After the storm over the Occupy police assault case, can Hong Kong’s next leader restore calm?
Mike Rowse says the city’s incoming leader will have their work cut out to ease tensions between democracy advocates and backers of the seven police officers, with both sides caught up in a storm of illogic
The most urgent task for the new Hong Kong chief executive will be to end the state of war between the camps represented by different-coloured ribbons. This will not be easy: the conclusion of two high-profile court cases drawing on the same set of facts has produced a storm of provocative and illogical statements from people who ought to know better.
Let us start with the known facts. The Occupy movement was a protest at the perceived lack of meaningful progress towards a more democratic system for Hong Kong. The vast majority of protesters conducted themselves peacefully, and simply engaged in civil disobedience to support a cause they deemed worthy. The vast majority of police officers conducted themselves in a highly disciplined and professional way, despite considerable provocation and long hours.
Now to the events of October 15, 2014, captured on film by TV crews. Social worker Ken Tsang Kin-chiu was observed pouring a liquid on officers clearing part of the area occupied by the protesters. He was arrested, charged with assaulting police and resisting arrest, convicted and sentenced to five weeks in prison.
After his arrest, before taking him to the appropriate police station for processing, seven officers took a handcuffed Tsang into a dark corner, and kicked and beat him. In due course, the seven officers were also arrested, charged with assault occasioning bodily harm, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. They also face dismissal.
Watch: Seven police officers guilty of beating Occupy activist
While the two cases were in process, the two camps, wearing either yellow ribbons (democracy advocates) or blue ribbons (police backers) demonstrated outside the courts to show support for their side. The logic of their respective positions was completely lacking.
The argument of the yellow ribbons seemed to be that because their man was assaulted later, he was the victim and everything that had gone before should be forgotten. This is so wrong from so many angles. The argument that Tsang’s assault on the police should be ignored because of something that happened later is ludicrous. Civil disobedience means breaking the law in a non-violent way, to protest against a perceived greater wrong. Participants must then face the legal consequences of their actions.
Moreover, however legitimate civil disobedience itself might be in an individual case, it can never become a licence to assault others, least of all those charged with upholding public order.
The blue ribbons do no better on the logic front. Because protesters were breaking the law, it was OK for people sworn to uphold the law to break it too? How ironic is that? Meanwhile, keeping order outside the court and preventing the two groups of supporters from coming to blows were the same frontline officers the blues wanted to show their backing for. More irony – as if any were needed.
Since the verdicts, both sides have upped the volume and rhetoric without any improvement on the logic front. Tsang has demanded an apology from the police commissioner for his assault. Does it occur to him that if assault requires an apology, then he should be the one to take the lead?
A former member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference has declared the policemen innocent. An associate professor from Beihang University’s law school wrote in these pages that the ruling gave too much emphasis to the protester’s rights and should not have been allowed to override the professional judgment of officers on the job.
The professional judgment of the officers was indeed excellent at the outset. They saw a person break the law, arrested him and slapped on handcuffs. What followed was not legitimate police action: they launched a cowardly attack on a defenceless prisoner.
What can our next chief executive do about this? For a start, how about lowering the volume and creating an aura of calm? And perhaps, when all the appeals are out of the way, taking a second look at the disparity in sentences.
Above all, take us back to a time when reasoned argument was the order of the day. Make it clear to both groups and to the community at large that we do not face a choice between democracy and a safe society. We can and should have both.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]