The police chief also expressed strong regret over recent arrests of police officers accused of crimes ranging from theft to assault and rape. He vowed to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against “bad apples” tarnishing the reputation of the force.
In the first 10 months of this year, police arrested 38 of their own colleagues, compared with 24 in all of 2019.
Earlier this week, two officers were arrested on suspicion of raping a woman in a hotel room in Mong Kok.
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