Law & Crime Opinion Politics & Protest

In defence of the freedom not to speak on Hong Kong’s protests

An ominous new tune has appeared in the repertoire of the Hong Kong government’s chorus of approval.

Organisations of all kinds are being told that it is not enough to be silent on Hong Kong’s current problems. They have an obligation to speak out against violence. This is a polite way of saying they should speak out against rioters. The other form of violence is acceptable.

MX Take, Eat, Easy store vandalised October 1 National Day Maxim's protest

Maxim’s MX Take, Eat, Easy store vandalised on October 1. Photo: inmediahk.net.

This started, I think, with a Mr Edwin Choy, who tried to get the Bar Association to issue a formal condemnation of violence and, having failed, resigned as Vice Chairman of the Association to take his complaint to the general public.

This idea has now been taken up by less learned pens and directed in an increasing number of directions.

I must say that Mr Choy, though I respect his willingness to stand up publicly for his views, seems to have some odd ideas. The Bar Association is a fine body of men and women, no doubt, but I do not think there are many people in Hong Kong who regard it as a persuasive source of ethical advice.

Will the average rioter, on hearing that the Bar Association disapproves of his activities, feel compelled to drop his plastic pole and go home? Will the proverbial man on the Shau Kei Wan tram be swayed from his sympathy for the water people by the thought that his views are not shared by some of Hong Kong’s most expensive lawyers?

edwin choy

Edwin Choy. Photo: Apple Daily.

I realise the Bar Association is near the beginning of the alphabet, so we may be seeing the mere tip of an iceberg, as the forces of obedience work their way from the Automobile Association to the Zoological Gardens Fan Club in search of societies they can persuade to take a stand for law and order.

The consensus among contributors to the pro-Carrie press seems to be that the disorders are subsiding gradually, and this process can be sped up if the general population is persuaded to be turned off by violence.

A rather upmarket version of this thesis appeared in the state newspaper China Daily under the name of Ms Christine Loh. It was quite persuasive, until you got to the authority for the theory that things were quietening down, which turned out to be none other than that model of sanity and sagacity Mr Donald Trump.

Well, I have two misgivings about the latest trend, one concerning the Bar Association and one concerning societies generally.

september 22 Tuen Mun march china extradition protest

Photo: Studio Incendo.

As far as the Bar Association is concerned it is, as Mr Choy would presumably argue, a buttress and supporter of the Rule of Law, and should be against activities which break the law.

As no doubt it is. We have not, though, been treated to regular, or even occasional, comments from the Bar Association on the iniquities of whichever felonies are currently fashionable, and I do not think we should.

As officers of the court, it behoves barristers to observe the polite fiction that anyone arrested by the police is innocent until found guilty in a court of law. As there have been few completed trials for violent offences committed in the course of the current disturbances Mr Choy seems to be asking for a mass jump to conclusions on the strength of media reports.

I am not personally in favour of violence and I am too old for that shit anyway, but if I was an alleged rioter I would prefer not to be told in advance of the hearing that the Bar had arrived at a joint view that I and people like me were guilty.

august 31 china extradition admiralty (19)

Photo: May James/HKFP.

As far as societies, in general, are concerned, no doubt some of them lean one way politically and some of them lean the other. But quite a lot, I am sure, would rather be allowed not to explore their members’ views on such matters.

If people join your club to explore shared interests then it is a good idea to avoid divisive topics not relevant to those interests. I do not know who is working his way down the list of societies but I would like to save him a letter: the Hong Kong Scottish Piping and Drumming Association is not willing to express a view on political topics.

There is a serious point here. We are constantly told that there must be some restrictions on freedom of speech, which is true. But we do not need restrictions on non-speech. The suggestion that people must speak out on a particular topic in a particular way is reminiscent of one of the many depressing periods in China’s history when the Party demanded not only obedience but adulation.

A victim at the time observed that he was not only not free to speak; he was also not free not to speak. Let’s not go there.

free speech censorship july 1 protest

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Personally, I hate violence. The problem with condemning it in our situation is that you need to offer an alternative to people who think the present leadership of Hong Kong is incompetent and dangerous – a view widely shared.

They tried non-violence on an epic scale. It was water off a duck’s back. Eventually, a selection of alleged “ringleaders” were jailed. Then we had an attempt at using the political machinery. It was repelled by a barrage of disqualifications.

So here we are. I wish I had an alternative I could suggest to the people who are now blocking streets and smashing the MTR’s Octopus machines. I don’t. Does Mr Choy, I wonder?

In defence of the freedom not to speak on Hong Kong's protests