Government should not pass the buck on independence talk

Returning officers have become the grunts in the war against secessionists, receiving threats and harassment. Instead of letting them do the heavy lifting, the government should decide on the legality of advocating independence once and for all.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 12:57am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 12:57am

You have to feel sorry for the returning officers for next month’s Legislative Council elections. They are just grunts in the government’s war against secessionists. Yet, they have been physically threatened and vilified in social media for disqualifying pro-independence candidates from the elections, and their families singled out for harassment.

This week, two returning officers for the New Territories East and West were again sent threatening mails containing their photos, a note written with the word ‘death’ in Chinese, and hell money, or joss paper used to burn as offerings to the dead. In addition to constant online harassment and bullying, they have been previously targeted with death threats.

Soon, my guess is that teachers and school principals will be put in the same dangerous situation. Like returning officers, they have been told by top officials from education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim and Executive Council heavyweight Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun to serve as “gatekeepers”, that is, to make sure our schools do not become bastions for separatists.

More menace in the mail: Hong Kong officials who ended localists’ Legco runs get ‘hell money’ letters

How does the fight against independence become part of the job of teachers and lowly returning officers? I can already see the following scenarios happening in the coming weeks and months: a few teachers and pupils are suspected of advocating independence. The schools take action, leading to widespread news coverage. Parents complain and activists mobilise against the schools. It’s the pupils, the innocent bystanders, who would end up paying the price.

Barrister and Basic Law Institute chairman Alan Hoo is right in criticising top officials for “passing the buck” while pressuring returning officers and teachers to do the heavy-lifting in the fight against separatism.

Either advocating independence is legal or it is not. If there are no laws against it, then it ought to be allowed. But if there are, then arrest and prosecution should be the proper response.

As Hoo said, section 9 of the Crimes Ordinance against “seditious intention” is a good place to start. Other possible breaches include those against the Companies and Societies ordinances.

The actions taken so far by the Leung Chun-ying administration have been arbitrary, confusing and cowardly. Either take a completely liberal stance and let discussions and advocacy of independence bloom. Or crack down on self-styled secessionists and let the courts decide if the charges against them would stick.