Occupy Central

Stirring nationalist fervour over jailing of police officers who beat Occupy protester will only hurt Hong Kong

Dong Lei says the uproar over the jailing of the officers is straying into dangerous territory, given the sharp divisions in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 8:32pm

As I watched the video of the seven Hong Kong police officers beating up a protester at the time the news broke, I must admit that it looked bad. Let’s be clear: the officers are not heroes, as some have suggested. They failed at their jobs, jobs we entrusted them with. Upon learning more about the incident, however, I found myself torn between a reluctance to condone their actions and an unwillingness to fault them. They are only human after all.

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We should not be shocked that some people would – in the heat of the moment, without any premeditation and with plenty of provocation – seek back-alley justice. We know that this kind of thing could have happened in any country, at any time in human history. And, as far as the severity of the transgression is concerned, the case is not the worst kind of police brutality.

However, this is not to criticise the judge, whose integrity and professionalism, like other members of our esteemed judiciary, should not be questioned. Race and nationality are of no relevance to the discussion.

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Of course, members of the judiciary are not infallible, and their judgments are in turn judged in the court of public opinion. Judges need to understand and accept that. They also need to recognise that there exists a horrible political divide in our society.

These must have been at least some of the reasons behind the State Council’s 2014 white paper on “one country, two systems”, which set out the requirement for judges to be patriotic. I understand the term to mean simply that they need to understand the realities of the nation and the people they serve (Hong Kong is not Helsinki); that in applying the law, they should not let their own experience and personal heritage affect their judgment, and that they should take utmost care to avoid making political decisions in a court of law.

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Unlike in the US, and most other jurisdictions, we in Hong Kong do not have any political acid test for the appointment of judges. So they should be even more careful in segmenting their own political views from the job. Our judiciary, in accordance with our Basic Law, is not the supreme branch of government. However precious our independent legal system is, the judiciary needs to resist the impulse to anoint itself our political master.

At a time when globalisation is giving way to a tidal wave of nationalist mythology, I hope we do not help to fuel that fire at home.

Dong Lei is a non-practising solicitor in Hong Kong and is the principal at AB Highwood Consultants