One of the darkest moments during Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement—a 79-day protest against Beijing’s decision over how the city’s leader would be elected in 2017—was the beating by police of a handcuffed pro-democracy protester, which was caught on camera.
On Oct. 15, 2014, social worker Ken Tsang was kicked and punched in a dark corner by seven police officers, after he poured an unidentified liquid on police during an altercation between police and protesters that night. The incident was filmed by local broadcaster TVB, prompting public outrage (paywall) against Hong Kong police.
Last May, Tsang was sentenced to five weeks in jail for assaulting police. Last week, the seven police officers were convicted on the charge of “assault occasioning actual bodily harm,” and each of them was sentenced to two years in jail.
There was no justification for the attack on the “defenseless” protester, said British judge David Dufton in his verdict. “The defendants have not only brought dishonour to the Hong Kong Police Force, they have also damaged Hong Kong’s reputation in the international community.”
Not everyone agrees. While pro-democracy activists applauded the long-awaited conviction as proof that Hong Kong still has judicial independence despite Beijing’s creeping influence, police supporters and pro-Beijing politicians criticized the sentence for being too harsh, and attacked Dufton for being prejudiced—despite the fact that Dufton reduced the prison terms by six months each after taking into consideration that the police faced severe stress during the protests.
Following a wave of online abuse against Dufton, last week Rimsky Yuen, Hong Kong’s justice secretary, said in a news conference that the justice department will take action against such personal attacks. Some police supporters described Dufton as a “dog,” an insult often used in the Chinese language.
Meanwhile, in mainland China, Dufton has also become the target of personal attacks, as public opinion is largely shaped by state media and state-backed commentators. Much of the criticism has centered around him being British.
Xiakedao, a WeChat account run by Beijing’s state mouthpiece People’s Daily, published an opinion piece (link in Chinese) on Feb. 18 questioning whether the sentence might have been affected by Dufton’s political stance. “We can’t say because David Dufton is British, he is pro-‘Occupy Central,'” the author wrote, referring to the Umbrella Movement by its other name. “But Britain’s attitude toward ‘Occupy Central’ is known by the whole world.”
The author added that Hong Kong’s judicial system is largely controlled by British judges and people cultivated by the British colonial government. Dufton’s verdict has opened “Pandora’s box,” he said: “If Western countries instigate color revolutions in Hong Kong again, which police officer would dare to enforce laws?”
Beijing frequently blames “foreign forces” for inciting pro-democracy “color revolutions” in China to subvert the government, an argument that has been increasingly used to justify its crackdown on civil society in recent years.
“The verdict is completely political—it’s not a simple judicial case,” wrote Yang Guangbing (link in Chinese), head of the comparative politics research institute at Beijing’s Renmin University, in a column. Thanks to Dufton, Yang said, Hong Kong’s judicial independence has become a “judicial dictatorship.”
Personal attacks against Dufton are being widely circulated on Chinese social media platforms. One blogger who identifies himself as the son of late Chinese general Cai Changyuan wrote yesterday (Feb. 20) on microblogging site Weibo that he would give 10,000 yuan ($1,456) as a reward to anyone who would beat up Dufton, who he calls a “bastard.” Within hours the post had been shared more than 500 times before it was made visible only to friends.