A Commentary on the Rights and Wrongs of Both Sides
On Sunday 16th October, according to a statement by the Greater Manchester Police, the following incident happened.
‘Shortly before 4pm a small group of men came out of the building and a man was dragged into the consulate grounds and assaulted … Due to our fears for the safety of the man, officers intervened and removed the victim from the consulate grounds …’
The police statement continued with ‘No arrests have been made and our ongoing and complex enquiries continue … We have a dedicated portal for anyone with video or information about the incident to get in touch’. Nevertheless, whilst the police investigation is underway, British media and politicians drew their conclusions. For examples:
According to BBC News “Unidentified men came out of the consulate and forced a man inside the compound before he escaped with the help of police and other demonstrators.”
The Guardian had an opinion piece, which starts that the ‘Banners read “End CCP” … don’t consider posting a satirical cartoon of a dictator an “insult”’
MP Alicia Kearns, the new head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Twitter: "Chinese Ambassador should be summoned & if any official has beaten protesters, they must be expelled or prosecuted."
The focus was on China Consular staff removing the protestors’ banners and beating up one of the protestors inside the Consulate compound. There were no mentions of what the banners said nor of protestors beating up two Consular staff outside the gate. It appears that only Sky News, about a week later, attempted to describe as accurately as possible the incident that lasted 70 seconds.
This article is a commentary on the rights and wrongs committed by both sides in the incident. The author is not a legal professional and therefore welcome those with legal competence to comment on the analysis.
According to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963 (un.org)
Article 1 Definitions
(j) “consular premises” means the buildings or parts of buildings and the land ancillary thereto, irrespective of ownership, used exclusively for the purposes of the consular post.
Article 31 Inviolability of the consular premises
3. … the receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the consular premises against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the consular post or impairment of its dignity.
The key phrase is ‘prevent any disturbance of the peace of the consular post or impairment of its dignity’. There were two upright banners in Cantonese Chinese text. The banner on the left was along the lines of ‘Death to the CPC’. The banner on the right 賀佢老母, translates literally as 'Celebrate his old mother', but is a Cantonese slang for 'Fxxx your mother'. Next to this banner is a another with a caricature of President XI.
Two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, does the vulgar banner cause a ‘disturbance of the peace of the consular post or impairment of its dignity’? Secondly, does the vulgar banner contravenes UK hate crime or public order laws? I leave these two issues for competent legal minds to answer.
Regarding the Consulate staff, it appeared that they felt the peace and dignity of the Consulate were violated and they have the ‘moral duty’ to remove them. Hence, video footage showed the vulgar banner being kicked down and the caricature banner being removed. In doing so, the Consulate staff made a grave error. They were wrong to remove the banners, as they have no rights to do so outside the Consulate compound. Instead, they should have complained formally to the UK government, perhaps even writing to the British press, pointing out the meaning of the banners. They should not have taken the law into their own hands.
What about the protestors? Were they peaceful? According to the video put together by Sky News, when the Consulate staff attempted to take the caricature banner into the compound, a number of protestors rushed towards the gate. There was a tussle at the gate, whereby two Consulate staff were pulled to the ground and attacked. One protestor was pulled/pushed (depending on how you interpret the various videos or whose claims you believe) into the compound and beaten. There were no police by the gate, but the police parked up the road arrived quickly in 20 seconds and began removing protestors away from the gate, including pulling out the one inside the compound.
There is also another video of an earlier incident, when 2 South Asian people , one of whom is a Muslim woman, asked the banners to be repositioned as they were blocking the pavement. She has a badge but not sure who she represents. A protestor approached the woman and said forcefully ‘Ask your boss to fxxx off’ and then someone else said ‘I am thinking fxxxing your mother’.
It may be legal under British law to use vulgar and abusive language in a public space. However, vulgar statements on banners have nothing to do with democracy. Although the Consulate was wrong to remove the banners, the protestors were also wrong in attacking the Consulate staff, especially kicking one on the head after pulling him down. Such actions demean what freedom is about and reduce the credibility of the protestors in their struggle for democracy in Hong Kong. They could have videoed the Consulate staff removing the banners and then complain to the UK authorities to call the China Embassy to account.
To summarise, the Consulate staff were wrong when they triggered the incident by removing the banners, even though they were vulgar and offensive. The protestors were also wrong in their reaction, by rushing the gate, tussling to get the banner back and beating two Consulate staff. Similarly, whether a protestor pushed and was pulled into the compound, the Consulate staff was wrong in beating him.
Although both sides believe they were right in what they did, regardless of what the police investigation may conclude, each side lost the moral high ground by not restraining themselves.