By Joshua Lok

There is an evident chasm between the “freedom” Chief Executive Carrie Lam seems to believe Hongkongers enjoy and the “freedom” spray-painted on walls lining the streets, as part of now-familiar protest slogans such as “Give me freedom, or give me death.”

Last Tuesday, embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam expressed her indignation toward the United States after President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law. Lam labelled the Act “completely unnecessary” and said that “Hong Kong’s human rights and freedom are protected by the Basic Law.”

Photo: Chau Ho Man and Tam Ming Keung/USP United Social Press.

“In fact, I want to ask which aspect of Hong Kong residents’ freedom was eroded? We have press freedom, we have the freedom to participate in rallies and marches. We have religious freedom. We have a high degree of freedom in many aspects.” Lam continued.

On paper, she isn’t wrong – Article 27 clearly states more or less verbatim that: “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike.”

So if Lam’s statement does hold true, then:

  1. Hongkongers are unaware that they already possess the right to exercise such freedoms and any protests aiming to achieve freedom are an exercise in futility.
  2. They are simultaneously free and unfree – much in the spirit of Schrodinger’s Cat.
  3. Lam and the protesters have different conceptions of freedom.

While freedom can be a nuanced concept, the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin coined a distinction between “negative” and “positive” freedom, with the latter emphasising self-mastery and self-realisation, even soliciting a degree of state intervention to create conditions for individuals to flourish.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin wears a Chinese President Xi Jinping mask in the Chamber of the Legislative Council Complex during Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s 2019 Policy Address on October 16. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Here is the all-too-familiar narrative: facing grim job prospects that are only set to worsen, a property market inflated by mainland developers, stagnating wages and the failure of the government’s Home Ownership Scheme, getting on the property ladder remains a pipe dream for young Hongkongers, so they look abroad for greener pastures. Positive freedom is absent.

On the other hand, negative freedom is typically focused on external constraints and drawing a line between the role of the state and individual autonomy.

Unfortunately, there have been numerous cases of encroachment upon individual freedoms on the part of the government. This has been achieved through formal legislation, a climate of terror perpetuated by Hong Kong’s Police and thugs who are free to unleash violence on the general public with impunity, as well as a de facto curfew imposed by the MTR.

Free speech isn’t so free, with cases of average Hong Kong citizens being harangued and arrested even for verbal criticism of the police and playing the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong.”

Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

Frontline reporters have been subject to mistreatment, verbal abuse and arbitrary detention on the one hand, and grievous bodily harm on the other, as the police resort to indiscriminate and heavy-handed methods to clear the streets.

Much less needs to be said about “freedom of assembly,” with even Letters of No Objection left to subsequent re-interpretation by the police. Recent examples include how the “Don’t Forget Our Original Intentions” protest in Tsim Tsa Tsui on December 1 was disrupted by teargas within an hour, while black flags were raised even before the Civil Human Rights Front march from Victoria Park to Central was scheduled to begin this past Sunday.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. After all, police have shown a flagrant disregard for rules and protocol over the past six months, relegating the Police General Orders to little more than an advisory. Any contraventions on the part of individual officers have been only too happily glossed over, excused or justified by higher-ups, lending a twisted sense of legitimacy to their actions.

Even freedom of religion was under threat when a trigger-happy officer decided to take artistic liberties by dyeing the gates of the Kowloon Mosque a lively shade of blue, even in the absence of protesters.

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Since there can be no question that de facto freedoms have been infringed upon, surely this cannot be what Lam means. What about de jure freedoms?

Although the object of ire has now shifted towards documented accounts of police atrocities, the original cause of the protests was the proposed extradition bill in April, which would have enabled the transfer of fugitives to mainland China. This piece of legislation would have undermined the Hong Kong judicial system and exposed Hongkongers to the provisions of Chinese law, coercing the Special Administrative Region into surrendering persons wanted by Beijing on a case-by-case basis.

Intended as an ostensible deterrent to facilitate police operations, the anti-mask law (now officially overruled by the High Court) sought not only to impose regulations on how Hongkongers choose to dress but also stripped away a protective measure against the ill-effects of air pollution, exempting only religious headwear, those with certifiable medical conditions and the Hong Kong Police. Where there should have been dialogue and de-escalation, instead there was an attempt at further erosion of freedoms.

Photo: Jimmy Lam, Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

What exactly then is the brand of freedom that protesters have risked life and limb for over the past six months? For one thing, they believe in the fundamental notion that freedoms which impinge on that of others must be curtailed only in accordance with a legal framework and judicial system.

Specifically, this system must be blind to favouritism and intolerant of disproportionate punishment for a functioning and fair society. In short, freedom should be underpinned by the rule of law to which everyone is held accountable.

Additionally, protesters believe that freedom should be safeguarded and advanced by a government that is attentive to the will of the people and meets grievances with diplomatic tact, instead of deploying police as a blunt instrument of state oppression against the very people they are meant to protect and serve.

Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

For as long as Hongkongers face expedited prosecution, illegal detention, deprivation of human rights and miscarriages of justice as the police are given free rein to act as judge, jury and executioner, the fight for freedom will rage on.

Hence, Lam’s statement speaks to either a gross misrepresentation of the truth in an attempt to peddle an alternative official narrative and placate Beijing; to delusion and being woefully out of touch with events, or simply a case of wilful ignorance.

Should the Chief Executive maintain that Hongkongers are free, it is clear that not only is her comment borne out of a different conception of freedom to the protesters’, but she also holds a pitifully myopic view of what it should mean.

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