Battle of the Ribbons

The most urgent task of the new chief executive when she assumes office in July will be to end the state of war between the camps represented by different coloured ribbons. This will not be easy: the conclusion of two high profile court cases drawing on the same set of facts has produced a storm of provocative and illogical statements from people who ought to know better.

Let us start with the known facts. The Occupy movement was at root a protest at the perceived lack of meaningful progress towards a more democratic system for governing Hong Kong. The vast majority of protestors conducted themselves peacefully, they were simply engaged in civil disobedience to show their support for a cause they deemed worthy. The vast majority of police officers conducted themselves in a highly disciplined and professional way, despite considerable provocation and long hours of duty.

Now to the events of 15 October 2014, helpfully captured on film by TV crews. Social worker Ken Tsang Kin Chiu was observed pouring a liquid on police officers clearing a part of the area occupied by the protestors. He was arrested, charged with assaulting police and resisting arrest, convicted and sentenced to five weeks in prison. After his arrest, before taking him to the appropriate police station for processing, seven police officers took a handcuffed Tsang into a dark corner and kicked and beat him. In due course the seven police officers were also arrested, charged with assault occasioning bodily harm, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. They also face dismissal.

While the two cases were in process, the two camps wearing either yellow ribbons (democracy advocates) or blue ribbons (police backers) took part in demonstrations outside the courts to show support for their side. The logic of their respective positions was completely lacking.

Let us start with the yellow ribbons. The gist of their argument seemed to be that because their man had been assaulted later, he was the victim and that everything that had gone before should be brushed under the carpet and forgotten about. This is so wrong from so many angles that it is difficult to know where to begin. The argument that Tsang’s assault on the police should be ignored because of something that happened later is ludicrous. Civil disobedience means to consciously break the law in a non violent way to protest a perceived greater wrong. Participants must then face the legal consequences of their actions. Moreover, however legitimate civil disobedience itself might be in an individual case, it can never become a license to assault others, least of all those charged with upholding public order. After all, an honest and impartial police force keeping the community safe is the bedrock of a free and democratic society that yellow ribbons purport to favour.

The blue ribbons do no better on the logic front. Because protestors were breaking the law so it was OK for people sworn to uphold the law to break it too? To engender respect for the rule of law we must beat unbelievers until they agree? How ironic is that.

Meanwhile keeping order outside the court and preventing the two groups of supporters from coming to blows were the same front line policemen the blues wanted to show their backing for. More irony as if any were needed.

Since the verdicts both sides have upped the volume and the rhetoric without any improvement on the logic front.

Tsang has demanded an apology from the Commissioner of Police because of the assault on himself. Does it occur to him that if assault requires an apology, then he should be the one to take the lead?

A former member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference has declared the policemen innocent. He must be the only person for 100 miles who hasn’t seen the video.

An associate professor from Beihang University’s law school wrote in these pages last week that the judge’s ruling should not have been allowed to override the professional judgement of officers on the job. The judge had given too much emphasis to the protestor’s rights without equal regard to the discretion police should have to enforce the law. With due respect for academic freedom, this is gibberish. The professional judgement of the officers was excellent at the outset. They saw a person breaking the law, arrested him and slapped on handcuffs. No-one anywhere has challenged their right to do that. What followed was NOT legitimate police action: they launched a cowardly attack on a defenceless prisoner.

What can our next chief executive do about this? For a start, how about lowering the volume and creating an aura of calm. And perhaps when all the appeals are out of the way, taking a second look at the disparity in sentences. Above all take us back to a time when reasoned argument was the order of the day. Make it clear to both groups and to the community at large that we do not face a choice between democracy and a safe society. If we play our cards right, we can and should have both.