Sad really. After getting unscathed through months of legal manoeuvring on the basis that the trial of the Occupy nine was an entirely legal matter, District Judge Johnny Chan found a political puddle in the sentencing process and jumped in it with both feet.

I refer to the intriguing passage in which the learned judge lamented that the defendants had shown no regret, had not apologised to the people of Hong Kong for the inconvenience and suffering caused by their actions, and consequently deserved immediate custodial sentences.

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Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man. Photo: In-Media.

He preceded these remarks with the comment that he was not asking the defendants to change their political views, but that is exactly what he was doing.

As Philip Bowring has pointed out here the idea that Occupy caused a great deal of inconvenience, let alone suffering, is grossly exaggerated. It has, however, become a partisan political point among the pro-Beijing press of late.

Actually, at the time I recall frantic, and vain, efforts being made to drum up some signs of people being seriously inconvenienced. Those efforts gradually subsided as they were hardly consistent with the government’s actions: weeks, and then months, went by without any attempt either to clear the protesters off the streets, or to address the grievances which had put them there.

But the judge really went off the rails with this idea of a missing apology. This is an entirely appropriate requirement in your ordinary everyday crime involving things of value being stolen or damaged.

If you steal a million dollars from me I am left poorer. I get nothing from the arrangement except the dubious pleasure of reporting my loss to the police. If, by the time they have caught up with you, the money has been expended on fast women and slow horses, I do not get it back.

Johnny Chan
Johnny Chan. File

Under these circumstances, an apology is entirely appropriate and may be accepted by the court as indicating that you accept that what you did was wrong. A somewhat shorter sentence may ensue.

Political offences are rather different. All political activity involves some inconvenience to the non-political parts of society. Battle buses take up road space, booths block pavements, loudspeakers inflict your oratory on reluctant passers-by, marching crowds slow the buses and my local minibuses are visually polluted by advertisements for the DAB.

The political activist, whatever his colour, supposes that these small sacrifices which he imposes in strangers are justified because his actions are for their benefit.

Consider the case of Dr. John Snow, who during a cholera epidemic in London in 1854 had the then revolutionary idea of drawing a map with the locations of the cases on it, to see if that told him anything about the origins of the disease, then a mystery.

The centre of the epidemic, it appeared, was a public well in Soho. Dr. Snow then persuaded the local council to remove the handle from the pump on that particular well, and the epidemic subsided.

This did actually inconvenience the residents of Soho, who had to go further to get their water. But they did not, I suppose, complain about this because it was nice not to get cholera. A public facility was disabled, but it was worth it.

The leaders of Occupy, so far as it had leaders, were not motivated by personal gain or the desire to cause inconvenience for its own sake. They supposed that it was for the greater good of all that Hong Kong should be encouraged to migrate from the foggy bottom of colonialism with Chinese characteristics to the sunny uplands of democracy and genuine autonomy.

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File photo: Flickr.

I am sure they still believe this. And until they change that belief asking them to apologise does not really make sense.

You may, of course, say that suffering a cholera epidemic is much worse than having your Chief Executive chosen by Beijing, although looking at what recent choices have done to our health service that could be disputed.

You may, on the other hand, say that judicial enthusiasm for apologies to the general public is misplaced because judges are not great apologisers themselves. People appear in court, get jailed, appeal and appeal again, and sometimes establish that the original judge, or the Court of Appeal, has made a mistake.

By this time the hapless defendant has spent many months in prison to which, we now learn, he should not have been sentenced. Does he get an apology?

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

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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.