Protesting is a right, but must be done within the law
Violence in demonstrations is growing, drawing harsher responses from the police, but restraint on all sides is most desirable to protect our society
Demonstrations and rallies in Hong Kong had been largely peaceful until very recently, when there have been more clashes with the police. Some participants have resorted to violence and pushed the limits of the law, prompting the use of greater force from the police in return. The clashes do nothing for our image as a civilised and law-abiding international city.
According to police figures, the number of public assemblies jumped from 4,887 in 2015 to 11,854 last year. Public marches also rose 14 per cent to 1,304 during the period. The use of pepper spray has also risen correspondingly, up from 249 times in the 2015-16 financial year to 340 in the first 11 months of 2016-17. The force said it did not use pepper spray at public order events in 2013-14.
Compared to the 1,664 times it was deployed during the Occupy movement, the use of pepper spray in the past two years may not seem high. The figures nonetheless show that unruly protests have become a trend and that the police have to handle the situation accordingly. This has understandably become an issue of concern to civil rights groups. Some have questioned whether the use of pepper spray was fully justified, saying the police could have used other means to maintain control. But frontline officers said they had no choice as protests became more violent.
Arguably, pepper spray would not be needed had protests remained orderly and manageable in the first place. The police have repeatedly stressed that any force used would be the minimum necessary for achieving the purpose of an operation. While police actions are justifiable in light of the circumstances, the use of force must be exercised with great care. There were situations when protesters became even more agitated and confrontational when the police escalated their actions. Protesters are also required to stay within the law when expressing opinions.
The need for all sides to exercise restraint is even more important as the 20th anniversary of reunification with the mainland is expected to draw more politically charged protests and rallies. But as long as participants follow the law, clashes can be avoided.