Free speech is best tested not under normal circumstances but abnormal ones. We pass with good grades under normal circumstances. Hongkongers can protest, rant on talk radio, and even insult our leaders. But free speech was put through a stress test during Vice-Premier Li Keqiang's visit and we failed.
That failure told us the free speech we take so much pride in is becoming an illusion masked with cosmetics. You can shout until you're hoarse in Victoria Park on a Sunday but you cannot do it in the presence of top mainland officials such as Li.
To thicken the mask, our leaders extol the virtues of free speech, assuring us that they will always safeguard it. They did just that in the angry aftermath of Li's visit. Yet, in effect, the chief executive, his deputy and police chiefs all told us free speech must give way to security.
The ambiguity of this assertion should scare us. It says the authorities can draw a line on free speech using only the murky reason of security without elaboration. It is fine for our leaders to tell us free speech must be balanced with the safety of visiting VIPs. But they need to tell us where the balance lies.
They haven't, but their actions spoke louder than words during Li's visit. The security perimeter around Li was so tight and wide that one legislator taunted that he needed binoculars to see the visiting VIP. Protesters and even reporters were kept far away. Police turned the University of Hong Kong, where Li gave a speech, into a fortress. Students going about their business were pushed aside. One was shoved into a fire escape and locked up for an hour.
This was the balance the authorities struck between free speech and security. Officials spoke cryptically of a threat-filled world to justify the totalitarian-style security. I don't know if the police had information on a credible or imminent threat against Li. But this I do know: Albert Ho Chun-yan, the Democratic Party chairman, is not a terrorist. Why, then, did a security official stand behind him throughout a Li dinner function to monitor his every move? Did the reporters who were prevented from covering Li pose a security threat?
There is speculation that Li's handlers had demanded police heavy-handedness. Security chief Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong dismissed this as 'totally rubbish' in the same way Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen brushed off as 'completely rubbish' claims that police had stifled free speech. But we need more than just unconvincing denials from our leaders. Police heavy-handedness has no place in our society. We should worry if mainland security officials did indeed demand this thuggish behaviour. It exposes how little they understand the way we do things here.
Li, slated to take over as premier, came here to see how we function as a society and how we fit into China's economic rise. But he didn't see the real us. I am not sure if he himself wanted it that way. More likely, it was either our own overzealous police or his handlers. They weren't protecting him from a security threat. They were protecting him from being embarrassed by free expression. That protection came at a heavy cost. It stained the image of our police, and it stained our free speech rights.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV host. firstname.lastname@example.org