Opinion divided in China over jail terms for police who assaulted Occupy protester
State media and others question ruling made by British-born judge, while others praise Hong Kong’s commitment to the rule of law
The jailing of seven Hong Kong police officers for assaulting an Occupy Central protestor has polarised opinion in mainland China, with some strongly criticising the legitimacy of a ruling handed down by a British-born judge while others praised the city’s rule of law.
Some internet users compared how police officers on the mainland who assaulted suspects were likely to be treated differently compared to the same offence in Hong Kong.
The seven officers were each given two-year prison sentences on Friday for beating Ken Tsang Kin-chiu after he was arrested during pro-democracy demonstrations in October 2014.
Judge David Dufton had intended to jail them for 2½ years, but reduced the terms because of the stress that police were under while handling the Occupy movement.
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, who lectures on law at the University of Hong Kong, said the outrage expressed in mainland media over the case was largely the result of a lack of understanding over the border about how the legal system worked in the city.
“The Basic Law establishes that our judges were appointed by reference to their professional ability and merits rather than where they are from or their race,” Cheung said.
The ruling was not influenced by political considerations, as some mainland media contended, he said. Judicial independence was guaranteed under the Basic Law, he said. In respect to Dufton hailing from Britain, jurisdictions that practised common law regularly had judges from overseas hear local cases.
“The common law system is a legacy of the colonial era. But it is guaranteed in the Basic Law that we can continue the ... system.”
The Hong Kong Bar Association addressed the personal attacks against Dufton, saying freedom of expression was guaranteed in the city, but insulting and threatening words and actions did not help rational discussion, and only served to undermine respect for the court.
“The Hong Kong Bar Association condemns such conduct, and urges people with different views to express them in a manner conducive to rational debate,” the association said.
Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said on its social media account the jail terms “bring tears to the eyes of Chinese people”.
The commentary said it could not say Dufton endorsed the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – which Beijing strongly condemned – simply because he was British.
But it added: “The genesis of the Occupy movement in Hong Kong is inseparable from the political landmine the British government planted before it left the city.”
Hong Kong policemen had been “as gentle as nannies” during the Occupy Central street protests, it said before compared their policing with law enforcement in the United States.
“The US protects the law enforcement rights of the police because society would fall into chaos if the police loses its authority. So, in his ruling, has Judge Dufton considered the safety and stability of Hong Kong as well as the possibility of another Occupy movement or Mong Kok riot?”. Violence erupted in Mong Kok after protests against a crackdown on illegal street hawkers early last year.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state-run tabloid Global Times, said Dufton’s ruling was biased and influenced by politics.
He said the judicial system in Hong Kong had inherited a tinge of colonialism and not committed allegiance to China’s constitution, as the city’s government and executive branch had done.
Cai Xiaoxin, the son of a PLA Major General, said on his social media account he was willing to give 10,000 yuan (US$1,450) to anybody who assaulted Dufton.
Another person wrote on Weibo: “Feb 17 should be considered a day of national shame. We still have colonisers ruling over our own public servants. How come no one is speaking out against such a humiliation?”
Others on the mainland, however, applauded the ruling, saying Hong Kong remained a beacon of the rule of law in China.
In an article widely circulated on social media before being deleted, writer Yang Hengjun said he saluted the rule of law in Hong Kong and urged mainlanders to understand that police brutality stood in the way of effective law enforcement in China.
Some social media users compared the jailing of the seven Hong Kong policemen with the death of Lei Yang, a Chinese environmentalist who died in police custody last year after he was arrested in Beijing.
The case prompted a huge debate over police brutality and accountability on the mainland.
Investigators concluded that five police officers choked and stamped on Lei, but escaped punishment as prosecutors decided their offences were “minor”.
One person on social media said: “The five policemen who beat Lei Yang to death ended up shouldering no legal responsibility. So this is the advantage of socialism?”
Some police supporters posted insulting criticism and abuse online.
Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said on Friday that “the Judiciary has expressed serious concern about certain people’s speeches and conduct through the social media, and the Judiciary has already referred the case to the Department of Justice.”
He said that the Department of Justice would follow up on the matter conscientiously and “would have no hesitation in commencing the necessary proceedings, including judicial or legal proceedings” if necessary measures are called for.