Protests in Hong Kong

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.  His support for civil rights protests, but opposition to violence, seem highly relevant today in Hong Kong, where protestors continue to clash with the police.  

A member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council who I met last week explained to me that the protests are no longer about the Hong Kong government’s proposal to allow extradition to mainland China, which has now been dropped, but are now about the tactics of the police.

An Amnesty International report has highlighted not just heavy-handed police action but also beatings of detainees.  The protestors are calling for an independent inquiry into police violence, a demand backed by Human Rights Watch, which says that the instances of excessive force are “well documented”.

The authorities counter that the protests are not peaceful, and it’s clear that 18 weeks of protest has escalated to full-scale riots with attacks on property. 

We would not accept this kind of protest in our country, but we are a democracy where the rule of law is upheld.  Violent protests are anathema, but the right to peaceful demonstration is prized.  Police powers are properly constrained and their actions are held to account.

We should not forget that the protesters in Hong Kong are demanding basic democratic rights in the territory, where - unlike in mainland China - freedom of assembly and speech is meant to be protected.

Some of Gandhi’s stances may be uncomfortable for us today, not least his refusal to support the allies in the Second World War, which was ignored by 2.5 million Indians who volunteered to fight.

Yet his support for passive, non-violent resistance to oppression inspired Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and is still a beacon for the civil rights movement today.

Paying tribute to Gandhi this week, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, noted that the Mahatma never held office and was not tempted by power.  He led a mass movement, and indeed he emphasised duties as well as rights.

As China celebrated 70 years of the People’s Republic this week, tanks rolled though Beijing in a chilling echo of the protests in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, and a protestor was shot by the police In Hong Kong.

It was a reminder that the struggle for civil rights is not over.