When peace becomes the enemy

Protesters gathered at Tamar Park in Hong Kong. Photo: CNS/Reuters

“It is now the police who are governing Hong Kong,” a banner held high on October 18 by a middle-aged man at a prayer rally in the troubled city read. “It is shameful the way the government has been handling things. It breaks my heart to see Hong Kong come to this and saddens me every time someone is hurt,” he told the South China Morning Post.

“Hong Kong is a police state,” the only combined gathering ever of Justice and Peace Commissions from across Asia and Oceania, held in Huahin, Thailand, in 1986, was told in response to questioning of a statement that every state in Asia, with the exception of Japan, was under the control of a military dictatorship.

The restrictive political policies over the population of Hong Kong at that time were well illustrated by the absence from the gathering of representatives from the Justice and Peace Commission who had been denied permission to exit the colony by the British authorities.

It is this same colonial power that legislated the emergency laws in 1922 giving the governor extraordinary powers that enabled the current chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, to arbitrarily impose the controversial ban on the wearing of face masks in the city that has further provoked the ire of the people.

The British invoked this ordinance only once, in 1967, in the face of threats from pro-Communist labour unions at the time of the Cultural Revolution that were wreaking havoc and spreading fear throughout the city. It was a time when teachers entered classrooms with trepidation and nurses hospital wards with apprehension.

Today is not a time of such fear. People do not go to bed at night trembling, teachers are not afraid of their students nor nurses their patients. However, while people generally do not look over their shoulders when walking in the street, in the wake of several unprovoked attacks, wise counsel is beginning to recommend they do.

But what is more disturbing is a strong argument suggesting it is the police calling the political shots in the city and dictating the suppression of free speech.

A barrister, Douglas Kwok King-hin, representing the Civil Human Rights Front, which has a long record of organising peaceful rallies, argued at a challenge to a police refusal to issue a letter of no objection to a rally scheduled for October 20 that the three necessary conditions to justify a ban had not been met.

Her refusal to recognise the problem of concentration of power in the hands of the few, which French economist, Thomas Piketty, describes as a cancer in society, or to accept that the common good is a legitimate subject of political action, strengthens the perception that she is content with the state of the streets of her city.

Kwok noted that a lawful reason is required to deny the constitutional right to march and the police have to show a rational connection between the ban and achieving the aim the refusal claims to address.

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He stressed that the ban would not achieve any social benefit nor would it restore peace to the city, as the predictable result would be radical elements taking to the streets, while the right of peaceful citizens to express their discontent is denied.

This repression of free speech prompted one man to comment, “I don’t think Carrie Lam and her government really want to improve the situation, they are just adding fuel to the fire. They don’t seem to care about our voices, that’s why we need to come out in protest.”

Indeed the police silencing of peaceful dissent seems to indicate a preference for the unrest on behalf of the government, as it has a mechanism in the police force for dealing with this, but the behaviour of the chief executive reflects an inability to deal with peaceful dissent.

In June, Lam told the people that her government would hear their words, but certainly not listen. Under pressure she agreed to shelve the controversial extradition bill, but it was only under the hammer of violent protest that she bowed to the request to withdraw it.

Nevertheless, as of October 20 the threat of the extradition bill had not gone away, as it is still listed on the government gazette awaiting action from the Legislative Council, whose trust level stands at a low ebb in the eyes of many people.

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation during a visit to Sydney and Canberra between October 16 and 17, Bonnie Leung Wing-man, a district councillor in Hong Kong and member of the executive of the Civil Human Rights Front, quoted from a survey conducted by universities showing that 50 per cent of the population supports the current rash of demonstrations and, despite reservations about the violence, is prepared to tolerate it. In addition, a further 20 per cent, although opposed to the methods being employed, agree with the agenda that is being pushed in the streets.

In the face of this resistance, Lam appears to have decided that the housing problem is her way out and fell back on the tactic of her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, settling on wild promises to fix the decades-long source of complaint in her annual policy address.

After all, she is under pressure from Beijing to reign over the territory’s cultural assimilation with the mainland, something which the people in the streets judge a lowering of standards, as they have already witnessed detrimental interference by Beijing in the city’s language, customs, legal and education systems, as well as medical and policing practices.

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But Lam is attempting to steer the conversation away from these issues, sidelining citizen-identity in which China is vitally interested and she has little room to move, in favour of distribution of wealth in which Beijing has little or no interest, but she does have some resource to address.

It is a tricky dilemma, made all the more so when peace has become the enemy and violence, no matter how reluctantly welcomed, the friend. It is a dance with the devil in which the devil won’t change, but will choose the music that dictates the mood of the dance floor.

This begs the question of whether the cost of further destruction of public trust in an already discredited police force that has barristers, human rights advocates, medical professionals and students lining up to testify against it for its heavy-handed, revengeful and restrictive actions, is worthwhile or not.

Hong Kong has already seen the image of a group of men and women charged with protecting the rule of law, once revered as Asia’s finest, dragged in the dirt, and uncorked the bottle of frustration built up over two decades that repression is not going to recapture nor idle promises quell.

In an era where China is searching to improve its image on the world stage, how this plays out is of significance to the whole world. It is the most determined challenge being made to its seeming impenetrable armour, but as Beijing’s talk becomes tougher its weak points become more definable, with maybe the most ridiculous being a mighty nation so peeved, disturbed and threatened by the opinion of a foreign sporting administrator! JiM

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