Who’s Responsible?

Thoughts on a Local Hero

Responsibility and conformity are far too often confused. We tend to think of the responsible person as the one who smooths over trouble, avoids unnecessary repercussions and – by and large – supports the status quo. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Responsibility is about understanding the scope of a situation and acting in such a way that a defined set of beneficiaries – regardless of how small or large – do in fact benefit, or at the very worst don’t suffer unduly. Whether the status quo is maintained or mauled is well and truly beside the point.

What’s necessary is a clear understanding of the people to whom you are responsible, what they want and need, and what you can deliver them, in all likelihood. Nothing of this suggests that a responsible person should avoid change or risk. But still we imagine that a responsible father or a responsible citizen should never dream of struggling against authority. And we are so very wrong. It is well within my capacity as a responsible father to act against a government, thereby ensuring, or helping to ensure, that my children need not endure racism or other forms of discrimination, to ensure that they gain the full benefit of the law as it applies to them in its many forms.

But what about the responsible citizen? I would wager no small amount that civic instruction never encourages resistance to state power, never understands the necessity of questioning how that power is channelled towards the populace. The good citizen is the compliant citizen, the complacent citizen. Or so it would seem. But there is another model, the citizen activist, although it wouldn’t be difficult to brush aside many such people as ineffectual. You know, the always protesting type, the politicised refusenik. Still, there is one responsible person who can make a difference, who is always looking to a future of change  – but first allow me to set the scene.

In Hong Kong conformance means short hair and a career structure, a suit and a fist full of business cards. But that doesn’t mean that everyone toes the line. Jeans, t-shirts and deliberately bad haircuts are common, and despite what the stereotype might convey, not many people are really interested in careers. They’re just interested in getting by. One of the city’s true charms is that non-conformance is very much possible, in public life as in private.

Still, Hong Kong is perpetually trying to adjust to one of the least conformist though most responsible activists in its midst. On many levels Leung Kwok-hung is a typically disruptive anarchist – a self-confessed Trotskyite who has been at the throat of authority since the Maoist riots against the British in the late 1960s. In his first term as a Legislative Council member he continually disrupted proceedings, entirely failed to comply with the dress code (his somewhat cringe-worthy trademark is a Che Guevara t-shirt) and spent significant amounts of time either under arrest or in court for various protests. His nickname is Long Hair, and although it’s an accurate description – he refuses to cut it until the mainland government apologises for the Tiananmen Square massacre – it’s not difficult to detect the opprobrium therein

Given this picture of a ratbag’s ratbag, it might be hard to imagine that he has more than extreme minority support amongst the locals. But he has support in spades – he increased his vote in the recent Legislative Council election against the ‘better’ judgement of political commentators, and the cartoonishly named League of Social Democrats to which he belongs increased its representation from two to three.  Given that no party has all that many more representatives holding directly elected positions (excluding the ludicrous functional constituencies, whereby accountants have a second vote for an accounting representative, and so on) the League is now something of a force in local politics.

The establishment is probably still trying to work out what to think of the League’s motto, ‘no struggle, no change’. I’m sure, in time, it will settle on the delusion that public protest is the focus, and that a little ill-disciplined shouting won’t really hurt anyone. But for Long Hair, the responsible citizen, protest has but one purpose – it’s a ticket of entry into the otherwise prohibitively expensive realm of legal action.

Read the description of Long Hair’s appearance in the High Court when he and his supporters blocked one of the cross-harbour tunnels in support of the right to assemble freely and you’ll witness a man sure of himself, a many who acts as his own representative in court but isn’t the least humbled by its gravity. You’ll also witness a man who wants to be arrested, who wants to have his say because he’s speaking for all those others without a voice. His tactic is to meet the unreasonable magistrate who’ll convict him so he can appeal. The higher the court, the more heavily scrutinised the law will be.

Long Hair’s smart-alec banter in court always masks a higher purpose – to push the separation of powers in Hong Kong to the limit, to ensure that the judiciary fulfils it role of all-encompassing legal oversight, to remind the government that it’s obliged to ensure the liberty of all within the boundaries of its purview.

In a recent appeal case involving an unlicensed FM radio station he was central in organising, Long Hair met the somewhat guileless argument that even if the manner in which radio licences were allotted was constitutionally defective, his conviction for involvement in an illegal station should not be quashed. As a point of administrative law that’s difficult to argue against – the procedure should stand as it is until revoked or modified under any new understanding of the law – but the government’s barrister went on to liken the radio licensing system to the licensing system that bans unqualified drivers. Just the wrong move.

Long Hair twisted the analogy towards his constitutional point. The driver licensing system didn’t allocate the privilege to drive, it merely enabled freedom of movement in an orderly fashion; the government focus should necessarily be on facilitation, not obstruction. And, as my own aside, freedom of movement is guaranteed under Article 8 of Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights.

Score one for the amateur.

But even more recently, in the lower courts, Long Hair has come close to grief over his role in a noisy and unauthorised protest against increased government housing rents outside the private residence of the then Housing Secretary. From the magistrate’s somewhat unsympathetic perspective, this will be “the first analysis in a Hong Kong court of the right to freedom of speech versus a resident’s right to privacy in his own home”. So the judiciary is biting back, but that’s the risk inherent in accepting responsibility. And even if Long Hair’s day in court later this month turns sour, he will have forced a clear interpretation of the necessary balance between public action and individual privacy that democracies – especially partial, fragile democracies like Hong Kong – so often flounder upon.

Leung Kwok-hung is the type of embarrassment that every polity needs: a long haired lout in a short-haired world, a renegade with responsibility. In all, a local hero.

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