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UK's handling of riot in 2011 hardly justify lack of inquiry in Hong Kong, says leading UK sociologist

Britain has characterised as a failure to learn from the 2011 riots that is hardly a basis to justify the lack of full inquiry in Hong Kong, according to leading sociologist Tim Newburn from the London School of Economics.

In a recent written interview with Citizen News, Professor Newburn, who led a award-winning research jointly with newspaper Guardian in 2011, also said Hong Kong's police watchdog's latest report on protests last year failed to give a sense of balancing, and it was hard to view that police's action was on all cases proportionate.

Professor Tim Newburn. credit: LSE YouTube

Read our edited Q&A excerpt with Prof. Newburn:

Q1. Over Mr. Antony Neoh's visit in July last year, do you recall what is his area of interest? Does he give you any impression of specific area of interest? Does that give you an impression that he wished to arrive at the similar conclusion to the 2011 London riots review?

A: Mr Neoh and colleagues came to visit in late July 2019. In advance of the visit they set out a list of four goals.
• To seek advice on how they should approach their work/study
• To obtain any relevant reports/research
• To discuss major issues in relation to the police handling of protests (force, weapons, tactics)
• To invite experts and professionals to offer assistance

Having led the major inquiry into the 2011 riots in England I was surprised that Mr Neoh showed relatively little interest in what we had done, how we had done it, and what we had found. I assumed that it was that research which was the primary reason for coming to see me. Our meeting, however, barely touched on what occurred in London and elsewhere in England in 2011, or on the research we did. So, in direct answer to the question, my sense was that there was greater interest in defending an already existing plan for the Hong Kong investigation than in discussing, and potentially taking some influence from our study of the ‘rioters’ in 2011 (or, indeed, our study of the police also).

Q2. The Hong Kong government has repeatedly cited the 2011 London riots when justifying the lack of judge-led inquiry, and instead to only rely on such review. Is that a fair comparison, especially given the scale of unrest in Hong Kong?

A: Can the absence of a fully independent inquiry in Hong Kong be justified by what happened in England? In my view, no, it cannot. England was characterised by both a failure to understand, and a failure to learn lessons from, the 2011 riots. As such, therefore, it’s hardly a good basis for justifying the approach taken in Hong Kong. Indeed, I would have thought that the only reason anyone would want to draw attention to the 2011 England riots would be to distance themselves from how they were handled. There were many failures of policing. The political reaction was dismissive and largely avoided making any public policy commitments to change. The communities that were so badly affected have been left lacking in resources and unprotected.

The determined resistance to instigate any fully-fledged attempt to understand the events is one obvious thing that seems to unite the disorders in England and Hong Kong. This cannot be a good thing. It leads to great suspicion; what have those in power to fear from such scrutiny? It helps store up resentment. It risks a failure to deal with major problems that will flare up in future, perhaps with worse consequences. And, it runs the risk of stimulating/provoking further protest and, potentially, further violence.

Q3. Do you find it is justified in the IPCC report to claim the use of force and firearms by police over the protests is proportionate, and only being reactive to violence from protesters? 

A: On the subject of proportionality, I think two points can be made. First, from an outsider’s point of view, the continual description of the events in Hong Kong as being provoked by protesters and then responded to by the police, simply doesn’t tally with what we know about police-protester interaction. We know from long years of study, and from examples of protest and civil disorder all over the world – just look at France, Brazil, Chile and India to name but a few in recent times – that the involvement of the police is always more complex than the IPCC report would have one believe was the case in Hong Kong.

What I mean by this is that it is rarely the case that protesters take to the streets in large numbers intent on violence. The violence tends to emerge out of interactions between crowds and those trying to control/repress them and, more particularly, violence by the crowd is often a response or reaction to police violence. The idea that it was somehow always the other way around in Hong Kong is simply not plausible to anyone who has studied these types of events. As a consequence, the report gives a sense of lacking balance. In this regard it is very hard to accept the idea that the police action was, on all occasions, proportionate.

