Occupy Central supporters should beware the risks of breaking the law
Lai Tung-kwok says Hongkongers who choose to occupy Central should consider the consequences of breaking the law and their safety, as law enforcement officers will take robust action to ensure public order
With the launch of the constitutional reform consultation, "Occupy Central" has aroused wide public concern. According to the Ci Hai Chinese dictionary, the meaning of "occupy" is to forcibly take possession of geographic space; to forcibly take control of a territory or a position. The word "occupy" has important implications for the debate over legality and whether it will affect people's life, social order, and the normal operation of the financial, industrial and commercial sectors, including the hotel and tourism businesses, the financial stability of our economy and local and foreign investment.
As the secretary for security, I have the responsibility to explain clearly to the public the nature of the "Occupy Central" movement and its impact.
In the article "The most lethal weapon of civil disobedience", published in January last year in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, University of Hong Kong associate law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting advocated the use of non-violent action and civil disobedience to fight for democracy. Up to 10,000 protesters will be unlawfully mustered to block the main roads in Central in a bid to paralyse the political and commercial heart of the city with the aim of forcing the central government to accede to their demands.
The proposal has gained the support of Chinese University associate professor Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, a standing committee member of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.
It appears that many people in Hong Kong still do not understand clearly whether "Occupy Central" is an unlawful act and whether the organisers will be able to control the assembled people and ensure they follow their self-proclaimed principles of non-violence and "bearing legal liability". Also, they have not fully considered the consequences of paralysing our political and commercial hub.
Tai noted that "Occupy Central" is a weapon with mass "disruption power". The act, he said, should comply with certain principles, including the following:
First, the number of participants is critical. A higher number may force the police to use a higher level of force and incur a higher political cost for the government to deal with the movement. Ten thousand people or more can achieve this purpose.
Second, participants should express their stance through civil disobedience.
Third, to break the law, but with no violence.
Fourth, persistence. Resources would be deployed to block the main roads in Central. A broadcast centre would be set up to draw the attention of the public and the world through the internet and the media, with a view to mounting greater political pressure.
Fifth, civil disobedience is an unlawful act . Participants would have to pledge to bear the legal liability, and to surrender to the police after the blockade and let the authorities decide whether to prosecute. These form an integral part of the political inspiration for the movement.
In March last year, the three organisers unveiled the "Occupy Central" manifesto, in which I noticed a modification to the fifth principle, stating that people can participate in the movement in different modes: by pledging support only and not needing to perform unlawful acts; not needing to surrender to the police voluntarily after the blockade or filing no defence at their trial; or by surrendering to the police after the blockade and filing no defence at their trial.
In an article published in Chinese in May last year, Tai further pointed out that participants might commit various offences under the Summary Offences Ordinance and the Public Order Ordinance. Again, the organiser has admitted that "occupying Central by civil disobedience" is a law-breaking act.
A law-abiding community is the cornerstone of Hong Kong's stability and prosperity. Everyone is equal before the law and every citizen should abide by the law. There is no justification for anyone, for whatever reason - including "civil disobedience" - to be above the law.
Recently, there has been extensive media coverage of the Court of First Instance's reduction of the sentences imposed on legislators Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai-yip, who were convicted of unlawful assembly, to a fine. The presiding judge in his judgment, published in Chinese, quoted the trial magistrate's "reason for sentence" as follows: "Unless the court ruled that the law has violated the Basic Law or human rights, there has never been a single law in Hong Kong that people can choose to abide or not to abide by. Even those with strong views on certain social issues should still be held liable for contravening criminal offences. No one is above the law, or else the rule of law as a core value of society would be undermined …
"Freedom of speech and freedom of demonstration and protest are core values of Hong Kong, but the rule of law is equally important. Any unlawful or non-peaceful assembly could entail a tendency or a risk to jeopardise the rule of law in an open and extensive manner. The rule of law must not be jeopardised because instability is detrimental to the development of society."
Do the organisers of "Occupy Central" have the ability to maintain the movement's non-violent nature? In view of the opinions recently expressed in media reports by various sectors of the community, including radical groups, I believe the answer is eminently clear.
After the Taiwanese students' occupation of the Legislative and Executive Yuan, various groups have declared they would occupy or besiege landmarks in Hong Kong, including the central government offices and the Legislative Council.
As the objectives, visions, strategies and means of expression of protesters in public processions differ, radicals will take the opportunity to hijack the "Occupy" movement and turn peaceful public meetings violent, deviating from the organisers' original plan. During the June 6 meeting of the Legislative Council's Finance Committee to examine funding proposals for engineering works for the government's development plan for the northeastern New Territories, radicals stormed the chamber. The incident clearly shows how a peaceful demonstration can get out of control.
As secretary for security, I have to point out that it is difficult to predict the development of a rally once it starts. Once a violent confrontation occurs, the situation may become irrevocable and things could get out of control.
In view of the nature of "Occupy Central" and its possible consequences, I would like to remind the public that when considering joining the movement, whether as a participant or an onlooker, they should consider carefully the personal safety issue and legal liability involved.
We will ensure that the law enforcement agency acts in accordance with the law and takes robust action to uphold the rule of law and maintain public safety and public order.
Lai Tung-kwok is secretary for security. This is an abridged version of the original article