Free speech requires constant vigilance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am


In the lead-up to the handover, there were fears that Asia's finest would become more like corrupt mainland public security forces. More than a decade later, the danger is actually that they may be behaving more like police in the US with their extensive powers, propensity for violence and threat to civil liberties.

As US economic writer Yves Smith put it recently: 'I'm beginning to wonder whether the right to assemble is effectively dead in the US. No one who is a wage slave (the overwhelming majority of the population) can afford to have an arrest record, even a misdemeanour, in this age of short job tenures and background checks.'

In contemporary America, even perfectly peaceful demonstrations are liable to be met with police truncheons, pepper spray and a good old-fashioned fist, as witnessed during the mass arrests last week of the peaceful 'Occupy Wall Street' protesters.

One step outside what US police call free speech zones - usually far from the protest target - you are liable to be detained under extremely unpleasant, if not brutal, conditions for hours.

Back in Hong Kong, we are not there yet. Our police are, by and large, professional and decent. But recent developments are not promising. Police here increasingly resort to the local equivalents of free speech zones, and arrests have been made as soon as protesters step outside them.

As US journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon: 'The complacent American citizenry is well-trained in learned impotence and acquiescence to (even reverence for) those most responsible for their plight.'

Unlike Americans, Hongkongers are far more intolerant of police brutality and questionable enforcement tactics. Let's make sure we keep it that way.