This one came up last month. A lady called Sze Chu-ming appealed against her conviction by a magistrate for assault. The appeal succeeded.

So far so routine. As is customary these days the proceedings had taken a long time. The alleged offence took place in 2015. Justice delayed is justice denied. Don’t hold your breath.

themis rule of law Old Supreme Court
File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Now some odd things about this one. The alleged victim, one Cheung Lai-ching, is a member of a mysterious organisation called the Hong Kong Youth Care Association. This association does not seem to spend a great deal of time on youth, or indeed on care.

Its main activity is to set up banners and loudspeakers in selected spots to disrupt efforts by members and supporters of the Falun Gong to put their views before the public. The association was established in 2012, apparently for this specific purpose.

Readers in distant countries may need to be reminded that the Falun Gong is a therapeutic meditation practice which is banned in China. Falun Gong supporters claim that those of its members who are still in China are abused by the authorities. This is plausible, in the light of the way the authorities treat other people they disapprove of.

It is and has always been legal in Hong Kong, without giving rise to any harm or complaints, so claims that the Falun Gong is an “evil cult” appear without foundation.

Visitors to Hong Kong will from time to time be greeted in busy areas by displays and playlets illustrating the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. Nearby, indeed as close as possible, they will often also find the Youth Care Association people displaying hostile banners and trying to make so much noise that nobody can hear anything.

Falun Gong Hong Kong Youth Care Association
Hong Kong Youth Care Association banners. File photo: Clear Sky C via Wikimedia Commons.

On some occasions, the resulting situation gets tense. This has happened before. A few years ago there was a major row about a schoolteacher who was filmed scolding the police in fruity terms for protecting the Youth Carers from indignant passers-by who wanted them to shut up.

However the case of the SAR v Sze shone a new light on this ongoing public order problem.

Ms Cheung, the alleged victim, had featured, the court was told, in 92 police reports in the last three years. In 38 of those cases Ms Cheung was the person who called the police. Records of most of the cases had been destroyed, presumably because they did not come to anything. Of the six survivors, five were complaints against Falun Gong members alleging nuisance, street obstruction and criminal damage.

The judge also noted that in previous trials his brother judges has found Ms Cheung an “unreliable witness” motivated by hostility to the Falun Gong. “Unreliable witness” is the courteous legal term for “liar”.

So justice was served in the end. I am left, though, with a lot of questions. The first one, of course, is how did all this get past the original magistrate. Maybe some of the points raised on appeal were not put before him, but still. The judge hearing the appeal found that the evidence was insufficient.

It used to be said that it was better 100 guilty people should go free than one innocent person should be convicted. This quote is not much honoured in local magistrates’ courts, I fear.

Falun Gong liu xiaobo democracy july protest rally wanchai wan chai
Falun Gong. File photo: Dan Garrett.

One also wonders what was going through the mind of the person who decided this prosecution should go ahead. The alleged injury was trivial, the evidence was flaky, and the situation was one of those public confrontations which often end in huffing, puffing and jostling. I take it from the mass disappearance of Ms Cheung’s police records that most of her complaints came to nothing. Why was this one singled out?

Then there is the matter of Ms Cheung’s enthusiasm for the emergency services. I think there should be some way of discouraging people from engaging in provocative behaviour and then calling the police with spurious complaints as a way of giving their adversaries a hard time. Wasting police time is an offence and some people would regard 38 calls to the 999 desk in three years as a good example of it.

Last month, we saw protests summarily banned on the grounds that they might provoke a violent response from bystanders. Are we perhaps encouraging violent bystanders too much, and doing to little to protect non-violent speakers?

Or are we now enjoying freedom of speech with Chinese characteristics?

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.