Tommy Koh

“Violence will beget violence and not concessions”: Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, on Hong Kong protests

Certain pro-democracy protestors’ act of resorting to violent methods will only serve to “beget violence, and not concessions” from the Hong Kong government, said veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, in an op-ed published by The Straits Times on Tue (22 Oct).

Prof Koh, who is also a professor of law and chairman of the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore, observed that while many protestors remain “committed” to the original non-violent nature of the protests, the minority who have resorted to violent behaviour “has brought discredit to the protest movement”.

“The actions by some protesters to burn China’s flag, deface the portrait of its President and attack the premises of its office are totally unacceptable.

“Their actions to shut down the airport, attack the MTR and vandalise private property must be condemned,” said Prof Koh, adding that the violence has “also damaged the economy and Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe and efficient global city”.

Touching on China’s perspective, Prof Koh suggested that China “wants the people of Hong Kong to understand that it is part of China and subject to China’s sovereignty”.

“China will not tolerate any attempt to separate Hong Kong from China. China wants the people of Hong Kong to love China as well as Hong Kong. China will not allow Hong Kong to be used to subvert China,” he said, adding that the country “also feels that it has done so much to help Hong Kong, and Hong Kongers should be grateful and not hostile”.

Stating that Hong Kongers “enjoy the goodwill” of Singaporeans, Prof Koh stressed that Singaporeans “want Hong Kong to succeed” and for the current unrest “to be resolved peacefully”.

Hong Kong legal and political system set up to be democratic and independent since handover, protestors desire preservation of such a system: Professor Tommy Koh

The veteran diplomat, in his commentary, however, highlighted that to understand the Hong Kong protests, it is crucial to examine Hong Kong’s legal and political system, which has historically been set up to be democratic and – to a fairly large extent – independent from Beijing’s full, total control unlike most regions in China.

This is evident in the incorporation of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Hong Kong’s domestic law, as agreed upon by Beijing during a discussion with the British in 1984 on Hong Kong’s future.

It was also agreed that Hong Kong will be handed over to China in 1997, and will “enjoy autonomy for 50 years under the policy of “one country, two systems”, he illustrated.

As one of the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) under China, Hong Kong’s right to carry out the “one country, two systems” policy is guaranteed under Article 31 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

This right was solidified by the the National People’s Congress’ approval of the Hong Kong Basic Law – akin to a Constitution – in 1990 and its subsequent enforcement in 1997.

Thus, due to the high degree of autonomy that has been granted to the city, Hong Kongers pushed back against laws perceived as a threat to said autonomy.

Prof Koh cited several occasions of Hong Kongers voicing their objection against certain proposals or measures laid out by the city’s government prior to the recent protests, including:

  • A protest by 500,000 Hong Kongers against the Government’s proposal to enact a law against treason and subversive acts, resulting in then-Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa scrapping the proposal and subsequently resigning from his post in 2003;
  • Public objection the same year against second Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s proposal for the 2017 election of the Chief Executive and the 2020 Legislative Council elections to be based on “universal suffrage”. The proposal was denied due to public apprehension about a possible candidate screening process by Beijing;
  • Objection against the Hong Kong government’s proposal to implement a patriotic national education programme, which led to the withdrawal of the proposal; and
  • The student-led Umbrella Revolution in 2014 against the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on proposed electoral reforms. The Occupy Central movement, however, did not succeed in swaying the government.

Consequently, Prof Koh theorised that based on the people of Hong Kong’s history of rejecting potentially stifling laws, they seek to uphold and “preserve their identity as Hong Kongers and their way of life, including the freedom of speech and of peaceful assembly”.

“I think they want to have universal suffrage and the right to choose their leaders in free elections. They do not want China to have the right to screen the candidates for the post of Chief Executive,” said Prof Koh.

“They object to China sending agents to Hong Kong to kidnap people it does not like,” he added, in reference to the extradition Bill that sparked the protests, which has now been withdrawn by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

While expecting Mrs Lam to accept and fulfil all of their demands is “unreasonable”, Prof Koh however acknowledged that “the demand for an independent inquiry” is a reasonable one.

“I hope the Chief Executive will consider accepting this demand, which could break the current deadlock,” he said.

Scale of violence in Hong Kong protests troubling, “all acts of violence from all sides” condemned: UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, in a visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, has similarly expressed her condemnation against “all acts of violence from all sides” that have taken place during the Hong Kong protests.

She told reporters on 5 Oct that she was “troubled” and “alarmed” by the “high levels of violence associated with some demonstrations”, as well as the “injuries to police, protesters and journalists covering the demonstrations”.

Responding to a query by AFP on the face mask ban, Bachelet said: “We believe that any restriction must have a legitimate and formal basis in law, has to be proportionate.”

“Freedom of peaceful assembly… should be enjoyed without restriction to the greatest extent possible. But on the other hand, we cannot accept people who use masks to provoke violence,” she added.

The protests that swept across Hong Kong in over four months originally arose out of concerns over the scope of powers that will be granted upon certain jurisdictions Hong Kong decides to extradite crime suspects to – particularly mainland China – under the now-shelved extradition Bill, as certain factions remain sceptical of Beijing’s capacity to refrain from abusing the extradition arrangements.

However, the protests have since gained traction, and protestors began to enter their remaining four demands from Lam’s government, which are Lam’s resignation from her post as Chief Executive, an inquiry into police brutality during the protests, the release of those arrested during the course of the protests, and greater democratic freedoms.