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Monday, January 17, 2022, 23:59
Lessons from the conviction of 21 social unrest rioters
By Tony Kwok
Monday, January 17, 2022, 23:59 By Tony Kwok

Jan 10 must have been a very sad day with much soul-searching for a number of unfortunate families in Hong Kong wondering how their children have gone so seriously wrong. On that day, 21 defendants, mostly young people, were sentenced to between 30 months and 42 months in jail for rioting during a protest in Sheung Wan in 2019. Heretofore the largest rioting case relating to the violent social unrest in the second half of that year, the defendants were aged between 19 and 40. Seven of them were students, whose parents must be bewildered and disheartened by what has happened to their pride and joy.

In handing down the sentences, District Court judge Johnny Chan Jong-herng said the rioters’ gear and attire are undeniable evidence that they had all come ready to engage in violence. Videos taken by the media and the police also showed the rioters throwing missiles of sticks, metal rods and umbrellas at the police who were outnumbered.

Most of the defendants expressed remorse in their mitigation pleas except one, Andy Kan, who did not have legal counsel, claimed that he has no regrets, quoting American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., that “a riot is the language of the unheard, and when riots happened in a city, those who should feel ashamed were not its citizens, but its government!” This was rejected by the judge who said people should not resort to violence or take the law into their own hands in order to realize what they believed were their ideals, adding that Kan’s beliefs did not constitute a reason to mitigate his sentence. The irony in Kan’s remarks was that had King resorted to violence in campaigning for racial equality, he would not have enjoyed the international support that he did, which lends him his moral authority, and the racist establishment he was fighting against would not have buckled.

Young people are our future masters and we must not give up on them even when they have strayed. A youth commission should be established to concentrate the resources on helping them and coordinate related government initiatives

It behooves our education sector to examine this romanticized and twisted justification of resorting to violence against the government to effect social and political change. Kan’s self-righteous justification is also a good illustration of the saying: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” What happens is that a person with limited exposure to the world at large can easily become the proverbial frog at the bottom of a deep well. In Kan’s case, he may have been indoctrinated by the intense social media propaganda at the time which misleadingly claimed that the extradition bill, proposed by the HKSAR government at the time, could be used as a tool for Chinese mainland authorities to grab hold of anybody at will outside their jurisdiction. Nothing could have been further from the truth because for that to have happened, it would have had to overcome many layers of stiff legal hurdles before an independent judicial authority. The bill’s original purpose was to facilitate the extradition of a Hong Kong resident who is a murder suspect in the death of his girlfriend in Taiwan. The suspect then fled to Hong Kong. There is no rendition agreement between Taiwan and Hong Kong, so the proposed extradition bill was conveniently distorted by political opportunists who turned it into a convenient tool with which to blacken the central government.

It should be noted that the bill was also designed to plug the loophole of a lack of rendition agreements with many other jurisdictions. Given the political opposition’s tendency to smear the central government at every opportunity, this proved to be so irresistible that they decided to go for broke. And so it was seized upon by the opposition politicians, teachers and media who labeled it a means for grabbing any Hong Kong resident at will and transporting them to the mainland’s jails! Just like those protesting against the proposed legislation according to Article 23 of the Basic Law in 2003, I have no doubt that the vast majority of the protesters did not bother reading the fine print of the bill they were protesting against! It’s also about mass hysteria fanned by demagogues to destabilize the government of the day. Incidentally, both bills compared favorably with those of their respective foreign counterparts in leading democracies.

Many of the protesters also managed to shoot themselves in the foot, apparently unknowingly, by waving British colonial flags while demonstrating their demand for democracy. Don’t they know that in the 156 years of British colonial rule, there was hardly any democracy in Hong Kong? All 28 governors who ruled Hong Kong were British, appointed by the United Kingdom without any consultation with Hong Kong people!

So, what lessons can we learn from these riot cases? An obvious one is that many of the young protesters were brainwashed and treated like cannon fodder by demagogic politicians and radical activists, most of them backed by foreign powers, to weaken the special administrative region government, and by extension, the central government. To ensure that this tragedy is not repeated, we need to have a comprehensive strategy encompassing the ICAC’s proven three-pronged approach of education, prevention and deterrence.

Of the three, education is probably the most crucial. This must emphasize proper understanding of the “one country, two systems” policy. Many misperceived this concept as the de facto independence of Hong Kong free from central government supervision. The young students need to learn not just the Basic Law, but also the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, from which the Basic Law germinated. Only when one understands fully the Constitution together with the Basic Law can one appreciate the true meaning of “one country, two systems”. Regarding some young people’s idealistic concept of democracy, we should correct their idealized perception of Western democracy, firmly believing that it is the best and only type of democracy that suits all countries, despite their differences in culture and history.

The recently published white paper released by the central government titled “Hong Kong Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country Two Systems” should become part of a mandatory subject to give our youngsters an accurate understanding of the genuine development of democracy in Hong Kong which really happened only after its return to China. To address the hatred of the Chinese mainland embedded in some students, a multi-pronged approach should be adopted in imparting a more accurate understanding of the mainland, including its development and governance. Conditions permitting, arrangements should be made for more students to undertake study visits to the mainland, particularly in the Greater Bay Area. In fact, the campuses now being set up by Hong Kong universities in the GBA can serve as vehicles for Hong Kong students to get to know more about the developments in the GBA and even mingle with mainland youths.

Bearing in mind the significant role the GBA is being assigned in national development, Hong Kong students should view the GBA cities as potential destinations for their future careers. It also dovetails with both the Hong Kong and central governments’ desire for closer integration in the development of Hong Kong and the rest of the GBA. Consideration can even be given to recruiting Hong Kong youngsters older than 14 to join the Communist Youth League of China, so that they can have a closer understanding of the Communist Party of China. Last but not least is that the Hong Kong SAR government should introduce targeted programs to address many young people’s concerns about their inability to ever afford a home of their own and to have better career opportunities.

On the prevention side, a rigorous vetting system for teachers and university lecturers should be set up to eradicate any early attempts to poison the minds of our youth. Vetting should be carried out upon recruitment and repeated periodically, say every three years. On the radical media, legislation should be introduced as soon as possible to criminalize fake news, using Singapore as an example.

On the deterrence side, a court result such as this one should be publicized and the total number of convictions regularly updated to serve as a warning. So far, over 670 defendants have received custodial sentences for related offenses. For those rioters still on the run, law enforcement should pursue them relentlessly to send a clear message that “violence doesn’t pay”. Perhaps in due course, police can produce a TV series on these riot cases to drive home the warning. At the same time, the police’s National Security Department should beef up their intelligence gathering network to nip any terrorist plots in the bud before they are acted out.

The department should also build up a close working relationship with the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison, with a view to learning from their expertise, especially with the appointment of a new commander, Major General Peng Jingtang, who used to be in command of anti-terrorism enforcement in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. No effort should be spared to deter young people from attempting any terrorist activities as it would not only harm our society, but would also ruin their lives.

Young people are our future masters and we must not give up on them even when they have strayed. A youth commission should be established to concentrate the resources on helping them and coordinate related government initiatives. They are our most valuable resource and must be treated accordingly. 

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space and a Council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies. He was previously deputy commissioner of the ICAC.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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