Hong Kong car­di­nal de­fends Oc­cupy protest lead­ers in court


An out­spo­ken Hong Kong car­di­nal yes­ter­day de­fended lead­ing democ­racy cam­paign­ers on trial over mas­sive 2014 ral­lies which paral­ysed parts of the city, prais­ing their com­mit­ment to peace­ful protest.

Joseph Zen, the for­mer Bishop of Hong Kong, is well-known for his vo­cal op­po­si­tion to po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion in China and his sup­port for demo­cratic re­form. Tes­ti­fy­ing as a wit­ness of char­ac­ter, he said he be­lieved civil disobe­di­ence was a “rea­son­able ap­proach” and felt “ashamed” that he did not en­dure the pep­per spray and tear gas that many de­mon­stra­tors faced.

The ral­lies lasted 79 days and made in­ter­na­tional head­lines but ul­ti­mately failed to win po­lit­i­cal re­form. So­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor Chan Kin-man, 59, law pro­fes­sor Benny Tai, 54, and bap­tist min­is­ter Chu Yiu-ming, 74, are on trial on pub­lic nui­sance charges over their role in the Um­brella Move­ment protests. They founded the “Oc­cupy Cen­tral” move­ment in 2013, call­ing for the oc­cu­pa­tion of Hong Kong’s busi­ness district if the pub­lic was not given a fair vote for the city’s leader, who is ap­pointed by a pro-Bei­jing com­mit­tee.

Their cam­paign was over­taken by a stu­dent move­ment that ex­ploded the fol­low­ing year when po­lice fired tear gas on gath­er­ing crowds, who used um­brel­las to shield them­selves. Zen said he thought the po­lice’s use of gas to dis­perse crowds was “un­wise” and wor­ried it would fan pub­lic anger. “So I took a loud­speaker and said ‘let’s go home, we al­ready won, don’t stay here. (The gov­ern­ment) were ir­ra­tional, they used vi­o­lence’. But of course, not many peo­ple lis­tened to me,” he said.

Zen told the court of the trio’s ded­i­ca­tion to the prin­ci­ples of peace­ful protest. “There was civil disobe­di­ence be­cause for a long time the in­jus­tice in so­ci­ety still could not be cor­rected. There­fore I thought civil disobe­di­ence was a rea­son­able ap­proach,” he said.

He also re­called dis­cussing his con­cerns with the Oc­cupy lead­ers over how the protests would de­velop.

“It was like the stu­dents were lead­ing it but didn’t seem to be able to con­trol the sit­u­a­tion. It seemed like the trio no longer had the chance to give their opin­ions,” he said. The pros­e­cu­tion has ar­gued that the mass protests caused a “com­mon in­jury done to the pub­lic”, who were af­fected by the block­age of ma­jor roads.

De­fen­dant Chan Kin-man told the court last week how the three had tried to con­vey their wish for com­pet­i­tive elec­tions by meet­ing with Hong Kong leader Car­rie Lam, then chief sec­re­tary, be­fore the mass ral­lies. But in­stead of a dis­cus­sion Lam had “only re­peat­edly asked us to end this move­ment as soon as pos­si­ble”. The three men are among nine pro-democ­racy de­fen­dants fac­ing charges for their part in the protests. The jus­tice depart­ment has pros­e­cuted lead­ing ac­tivists from the 2014 protests, with some also barred from stand­ing for of­fice and oth­ers thrown out of the leg­is­la­ture.

Most of those pros­e­cuted so far have been young cam­paign­ers, but now it is the turn of the older gen­er­a­tion whose orig­i­nal idea of tak­ing to the streets to de­mand a fairer sys­tem was a pre­cur­sor to the ral­lies.

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