Now is the time to get tough

Updated: 2016-02-23 08:56

By Ho Lok-Sang(HK Edition)

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Ho Lok-sang argues that in the wake of the Mong Kok riot, the authorities must make it very clear that violent protests will now be punished with the full force of the law

Since the riot in Mong Kok, many people have been calling for an independent study into the cause of the riot. If the terms of reference are set right, an independent study may indeed prove useful. For example, it has been pointed out that social media tools have increasingly been used by individuals and organizations to radicalize people for political and social change. Many young people enjoy the attention and approval of peer groups in social media achieved by saying outlandish things. The nature of social media means that well-reasoned discourses are unlikely to attract many "likes" - but bold, provocative, and even disturbing words will. Terrorist groups are known to be adept at using social media to recruit young people to their ranks. How important was social media as a contributing factor to the Mong Kok riot?

Unfortunately, from the discourses of those who ask the government to conduct an independent study into the cause of the riot, it seems that they are more interested in finding fault with the government than in finding what might avert such crises. A commentator wrote sympathetically about the rioters in Mong Kok: "No one is born an opponent of the government and violent. If one had the choice, who would want to put himself at risk and be labeled a rioter?" One could say the same thing of Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for the massacre in Norway in 2011: "No one is born a radical." Indeed, one could say the same thing about all criminals. No one is born a criminal. No one is born a murderer. No one is born a rapist. Where does this all end?

The worrying thing is that instead of condemning the violent acts, many opinion leaders express sympathy for them. Perhaps as a result of this, instead of moderating their language, more people are now using violent language. One netizen even said he would pay a reward of HK$10,000 for every policeman killed. A script in a recent independent movie read: "Hong Kong does not have democracy because no one has yet died (for the cause of democracy)." The cover of a weekly magazine carried the words: "Rebirth can only come with sacrifice." Legislator Priscilla Leung said those who say such things are being cruel to young people. She added that inciting them to violent acts was tantamount to condemning them to a life of hopelessness and hatred.

Professor Lui Tai-lok of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, in a recent commentary, noted that rather than asking "why" the riot was caused, the more pertinent question is "how should society respond". There are always violent and radical people in every society. Even supposedly peaceful and orderly Norway harbored a mass killer. Breivik killed 77 innocent people in the summer of 2011, justifying his killings by arguing he was trying to do good for his country. So we do not need a study on the cause of the Hong Kong riot. We need, instead, an unequivocal message to be given to the Hong Kong public that violent acts and language will not be tolerated. The message has to be loud and clear: There cannot be any justification for violent acts and language.

Grenville Cross, former director of public prosecutions, proposed to the secretary for justice that he might consider which type of courts the charges against suspected rioters would be heard in. Convictions in the High Court, District Court, or the Magistrates' Court would carry different maximum sentences. To achieve the necessary deterrence, a charge commensurate with the degree of potential damage caused and criminal intent should be made at an appropriate court. He noted that when a rioter continues to strike at a police officer after he has already fallen on the ground, he could be charged with attempted murder, a crime that could lead to a life sentence.

Of course handing out the necessary punishment to those who deserve it is not the only response Hong Kong needs. We also do need to address the concerns that worry our young people - upward social mobility, work opportunities, conservation, more equitable income distribution, greater support for cultural and artistic pursuits, affordable housing and so on. But everyone should understand there can be no quick fixes to any of these problems.

After the Mong Kok riot, there is a greater need for the authorities to monitor what is going on in Hong Kong's social media. There is an even greater need for all those concerned about Hong Kong's future to respect the law and follow standard rules and procedures. We need to avoid giving excuses to those who intend to cause trouble. Offenders need to be brought to justice. We hope police officers, judges and civil servants all bear this in mind. Teachers, in particular, should help their students understand that a better world can only be built with patience, wisdom, and respect for life. Only then can we guide our young people to a better life.

Now is the time to get tough

(HK Edition 02/23/2016 page9)