Security measures a Hu and cry over nothing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 July, 2007, 12:00am

Commissioner of Police Tang King-shing has been busy defending the elaborate security precautions for the visit of President Hu Jintao during this week's handover anniversary celebrations.

They ensured that the president was shielded from even a glimpse of any protest activity, but at least, unlike his predecessor Jiang Zemin , he did not arrive in Hong Kong wearing a bullet-proof vest, the chosen form of attire for the handover itself.

Optimists should take comfort from the fact that a decade of Chinese rule has at least persuaded the head of state that he is unlikely to be assassinated during a visit to Hong Kong, but there are fewer grounds for optimism over other aspects for the celebrations despite some of this week's events demonstrating that the city is in good shape.

In April, I wrote a column bemoaning the surreal aspects of the celebrations pointing out that the scope for any spontaneous events was nil, because the bureaucrats had organised a regimented programme which reflected their nervousness rather than their confidence in the people. I also pointed out that the generally invisible People's Liberation Army garrison was to be given a high profile role in these events.

The column elicited a swift government response dismissing the notion that there was no scope for spontaneity and questioning the PLA's role. Presumably officials think they can mislead with impunity, but the record shows that there was not a single spontaneous celebratory event, although there were protests (of which more later), and the PLA was indeed prominent.

For the most part, the events were hideously formal and so stage-managed that even the president's 'informal' chats with carefully selected residents had the air of theatre.

I still think it is disappointing that the government and the sovereign power are so insecure they feel the need for such a high degree of regimentation. This is especially so when Hong Kong showed that it remains a society governed by the rule of law.

Whatever misgivings anyone may have had about the anniversary celebrations surely an unqualified welcome should be given to the fact that people remain free to demonstrate and, even more importantly, free to challenge restrictions on their right to assembly.

When the police imposed unreasonable restrictions on the July 1 democracy rally, organisers appealed to an independent panel and had their appeal upheld in most respects. This is more than a mere technicality; it shows that when the bureaucracy acts unreasonably mechanisms exist to rein it in.

As for the rally itself, it was orderly and impressive, showing the desire of people to protest and their ability to exercise self discipline in doing so.

Naturally the turnout was lower than in years when Hong Kong's civil liberties were under the threat of oppressive anti-subversion legislation, but the government is seriously mistaken if it simply shrugs off street protests with the comforting thought that the majority of people stayed away. They should know that this is entirely normal and does not mean that support for democracy is confined to those who actually bother to march.

The reality is that the majority of people neither protested nor celebrated; they were merely content to have a day off work. This is perfectly understandable and probably reflects the overwhelming view that the last decade has not been bad enough to evoke mass outrage nor, frankly, good enough to excite mass celebration. A more definitive verdict would make better headlines, but reality is an awkward business that defies such neat simplicity.

In most societies people have the means to change their government when they get fed up, no such possibility exists in Hong Kong. But if the system does not change in the coming decade, who can tell what the 20th anniversary will be like.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur