The police did have reason to take action that day: The CUHK campus is connected to a public footbridge that hangs over a major highway, and the footbridge was occupied by protesters who were throwing bricks and petrol bombs, blocking traffic and endangering the public.
Whatever the protesters were doing did not justify the authorities’ disproportionate response, however. Even CUHK’s current vice chancellor, Prof. Rocky Tuan, wasn’t spared being tear-gassed: He tried to defuse the situation with the police, but was told that he could not control his students and now was no time to negotiate. The clashes lasted for hours. Black mushroom clouds hung high above the campus and could be seen from a great distance.
Late Tuesday night, at the height of the confrontation, I was approached by Jacky So Tsun-fung, the president of the CUHK student union. He wanted to apply for an urgent injunction to stop the police from breaching the campus without a warrant and bar the use of crowd-control weapons without the assent of university authorities. Some students had become very emotional; word was circulating that one of them (and perhaps more) was considering suicide. But the judge declined to hear the application that night and wanted the police to be notified.
I met Mr. So the next morning. He has a shy, boyish face, delicate features and a mat of hair like a K-pop idol. The first thing I did was give him a big hug. His shoulders felt too small for the large burden he was carrying. I don’t mean just the burden of litigation; I mean the burden of being young in Hong Kong these days and daring to stand up or speak out. Young people are targeted, stalked and at risk of physical attack. Even secondary-school students in uniform have been stopped on their way to school, searched and harassed by the police.
There is no denying that violence has been committed by the protesters, too. But during our hearing on Wednesday, while the police’s lawyers wouldn’t tell the court how many tear-gas canisters officers had used at CUHK, they were quick to say how many petrol bombs had been thrown at them.
Never mind, apparently, my argument that at times as difficult as these, there is all the more reason to hold authorities accountable for any abuse of power. And that we, the public, are looking to the courts as our last safeguards. The judge dismissed our application.
And yet the Hong Kong courts have readily granted the police sweeping injunctions. There was one last month, cast in broad and vague terms, that barred anyone from “unlawfully and willfully” disclosing the personal information of police officers or their relatives. Naturally, no one was there to argue against the measure: Why did the court find it necessary to enjoin putative and nameless defendants from breaking the law?