Hong Kong’s firm grip on the law in Occupy police assault case is a valuable lesson for the mainland
Audrey Jiajia Li says the conviction and sentencing of the seven officers who beat up Occupy protester Ken Tsang – and the open debate afterwards – is notable amid Chinese worry about police brutality
Over the past few days, a two-year prison sentence handed down to seven Hong Kong police officers has become a hot topic on mainland social media platforms. Netizens’ opinions are wildly polarised. Many supporters of these officers found the jail term too harsh, while others hailed it as a victory for the rule of law.
On October 15, 2014, the 17th day of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, a protester, Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, was arrested along with a few others; he then got knocked to the ground, punched, kicked and struck with a baton by police officers. The officers were later charged, and recently convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.
The pro-police camp argued that the two-year sentence revealed the judiciary’s bias, especially when compared to the five-week sentence Tsang received (for police assault); they point to the provocation by the protester that triggered the police’s excessive use of force.
Watch: More than 30,000 gather in support of Hong Kong officers jailed for beating up Occupy protester
The state-owned Global Times ran an editorial by its editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (written under a pen name). “The verdict is like unfair refereeing in a soccer match ... The judicial system in Hong Kong hasn’t yet shown allegiance to either China’s constitution or to Hong Kong’s Basic Law”, he said.
Some accuse Hong Kong’s legal system of being “colonial”, referring to the British citizenship of the judge. A new media account affiliated with the overseas edition of the Communist Party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, says in a post that “British judges and employees who were trained by the British Hong Kong government are controlling the judiciary branch in Hong Kong”. An online attack on the judge quickly went viral. A WeChat hot article labelled the judge a “British slave”. A ruling party princeling even offered a 10,000-yuan reward for assaulting the judge, David Dufton.
All this sounds like a satire: the seven policemen were convicted for using inappropriate violence, and their supporters are now calling for violence against the judge as revenge. As in a world where the law of the jungle rules, fists talk.
Noticeably, behind the online assault, there is rising ultra-nationalism. Over the past few years, hatred and xenophobia have been spreading on China’s social media platforms, fuelled by official propaganda. The government has skilfully seized on people’s humiliation under previous colonial regimes and their rightful outrage against imperialism. History and people’s patriotic emotions have been manipulated to prevent citizens, especially the young, from being influenced by “Western” values like democracy and human rights.
The strategy has worked. Democracy advocates are being demonised as puppets of “hostile foreign forces”, with an agenda to mess China up. The trend has become increasingly alarming as the authorities are now seemingly determined to fend off any ideology that originated outside China, other than their interpretation of Marxism.
On the other side of the divide, those who cheer the officers’ sentencing also have much more on their minds beyond this single case. Police brutality has been a serious problem in mainland China, one that concerns intellectuals and the middle class alike, especially in light of the death last May of a young man, Lei Yang, in police custody.
The 29-year-old was detained by police near a foot massage parlour for allegedly paying for sex. According to the Beijing prosecutors, Lei tried to escape, and the officers grabbed his hair, stepped on his head and dragged him into a police car. As Lei stopped resisting, the five officers didn’t immediately take him to hospital or provide emergency aid. Lei died later that night. However, even though the five officers were accused for misusing force, intentionally delaying medical care as well as lying about the real situation of Lei’s death, those misdeeds were not deemed severe enough for them to stand trial.
Five police officers involved in the case of Lei Yang, who died in police custody in May, won't face charges: Beijing prosecutors, Fri pic.twitter.com/kaCzhi8Mwu
— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) December 23, 2016
Lei Yang had a master’s degree from a prestigious university in Beijing and worked for an environmental group, earning a reasonable salary. The fact that such a tragedy happened to him brings home how vulnerable even the middle class is to abuse of power by unaccountable authorities.
The two cases may appear quite similar in the beginning yet are totally different in the end. In the Hong Kong case, the clip recorded by television cameramen was used as evidence and played a big role. In the Beijing case, however, all the CCTV footage and police recording devices coincidently “malfunctioned”.
Also, the Hong Kong judge stated during sentencing that “the defendants not only brought dishonour to the Hong Kong police force, they have also damaged Hong Kong’s reputation in the international community”. In Lei’s case, the five officers lied and tried to hide the truth when they were interviewed on TV. Criticism and mistrust of police power was widespread.
Lastly, in Hong Kong, in-depth discussions have taken place over the past two years, while on the mainland, Lei Yang-related information was strictly censored.
On the whole, many people on the mainland believe “the police wouldn’t come for you unless you’re guilty”. That is why some mainlanders say that Lei and Ken Tsang deserved to be beaten up, and that is also why the jail term for the Hong Kong police officers seems inconceivable.
Maintaining social stability at all costs is a top priority for China’s law enforcement forces, and police power will no doubt remain unchecked in the future. By contrast, the Hong Kong case has taught a valuable lesson. No matter how heinous someone is, he or she should be still protected by the law. No matter how much pressure police officers are under, their actions must be bound by the law.
No civilised society should tolerate police brutality. Everyone is susceptible to becoming the next Lei Yang, until judicial independence and the rule of law become rooted in mainland China too.
Audrey Jiajia Li is a filmmaker and freelance columnist in Guangzhou, China