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Effective deterrence requires timely justice

By Daniel de Blocq van Scheltinga | China Daily Asia | Updated: 2020-12-14 10:50
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Photo taken on Aug 5, 2019 shows China's national flag and the flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on the Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong, China. [Photo/Xinhua]

"If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us." Renowned English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon may have said this in the 15th century, but it pretty much sums up our misguided radical young activists' violent opposition against what they deemed to be an "authoritarian regime".

The wheels of justice turn slowly, sometimes much too slowly. Clearly it is important that a case against a defendant is prepared as meticulously as possible, and that in turn defendants and their lawyers have enough time to prepare their defence. This is fundamental in maintaining a robust judicial system. But on the other hand, for laws to have real deterrence, they must not only be seen to be applied in an objective and equal manner but also in a timely manner. Sentencing for acts that have occurred 18 months ago or more is sometimes difficult to explain to the public who will have forgotten the events leading up to the arrest. The press will then focus on the actual sentencing rather than the underlying case — the crimes committed and their impact on society and the victims, as these are no longer newsworthy. The legal maxim "Justice delayed is justice denied" comes to mind. In 1671, upon becoming Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon also stated: "Swift justice is the sweetest".

The young recidivist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who through very savvy and extremely well-organized marketing and global media exposure by his sponsors, has become the so-called "poster-boy of the Hong Kong democracy movement", is once again sentenced to prison. This is the third time for the young man to be imprisoned, this time for organizing and inciting the blockade of the police headquarters in June 2019. These events in June 2019 happened only one week after Wong was released from a short two-month prison sentence related to his activities in another violent protest. Disappointingly the earlier short prison sentences apparently had not served their purpose as a lesson or deterrence. On June 21, 2019, protesters blocked roads in Admiralty and besieged the police headquarters for more than 15 hours, assaulting several police officers, and vandalizing the exterior of the compound. The siege effectively made it impossible for the police to exit to answer any emergency calls, thereby endangering the general public. Wong pleaded guilty to the charges of organizing and inciting others to take part in the illegal assembly, and therefore was sentenced to 13.5 months in prison. Despite Wong being a recidivist, the sentence received was much lighter than the maximum permitted by the law.

Whether the persistent rumors of Wong being linked to the CIA are true or not, for someone with his poor spoken English language skills and rather mediocre education, his rise to fame has been nothing short of remarkable. He has somehow managed to have many articles written in articulate English and published under his name in leading global newspapers and has even found the time to write a book. All this while also completing his bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from the Open University of Hong Kong. According to the documentary produced by the American media company Netflix, which follows the beginnings of Wong's political advocacy (and intriguingly includes him being filmed from a very young age, as if it was all being prepared for a later global media blitz), his desire for activism came from within, and everything is self-taught. It is therefore even more amazing that this unassuming youngster later managed to arrange meetings in the United States with the most senior US government officials.

However, what is known is that Wong and his associates attended the Oslo Freedom Forum in the past, which notwithstanding its name is an American organized series of conferences designed to teach activists how to topple governments. How this young student could afford to travel around the globe and attend prestigious forums without any obvious source of income is unclear. What is clear is that many of the guerrilla tactics used during the "Occupy Central" protests, and most notably during the more violent and dangerous confrontations with police last year, were learned from other anti-establishment radical protesters also attending these forums, such as the Al-Qaeda affiliated White Helmets.

The serious issue here is that Joshua Wong and his associates have been influenced to believe that all means are permitted to achieve one's aims which are often sugar-coated by their sponsors and mentors as the youth's valiant struggle against an "oppressive regime". Hopefully, they will now realize that the ends do not justify the means especially as they ponder their circumstance while their supporters remained scot-free. Real change always comes from within, and not from outside pressure. Violence is never the answer. If these youngsters honestly believe that certain aspects of government or legislation need to change, then they need to take the political process very seriously. They must end the links with their sponsors who are merely using them for their own political objectives and enter the political process themselves in a peaceful and proper manner. If any of them take up office in government or the Legislative Council, this of course includes the prerequisite of swearing both allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR and to uphold the Basic Law. This, therefore, includes the unequivocal recognition that Hong Kong "is an inalienable part" of China.

For Wong and others like him, this will not be possible due to their prison sentences and past actions against the integrity of Hong Kong and its place within China. Hopefully, he will use his prison time wisely and read the works of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela who both eschewed violent protests.

The latest prison sentences for Joshua Wong and his accomplices do prove to all that indeed no one is above the law. Having become a globally recognized person, having given many interviews to foreign media, having thousands of Twitter followers globally, all of this does not give you any degree of immunity. Luckily, Hong Kong is a place where everyone is equal before the law. If, however, the wheels of justice were able to turn a little faster, then the deterrent effect would in all likelihood be much greater, preventing our youth from damaging their future prospects under the misguided belief that they are sacrificing for a higher cause.

The author is a specialist in International Public Law, an adviser on China-related matters to both the private and public sectors. He has lived in Hong Kong for over 18 years and is passionate about promoting the place which he now calls home.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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