Burns Night

“Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us”. This famous quotation, from the Scottish poet Robert Burns, sprang immediately to mind recently when I saw in the news that a delegation of DAB members was protesting outside the German consulate in Hong Kong. Led by the party’s deputy leader, Holden Chow Ho-ding, they had gone there to complain about that country’s decision last year to grant political asylum to two Hong Kong residents. The pair, activists Ray Wong Toi-yeung and Alan Li Tung-sing, were due to go on trial here on charges relating to the Mongkok riot of 2016. The pair jumped bail in late 2017 and left the city. Now the relevant authority in Germany has granted them sanctuary apparently on the grounds that they could not be certain of receiving a fair trial. Such a finding is naturally a serious blow to Hong Kong’s reputation.

Before we look at the merits of this particular decision, we need to put it in the context of events in Hong Kong in recent years, as they might be seen and interpreted by outsiders.

Start with the outcome of the consultation exercise on political reform in 2014. The ruling, by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), that all candidates for chief executive must receive majority support from the election committee, was seen as highly restrictive and disappointing by democracy advocates. They demonstrated outside government headquarters to show their displeasure and thus began, on 26 September, the Occupy Central movement originally scheduled to start on 1 October.

The scheme when first mooted envisaged peaceful occupation of a prominent location for a few days, in the same mode as Occupy Wall Street, to draw attention to a grievance. As we all know, the actual outcome was a 79 day blockage involving three different locations which caused serious disruption to the daily lives of millions of people.

For the purposes of this discussion, we do not need to examine the rights and wrongs of the NPCSC ruling, or the use of teargas by the police to control the crowd, or the demonstrators’ lack of a game plan to bring the occupation to a smooth conclusion, or the decision by the authorities to let the protest peter out rather than apply the law to impose an end, because there are legitimate opinions on all sides. The point is that the events received wide coverage in the media around the world. People everywhere saw what was happening.

In subsequent years, Hong Kong’s political system attracted attention for a number of controversial reasons. Starting in 2016, returning officers began to disqualify some candidates from taking part in elections. A total of six were banned from participation in that year and a further three in 2018. The grounds for rejection were the candidates’ advocacy of self-determination or even outright independence. As I have written several times, the whole idea of independence for Hong Kong is an absolute nonsense. But that is not the point, in a mature society, these conclusions are normally left for the voters to draw, not imposed from above.

Then there was the dramatic saga of oath taking which led to the disqualification of some Legco members who had been duly elected. Starting as far back as 2004, “long hair” Leung Kwok-hung and others from the pan democratic camp had taken advantage of the oath-taking ceremony to make a declaration of their views on other issues, in addition to the official words of the oath itself. In 2012, Wong Yuk-man did something similar and was later allowed to re-take the oath

In 2016, the toleration policy suddenly changed. The oaths taken by Baggio Leung Chung-hong and Yau Wai-ching were rejected by the Legco Secretariat. The government then took the initiative to go to court to prevent them retaking the oaths. Four other members had also embellished their oaths. In two cases (Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Leung Kwok-hung) the oath was accepted and the other two (Edward Yiu Chung-yim and Lau Siu-lai) were allowed to retake them. In November that year the NPCSC issued an interpretation on how oaths had to be taken. Subsequently all six members were expelled.

In 2017, another Legco member was prosecuted for turning little paper flags of the PRC and SAR upside down. The DAB, under the leadership of Starry Lee Wai-king, was a strong supporter of the government’s tough line.

Finally we should consider the prosecution of those who had first advocated, and then organised, the Occupy event. There was a degree of controversy over the charges themselves: causing a public nuisance is straightforward enough, as is inciting others to cause a nuisance. But what was the point of adding “inciting to incite”? Did that really make a meaningful difference? Then there was the question of delay. One of the principal instigators, assistant professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, had been urging an occupy-type protest for months in his writings and speeches. There is ample evidence on tape of his doing so. Similarly with the actual occupation, plenty of video recordings of him and others involved. Why then did prosecution action only start years later, reaching court in 2019? It is difficult to see this as anything other than an oppressive course of action intended to keep a Sword of Damocles dangling over their heads for as long as possible. Now maybe my interpretation is too harsh, and there are certainly different sides to the argument on all the aspects discussed above. In the case of Wong and Li I think that the German authorities got it wrong. But they were perfectly entitled to have regard to all the circumstances surrounding the case and reach a different conclusion.

So my message to Chow and Lee, and the government generally, is simply this: it does not matter how justified we may think we are and how we see ourselves, it also matters how others see us. Burns got it right: the ability to do so would be a real gift.