Five years after the disruptive “Occupy Central” protests in Hong Kong, the leaders of the protest movement have now been convicted on public nuisance charges in the last wave of prosecutions in this affair, bringing to 293 the number of people prosecuted on civil and criminal charges related to the unrest. It is time to establish a balanced view on the overall outcomes of the protests and their implications for the future. It was most undesirable that things reached the point that they did on the streets in 2014 and in the courts this month — not that I am suggesting that justice was not done, but the whole affair has revealed that Hong Kong has not yet evolved a legitimate process for the expression and management of dissent.
It is important to remember that the premise of the “Occupy” movement was wholly unrealistic from the start. It arose from the decision to introduce universal active suffrage, while limiting the passive suffrage — who is allowed to stand for the position of Chief Executive. But this arose from the unique position of Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China. It could not be expected that the central government would permit an actual or potential separatist candidate to stand for such a role, creating an electoral campaign which would inevitably turn on the whole question of Hong Kong’s relationship with the nation — calling into question the whole meticulously constructed edifice of “one country, two systems” which is the whole basis of the Hong Kong SAR’s existence. This has proved enormously successful — not only for Hong Kong but for the whole Chinese nation. The unrest of five years ago has of course rendered it more, not less, difficult to resolve the question of how the CE is chosen, and no way forward on this issue is currently in sight.
But the handling of the legal issues raised by the protests has done credit to Hong Kong and its reputation as a free society based on the rule of law and an independent judiciary. It is clear that the laws relating to public nuisance were broken — indeed, the public nuisance was amply conveyed to the outside world by independent media — and that no arbitrary measures were applied. And, as far as we can see, the sentencing handed down by the Hong Kong courts has been very reasonable. When “Occupy” student leaders Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, and Alex Chow Yong-kang, were sentenced in 2017 for their attack on a government compound, the Court of Appeal sent them to jail for a matter of months rather than years, and even those sentences were set aside in 2018 in favour of non-custodial penalties. This is not the behavior of a tyrannous or arbitrary legal system.
...most agree that all disagreements and dissension must be conducted within the framework of the rule of law. Nobody has any reason to complain if the laws are applied against those who, for whatever reason and whatever purpose, choose to infringe them
The main problem of the 2014 protests was that some activists, particularly students, felt it necessary to nail their colors to the mast by knowingly taking their civil disobedience further than was ever going to be acceptable. They were encouraged in this by people old enough to know better, like those so-called “Occupy trio” leaders just convicted in the courts. A sensible political campaign must have clear and attainable goals. It must be conducted in a way most likely to lead to the attainment of these goals. If the goal of the “Occupy” protests was martyrdom, it has been achieved; if it was progress toward a generally acceptable form of universal suffrage for the election of the territory’s leadership, it has totally failed. That was the message conveyed by the courts earlier this month.
In a free society like Hong Kong there needs to be some means of input from the population into the decision-making process of the executive, and some way of expressing dissatisfaction. Every country and every territory manages this in different ways. But most agree that all disagreements and dissension must be conducted within the framework of the rule of law. Nobody has any reason to complain if the laws are applied against those who, for whatever reason and whatever purpose, choose to infringe them.
What will this sorry affair mean in the immediate future for the development of internal politics in Hong Kong? We can only hope it serves to demarcate the scope and the boundaries of opposition to government policies in the HKSAR, and to motivate political activists to develop legal and constructive methods for seeking change. Once these legal boundaries are clearly established and consensus is reached around them, then the debate on the constitutional future of the HKSAR can be launched once more, with some prospect of universally acceptable progress. Nothing must be allowed to destabilize the HKSAR’s founding principle of “one country, two systems”, which has brought peaceful and productive progress to the territory since 1997.
The author is a Sinologist and former British diplomat in Beijing.
HONG KONG NEWS