Today’s criminals – tomorrow’s heroes?

Pro-independence activist Edward Leung walks inside a detention center before leaving for the High Court for a sentencing hearing in Hong Kong on June 11. Photo: Reuters

Pro-independence activist Edward Leung walks inside a detention center before leaving for the High Court for a sentencing hearing in Hong Kong on June 11. Photo: Reuters

by Stephen Vines / Jun 16, 17:30

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, her bosses in Beijing and the usual rabble of anti-democrats think that jailing Edward Leung and others for offenses arising out of the Mong Kok disturbances in 2016 can be seen as problem solved.

The fact that very harsh sentences were handed down adds to their pleasure.

However, the ‘strong message’ that was supposedly delivered by sentences of up to seven years in jail may well strengthen the resolve of those who believe that the system is unjust.

Among the cheerleaders for these tough sentences are members of organizations that were responsible for the far more serious 1967 unrest.

Under today’s new order the rioters of yesterday have been rewarded for their actions and they and their successors now occupy positions of influence. Back in 2001 the government went so far as to bestow its highest honor on Yeung Kwong, the leader of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Committee for Anti-Hong Kong British Persecution Struggle, which coordinated the riots.

History has a way of changing the prism through which insurrection is viewed. The brutal facts of life are that yesterday’s rebels and ‘criminals’ are transformed into heroes as the pendulum of history swings.

Meanwhile we are left with a messy situation in which the judge, Anthea Pang, has been widely criticized for the harshness of her sentencing.

The jail sentences she handed down are breathtaking in their severity compared to punishments given when Hong Kong was seized by the 1967 Cultural Revolution spillover riots, leading to the deaths of at least 51 people. Thousands of bombs were planted and 802 people were injured. Among the dead were ten police officers. Despite this mayhem and loss of life most of those found guilty of taking part in the rioting were sentenced to some two years in jail.

So there is definitely some imbalance here but criticizing judges is a tricky matter, albeit hardly unknown. The appeals system implicitly acknowledges this fact. Appeals are made on points of law and procedure; they do not consider questions of a judge’s motives or supposed bias. Yet Justice Pang has been accused of both bias and political motives for her judgment.

Judges are human but it is extremely hard to prove motivation behind judgments, however it is possible to make general observations, such as those made by legal scholar Benny Tai who said that this ruling reflected a strong ‘pro-order mentality’ which was common among the judiciary.

Others in the legal profession have gone further and pointed out that career advancement in the judiciary is in the hands of political officials who, in the current climate, are highly likely to favor judges seen as delivering a strong response to protest.

Then there is the question of the public order law under which some of the charges were made. Chris Patten, the city’s last British colonial governor, noted that these laws were open to abuse as they were loosely worded and amounted to a catch-all for rounding up people engaged in protests.

It is interesting to note that instead of responding to the substance of Lord Patten’s views, the usual suspects have focused entirely on the question of whether he has a right to express any view at all. However he clearly has a point because catch-all legislation is a dangerous thing when placed in the hands of an authoritarian-minded government.

The extent to which this is so is reflected in the number of politically-linked prosecutions that have been launched in recent years. Then, of course there are countless other manifestations of intolerance towards opposition, not least the delivery to the police of bigger and better anti-riot vehicles.

Lam’s general mindset was, perhaps inadvertently, revealed when she responded to a question in Legco as to whether the government was prepared to launch an independent inquiry into the causes of the Mong Kok unrest. The chief executive enthusiastically quashed this idea and demonstrated that, like her predecessor, CY Leung, she believes that the unrest was the result of some kind of external conspiracy.

Leung, it will be remembered, said he had ‘irrefutable evidence” that the Umbrella Movement was the work of some undefined overseas conspiracy. Unsurprisingly he has yet to produce this evidence.

Lam seems to believe that what happened in Mong Kok is somehow down to unnamed ‘educators’ who were behind these events. She thinks that unveiling this conspiracy is more important than getting to the bottom of why so many people are prepared to take to the streets to protest.

While she and Leung are busy with conspiracy theories they might like to take time to consider how history works. Putting people in jail for long periods of time does not thwart protest but it does create martyrs and encourage others to take to the streets.