Obeying the law preserves freedoms
We should cherish our fine tradition of expressing opinions in a peaceful and orderly fashion
People who break the law should be prepared to face legal consequences. Those involved in the unlawful Occupy protests in 2014 were well aware of that when they blocked the city’s streets for 79 days in the hope of pushing Beijing for more democracy. Last year, the three student leaders who had sparked off the blockade by occupying the government headquarters compound in Admiralty paid the price, although not as heavy as anticipated by some people. And when the appeal court on Thursday ruled in favour of the government and jailed the trio for between six and eight months – instead of the earlier community service orders and suspended imprisonment – the decision, unsurprisingly, aroused as much applause as outrage.
Court rulings on political events are bound to be divisive in the light of prevailing sentiments. Because the trio of young activists, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang, were popular, the decision aroused even more sympathy in some quarters. Whether the punishments are appropriate may well be a matter for the city’s highest court to further determine. Earlier, the government won another appeal to jail 13 young protesters who stormed the Legislative Council over a contentious development project three years ago. Officials say it is necessary to send out a clear message that unlawful and violent protests are not to be tolerated. But opponents see it as political persecution and warn of more radical actions in future.
In a strongly worded judgment, Court of Appeal vice-president Wally Yeung Chun-kuen said there was an unhealthy trend in which people openly despised the rule of law. Without naming anyone, he hit out at some educated people for advocating others to “violate the law to achieve justice”. He said not only did they refuse to admit their lawbreaking behaviour was wrong, they even saw their stance as something to be proud of. “Our society will descend into chaos ... If such a situation is not effectively curbed, all talk of freedom and the rule of law will be empty,” he said.
The principles elaborated by the court in sentencing cases involving violence in unlawful assembly, such as the need to consider deterrent sentencing, have far-reaching implications. The binding guidelines are expected to make future decisions more consistent. But it remains unclear they can effectively deter rowdy protests.
Justice Yeung’s views are fundamentally different from those who endorse the use of civil disobedience to foster changes. But they are shared by many others who cherish our fine tradition of expressing opinions in a peaceful and orderly fashion. The basis for our freedom to protest and demonstrate will be destroyed if different forces strive to advance their causes with little regard to the law.