Rush To Judgement

I wonder how the relevant authorities in the police force and the Department of Justice are going to handle the legal aftermath of the Umbrella Movement.

Start with the scale of the problem: something over 100,000 people took part at one time or another in what was clearly an unauthorized gathering or series of gatherings. Are we going to take them all to court? Apart from providing lucrative work for thousands of lawyers for decades to come, this does not strike me as a particularly attractive option. Our judges and magistrates – however patriotic the famous White Paper may have rendered them – are not going to have time to deal with anything else for the forseeable future.

Single out the leaders? That may sound logical but it does throw up a whole range of issues of its own. For a start, just who were they? Obviously not Benny Tai and his cohorts who began the original Occupy Central idea. After all, how can you be qualified to be called a leader if no-one followed you and – let’s face it – that is how things turned out. A plan for 10,000 middle aged people to lay down in the Central business district, arms linked, to be carried away peaceably by the police turned out to be something completely different, done somewhere else and by other people. I’m afraid by the time the exercise began our learned professor had become more of a follower than an instigator.

The students, then. The heads of their organisations were on the television every night and being quoted in the newspapers every day. And they were wheeled out to debate the government. They were certainly the face of the movement, but had they really planned in advance what took place? Frankly what happened on the Friday night at the end of the student class boycott week looked pretty spontaneous to me, and it involved ordinary members of the public trying to get through to show their support for students demonstrating outside the government’s Tamar headquarters.

And are we really proposing to begin the healing process – bridging the social divide that everyone has suddenly noticed and agrees needs to be addressed – by locking up the next generation? It sounds to me more like a recipe for prolonging the breakdown in relations, and that way surely lies disaster.

Moreover as time went by it became clear that nobody was in control of the situation on the streets. The traditional political leaders could come and go to the scene but really they were for the most part spectators, trying to surf the wave that had arisen without their leadership and thereby to recapture some moral authority. That reading of their involvement is not really affected by their hanging around to be arrested at the end. The difference between politics and show business is sometimes so slight as to be insignificant. Just think of Ronald Reagan – or Denise Ho.

In my view the authorities should focus on concrete acts which constitute a crime when shorn of their political context. If you set out to cause physical harm to other persons, that is assault and you should be prosecuted. If you picked up objects – or, even worse, if you brought those objects to the scene with you – with the objective of causing damage to property belonging to others, then that is criminal and you deserve to be brought in front of a judge to answer for your deeds.

Most serious of all in some ways, if you defied an order handed down by a judge whether that meant ignoring an injunction or breaking the terms of your bail, then you have launched a direct attack on the rule of law in Hong Kong. You may have said that was the very thing you were seeking to preserve, but your actions had the directly opposite effect and there must be a reckoning.

Within this very narrow ambit, the numbers being prosecuted will be relatively modest and they will only be punished for non-political activities. Which is how it should be in a free society. The rest were just exercising their democratic rights.