South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Cliff Buddle says an unexpected attack brought home the importance of two of Hong Kong’s great assets that we sometimes take for granted – its safety and adherence to the rule of law
A month ago today, I was attacked while delivering a law lecture at the University of Hong Kong. The nature of the attack, committed without warning by a mainland tourist who objected to my use of English in class, caused concern.
Many people were shocked that this could happen in Hong Kong. At that time, the Occupy protests were entering their second week and there had been violent clashes with opponents. There was much anxiety about political violence and a potential breakdown of law and order.
Now that the case is over and my assailant, Liu Lu, 26, from Anhui, has been sentenced, I can reflect on what happened and try to make some sense of it.
One of the many pleasures of life in Hong Kong, I have always thought, is that it is a safe city. When I lived in London, my hometown, I was robbed at knifepoint, burgled three times in a week, and head-butted by a rival fan at a football match. You had to watch your belongings in public places and be on your guard when out late at night. There was also the constant threat of terrorism.
It has felt like a luxury for the 20 years I have been in Hong Kong to be relatively free of such concerns. The only time I have been approached by a group of youths late at night was when they wanted to hand back a HK$50 note I had dropped.
This peaceful existence was suddenly shattered on October 6 and in the most unexpected of circumstances. I was giving a lecture on media law and ethics at the university’s journalism centre, where I am an honorary lecturer. Towards the end of the class, I saw a young man I didn’t recognise get up from his seat and walk towards the front of the lecture theatre.
As he approached me, I stopped talking about the law and turned towards him, thinking he wanted to ask me a question. Suddenly, he struck me several times with a folder and kicked me. I backed away, shouting: “What are you doing?”
Thankfully, he did not pursue the attack further. He tried to leave, but my students courageously prevented him from doing so. I was left with some pain in a hand and my chest, but no serious injuries. I was, however, deeply shocked by the attack and upset that my class had to witness this.
There has been much speculation about the motives behind the attack. It is very rare for a university lecturer to be assaulted in Hong Kong and this happened at a sensitive time. Four days before the assault, an article in which I expressed the view that Hong Kong people deserve democracy was published in this newspaper. Some have suggested this may have been a reason why I was attacked.
But there is no evidence that this was anything other than a rogue would-be student who objected to a Westerner teaching in English. Having attended the court proceedings, that is how I see it.
After the attack, while waiting for the police to arrive, Liu complained that 17 years after the handover, lectures should be conducted in Putonghua. He was reported to have told police he saw nothing wrong with hitting a foreign teacher.
It seems Liu came to Hong Kong as a visitor about a week before the attack and slept rough on campus. He had no money.
There are questions which remain unanswered. What was he doing at the university? Why did he choose to attend my lecture? A class on the law relating to contempt of court seems an odd one to pick. Why did he wait until almost the end of the lecture before attacking me? Perhaps he became increasingly frustrated at my use of English and snapped.
If he had wanted to raise a question about the medium of instruction, he could have done so. I have students from the mainland in my class who could have translated. I would have explained it is an English-language course at a university where most classes are taught in that language. But I was given no opportunity to do this.
Liu’s behaviour during the hearing was also odd. He demanded I remove my shirt to show him my injuries. Liu also accused me of attacking him, an outrageous suggestion which drew gasps in court. But he maintained his plea of guilty and accepted his sentence.
The court hearing was an interesting example of Hong Kong justice at work. I speak English. Liu speaks Putonghua. The proceedings were in Cantonese. This meant that everything I said had to be translated into Cantonese first and then into Putonghua. When Liu spoke, the process worked the other way. Sometimes there were discussions between the magistrate, Lee Siu-ho, and Liu which I could not understand. This was frustrating. But I make no complaint. I have always sympathised with Cantonese-speaking witnesses enduring similar experiences in English-language court cases. Bilingual, or in this case trilingual, justice is a necessary feature of our system.
The magistrate was very patient with Liu, calmly helping him understand the way court proceedings work in Hong Kong. That is also the way it should be. It was unpleasant for me to face untrue allegations, but the defendant was entitled to have his say.
Ultimately, Liu was fined HK$3,000. He could not pay the fine and had already served the alternative seven days in jail. He had been in custody 25 days awaiting trial and that was his real punishment. I hope he has learned a lesson.
There was one final surprise. Before leaving court and, presumably, being returned to the mainland, Liu faced me across the room and said: “I am very sorry for what I did to you.” Ironically, he said it in perfect English. Given his choice of language and the fact that he said it in the absence of the magistrate, I am happy to accept the apology as genuine.
I continue to have faith in Hong Kong as a place which is safe and where the rule of law prevails. These are great assets and I do not believe they have been undermined by the Occupy protests. We must, however, take care to ensure that remains the case. I hope and trust this was an isolated incident and that, in future, lecturers and journalists in Hong Kong will be able to go about their business without fear of attack.
Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor, special projects