What happened to all those people whose objection to Occupy Central was not that they disputed its objectives but that it was illegal? This was a recurring theme in anti-Occupy diatribes. It became a compulsory adjective in government comments on the protest. It also featured prominently in the attacks on HKU Law profs who had supported — or not opposed — it. A visiting Martian might have supposed that many Hong Kong people decided their attitudes to protests on the basis of whether the protest was legal or not.

Pro-government protesters at a 2014 rally. File photo: Aaron Anfinson.

Or at least he might have thought this until last week, when protesting hospital doctors occupied part of a public hospital as part of a campaign for better pay. Suddenly there was a complete shut-down of those mysterious legal antenna which allowed so many commentators to detect that occupying Central in the pursuit of democracy was illegal. People who discerned illegal protests as a dangerous attack on the Rule of Law stopped reading newspapers. Certainly they stopped writing to them. The leader writing department at the People’s Post, which has to write every day, managed to support the doctors without giving a moment’s thought to their relationship to the Rule of Law.

Let me make it clear that I am not against the doctors. I was not against Occupy Central either. The right to protest is important, and it is not compatible with a pedantic application of colonial laws restricting public assemblies, or for that matter with a pedantic application of the Common Law rights of owners of places to which the public is admitted. The Hospital Authority operates on the same lamentable lines as the proprietors of many local media organisations. You take on freshly qualified youngsters who want to get in the business and serve the public. You subject them to long hours and low pay until they reach the age at which a person wishes to have a job compatible in its demands for time and money with raising a family. They then leave and you replace them with a fresh batch. Happily doctors are easier to organise than journalists and they seem to be making some progress. Good luck to them.

1,3000 doctors joined the sit-in protest on Wednesday. Photo: Resistance Live.

Meanwhile, though, we must note a certain lack of frankness in those commentators whose objection to Occupy was, they said, that it was illegal. It is in my experience almost invariably the case, actually, that people who condemn the method of a protest really disagree with its objectives. This is not just because of that instinct for coherence which leads us to assume that handsome people will also be bright, or that scruffy people will be bad at precision engineering. It is more than that. It is a way of avoiding an argument you think you will lose. Occupy was a protest against an electoral arrangement. The electoral arrangement was indefensible. But the protest was illegal, so it could be condemned anyway. The doctors’ protest was also illegal. But we agree with them, so it does not matter.

Protesters occupied Harcourt Road in Admiralty last year. Photo: Wikicommons.

It would be a good idea for people to develop a bit more self-awareness on this point. Legality is not an all-purpose external standard which can be applied effortlessly. Treating like cases alike when political passions are running high takes an effort. More effort than it is getting now, by the look of it. So we see a lady jailed (jailed!) for assaulting a policeman with her bosom, while a Superintendent who starred in a movie of him lashing out at protesters with a club is apparently not going to be prosecuted at all. And the law and order fan club takes a holiday while hospital doctors do what students are routinely condemned for.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.