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Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Measured response needed at Hong Kong’s Civic Square

Scuffles on day that should have been seen as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation will not encourage the government to relax conditions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 January, 2018, 4:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 January, 2018, 4:39am

The reopening of “Civic Square” at government headquarters in Admiralty more than three years after the Occupy Central movement serves as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation in Hong Kong’s colourful history of protest and civil conflict. That is what should have distinguished a New Year’s Day pro-democracy march to the square by several thousand protesters.

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Regrettably, the march ended in scuffles and a stand-off with police, as dozens of officers surrounded demonstrators outside the East Wing Forecourt of the government offices to prevent more of them climbing onto a platform flying the national and Hong Kong flags.

The scene was reminiscent of the protest in which students stormed the square and triggered the 79 days of road blockades during the Occupy protests of 2014.

This week police and security guards left after about half an hour, allowing protesters onto the stage. This eased concerns about provocative acts by a few radicals that could have prompted a stronger reaction from the authorities. Indeed, the incident may have evoked worrying memories of the Occupy events among officials. There is no question that the city cannot afford a repeat.

With by-elections in March, the controversy over the joint high-speed rail checkpoint and the prospect of Article 23 security legislation, officials need to strike a balance between maintaining order and avoiding provocation. Hopefully, protesters will also exercise restraint. A hard-core group will always be there, but this week’s events could hardly be compared with a July 1 protest march.

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Despite a lack of wide support for radical protests, the government fears they will attract more attention. Society is now divided over many issues that arouse strong feelings, but another Occupy-style protest will not help solve anything. The opening of the square with protests restricted to Sundays and public holidays may not make everyone happy, but provocative acts by a few radicals will not encourage the government to relax conditions. It is time for a measured response from both sides. Otherwise, what should be seen as a conciliatory gesture may backfire.