SCMP Friday, December 8, 2000


Room for change

Regardless of what the authorities say, here or in Beijing, about the Public Order Ordinance, one fact overrides all others. People have been ignoring the law in droves since the handover. The signs are that they will go on doing so, unless they are all taken to court and punished accordingly.
It would, however, be difficult to jail all protesters who fail to notify the police in advance. The Government is going to waste a great deal of time and energy - and more of its credibility - if it is prepared for endless reruns of the unedifying student debacle of the summer that ended with the decision not to charge those arrested.
The issues are the duration of the notification period, whether failing to notify should be a criminal offence, and whether the police should be allowed to prohibit an assembly on the grounds of public order or the protection of the rights and freedoms of other people.
If hundreds of protesters are going to roam the streets, it seems reasonable that the police should be given more time to mobilise manpower to maintain order. But if only a few dozen are involved, then a seven-day notice period appears too long. In any case, there is no justification to haul somebody to court simply for failing to notify police, when a fine would do. While police have the responsibility to keep peace and protect life and property, there must also be safeguards to ensure they do not invoke such excuses lightly to suppress a rally.
Demonstrations go on in Hong Kong on a weekly basis, in almost every case without the slightest problem. Protesters march, shout slogans, brandish banners, or sit down silently, then go home when they have made their point. Were they not to do so - if, for example, they suddenly decided to run riot or throw stones through windows - there are laws a-plenty under which they can be charged.
It was the unpopular provisional legislature which reinstated the old pre-1995 colonial version of the ordinance. It may be that the part of the ordinance disproved by the National People's Congress cannot be re-instated - a point open to dispute as the NPC Standing Committee had made no decision on the issue.
But even though the NPC may have final say on SAR laws held to be in breach of the Basic Law, there is still room for amending the ordinance to make it more liberal. The mini-constitution incorporates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a very flexible document designed to allow the signatory countries to write their laws in accordance with their social conditions. For the SAR, the argument is not so much about whether the existing ordinance is consistent with the covenant, as it is about whether the ordinance is too draconian for this stable society.