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Hong Kong Police Told To Enforce "More Strictly" Public Order Ordinance Prohibiting "Unlawful Assembly"

As the 'South China Morning Post' reported today, the Hong Kong police will enforce laws governing public order "more strictly" and prevent gatherings of more than 3 people if they are deemed suspicious by police officers.

"If officers deem a gathering likely to cause any breach of the peace or threat to public safety, we would not allow the participants to proceed," a source was quoted as saying. "We would demand that they produce identification and disperse, and follow them around if they did not leave. Anyone who refuses to comply can be arrested for obstructing police."

The relevant laws prohibiting public gatherings are not a result of Hong Kong's 'mainlandisation', but date back to the British colonial era. In 1967 pro-Communist riots broke out in Hong Kong, and the British colonial government enacted the Public Order Ordinance, which controlled public meetings, processions, and assemblies (see: Wong Yiu-chung / Brian Bridges: One Country, Two Systems in Crisis: Hong Kong's Transformation since the Handover, 2008, p. 78; and Joseph Y. S. Cheng: The Other Hong Kong Report 1997, 1997, pp. 150-151). According to the Ordinance, every public meeting of three or more persons required prior approval by the Commissioner of Police.

source: Wikipedia

How the Public Order Ordinance was enforced is demonstrated by the following episode. In 1979 a group of 70 people who lived on boats in Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter decided to petition the government and ask to be rehoused. They gathered in Kowloon and took two coaches heading for Government House. But the police stopped them at the cross-harbour tunnel before they could enter Hong Kong Island. The 70 people refused to disperse and were charged with "unlawful assembly". They were subsequently convicted by Hong Kong's Court of Appeal (Cheng 1997, p. 151). In theory, even a meeting of friends or family members discussing political matters could be considered "unlawful assembly" and lead to arrests.

The Ordinance was relaxed only in 1995, when the colonial administration under governor Chris Patten amended the law to bring it in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). After the amendment, people organising public gatherings simply had to notify the police but needed no permission. 

After 1997, however, Beijing's National People's Congress (NPC) nullified the amendments and the pro-Communist Provisional Legislative Council enacted a new version of the Public Order Ordinance which was a compromise between the 1967 version and the liberal one of the Patten era. The current Public Order Ordinance requires organisers of public gatherings to notify the police. The Commissioner of Police then issues a 'notice of no objection' if no reason to prohibit the assembly is determined. The vague definition of "national security" contained in the Ordinance, however, gives the police broad discretion in judging the potential threat posed by a public gathering (see Ralf Horlemann: Hong Kong's Transition to Chinese Rule: The Limits of Autonomy, 2002, p. 32). 

After 1997 the Public Order Ordinance was not strictly enforced and meetings of more than three persons were generally tolerated. Last year's Occupy Central and the recent protests against mainland shoppers and parallel traders have led to a more rigid law-enforcement policy on the part of the authorities, which are eager to prevent new mass demonstrations. 

On March 8, demonstrations against parallel traders turned violent. A scene caught on camera and shared thousands of times on Facebook showed protesters shouting at a Cantonese-speaking woman. She opened her suitcase, which contained children's books, to prove she wasn't a parallel trader, yet the demonstrators continued to scream at her while her daughter cried loudly.

Since Beijing rejected pro-democratic groups' plead to allow genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, public assemblies are the only political means that citizens possess to put pressure on the executive branch of the Hong Kong government, which would result in a deeper crisis of legitimacy of the current political system.


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