Benny Tai’s mob lynching and the age of intolerance in Hong Kong
Yonden Lhatoo says the controversial law scholar’s detractors are unwittingly making a martyr of him, while also causing untold damage to the city’s reputation as a bastion of free speech in China
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the very notion of independence for Hong Kong is stone cold dead in the water.
Anyone still suggesting otherwise is either being boneheadedly naive or deliberately trolling to get a rise out of Beijing.
I suspect it’s the latter in the case of University of Hong Kong law academic Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who is refusing to go gentle into that good night while fading into obscurity after the failure of the 2014 Occupy protests he co-led in the name of fighting for greater democracy.
And you know what they say about trolls – just don’t feed them. Unfortunately that’s exactly what the central and Hong Kong governments are doing, and they’ve made him headline news all over again.
Tai is at the centre of a new storm over remarks he made at a recent seminar in Taiwan, where he suggested Hong Kong could look at independence as an option some fine day in a “democratic China”.
That was enough to prompt our government to call him out in public, expressing “shock” at what it deemed to be independence advocacy, while pro-establishment politicians joined the torch and pitchfork crowd demanding his head on a platter.
Beijing went an unprecedented step further to demand, through its mouthpiece People’s Daily, that Hong Kong authorities take legal action against the controversial law scholar under the city’s Crimes Ordinance, even if it is a long way off from adopting national security legislation against offences such as sedition – which Tai is being accused of here.
Legal experts have rubbished the idea, pointing out that nailing Tai for seditious intent under the existing criminal law would require proof that he is inciting violence or stirring up hatred – which his detractors don’t have in this case.
While pro-Beijing figures are baying for Tai’s blood, doubting his sincerity in going on the record since to declare he’s actually against independence, other liberal academics are up in arms over his mob lynching. They’re complaining that all he has done is offer hypothetical suggestions and speculation, which can hardly be considered subversive, and that it casts a chilling effect on scholarly discourse.
The nervousness up north is understandable, given that Tai was making a political statement at an anti-Chinese Communist Party event in Taiwan, which Beijing has long seen as a renegade province and hotbed of subversion.
Add to that Tai’s track record of mobilising mobs, having incited thousands to block roads and bring parts of this city to a standstill for 79 straight days during the Occupy movement, and the paranoia can even be justified to some extent.
By the way, does this guy do any teaching at all? How much free time do these academics have?
But at the end of the day, it does not bode well for Hong Kong to employ its state machinery to shut him down. Why? Because, apart from giving him the gravitas and publicity he would never get if you just ignored him, there is this little matter of free speech.
It’s one thing to threaten people running for election with disqualification if they bad mouth the Communist Party, the rationale being you shouldn’t look to join the establishment when you despise it so much, but gagging citizens who express their personal opinions – no matter how silly or non-constructive – is a slippery slope we don’t want to be on.
There’s a whole lot of talk these days about “one country” coming before “two systems”, which is fine and dandy because that’s the reality, like it or not. But let’s not completely sideline the “two systems” part in this age of increasing intolerance.
After all, free and fearless speech is a critical pillar that holds up Hong Kong as a truly unique city in China. It’s why we have such a healthy, diverse and vibrant society – independence freaks, flat-earthers, Pokemon chasers and all.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post