[Analytics] HK’s government unlikely to change its mind on inquiry into extradition bill clashes

Police and protesters clash as crowds try to make their way towards Beijing’s liaison office in the city. Photo: Sam Tsang. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

People close to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration exploring possibility of independent inquiry. But police are strongly opposed to prospect and Beijing is not yet pushing for one. Gary Cheung specially for the South China Morning Post.

People close to the government have been exploring the possibility of launching an independent inquiry into the recent clashes between protesters and police over Hong Kong’s now-abandoned extradition bill, the Post has learned.

But a source familiar with the situation said the chance of a government U-turn was slim, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor caught between growing public demands for a commission of inquiry and the police force’s strong opposition to it.

A Beijing source closely monitoring developments in Hong Kong said the central government was open to the idea of formally investigating the actions of both protesters and police.

But if such a commission was put in place, Beijing would want it to be conducted in a fair and transparent manner, the source said.

At a high-profile press conference on Monday, Yang Guang, spokesman for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, sidestepped a question by reporters on the possibility of holding an inquiry.
He said curbing violence and restoring order remained Hong Kong’s top priority.

The establishment of a commission of inquiry is seen as one of the few cards the embattled government can play in response to protesters’ demands, although they specifically want police to be the target because of allegations of brutality.

The shelved legislation would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which the city does not have an extradition agreement.

There have been widespread calls for a judge-led commission of inquiry, with former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang throwing his weight behind the move.

Two weeks ago, more than 30 leaders from across society called on the administration to launch an independent inquiry into the recent clashes.

But Lam would not agree to investigating the police, insisting the matter should be left to the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC).

On Friday, the four police associations for superintendents, inspectors, overseas inspectors and junior officers, reiterated their opposition to an independent inquiry in a joint letter to the city’s leader.

In a commentary published in the Post on Tuesday, former Chinese University vice-chancellor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee wrote that “an independent commission of inquiry of the entire extradition bill affair may help us learn how such crisis may be avoided in the future, and hence may prove worthwhile”.

Lan Kwai Fong Group chairman Allan Zeman said in a television interview that he supported the idea of an independent inquiry, as it would be the only way to solve the crisis.

Responding to such calls on Friday, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said while the government believed it was better at this stage to let the IPCC handle the matter, it was fully aware of “a very strong body of opinion” urging the government to establish a commission.

“So we are engaged now in a reflective process on the whole issue,” he said.

But a government source said the administration had not changed its decision to leave it to the IPCC.
“The chief secretary’s remarks on Friday do not contradict the government’s long-standing position,” the source said.

Another government source said a U-turn was unlikely.

“No matter how wide the scope of the investigation would be, police would unavoidably be targeted in the probe,” the source said. “The decision to set up a commission of inquiry would have been made earlier if we believe it’s feasible.”

Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of semi-official think tank The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said while Beijing was worried that a commission of inquiry would undermine police morale, Yang Guang had stopped short of ruling it out.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said an independent inquiry would be effective in reducing tensions.

“I’m worried that confrontation between police and protesters will escalate, as Beijing considers restoring order a top priority,” he said.

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung

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