Second, there is the question of how the police action was perceived. Here it is clear that a huge number of those observing what went on, whether on the streets or simply watching media coverage, felt that the use of force was disproportionate. This has to be taken seriously as, among other reasons, it clearly forms a crucial backdrop to the escalating problem that was seen between July and December 2019. If enough people feel the police have behaved inappropriately – and this does appear to be the view – then that, in of itself, is a problem (irrespective of what any guidelines about police use of force say). What this raises is a series of common questions about police legitimacy.

Police officers, in any jurisdiction, doing any kind of police work, need to consider not only what they are allowed to do (what the law and regulations permit) but also what is likely to be subject to general public support and agreement. Widespread police action that doesn’t command public confidence is extremely dangerous not only to public order but also to the police service itself because – as I am afraid we appear to have seen in Hong Kong – it can quickly lead to an erosion of public trust.

Finally, on the subject of guidelines in other jurisdictions: all the IPCC report does is to draw some very broad parallels about what guidelines say in principle. What is important is less what they say, but as I’ve already suggested more how they are put into practice. If the latter were the focus of attention in the IPCC inquiry then I think it is highly unlikely that its report would present such a sanguine picture of police action.

Q4. How do you find the IPCC report's description of protesters' conduct?

A: This is where I think it would have been helpful to have had a conversation about England 2011. Prior to our research the mainstream discourse was dominated by commentators discussing those involved in the riots in entirely negative terms. That is, there was little attempt to understand what might have drawn people out on to the streets to ‘protest’ or to see the world through their eyes. This is what we tried to contribute in the ‘Reading the Riots’ study that the LSE and Guardian ran.

The IPCC report gives little sense that it has endeavoured to develop, or is particularly interested in developing, an understanding of the events in Hong Kong through the eyes of those protesting on the streets. No doubt there is a fear that ‘understanding’ somehow necessarily leads to actions being condoned. I understand this difficulty but I think it can be overcome and it is vital to try to do so.

Indeed, Lord Justice Scarman’s report in the aftermath of the Brixton (south London) riot in 1981 did just that. It was influential at the time and it remains so. I gave a copy of Scarman’s report to Mr Neoh. Sadly, I see no evidence from the IPCC report that anyone read it – or sought to learn from it.

Q5. What is the shortfall or parts that are missing from the report and the recommendations? How serious are these? Does that require what Prof. Stott and other international expert suggested of structural reform of IPCC, including investigatory power, or even complete shakeup somc suggested?

A:There are a variety of problems with the report – its failure to offer a fully-rounded picture of the events; its lack of investigation of the views of the protesters themselves; its apparent lack of balance etc. Fundamentally, however, the problem is that it appears that the IPCC is hamstrung by its own limitations – its lack of investigatory powers; the structural position it finds itself in (that it is insufficiently ‘independent’) – that there is now simply insufficient trust in what it does. That lack of trust and confidence will not easily be overcome.

In a sense, my fear would be that in the eyes of some the IPCC has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This is a great pity if so.

Q6. What should have been done in restoring public's trust in police?

A:This is a major problem and not one that is easily solved. The massive draining of public confidence in the police – swifter and steeper than we’ve seen almost anywhere – will require major structural changes. Moreover, it will require the sort of major inquiry, with independent participation, that has been called for but has been lacking in relation to the protests of the past months. Given that background it is hard to feel confident that the situation will be rescued. It is vital that is done.

A police service in which people, broadly speaking, have confidence is vital to a functioning democracy. I would say this situation cannot be allowed to drift and, in part now, it is going to be up to those within the senior echelons of the police service in Hong Kong, as well as those outside, to press for exactly this sort of inquiry.

7. Prof. Stott is now preparing to draft his own version of the report. How do you find Mr. Neoh's question on Prof. Stott that he's only staying in town for several days?

A:I’m sure Professor Stott’s work will be published in such a way that people will be able both to scrutinise what it says and also the basis on which its analysis is made. Moreover, I’m sure he will be explicit about whatever limitations it has. That is the time to make judgements about the work. Trying to dismiss it in advance is unhelpful.

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