SCMP Monday, October 2, 2000


A lesson for Beijing

National Day yesterday was a time for celebration as well as protest, in Beijing as in Hong Kong.
Beijing police no doubt expected members of the banned Falun Gong sect to show their might by surfacing in Tiananmen Square, with the international media there to cover the solemn flag-raising ceremony on the 51st anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Many Falun Gong members had masqueraded as tourists. At the agreed time, groups of them at various corners of the square simultaneously unfurled banners proclaiming their faith's legitimacy and chanted slogans protesting persecution by the authorities.
But the clumsy way in which public security officers coped with the outbursts suggested the scale of the protests, involving hundreds of members of the underground sect, had caught the authorities by surprise. It also showed the officers had failed to learn from their earlier encounters with the sect. For the umpteenth time, the Beijing police have used barbaric means to apprehend the protesters, who were kicked, punched and dragged. This can only strengthen China's image as a country ruled by a backward regime that uses the crudest methods to persecute practitioners of an unorthodox cult.
Contrast that with the orderly manner in which the sect's local followers were allowed to exercise at the Wan Chai waterfront, close to the venue of the SAR's flag-raising ceremony. Whatever evils the Falun Gong sect might have perpetrated in the mainland, as Beijing claims, local sect members are not known to have done anything that poses a danger to life and limb. Under "one country, two systems", the local demonstration was permitted and it took place peacefully.
The only rowdy scene in Wan Chai involved, once again, habitual protester "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung and members of the April 5th Action Group. As usual, they made several attempts to break police cordons and a brief scuffle broke out over the use of a loudhailer. By their acts, the protesters demonstrated their resolve to defy the authorities, represented by scores of uniformed policemen who showed their respect for free speech by handling them with restraint.
Protests and rallies were also mounted by a dozen other groups in the SAR yesterday, ranging from disgruntled buyers of mainland properties to herbalists complaining about the licensing scheme and students denouncing the arrests of their leaders for alleged violations committed in earlier demonstrations. They all went without a fuss, defying pessimists who feared the protests could boil over into mass unrest. If there is one thing the local protests could teach the authorities in Beijing, it is that a regime confident of itself needs not fear dissident voices. The way a regime handles activists and their protests is the best indicator of its level of confidence in itself and its respect for human rights.