South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Mathias Cheung says the movement has given hope for change, whether or not its demands are met
Many a Hongkonger wonders whether there is any point to the Occupy protests. Who are we to demand these changes? Just how is it going to “succeed”? These may seem like tough questions, but they have really been answered by the peaceful sit-ins over the past weeks.
Occupy has two dimensions – as a machinery for democracy, but more generally and no less importantly, as a beacon of hope. In that latter capacity, Occupy has already succeeded, and has transcended the specific calls for democracy.
This hope is grounded in sacrifice and renewed civic morality. No doubt the sceptics will latch on to the remote prospect of a change in Beijing policy. What they can never deny is the hope and respect that Occupy has inspired locally and especially abroad. If there is any effect on Hong Kong’s international reputation, it is most certainly positive – we are appreciated worldwide for staging a most peaceful and civil protest.
Hong Kong has been plagued by complacency and stoicism since the handover. Many Hongkongers emigrated around 1997 instead of staying and making a change. Because of this, many who remained became indifferent to political reform, and calls for democratic change are often seen as disruptive, meddlesome, counterproductive and naive.
In truth, it is not oppression or persecution, but this spirit of “hopelessness” that has cemented the status quo of inequality and injustice. We were victims of the tyranny of complacency long before we started suffering from the tyranny of the state.
We have lived in a kind of moral inertia, not realising that each citizen has a basic duty of civic morality – our indifference renders us responsible for the plight of the underprivileged and the manifest inequality in our political system.
Many doubt there is any such duty to act. Indeed, it is often said that we should just be grateful for the rights we already have. Yet, as the Chinese reformist Liang Qichao wrote: ” Not a single right in this world could be acquired without blood and sweat.” We have a civic duty precisely because each and every freedom we enjoy is owed to all the reformers of the world.
Our rights and freedom in conducting our everyday life were won with the blood and sweat of those who refused to be indifferent. Now, we owe it to these forerunners, and above all to one another, to take up the duty of reform in our generation.
Occupy has made its contribution. It has awakened the sense of civic duty in many, and inspired us to eradicate the great obstacle of indifference. It surmounted what we once thought was insurmountable. Its message to all of us Hongkongers and the world is that hope comes not from outside, but from within. We do not act because we have hope, but we have hope because we act. This hope is the arch-enemy of any oppression. It is our best safeguard.
That is not to say change will come overnight. The road to democracy is long and the gateway narrow. Occupy has made the first step. We must now finish the race. To prevail, we need persistence, patience and, most of all, composure.
Everyone is naturally frustrated with the situation, angered by the police’s disproportionate use of force, and challenged by those who are hostile to Occupy. But we refuse to be incited, because we know that to use violence is to turn into those we oppose. The government resorted to force out of fear, and Occupy shall keep its peace out of fearlessness.
Nevertheless, keeping the peace does not preclude rational criticism of the government and the police. While we understand the moral dilemma faced by officers, one must not downplay the fact that the use of force was manifestly disproportionate and unlawful under international law.
Obedience to orders does not create a moral vacuum for each officer’s conduct. The formal role of each officer is embodied within the overarching moral role of protecting citizens from harm.
For this reason, the UN’s “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials” state that “obedience to superior orders shall be no defence”. Each must decide whether to obey based on the law and his or her conscience.
In the end, however, criticism ought to be directed at the government, whose lack of moral standing gave rise to the situation. It is liable for imposing such an onerous moral burden on the police. In so doing and in ignoring public opinion, the government has lost legitimacy irrevocably.
Occupy has left its indelible legacy – by exposing systemic depravity, and by instilling hope of sacrifice and change. For those of us who are currently overseas, we are abroad but not aloof. At this crucial hour, we embrace the hope sowed by Occupy, knowing that hope comes from our willingness to stand out.
My sentiments now are captured by Benjamin Disraeli’s words: “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”
Mathias Cheung is a research assistant and bachelor of civil law graduate at the University of Oxford