Police should learn how to handle today's protests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 January, 2012, 12:00am


Two significant things are happening in Hong Kong. On the one hand, there is a rising tide of street protests and, on the other, there is growing official intolerance of the right to protest.

This impression is succinctly confirmed by figures released this week by the police showing that the number of demonstrations last year rose more than 20per cent to 6,878, while the number of arrests at these demonstrations has increased almost sevenfold, from 57 to 440. However, after these arrests, once it came to actually charging alleged offenders, prosecutors could only find cause to institute charges in 46 cases.

In some ways, this is good news because it means that, despite a very marked police crackdown on protests, the legal system evidently remains in the hands of those who are sticklers for the law.

It might be argued that little can be gleaned from arrest figures because they only represent the extreme end of the protest syndrome. However, demonstration organisers are now reporting that it is becoming harder and harder to obtain police permits for protests and that increasingly onerous conditions are being imposed on these events.

Trouble almost always arises when protests are blocked. When the police act sensibly, allowing protesters to reach their target and disperse, there is almost never any problem.

The suspicion lurks that the new hardline response to protests emanates from the relatively new police commissioner, Andy Tsang Wai-hung, whose public pronouncements create an impression that he sees his job as curtailing the right to protest.

But it may well be that his actions are a reflection of a more general official intolerance of protest. Government leaders, especially the chief executive, now rarely appear in public without such elaborate security arrangements as to preclude any chance of direct contact with the public.

The new attitude to protest cannot be seen more visibly than in the fortress-like arrangements that shield the government complex at Tamar from protests. These arrangements were initially so extreme as to even prevent the media from doing its job. Some changes have since been made but the days have gone when protests were permitted to be near their target at the seat of government.

Now, however, many protests entirely ignore the Hong Kong government and head straight for the central government's liaison office in Western. Protesters evidently believe there is little purpose tormenting the monkey when the organ grinder is in sight. Down in Western, mainland officials who are unused to Hong Kong's culture of protest never even emerge to accept petitions.

In all this fuss over the right to protest, certain important facts must not be overlooked. First, and most important, is that Hong Kong has a tradition of peaceful protest. Second is the notion that, while the people of Hong Kong are denied representative government, they are permitted to express their views freely. This notion is even reflected in the Basic Law.

Meanwhile, a new element has entered the equation, which is that many protesters simply have no organiser in the traditional sense. The long-running protests over the destruction of the Star Ferry pier, for example, were largely spontaneous and only organised in the sense that protesters were mobilised over the internet. The more recent protests outside the Dolce & Gabbana store in Tsim Sha Tsui emerged along the same lines.

Somehow, the authorities are going to have to learn that this is what will happen in 2012 and beyond. Instead of finding a way to stop an unstoppable current, they would be better employed thinking how to make the right to protest work.

But, is there any sign, beyond empty rhetoric, that the authorities are really committed to freedom of expression? If there is, it is hard to find because there is an overwhelming impression that the Hong Kong leadership takes its cue from the leadership in Beijing, which sees all protest through the prism of subversion.

We have not yet reached that stage here but, as the well-known saying, goes: 'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.'

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur