Occupy Central

Moral leaders shine light on path of non-violent movements

Stephen Vines says non-violence pledge puts us on right side of history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 2:30am

For those festering in the Hong Kong bubble where global history and experience mean little when discussing the concept of civil disobedience, let's consider some of the world's most formidable leaders who have resorted to action of this kind.

Names that spring to mind are Indian hero Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr in the US, and Emmeline Pankhurst, who was at the forefront of the struggle for women's right to vote in Britain. Then, we cannot ignore the great South African leader Nelson Mandela, who initially favoured using civil disobedience to fight the apartheid regime before turning to armed struggle.

Defenders of the status quo have always responded in the way our elite are doing today

These leaders were inspired by Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century ideologist of civil disobedience who maintained citizens had a moral right to transgress unjust laws and policies. Thoreau and his followers have also been adamant that this should be done in a non-violent manner.

The organisers of the Occupy Central movement have stressed adherence to the principle of non-violence, but they have been questioned over whether they can justify their plan to defy public order laws.

We need not pore over Thoreau's writings to answer this, but should consider the experience of his followers, for example, the women's votes advocates who defied public order laws to make their case, much in the same way that the US civil rights movement defied numerous bans on assembly.

Fast-forwarding to the situation in Hong Kong, we see mounting frustration in a sophisticated society whose people are deprived of the right to elect their own government, even though this right is enshrined in the Basic Law.

This frustration is even acknowledged by members of our unelected administration who resist attempts to bring forward proposals for constitutional reform. This week, in the face of a massive pro-democracy rally, the best response the chief executive could muster was that he would issue a consultation document at some unspecified time.

This is hardly sufficient and, if anything, strengthens the hand of those who declare that prevarication has reached the end of the road. They can hardly be accused of being impetuous, as they are only planning to take action with the important caveat that they will not carry out their action should the administration produce plans to fulfil the requirements of the Basic Law.

Meanwhile, we hear alarmist warnings of chaos and bloodshed from those clinging on to a dysfunctional government system.

History teaches us that defenders of the status quo have always responded in the way Hong Kong's elite are doing today. The idea of giving civil rights to America's black citizens was described as a recipe for chaos and King was frequently denounced for being a rabble-rousing communist terrorist. A public holiday is now named in his honour and a black president sits in the White House.

Perhaps what is missing in Hong Kong is someone who possesses King's charisma. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, the most prominent Occupy Central leader, is a decent and intelligent man but he ain't no rabble-rouser.

Maybe this is a good thing.

Anyone who has observed the democracy rallies in Hong Kong for at least two decades will know that the overwhelming majority of participants are serious and law-abiding citizens propelled onto the streets out of a sense of conviction. Should some of them decide to defy the law, they will do so only after careful consideration.

Meanwhile, the only serious violence in this debate has come from those defending the status quo, whose supporters have been responsible for assaults on democrats and violent attacks on Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy media group. So it's fair to ask: who are the violent parties here?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur