As protests in Hong Kong continue, there are growing fears of a crackdown. But the use of force would not work as it would ruin people’s trust in good governance, human rights lawyer Basil Fernando tells DW.
Despite fear of an escalation, pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong remained peaceful on Wednesday, October 1, as China marked the 65th anniversary of the Communist Party’s foundation.
However, some students leading the protests warned the city’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that they would occupy important government buildings should he fail to resign by the end of Thursday. The students added that they would welcome an opportunity to speak to a central government official so long as it was not Leung.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to “steadfastly safeguard” Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability during his National Day speech, other Chinese officials denounced the HK’s pro-democracy movement as confrontational and illegal. But Basil Fernando, head of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) disagrees. The human rights lawyer argues in a DW interview that the spirit of the event should not be seen as a revolution, but rather as a democratic movement calling for change.
DW: How concerned are you about the unfolding situation in Hong Kong in terms of human rights?
Basil Fernando: From a human rights point of view, what is happening in Hong Kong is of huge significance. The demonstrators have shown their capacity to actively engage and make their voices heard in a peaceful and disciplined manner. This creates great hope for the future of democracy and human rights in the city.
Once you walk through the large crowds, as I did recently, you cannot help but notice that you are witnessing a new form of protest, where the participants act spontaneously and take part in the movement in a very leisurely and cheerful fashion. This is not a demonstration which is led on ideological grounds. The free spirit in which the people participate is quite visible.
The basic impression that one gets is that these people love their city, they are proud of what they have achieved in the recent past, and they want things to be even better through greater participation. The Hong Kong Bar Association has expressed its concern about the authorities’ excessive use of force which, in turn, has led to more people joining the demonstrations.
You are based in Hong Kong – how would you describe the general mood in the city?
There is a vast number of people, such as students and working people from all professions, including lawyers, academics and expatriates, who are actively supporting the demonstrations and participating in them. There are also others who may not agree with the protests, though there haven’t been many open expressions of opposition. The city dwellers are facing a situation that does not threaten them in any way.
Generally, there is a positive mood in the city, and this is the achievement of the organizers who have thus far ensured that no one has been hurt because of their actions.
For example, the demonstrators have organized themselves to collect garbage in the protest areas; thus, the city remains clean. Water, food and changes of clothes are provided, and medics are available. Special precautions have been taken to allow ambulances to move through crowds without any hindrance.
How polarized are Hong Kongers over this issue?
In general, there is a polarization within Hong Kong in terms of those who want to keep an undisturbed relation with the mainland government, and those who wish for greater political change to ensure that the freedoms of the Hong Kong people are enhanced and safeguarded.
There are concerns by some that the demonstrations will disturb the relationship with the Chinese central government. However, I believe that the highly disciplined manner in which the protests are being carried out may convince some of those who are more cautious that there is greater maturity regarding political demonstrations.
Some who are supportive of the demonstrations have tried to win over those taking a more cautious view by demonstrating that their own approach is moderate and peaceful. I will use the words of Wong Hung, an associate professor of social work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who said during an interview with the South China Morning Post that he was “concerned that media were labelling the events as a ‘revolution.'”
“I don’t think this should be called a revolution, it’s a democratic movement calling for change,” he told the Post. “The difference between a revolution and movement is the former wants to displace a government and has associations with violence. We don’t want to push away the government.
We are demanding change including free and fair elections. Even western models of democracy are not perfect. They don’t really understand the situation in Hong Kong.”
Have you heard of or witnessed any human rights violations so far?
There were some problems, particularly last Sunday, when tear gas and pepper spray were used against the protesters, and some images show police officers pointing guns at them. Some demonstrators were also arrested last week.
To what extent has your organization, the Asian Human Rights Commission, reached out to the Chinese authorities to prevent an escalation of the conflict?
We have pointed out that in a situation where there is such enthusiastic demand for greater participation in democratic life, repressive actions can only be counter-productive and harmful. We have members of the AHRC who have been participating in the demonstrations.
Given the Chinese government’s reputation, what are the chances of the authorities cracking down on Hong Kong protesters?
Hong Kong is not just another Chinese city. It is outside the mainland. Its history is completely different and its people have enjoyed a greater degree of freedom for a considerable time now.
The Chinese government is facing the problem of how to relate to an advanced modern city. Previous crackdowns, like the one in Tiananmen Square in 1989, took place under completely different circumstances. While the tendency of the more bureaucratic elements in the Chinese leadership is to think in terms of crackdowns, any such action would not bring the results they would expect in Hong Kong.
People in this technologically advanced city have experienced freedom and consider it precious.
What is most relevant to this issue is that Hong Kong has a functional public justice system, and that its governing institutions have been rational and accountable in recent decades. This is quite a contrast to the situation in the mainland. The lifeblood of this city are these public institutions which people have great confidence in.
If the Chinese government adopts a crackdown approach, this will result in the destruction of all these public institutions as well as the people’s trust in good governance. Moreover, the impact of a crackdown would be highly negative on the kind of place that Hong Kong is and its basic economy, which rests on the confidence of the business community.
Basil Fernando is head of the Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), which is also known as the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). He is one of the 2014 recipients of the “Right Livelihood Award” for his work on human rights in Asia.