Statue of limitations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 2010, 12:00am

Sometimes, when an excuse is so unbelievable, you have a hard time telling the difference between it and a lie. The police's reason for seizing two replica Goddess of Democracy statues is a good example of this. The democracy statues were removed for reasons of public safety, not politics, police spokeswoman Anna Tsang Yim-sheung wanted us to believe. I'm sure, if she asked Hongkongers, she'd be told they fear objects flung out of a high-rise window more than being hit on the head by a tumbling Goddess of Democracy statue.

Public safety was not a concern in past years when organisers displayed similar statues ahead of the Tiananmen crackdown anniversary. But, for some reason, the authorities decided to apply a heavy hand this time. We have a right to know why. The government needs to tell us how far up the command chain the order to confiscate the statues came from. And it needs to come clean on whether our top political leaders had a hand in it.

The seizure of the statues was a challenge to free expression in Hong Kong. We must confront it only from that angle. We must not bundle it with the Tiananmen issue; doing so would only complicate matters, as Tiananmen comes with heavy emotional baggage.

I am not saying Hong Kong should forget about the terrible loss of life on June 4, 1989. But forgetting and moving on are not the same thing. The world has not forgotten Tiananmen, but it has moved on. Hong Kong shouldn't forget Tiananmen, but we mustn't mix it with our own politics. Doing that would only poison our politics, making the fight for democracy even harder. When we mark Tiananmen's anniversary, we should do it less emotionally, and only to seek Beijing's atonement for the bloodshed, not to influence mainland politics.

Our immediate task now is to extract from the government a believable explanation for the fiasco over the statue seizures. The police say it had nothing to do with politics, yet the very next day the sculptor of one of the statues was denied entry to Hong Kong. I am waiting for the authorities to tell us that banning him two days before the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown was not political either.

The police seized one, then the other statue last weekend after the food and hygiene department said the people who had placed them in Times Square lacked an entertainment permit. Why did the department suddenly become so vigilant over the display of a political statue which had nothing to do with food, hygiene or entertainment? Media reports said the department had pre-booked a van one week earlier to remove the statues. That means a plan to confiscate was in place for at least a week. If the authorities had already planned it, why did the police so helpfully facilitate those who placed the statues in Times Square?

The whole thing smacks of a sting. Was the government out to get the organisers of the annual Tiananmen remembrance? Both the food and health secretary, Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, and security secretary Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong defended the police action as legal. Yet, after seeking legal advice, the police promptly returned the statues even though the remembrance organisers refused to sign a statement admitting they had broken the law.

Surely, if a law had been broken, the police should charge the offenders. I had no idea the police will let suspects go if they sign a confession of guilt. Those with parking tickets, too, should demand this alternative in place of a fine, but I don't think it should apply to rapists and murderers.

Some suspect Beijing ordered the confiscations. I don't buy that. I find it easier to believe that some buffoon in government tried to brown-nose Beijing. Or that we have a government of buffoons who botched a sting against democracy activists. It is, of course, also possible that idiotic food and hygiene officials acted alone on something as sensitive as Tiananmen. If that's the case, heads should roll.

It shows our political leaders don't have their eyes on the ball on something as important as free expression.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster