If you do the crime, you do the time. It’s an American saying that means if you commit a crime you must accept the consequences. Many Americans and people around the world regard Edward Snowden as a hero and a patriot for exposing global cyber-spying by US national security agencies. But in the eyes of the law it doesn’t matter that he believed it was his patriotic duty to expose what he felt was moral wrongdoing by his country.
Under US law, it is a crime to steal and reveal national security secrets. That’s why despite great public pressure, Barack Obama refused to pardon Snowden during his final days as president. The US government had made it very clear from the start that Snowden would not be granted amnesty and needed to return to the US to face the consequences of his actions.
Hong Kong takes pride in its rule of law and independent judiciary. That’s why Snowden chose our city as a safe legal sanctuary. If we bend the law for political reasons we put ourselves on a slippery slope. We lower ourselves to the same level as authoritarian regimes that use the law to suit their political agendas.
Hong Kong’s opposition has always regarded our rule of law as a cornerstone of its fight for so-called true democracy. That’s why I was astounded by Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai’s suggestion that incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor should grant amnesty to all those involved in Occupy Central, including convicted participants and police officers. He argued it was the best way to heal our politically polarized society.
I hope Wu won’t mind me saying this but his proposal is preposterous. Granting amnesty to everyone involved in the 79-day protest would mean releasing all those the courts have already sent to jail. Doing something as unprecedented as that purely for political rather than legal reasons would be even more damaging to our rule of law than interpretations of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress, which the opposition insists is an attack on our independent judiciary.
What kind of message would it send to the world if we use mending political disharmony in society as a pretext to bend the law? What message would it send to over half of Hong Kong’s population which opposed the so-called umbrella movement? What message would it send to the judges who presided over Occupy Central cases? What message would it send to Hong Kong people who follow the law under all circumstances instead of breaking it to achieve a political cause?
Just imagine the global disbelief when TV images are flashed around the world of prisoners being released as a way to heal societal polarization. Such images would instantly undermine the international respect Hong Kong now enjoys as a city that regards the rule of law as a core value. Once a reputation is damaged in the eyes of the world, it is no easy task repairing it as United Airlines discovered recently when horrifying images of a bloodied passenger being dragged off a plane were flashed around the world.
If amnesty is granted to all those involved in Occupy Central, what’s to stop people involved in other protests to demand equal treatment? All those who participated in the Mong Kok riot can claim – with some justification – that the riot was an offshoot of Occupy Central and so they too are entitled to an amnesty. It can be argued that Occupy Central was different from the Mong Kok riot because one was a largely peaceful civil disobedience movement and the other was a violent protest. But this argument falls flat because Wu’s amnesty proposal covers even those who committed violent acts during Occupy Central.
Even Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chung-hang can demand reinstatement of their Legislative Council seats by arguing – also with some justification – that their abuse of their swearing-in as legislators was a protest to reflect the split in our society. Assuming Wu’s amnesty proposal includes expunging the criminal records of all those already convicted, leading Occupy Central participants such as Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, and Alex Chow Yong-kang, who have already been convicted, can demand their criminal records be wiped clean.
People who took part in pro-democracy protests before Occupy Central can also demand equal treatment with the argument that they too were fighting for democracy. Where will it end? Wu’s proposal is not only preposterous, it is a can of worms that once opened will make us slide down a slope of judicial confusion.
The split in our society is deep and bitter. But an amnesty for all those involved in Occupy Central will not heal it. Instead, it may even deepen the rift because it would anger all those who opposed the protest, as well as all other law-abiding citizens. What we need to heal the societal rift is a heavy dose of realpolitik, which is now sorely lacking in our politics.
Our society has been split along political lines for many years – some people even trace it back twenty years to the handover – but Occupy Central tore apart the society in a way that shocked the whole city. Realpolitik requires us to recognize that the central government has a bottom line on how much democracy it will allow Hong Kong.
This bottom line takes into account China’s national interests, its security interests, and its determination to demonstrate that it has sovereignty over Hong Kong, which gives it a say on what kind of political system we can have. The opposition’s bottom line on how it defines so-called true democracy clashes head on with the central government’s bottom line on how much democracy it will allow Hong Kong.
Unless and until we find a way to merge these two bottom lines, or find a new line in between these two bottom lines, a healing of our societal split is mission impossible. It’s pointless restarting the political reform process when our society is so split. But the society will remain split unless we find a reform framework that satisfies everyone. This is the dilemma we face. One side or another must move its bottom line.
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