Civility v patriotism in Hong Kong courts

Keane Shum is troubled by the implied message in two court sentences

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 3:37am

I learned something new about Hong Kong this month: in this great city, in our law-abiding society, if you really must burn something, better that it be your neighbour's dog than the national flag.

On February 7, Koo Sze-yiu, a 66-year-old construction worker, was jailed for nine months for spray-painting and then burning both the Chinese and Hong Kong flags on two occasions. No one was injured.

A week later, Mok Chung-ting, a 30-year-old computer technician, was sentenced for pouring paint thinner on a neighbor's dog and then setting it on fire. The dog, Siu Wong, was so badly burned it had to be put down. Mok was jailed for eight months.

It sometimes feels these days like we are teetering, always trying to balance between civility and most Hongkongers' good-faith attempts to become one with the motherland. It is a constant battle, for milk powder and property, over how to queue for a taxi or what to teach in school.

Our courts found themselves faced with this tug of war this month, and in the latest round of civility versus patriotism, civility lost. The structural integrity of a few two-by-three-metre pieces of red canvas was effectively deemed more important than the right not to have one's furry companion burned to death by the short-tempered guy down the hall who can't sleep.

I am neither an animal rights campaigner nor an anti-China activist; I own a Hong Kong flag, but not a dog. And I realise flags are no ordinary pieces of canvas, that they stand for something, and represent an important bond among people. But so did Siu Wong. I know what boundless joy a dog can bring its owner. I do not know anyone who has ever come home from a long day at work and been comforted by the eager greeting of a white five-petal bauhinia in swaying motion on a red background.

I also understand Koo is no stranger to controversy; his holidays seem to consist of going to the Diaoyu Islands and getting arrested by the Japanese coastguard, then coming home to do lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung's dirty work. But if you look at photographs from Koo's celebrated voyage to the Diaoyus last August, a tattered Hong Kong flag flies over the boat's mast, and the Chinese flags planted on the islands are soaking wet.

Was this a proper display of our flags, or did it violate Section 4 of the national and regional flag ordinances, which state that Chinese and Hong Kong flags which are "damaged, defiled, faded or substandard must not be displayed or used"? And if this was such a violation, who is responsible? There were reports that the chief executive himself helped raise funds for the journey; would Leung Chun-ying be sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, and will I now be sued for defamation for suggesting as much?

I wish this were all in jest. I wish I could joke about how it's now worse to set a flag on fire than your neighbour's dog. But it's not funny. It's not funny when, the day before Koo was sentenced, a 30-year-old man was arrested in Tin Shui Wai, also on charges of flag desecration. He is not a professional activist, and did not disrupt a public proceeding or endanger anyone. All he did was post pictures of a soiled Chinese flag on Facebook. The China Daily thought the arrest was "a reminder that laws in the real world are also applicable to the cyberspace". I thought it was a reminder that we really don't know what will happen in 2047.

Imagine taking these events to their logical, dystopian conclusion. Imagine a future where in our living rooms we prefer the idolisation of a flag to the friendship of a dog, and in "the cyberspace" the only pictures we upload are official images of the Chinese flag that conform precisely to the specifications laid out in Schedule 1 of the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance.

It shouldn't be like this. It should be a false choice, the one between our values and our country. We should be able to be civil and patriotic, to care for each other and the nation, to express ourselves and our love for country. If only our laws could make it so.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong