When redlines become a red sea|Au Ka-lun

2021.06.11

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the rule of law in Hong Kong is as stable as a rock. That’s right. Having got everything twisted around her little finger, she already has designated judges, judiciary manipulators who took the task on with alacrity, handle dissidents, the Secretary for Justice tighten sentencing guidelines, and the scope of application of the joint enterprise doctrine for riot cases boundlessly broadened. Even if the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) is disobedient, the National People’s Congress (NPC) can still make a tricky move as a last resort – interpreting the Basic Law. Judges have been taming down much more easily than they were expected. Now that the government has gone so far as to set about weighing in to qualify barristers, the rule of law is surely as stable as a rock.

Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, Chief Justice of the CFA, said: the courts put the judicature in practice without interference. Is that a statement of facts? Unfortunately, it sounds more like a pipe dream of a justice. It is also reminiscent of a “weird phenomenon” observed a few years ago by a specialist in the media: while reporters are always mentioning “self-censorship”, no journalist has ever admitted they practice any form of “self-censorship”. As we still have a feeling of self-respect and hold fast to our professional ideal, despite a butcher sending shivers down our spines with a chopper pointed at us and everything plunging into a nadir, we still convince ourselves: I stick to my work ethic; I am free from interference; I exercise the right to X independently; I am not deluding myself and others.

Like censorship on the press without the need for a person with a censorship armband on emasculating texts, the ones in power keen on messing with you do not need a judicial police officer with an armband on guiding a trial. Even Director of Broadcasting Patrick Li Pak-chuen has diction such as “impartiality” and “editorial autonomy” to make people obedient to him. So long as they have money, authority, are in command of the administrative and legislative bodies, leverage their power to redeploy manpower, designate the obedient to take up high positions, redact regulations and interpret standard practices in a creative manner, they can have a hand in the operation, wrecking independence and autonomy, without a need to “step in”.

In Hong Kong, the press was occupied earlier than other sectors. The mental journeys of how they deceived themselves and others when neutering themselves, how they unwittingly conceded to more and more requests one step at a time, and how they unconsciously became someone they abhor are all worth learning.

Despite being perfectly aware that external forces are lying in wait, some reporters believe they have “autonomy” at the end of the day because the pen is in their hands like the pen in judges’ hands when putting verdicts in words. That said, some of them have “adjusted themselves”. Knowing that some content of their news coverages will displease the management so that their superiors would probably modify their masterpieces substantially and turn them into a mess that is too ghastly to look at, the reporters might as well do it themselves by trimming sensitive wordings to reduce the possibility of getting the snowflakes riled and avoid inviting their superiors to take on the job to turn their works into something that is neither here nor there.

Those who suit their actions to the time will understand immensely well that Big Brother is watching them. So, maneuvers bound to give rise to mighty uproar are not only about an impact of a news report or verdict, but also getting a lot of people around implicated in great disturbance. As such, they are well justified in neutering themselves with the reason that while there’s life there’s hope, and they have to endure humiliation as part of an important mission. Take for an example the CFA that is headed by the NPC, which is empowered to interpret the Basic Law at any time. With such an overwhelming force from above, it is just unconvincing rhetoric to say the CFA is independent and autonomous.

Those caught between a rock and a hard place might as well “confine themselves”. So, knowing that engaging in political news is “risk-ridden”, grueling, and causing confrontations with the management, some reporters stop short of sensitive subject matters and turn to labor and traffic news lest they might run counter to their own principles and encounter clashes. By doing so, they still feel what they do is meaningful and not “unprofessional”. It will be way more problematic for judges to “confine themselves” in giving a ruling. When engaging in an adjudication, judges now follow mandatory sentences that are getting heavier, and take in conditions stipulated by the national security law on which one is remanded on bail. Worse still, judges confine themselves to steer clear of troubles by paying attention to articles and laws instead of taking care of human rights and freedoms - the essences of rule of law - for these are high-risk wordings.

One is weak in defense without nosing out the claw of manipulation

The so-called professionalism and rule of law have always been abstractly defined, and the interpretations on them have always been arbitrary. The bottom line of professionalism is drawn in a haphazard fashion. When people opt for adjusting and confining themselves, the bottom line can be plunged to record lows, but they still believe they are “professional”. Turning a blind eye to selective law enforcement and being apathetic towards human rights and freedoms, judiciary manipulators can still say they do their jobs “in conformity with law”.

Everyone, irrespective of whether they are judges, lawyers, accountants, teachers, medical personnel, social workers, civil servants, district councilors or civilians who hold freedoms and autonomy dear, has to encounter the following tough questions without exception: When redlines become a red sea, how can one struggling for survival in roaring waves refrain from helping the tyrant victimize his subjects; when pondering in a rift over the room for juggling, how can one avoid assimilating into the high wall? That is our lifetime assignment.

As far as I have seen and heard, maybe too many professional elites had fared in times of peace and prosperity for too long, and in a professional environment that was so unsophisticated that they could not have nosed out the claw of manipulation lurking in the shadows. So, when the unforeseen happenings befell, they remained weak in defense, and not psychologically well prepared. Then, the so-called resistance ended before it was started. Not long ago, when we talked about the core values Hong Kong held dear, we still referred to independence of judiciary, freedom of the press and professional autonomy. Now that the values have been eroded and crushed, an upheaval is being ushered in even more quickly. We should see absolutely clearly any interference and manipulation, be it implicit or explicit, and understand and support one another when we are struggling to make a choice. That is resistance 101.

(Au Ka-lun, veteran journalist)

This article is translated from Chinese by Apple Daily.

Click here for Chinese version

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