Friday, June 20, 2014, 09:47
Civil disobedience or uncivil coercion?
By Michael DeGolyer

Editor’s Note: This article is Part 1 of a three-part series on “Occupy Central”. Part 1 examines the logic of civil disobedience behind “Occupy Central”. Part 2 looks into the dangers of violence and causes of youth dissatisfaction with life in Hong Kong. Part 3 suggests policies that would address these causes of conflict and better ways to lobby for reforms.

I have personally seen the difference between civil disobedience, which highlights an unjust law by breaking it, and civil discord, where even if a genuine sense of injustice drives the law-breaking behavior, laws everyone supports are broken.

Civil disobedience or uncivil coercion?I saw what happened in the South during the American civil rights movement from an exceptional perspective. My father’s family fought for the unity of the United States in the Civil War. My grandparents on my mother’s side were Quebecois — people of French origin long mistreated in Canada, who migrated to the US in the early 20th century to escape Canada’s, then British-dominated, discrimination and prejudice.

We were outsiders then, just as I am an outsider to the dispute among Hongkongers now. From an outsider’s perspective, strategy and plans of “Occupy Central” are seriously flawed. Here is why:

The official title, given the plan to use civil disobedience as a means to push reform in Hong Kong, is “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.” Organizers of “Occupy Central” explicitly refer to the non-violent civil disobedience campaigns of Gandhi and Martin Luther King as their models.

While I was born after Gandhi’s movement, I grew up in the midst of Martin Luther King’s. I remember seeing separate entrances, bus sections and water fountains for white people and African Americans in the deep South where I was born in the early 1950s. My school was integrated, to much protest, when I was 14 years old. I was 15 when King was killed.

I vividly remember those protests and the first African-American student who sat in my class. In the city where I lived, I also saw the smoke rising from the violence that erupted after Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968.

This is the difference between proper civil disobedience and pointless law breaking. Protesters both white and black drank from each other’s water fountains to break a law forbidding such behavior. Protesters white and black sat in each other’s bus sections to point out the injustice of laws that specifically forbade that behavior.

They deliberately broke a law that demanded they act unjustly. They did it as a matter of conscience — for they proclaimed that by not acting to break it they were consenting to an unjust law.

The rule of law depends on the consent of the governed. American protesters refused to follow a law requiring them to discriminate. By their law-breaking, they indicated that law did not have their consent.

The violence following Martin Luther King’s death was an entirely different kind of law-breaking. Whites and blacks beat each other up. Cars were indiscriminately burnt — it didn’t matter if they were owned by whites or blacks or Asian-Americans or even non-Americans uninvolved in the dispute. Churches, houses and businesses were burnt and looted.

No one wanted laws against destroying property repealed. No one wanted laws against assault and injury repealed. No one said these laws were unjust. It was pointless law-breaking, not civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience requires that the law being broken is an unjust law, a law that if followed, inflicts damage to one’s own conscience and integrity.

There is no such “unjust” law to be broken in the Occupy Central plans. No one wants to repeal laws against stepping into traffic with the intent of stopping all commerce. No one wants to repeal laws requiring citizens to obey the police.

The objective of “Occupy Central” is not to protest an unjust law, per se. It is to protest unequal treatment of business interests, particularly in the functional constituencies. But halting all commerce in Central is equivalent to beating and burning indiscriminately. Innocents with no involvement in Hong Kong affairs will be seriously affected. All businesses, even those supportive of pro-democratic constitutional reform, will be indiscriminately punished. Occupy Central law breaking does not have a focus against a specific, unjust law.

There is real danger that a protest that uses law breaking to coerce government to make a law that a minority strongly wants will deteriorate into general law breaking and violence. Does it even make sense to break a law to demand making a law? How can one demand others follow a law they want made by breaking a law they actually, most of the time, support?

The Occupy Central organizers have set themselves on a path of inevitable frustration and collision with both the local and central governments, as well as with the majority of Hongkongers who do not support law breaking in support of radical demands that public nomination be used, or else they will shut down Central. This is not civil disobedience. It is uncivil coercion.

There are more effective and truly democratic ways of making their point, of which I will elaborate on more later. But this way threatens to spin out of control.

The author is director of the Masters in Public Administration Program and professor of Government and International Studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University.