19 January 2019
Wu Chi-wai has faced flak from various quarters after suggesting that all those convicted or awaiting trial in Occupy-related offenses be pardoned. Photo: RTHK
Wu Chi-wai has faced flak from various quarters after suggesting that all those convicted or awaiting trial in Occupy-related offenses be pardoned. Photo: RTHK

Why the Occupy universal pardon idea was a non-starter

It’s no surprise that Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai has drawn widespread criticism and ridicule for offering an unsolicited suggestion to chief executive-elect Carrie Lam.

In an interview published in a Chinese-language newspaper on Tuesday, Wu suggested that Hong Kong’s incoming leader should consider pardoning all those convicted or awaiting trial for offenses related to the 2014 Occupy Central protests.

Pardoning the civil disobedience activists as well as seven policemen who were jailed for committing excesses during law enforcement operations during that period can heal the divisions in society and help restore trust between the government and the public, Wu told Ming Pao Daily News.

Meanwhile, the government can form a special committee to look into the reasons behind the 2014 mass protests, Wu added.

But in less than 24 hours after the interview was published, Wu retracted his comments and offered an apology, saying the issue had not been thought out properly.

The U-turn came as the universal pardon idea attracted a storm of criticism from all sides, including the pro-Beijing camp as well as Wu’s own comrades from the opposition.

In the interview, Wu suggested that Lam can exercise powers under Article 48 of the Basic Law to pardon those in the dock over Occupy incidents, saying the move can bring reconciliation in society.

Asked to respond to Wu’s suggestion, Lam’s office said it was inappropriate for her to comment on ongoing legal cases.

From Lam’s perspective, universal pardon is a no-go unless Beijing changes its stance on the Occupy campaign, which came after mainland authorities nixed electoral reforms in relation to Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive contest.

Beijing keeps insisting to this day that the street protests were illegal and that the key people behind the movement must be brought to book.

According to some pro-Beijing observers, China has set three conditions for any discussion with Hong Kong’s opposition camp, namely acknowledgment of Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, recognizing a National People’s Congress decision made on Aug. 31, 2014 in relation to the Hong Kong CE election framework, and lastly, admitting that Occupy was an illegal event.

Against this backdrop, Wu’s universal pardon suggestion was a non-starter.

With some Occupy activists already sent to jail and some others awaiting trial, legal amnesty for political reasons will also raise worries about the sanctity of rule of law in Hong Kong.  

Bending the rules and granting universal pardon will amount to mockery of the local justice system, a fact that even many opposition members acknowledge.

Some activists, meanwhile, have bristled at Wu’s suggestion that Occupy leaders and the policemen who were jailed for beating up a pro-democracy protester in 2014 be put in the same league and pardoned together.

Facing a series of questions from the public as well as his own party members, Wu has walked back his idea of universal pardon.

He said that it was just his personal idea, and that he had merely sought a solution to heal the wounds in society and bring about a more harmonious political environment.

But the argument failed to convince even those who would like to see authorities be more tolerant of democracy activists. 

Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung is among those who poured cold water on Wu’s suggestion, after initially seeming to back the amnesty idea.

To achieve reconciliation, the right way forward is for the government to restart political reform consultations without any preconditions, he said.

Demosisto also opposed the proposal, saying it would shake the foundation of the pro-democracy movement. 

Following the latest developments, Beijing and its loyalists in Hong Kong may be feeling happy in one way.

Wu’s comments and the ensuing debate could deepen divisions in the already fragmented pan-democratic camp. That could help pro-Beijing groups gain support from the so-called silent majority in Hong Kong.

As most people are interested in preserving the sanctity of rule of law and the justice system, any move that can undermine established procedures will cause unease.

Even those who sympathize with democracy activists and favor reforms don’t want rules bent to achieve a political purpose. 

Now, we come to this question: what prompted Wu to go public with his suggestion, before walking back the comments?

According to some critics, democrats had been working on a similar proposal early this year, especially after police groups held a meeting to show their support to seven officers who were jailed for attacking democracy activist Ken Tsang during an Occupy event in October 2014.

The jail terms for the policemen triggered intense debate in society, with opinion split as to whether the punishment was justified.

Some veteran democrats felt the court judgment would only widen the rifts within the community, prompting them to think about some remedial action.

Wu’s suggestion of a pardon for the jailed activists as well as policemen came against this backdrop.

But what he perhaps didn’t imagine is that his idea would be met with scorn even from those whom he had sought to help. 

Occupy leaders had known very well that they might face legal risks, and were prepared to suffer the consequences of their actions. 

They want their cause to be recognized as just, lending validity to their efforts, rather than being handed a show of compassion by authorities.

In any case, how can those fighting for democracy and the policemen who broke the law be put on a par when it comes to legal amnesty?   

Given such feelings and criticism from almost all quarters, is it any wonder that Wu had to beat a hasty retreat?  

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EJ Insight writer

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