As Gilbert and Sullivan aptly put it, a policeman's lot is not a happy one. This is often the case when the constabulary duty to be done is keeping unruly protesters in check. Be too lenient and other peoples' right to go about their business is impinged on. Be too harsh and the citizen's right to register his disapproval of government policy is harmed. But as long as a well-trained, professional force is making an honest effort to get this balance right, they deserve sympathy and support.
Recent events in Hong Kong, however, suggest that the police there are coming under increasing pressure from the government to skew the balance in favor of "stability" at the expense of free speech. In the last couple weeks, the police have torn down banners put up by members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, outlawed in mainland China but still legal in Hong Kong. They have also threatened to prosecute the group for causing an obstruction. The grounds for the action were suspicious, that approval had not been
secured from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to erect a display on public ground.
Why was a law intended to protect public health suddenly applied to political speech? The move seems to have been precipitated by a banner which accused Chinese President Jiang Zemin of "state terrorism," because Falun Gong members have been mistreated and killed while in custody on the mainland. The protesters displayed the banner outside the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government, where Beijing's representative in the
The action against the Falun Gong didn't end with the destruction of the banners. Since the, the police have gone door to door in the area around the liaison office, asking residents to sign a complaint against the Falun Gong. The South China Morning Post reports that several people living in Cheung Ling Mansion were approached by officers and offered the chance to sign a complaint form.
This isn't the first time that the Falun Gong group, whose protests are always peaceful, have been singled out for special treatment. During the Fortune Global Forum conference in May, about 100 members of the group from nationalities that enjoy visa-free access to Hong Kong were detained and then deported by immigration officials at the airport. The point of that exercise was to reduce the size of Falun Gong protests and so minimize
embarrassment to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who was speaking at the forum.
Hong Kong's lawyers questioned whether the Public Order Ordinance, which governs demonstrations, violated the right to assembly and freedom of expression. That is now proving to be a legitimate question, especially given the way the police are choosing to enforce it. Recall that the ordinance was relaxed in 1995 because of fears that after the handover to Chinese sovereignty the authorities would use it to muzzle critics. The
requirement that organizers get permission from the police before holding a demonstration was changed so that only advance notice was required. But after the handover, Beijing's handpicked temporary legislature reinstated the requirement that permission be sought seven days in advance.
To be fair, the right to demonstrate still exists in Hong Kong. But it is eroding at the margins. For instance, at the Fortune Global Forum, protesters were kept much farther away from the venue than could be justified from a public safety standpoint. The real objective was to spare President Jiang the agony of hearing dissenting voices, or being photographed with protesters in the background. In other words, the right to dissent is now secondary to the sensitivities of mainland officials like the ones who work in the Liaison Office. It's hard to have much sympathy for the police if they bend easily to the desires of their political masters to limit the civil liberties of the Hong Kong people.
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