Editorial : The boundaries of civil disobedience

【明報專訊】THE COURT has found all the "nine Occupy leaders" guilty of one or more charges. The 2014 Occupy Movement was both a civil disobedience movement for democracy and the largest political confrontation ever since the implementation of "One country, two systems". The case involving the nine Occupy leaders is the central case of the mass movement. It is the duty of the court to give a ruling in accordance with the law and the facts of the case. However, the impacts of the movement will remain imprinted on Hong Kong politically and socially, whose effects will outlast the ruling. After several years' rumination, Hong Kong people have come to understand what civil disobedience is about. But at the same time, they have also become more aware of the importance of the rule of law and the limitations of "achieving justice by violating the law". Hong Kong's path to democracy has not been widened by the Occupy Movement. On the contrary, the road has become increasingly difficult, with many even feeling a heavier sense of helplessness. It has been more than four years since the Occupy Movement, but Hong Kong society is still in a state of political disorientation.

The "Occupy trio", Tai Yiu-ting, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming, advocated civil disobedience as early as the beginning of 2013 by raising the idea of Occupy Central with Love and Peace to demand "genuine universal suffrage". Seen as the founders of the theory of the movement and its initiators, they were also the three leading defendants of the case of the "Occupy nine". The remaining six defendants were charged with offences like incitement to commit public nuisance because of their roles in encouraging people to join the protests.

As the "Occupy nine" case involves the concepts of civil disobedience, freedom of speech and public nuisance, the judge has addressed all these notions in his judgement. One key message is civil disobedience should be reasonable and within boundaries. In the final ruling last year on the case of the "Occupy student trio", the Court of Final Appeal maintained that civil disobedience must be "peaceful and non-violent" and shall not cross the line of constitutionally protected peaceful demonstration. Similarly, the ruling yesterday also states that civil disobedience should be "proportionate". The judgement also cited an overseas case saying "there are conventions which are generally accepted by the law-breakers on one side and the law enforcers on the other". Because of such conventions, firstly, the protesters "do not cause excessive damage or inconvenience". Secondly, "they vouch (for) the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by law". Hong Kong courts recognise the notion of civil disobedience and may give consideration to the factors concerned when determining the sentences. However, the courts only focus on the ingredients of the offence when deciding whether a defendant is guilty or not. Civil disobedience cannot be used as a defence to criminal charges. From the perspective of the rule of law, there are no grounds to say the ruling is a case of political revenge or suppressing peaceful protests, let alone "a persecution of political prisoners".

While the courts can adjudicate the unlawful acts in the movement concerned from the angle of the law, the political cause behind the trial is indeed beyond what the courts can handle. The call by the Occupy trio to demand democracy by way of civil disobedience ultimately unfolded into a head-on political confrontation with the central government. The result was a radical deterioration of the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government. On the one hand, we saw the rise of the idea of Hong Kong independence. On the other hand, the central government has also further tightened its grip on Hong Kong. In the past, Hong Kong's democratic movement was relatively pure in nature. But over the past few years, there has been a tendency for the movement to become entangled with the thoughts of Hong Kong independence and self-determination. That has made Hong Kong's road to democracy even more difficult.

"One country, two systems" is the only way out given the practical circumstances of Hong Kong. Ultimately, the only way to democratise Hong Kong is also to return to this framework. Civil disobedience is only the means but not an end itself. Both the democratic camp and the central government should rethink how the two sides can get along again and restart the dialogue.

明報社評2019.04.10:公民抗命有界線 政治迷失待走出







outlast sb/sth : to continue to exist or take part in an activity for a longer time than sb/sth

rumination : the act of thinking deeply about sth; deep thoughts about sth

unfold : spread out; expand

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