Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Ronny Tong
by Ronny Tong

Hong Kong extradition protesters made five demands of Carrie Lam. Believe it or not, they have been heard

  • The government has responded to most demands, and even taken a step back on some. Protesters should see that the government is trying to meet them halfway, and give reconciliation a chance
At the height of Occupy Central, we all thought Hong Kong could not be more divisive or politically charged than at that time. How wrong we were. Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee described the wrath of the people opposing the proposed amendment bill of the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance as a “ perfect storm” (courtesy of a Hollywood movie); but there is nothing perfect about it.
According to a poll carried out by a respectable newspaper in Hong Kong, 90 per cent of those marching on a Sunday in protest thought that the amendment bill was laying the legal groundwork to enable the SAR government to send Hong Kong people across the border to be tried for criticising Beijing!
Anyway, protests led to marches; marches led to violent clashes with the police, which in turn led to police describing those resorting to violence as “rioting”. Those opposing the bill did not accept any responsibility for the violent clashes but instead, made no fewer than five demands: one, the bill must be withdrawn; two, the chief executive must resign; three, the government must retract its characterisation of the violent clashes as “riots”; four, there must be a full independent inquiry into the actions of the police and; five, everyone arrested in respect of the clashes must be unconditionally freed.
The government suspended the legislative process of the bill and the chief executive publicly apologised. Those opposing the bill did not think that was enough. They said there was “no response” to any of the five demands and so the fight must go on and the rift within the community must continue. Putting aside all arguments as to who is right and who is wrong, one might ask, is that fair?

Only a radical shake-up in governance can save Hong Kong

First, let us not be pedantic about it. The bill is dead. No matter how one describes its current state of health, call it “shelved”, “suspended”, “withdrawn” or what you will, the fact of the matter is that the chief executive has openly acknowledged that the bill has come to a timely end and is not to be resurrected.

This will not appease everyone. Already, there are some still saying this is not enough. But, in all fairness, it cannot be said the government has not responded. Perhaps not responded to the full extent desired by those opposing the bill, but in any view, the government had taken a major step back and the “threat” of the bill is no longer there.

Lam has been the only chief executive to have openly apologised to the people of Hong Kong

Those opposing the bill wanted Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to resign. Again, to be fair, people have called on each successive chief executive to resign in most if not all of the 22 years since the handover. However, Lam has been the only chief executive to have openly apologised to the people of Hong Kong. Perhaps she has not responded to the fullest extent, as some would like, but it cannot be said she had not at least taken half a step back.

Then there is the question of “rioting”. Riot is a legal term. The law says if “three or more persons, assembled together, conduct themselves in a disorderly, intimidating, insulting or provocative manner intended or likely to cause any person reasonably to fear that the persons so assembled will commit a breach of the peace” and a breach of the peace resulted, the assembly is a “riot”.

This definition was not invented by the SAR government but inherited from British common law. Hong Kong is not the rest of China. Here, only the legal meaning of an offence is important. The police, as well as Lam, have explained they were referring to people suspected of having committed the crime of rioting, not everyone who had marched peacefully.

That explanation is plainly right as a matter of law. Has Hong Kong deteriorated to a state where the police could not call a crime a crime? In any event, the explanation properly given by both the police and government can fairly be said to be a proper response to the relevant demand.

As to the call for an independent inquiry, the Independent Police Complaints Council has announced it would carry out an inquiry into the events relating to the protests and clashes. This is an existing and trusted mechanism used before in relation to investigating conduct of the police. True, it is not exactly what the protesters want but, again, the government has taken at least one step back here.
The last demand is perhaps the most difficult. How can the government in all honesty order law enforcement agencies to free and not prosecute those arrested without going through the due process of law? Article 63 of the Basic Law stipulates that criminal prosecutions should be free from any interference.
Article 25 says all residents are equal before the law. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which applies to Hong Kong via the Basic Law, and the Bill of Rights Ordinance says that all people are equal before the courts. So, how can it be said that protesters, no matter how noble their cause, are more equal than others when it comes to infringing the law? Where is our rule of law if that were to happen?

Why Hong Kong, and others, can’t just go on protesting

The truth of the matter is that, of the five demands, the government has responded to most, and has in fact taken a step back or two on some. Viewed in this light, it is fair to say the government has reached out a hand of conciliation. But reconciliation can only be achieved by both sides.

What more is there to be gained in continuing the current discord? We are already standing on the edge of the abyss of chaos. Our overall interest is, by no exaggeration, hanging in the balance. Is it not time to call a halt to things and give peace a chance?

We all make mistakes and the important thing is that a lesson has been learnt. It is time to heal the wound and look forward. After all, reconciliation is not a sin.

Ronny K. W. Tong, QC, SC, JP, is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, a member of the Executive Council and convenor of the Path of Democracy