Democracy to cause New Year’s Day road chaos

Exciting news for paranoiacs/cynics/hardened realists convinced that the Hong Kong government is gradually turning the screws on dissent in an attempt to Singaporeanize the Big Lychee: an oddly large-scale traffic redirection exercise, complete with high-profile publicity, ahead of tomorrow’s pro-democracy march.  The Standard and RTHK3 both enter into the spirit of things this morning by carrying dire advance warnings of traffic jams in Central*.  The authorities announce dozens of temporary road and car park closures, diversions and suspensions of bus/tram/minibus stops.

But it will be New Year’s Day, and hardly anyone will be driving anywhere in the middle of town.  And it is a march for universal suffrage in 2012 – an overused and ineffective form of protest that has been attracting fewer and fewer participants ever since the heady days of 2003-04, not to mention a lost cause.

There could be a boring, rational explanation: the estimated 10,000 demonstrators will go from near the Legislative Council building to Beijing’s representative office in Western.  This is a new route for such processions, through narrower streets than the usual Victoria Park-to-Central Government Offices march, so the police and transport people could simply be exercising caution in the public interest.

Alternatively, there could be something more sinister going on.  Officials could have decided to implement excessive measures in order to maximize inconvenience to everyone else and thus provoke community disapproval of the protestors and their aims.  Thousands of people, like the aged and infirm Mr Chan and his wife having to hobble an extra 200 yards to get a tram on Des Voeux Road, will come away with a deep loathing for the pro-democracy activists who brought this collective punishment down upon them.  Alarmists who want to spread such a theory can say it doesn’t sound so far-fetched given that the police, who once handled political gatherings impartially, nowadays routinely make anti-government processions as uncomfortable and annoying for marchers as possible.

Anyone wanting to make Hong Kong a more authoritarian place has to deal with two challenges.  First is the disinclination of the city’s people to being organized and regimented (as pro-democratic leaders know to their cost).  The second is the independence of the courts, which is unique in Asia.

Hence we see Leung ‘Long-Hair’ Kwok-hung, Tsang ‘the Bull’ Kin-shing and two others freed yesterday after arrest for non-payment of (modest) fines for illegal broadcasting.  (At an earlier stage of this Citizens Radio saga, one court even agreed with these pirates of the airwaves that government refusal to give their station a licence was an infringement of freedom of speech.)  They were spared jail and given an extra month to pay up, after pleading, in one case, a need to attend a sick parent in hospital and – try this is Singapore – a pressing engagement in the form of tomorrow’s pro-democracy march.

Chances are that their principled refusal to pay the fines will not lead them to prison; if no sympathizers cough up, officialdom will see to it that someone does.  At least, that is the way it has appeared to happen in the past: unlike its intolerant family-run counterpart in the Lion City, the Hong Kong government has long shown every sign of wanting to avoid the international embarrassment of a free-speech martyr behind bars.  If Long Hair and friends do get themselves into the slammer, the paranoiacs/cynics/hardened realists will be on a roll.

* The South China Morning Post opts out; this could be a sign of a sense of proportion, or that it miscalculated in firing over 30 editorial staff on Tuesday (it is awfully thin today, even for the holiday season).

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