Published: 00:27, July 27, 2021 | Updated: 10:43, July 27, 2021
Freedom of speech must not be at expense of the public interest
By Ho Lok-sang

It is often said that the truth will eventually show itself when people engage in a dialogue. There is, therefore, no reason to prohibit discussions that set out to find the truth. You could start off with a wrong premise, as everybody is liable to. But if you genuinely want to seek the truth, you lay out your reasoning, and examine other people’s reasoning, and you test your reasoning against facts and evidence, gradually the truth will reveal itself. So there are indeed good reasons to protect freedom of speech. To me, as an academic, the freedom to seek the truth is the raison d’etre of universities and scholarly research. Academic freedom must be protected.

Unfortunately, in the real world, freedom of speech has often been abused. Cyberbullying is a case in point. We have seen many, many tragedies related to cyberbullying. Those who engage in cyberbullying are not interested in seeking the truth. They are interested only in bullying people, suppressing dissent, and making those whose views are alien to theirs feel bad. In misusing freedom of speech, they are enemies of free speech, and instead of helping to find the truth, cyberbullying prevents people from seeing the truth.

Many commentators lament the National Security Law for Hong Kong, saying that it inhibits free speech. But if speech is used to incite hatred, air personal grudges and biases against any group of people, or promote separatism, it has nothing to do with seeking the truth.

I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but speech freedom and press freedom must stay within the confines of the law that protects the public interest. When speech is misused, injury can be produced, both on the individuals who are directly hurt and on society as a whole. Some commentators somehow believe that governments should not incriminate anyone on the basis of speech. The presumption is that crimes must involve acts other than “simply speech”. In their view, incrimination based on speech reflects badly on the government as only totalitarian governments would incriminate based on speech. But this presumption does not hold water. Speech that undermines the public interest must be prohibited.

Take the case of the latest arrests under the National Security Law. Five leaders of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were accused of conspiring to incite hatred against the government and of promoting violence, using children’s books as a medium. Three books were involved, and their stories all depicted a “sheep village” defending itself against the intrusion of “wolves” — enemies that could kill the sheep or spread diseases. According to police Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah, it was clear that the “sheep village” refers to Hong Kong, and mainlanders were likened to wolves. One of the books talked about “Twelve Brave Warriors of the Sheep Village” who wanted to protect the sheep but were taken over by the wolves. The story glorified the 12 fugitives who were involved in riots and were intercepted by mainland police.

The storybooks target young children and hideously depict mainlanders as enemies. It has nothing to do with seeking the truth, but has everything to do with provoking hatred against the mainland people. Hong Kong people are likened to sheep. Mainlanders are likened to wolves. Being targeted at small children, the books are most dangerous. The minds of children are still in the formative stage. Once the children had formed biased judgments against the mainlanders, they would unwittingly show disgust for them and discriminate against them. The 12 fugitives who were charged with various violent crimes and conspiring with external powers are likened to warriors of the sheep village who bravely fought the enemies. Instead of teaching children to be responsible citizens caring for the country’s common good and Hong Kong society’s betterment, the books impart the impression that Hong Kong is not part of China. From this perspective, the arrests of the five leaders of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists are well justified.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions criticized the arrests as an escalation of incrimination based on speech. Of course the SAR government should not tolerate speech that incites hatred, arouses discrimination, glorifies violence, and preaches separatism. Freedom of speech that is protected under the Basic Law is not freedom to use speech to hurt society and the country.

As a policy analyst, I frequently criticize the government’s policies. I was warned by some people to be careful, lest I be charged under the National Security Law. They say that with the National Security Law in place, it is not clear where the “red line” is that demarcates what is permissible and what is not. Of course I am not afraid. Why should I worry about a government that has the long-term interests of the countrymen and those of Hong Kong at heart? The National Security Law will never be used to incriminate anyone who criticizes the government and proposes solutions. The “red line” is just that critics must not incite violence, hatred, nor fabricate “news”, and must not breach the Basic Law. All Hong Kong people must respect the territorial integrity of China, and must respect the political system on the mainland that has served the country so well.

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.