7 January 2020
Anti-government protesters attend a march organized by the CHRF on New Year's Day. The police ordered the event to be wound up early, citing public safety concerns. Photo: Reuters
Anti-government protesters attend a march organized by the CHRF on New Year's Day. The police ordered the event to be wound up early, citing public safety concerns. Photo: Reuters

Will Public Order Ordinance be a tool to thwart protest events?

During a press conference held prior to the New Year’s Day rally, Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), called upon the police to exercise restraint in handling the event.

At the same time, the organizer appealed to marchers to refrain from vandalizing any building or shop during the demonstration, to avoid giving the law enforcement an excuse to intervene.

Unfortunately, Sham’s advance warning and fears turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as during the march on Wednesday, a HSBC branch in Wan Chai was vandalized by some radical protesters.

And the police, citing public safety, told the CHRF to terminate the march early, at 5:30 pm, and ordered the crowd to disperse within 30 minutes after the cessation of the event.

Sham told a radio program on Thursday morning that the CHRF received the police request to end the march at 5:30 pm, but the group felt it would be impossible to disperse the huge crowd at such short notice.?

After some exchanges, the police finally extended the deadline for dispersing the crowd?to 6:15 pm, Sham said.

Following Wednesday’s developments, a CHRF figure has expressed worry, saying that if such a hard-line approach to handling mass protests becomes a routine practice of the police, the freedom of procession to which the people of Hong Kong are entitled could get eroded gradually.

Over the years, the CHRF has organized countless mass demonstrations, and it wasn’t uncommon for scuffles, or even clashes, to break out between protesters and the police during the marches.

However, under most circumstances, the police would in the past only arrest the individuals that were stirring up troubles, and it was extremely rare for the law enforcement to demand that the organizer halt the entire event immediately.

Another CHRF figure has told us bluntly that even though they had deployed over 200 marshals to maintain order during Wednesday’s march, the police shouldn’t have passed the entire onus of controlling the crowds to the organizer, given the sheer number of the demonstrators.

He is concerned that if the precedent set by the police on Wednesday becomes a routine policy, it would mean that the law enforcement will have a free rein to forcibly halt lawful demonstrations even if there are minor incidents or acts of violence by a handful of marchers.

A person who has helped the CHRF organize marches in the past revealed to us that the police on Wednesday said the organizer had liaised with them beforehand and agreed to conclude the march prematurely if the route was deemed no longer safe.

However, there was not much room for the CHRF to say “no” to the early termination of the event, the person said.

It is because, the person explained, under section 17 (2) of the current Public Order Ordinance, any police officer of the rank of inspector or above may “prevent the holding of, stop, disperse or vary the place or route of any public gathering……if he reasonably believes that the same is likely to cause or lead to a breach of the peace.”

In the Thursday morning radio program, Sham said the CHRF could not disobey the police’s request to end the march, as the group feared that non-compliance could prompt authorities to send in riot police to disperse the “peaceful, rational and non-violent” citizens at the scene.

On Thursday evening, in response to the police’s remarks that the CHRF assisted the police in terminating the march and that it agreed with the order, the event organizer refuted the claims as false.

Whatever the truth, there is one thing we need to bear in mind: despite possessing the handy weapon in its toolbox, the police, over the years, have rarely invoked the provision to terminate demonstrations.

But things appear to be changing now, and the police may be tempted to invoke the Public Order Ordinance to make rally organizers such as the CHRF end the events early,?despite objections from the other side, if the organizers decline to add terms, when seeking permission for marches, for termination of the event when vandalism acts happen.

One of the key reasons why the anti-extradition bill movement was able to keep its momentum over the past seven months was unspoken cooperation between the “peaceful, rational and non-violent” demonstrators and the radical elements, under which the latter would stage their actions only after the end of peaceful marches.

By doing so, the “valiant protesters” will avoid putting the peaceful protesters in harm’s way.

However, judging from the march on the New Year’s Day during which quite a number of radical protesters were vandalizing bank branches even when the citizens’ rally was still underway, it appears as if the delicate unspoken understanding between the two blocs has vanished.

In light of Wednesday’s events, a pan-dem says the “valiant protesters” may need to be told to fine-tune their strategies to help sustain the chemistry with peaceful demonstrators.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 2

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.