Our police commissioner has no sense of irony. Remember the long-running struggle, during the 2019 disturbances, to persuade the police to obey the law which requires them to display an identifying number when on duty in uniform?

Numbers are, however, now compulsory – not for police, but for demonstrators.

Hong Kong Police
Hong Kong police emblem. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

This emerged on Monday, following a weekend micro-march by residents of part of Tseung Kwan O. This was hailed in the media as the first “political” march since Covid, but it wasn’t very political.

The marchers were voicing their opposition to a government plan to put a reclamation project in front of their homes, including a cement plant and other items of the kind which we all know are necessary and we all hope will not be put in our front gardens.

The required “letter of no objection” was issued by the Commissioner of Police. It came with a long list of conditions. Numbers were capped at 100, which we may suppose was in the region of the organiser’s predictions, as 80 people – in fact – turned up. Reports differed on whether they were actually outnumbered by the police people present, so I suppose it was at least close.

protest restrictions
A group of residents hold the first authorised protest and march in several years in Hong Kong against the proposal for reclamation in the district on Tseung Kwan O on March 26, 2023. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP.

There was no room for the usual disputes over how many people marched, because they were all required to wear a numbered tag. Marshals were also required to march carrying a big circle of what netizens tend to call “crime scene tape”. This circle designated a “protest zone” which moved along as the march progressed.

After the march started, nobody was allowed into the zone – tough if you were late – which also excluded reporters. If the tape drooped marchers were instructed to pick it up.

All posters, banners and website material were vetted in advance by police. Marchers were forbidden to wear black clothes, or yellow raincoats. Shouted slogans should not include matter violating the law or endangering national security. Face masks could be worn only by marchers who could produce a medical certificate.

The number plates seem to have been regarded as particularly controversial. AFP quoted a retired civil servant as saying that “I am here to join a march, not a shame parade.” Another protester described the restrictions as “ridiculous”.

The organiser said the arrangements were “strict”, but “better than being banned from expressing our views.” He did not say whether he had, like other recent organisers, been warned that if any condition was breached the letter of no objection would be summarily and instantaneously cancelled, and the whole event would become an unlawful assembly.

Also currently customary is a warning to organisers that they may be criminally liable if anyone breaks the law during their event. This is legally implausible.

John Lee
Chief Executive John Lee meets the press on February 28, 2023, when the Hong Kong government announces to axe the Covid-19 mask mandate after more than 2.5 years since the curb was imposed. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

So to Tuesday, when Chief Executive John Lee was asked if the number plate requirement for demonstrations was now a permanent feature. Demonstrations, he said, must be conducted “orderly, peacefully and in accordance with the law”. (Note from our grammar pedantry department: “orderly” is not an adverb).

The Commissioner of Police, he continued, had a duty to ensure that such events were held in an “orderly, safe and lawful manner”. (Grammar pedant: Yes!).

This is no doubt true. But it does not exhaust the police chief’s obligations in this area. Also on Tuesday Mary Ma – the pseudonym passed round the Standard’s office to whoever is writing the editorial of the day – pointed out that the obligations of the police chief in matters of this kind had been extensively explored by the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) in a 2005 case: Leung Kwok-hung and others v HKSAR.

The top court said that the right to demonstrate was a fundamental right, and one of those which lay at the foundations of a democratic society. Like freedom of expression, it could be curtailed for a number of important purposes, which included public order.

Protesters outside China Concrete Company's plant in Yau Tong on February 4, 2023.
Protesters outside China Concrete Company’s plant in Yau Tong on February 4, 2023. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

However any restrictions imposed should, the court said, be “necessary in a democratic society” and “proportionate” to the danger being averted.

Ms Ma carefully avoided expressing an opinion on whether the restrictions imposed on Sunday’s event were proportionate. Marathon runners did not mind wearing numbers, she pointed out whimsically, but prison inmates no doubt did. She forbore from mentioning that police people also seem to be rather reluctant.

Mr Lee sounds as if he is working on the basis that the 2019 disorders were the result of lawbreakers turning up at peaceful demonstrations and turning them into something else, which is not the way everyone remembers that bit of history. But surely this tiny minority of troublemakers has been much depleted by jailings and emigration?

I suppose the police could argue that the top court’s views on the matter are now out of date, since Hong Kong no longer aspires to be a “democratic society”. We have elections designed by people who don’t like elections, why not also have demonstrations regulated by people who don’t like demonstrations? That, in fact, seems to be what we’ve got.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Tim Hamlett

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.