Protests require give and take on all sides
- Hong Kong’s leader has pledged to review rules relating to demonstrations at government headquarters, and such measures must neither compromise security nor infringe rights and freedoms
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has swiftly pledged a review of the rules against protests inside the forecourt of government headquarters. This came after restrictions, laid down by the previous administration to avoid rowdy protests, were struck down by a court as unconstitutional. The review is a right step forward, not just for the sake of legal compliance, but also political reconciliation. Hopefully, it will strike the right balance and help restore the city’s fine tradition of peaceful demonstrations.
Lam, to her credit, has already lifted the blanket ban imposed by her predecessor following a series of politically charged protests. But she could have gone further to allow greater access, as confirmed in a High Court ruling over a judicial review sought by a protester in 2014. Mr Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung ruled the government had failed to demonstrate the restrictions were no more than necessary to ensure normal operations.
The right to protest is guaranteed by the Basic Law. While such a right is not absolute, any restrictions must be proportional to their purposes. The blanket refusal of protests on all weekdays and Saturdays, regardless of size and format, is disproportional to the need of maintaining government operations, according to the judge.
The government headquarters were designed with the themes of “door always open” and “people connected”. The forecourt, having been the stage for mass protests against national education in 2012 and the Occupy movement in 2014, has even stronger symbolic meaning. That probably explains why some activists stormed the site, known as the Civic Square for its political significance, in protest against the restrictions. Even when it was reopened by Lam last year as a conciliatory gesture, it was seen as not going far enough.
The waning political tension means the government has less cause for concern and more room for adjustment. The direction is to facilitate protests as much as possible without compromising government security and operations. Protesters are also expected to exercise their rights and freedoms within the law. Only through reasonable regulation and responsible use of rights and freedoms can the fine tradition of peaceful demonstrations be restored.