Perspective: Distinguishing between protests and riots in Hong Kong
Updated 22:34, 27-Nov-2019
Tom Fowdy
People in Hong Kong, China, November 27, 2019. /Photo by Tom Fowdy

People in Hong Kong, China, November 27, 2019. /Photo by Tom Fowdy

Editor's note: Tom Fowdy is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain and the United States. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

On November 27 lunchtime, people in Hong Kong staged a "lunch hour" protest next to the MegaBox Mall in Kowloon Bay to the city's east. The protest, which involved demonstrators walking around a crossroads junction in accordance with traffic lights chanting slogans whilst police looked on.

As it was short and people had jobs to go back to, it was peaceful in nature with no disturbances or incidents, light years away from some of the dramatic and violent scenes which have rocked the city in recent months.

Such peaceful protests are not unusual; there have been a continual mix of violent and non-violent demonstrations over the past few months. What is it however, that sets them apart? When protests have become violent, the broader demonstrator and media narrative has continually blamed the city's police force as the aggressor, arguing that law enforcement have unfairly targeted protesters and deprived their right to free protest.

Leading figures such as Joshua Wong have repeatedly called the city a "police state" and in turn attempted to explain all violent developments as a mode of self-defense against them.

But what is the truth? Are police in Hong Kong genuinely stifling protests? And if so, why do some peaceful marches like we have seen today proceed without incident? The answer is that in general law, there is a distinguishable difference between a lawful, peaceful protest which is approved by the police (like in all other countries) and what is otherwise defined as a "riot", which is unlawful.

This subtle yet significant distinction is not being covered in the narrative of events in Hong Kong. Peaceful protesters are not being targeted, whilst those waging violence and destruction are continually arguing that they are above the law.

All over the world, all protests have to be approved by the police. Let's use British law as a template. Seen as first, it is a Western country and secondly, Hong Kong's legal system derives from it (not the Chinese mainland). In Britain, protest law as set out by the Public Order Act of 1986 stipulates that demonstrators must gain approval from the corresponding police chief of that given area.

However, the law goes on to state that if the police chief has reasonable evidence to believe that it "may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community" - he has the legal power to impose conditions on that demonstration and subsequently deny access to certain areas. If a protest in UK law goes ahead in the attempt to circumvent these requirements, the act specifies that those responsible may be charged with a Public Order offense.

Many peace-loving residents have left their imprints on the walls by spray-painting slogans in Hong Kong, China, November 27, 2019. /Photo by Tom Fowdy

Many peace-loving residents have left their imprints on the walls by spray-painting slogans in Hong Kong, China, November 27, 2019. /Photo by Tom Fowdy

In addition, in a marked contrast to organized demonstrations, the same act also sets out the legal definition of "riot": that is "where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose"- this is also a criminal offense which can be punished by imprisonment.

The inclusion of the term "common purpose" is significant, because this also means that politically motivated violence by demonstrators effectively counts. If we merge these statutes with stipulations on protesting above, it should become quite clear that it is illegal to hold protests without coordinating with police, and to use any violent means. In each instance, the law has a right to respond.

So what about Hong Kong? When locals want to protest, they file a petition with police who may, depending on circumstances, confirm or deny it. Many peaceful protests have been confirmed and gone ahead without issue, and they receive less media coverage as they are uncontroversial.

However, it is in scenarios where activists have deliberately defied police denials are where protests turn violent. In these instances, the protesters have moved in and immediately began hamstringing public order by building barricades, unlawfully occupying property, and causing criminal damage, meaning the police inevitably have to respond with force to uphold the law as specified. 

Yet in doing so, the protesters then play the victim and retaliate with the view of accusing the police of being overly violent. Repeatedly, the charge of unlawful assembly and rioting are misrendered as "political" when they are in fact, a legal issue.

We learn from this that some demonstrators want to have their cake and eat it too. They reserve for themselves a right to break the law, but then claim oppression when the police respond in line with legal procedures.

Yet as I observed, providing there are no provocations in peaceful protests the police do not engage with the crowd at all. They let it be, and on numerous more occasions too.

Thus, in the midst of this all, there is a wider propagated set of myths that the police are constantly stifling all protests in the city and they are the ones turning things violent. But the law makes a very clear distinction on what is permitted, and what is not, and you see how the police respond differently in the varying circumstances.

Yet still their claims don't add up, one slogan I photographed today stated "It is you who told me peaceful protest never works!"- If we take this at its word, then who really is responsible for the trouble here?

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at