Stifling protest invites trouble

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am


There are no shades of grey about freedom of speech in Hong Kong. Anyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, has the right to have their voice heard. Mainlanders, denied that ability, naturally see our city as a place where grievances can be openly aired. That two mainlanders who took part in the July 1 protest march were detained on their return and are now serving 14-month terms in a labour camp sends the worst possible message to upholders of basic rights and freedoms on both sides of the border.

Song Ningsheng, 44, and Zeng Jiuzi, 53, were among hundreds of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong for the annual march. They unsuccessfully petitioned officials to investigate the unexplained deaths of their spouses and used their visit to press their cases. Under the 'one country, two systems' principle, in which Hong Kong has a separate legal and political system, they have plainly done nothing wrong. China's constitution also assures them the right of protest, although that has been trampled on by a government that sees demonstrators as a threat to stability and its authority.

In the past, mainland authorities apparently had not punished citizens for taking part in Hong Kong protests. It appears that undercover security police tracked Song and Zeng, who were detained for 'anti-China activities'. These are troubling developments in every way. Not only are Basic Law rights being ignored, but it also seems that people who take to the streets on July 1 are perceived as anti-Beijing.

The leadership transition under way on the mainland is a sensitive matter and authorities are eager to stamp on even the smallest signs of discontent. But protests are banned as a matter of course and detaining citizens for taking part in demonstrations in Hong Kong shows how adamant Beijing is about preventing a protest culture from evolving. It is making a mistake. People denied the right to govern themselves freely need a safety valve of expression. Peaceful demonstrations like those held in our city provide that. To close it off is to invite trouble.