The sentencing of localist Edward Leung for rioting reflected a “very strong pro-order sentiment,” academic Benny Tai said on Tuesday.
Tai was speaking alongside ex-lawmaker Kenneth Chan at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club after Leung was sentenced to six years behind bars on Monday for his role in the 2016 Mong Kok unrest.
Tai said that he did not believe the judge was a member of the pro-establishment camp, but said that the “mentality” was “part of the establishment.”
Tai, an organiser of the 2014 Occupy protests, was recently condemned by the Hong Kong and central authorities for comments he made about the hypothetical independence of Hong Kong from the mainland at a conference in Taiwan in March.
When asked by reporters if Leung’s sentencing was harsh, he said: “I won’t say whether the judge’s ruling was right or wrong because there may be many appeals. But from the judge’s explanation of the ruling, there is an over-emphasis on social order.”
He said that the Hong Kong government responded very differently after the 1967 riots, which were sparked by a labour dispute and killed 51 people. Back then, it chose to listen to public opinion, Tai said.
“Under the spirit of our common law system, judges have space to consider what was the reason behind the destruction of social order and the defendants’ intentions in terms of the law,” he added.
“I hoped that our people in power including officials and judges can look deeply and think whether Hong Kong’s issues after the past few years can be resolved simply by emphasising social order. Many would say this: the higher the pressure, the bigger the outburst in the future.”
Leung’s sentencing by Madam Justice Anthea Pang prompted criticism from prominent figures including ex-governor Chris Patten, who said that the Public Order Ordinance used to convict Leung used “vague definitions” that are “open to abuse.” It has also prompted former lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung to call the sentencing an act of “political judgement and retribution.”
Chief Executive Carrie Lam criticised the idea of civil obedience on Tuesday, which she said some people had “romanticised.”
But Tai referred to the Court of Final Appeal’s February ruling on the 2014 storming of Civil Square, which stated that the intention of civil disobedience can be considered a reason for sentence reduction.
“Again I want to ask whether it would be wise to use the law now to suppress all this dissatisfaction with the existing order, without dealing with the reasons why the people are rising up. If this is not addressed, then I can foresee there may be more conflicts in the future.”
He maintained that non-violence should be used, even if it takes longer to achieve the goal of democracy under an authoritarian regime.
“I believe that even for an authoritarian government, it cannot do everything it wishes and it has to consider its political outcome,” he said.