As an aspiring world power, China is coming under greater scrutiny, especially in how it treats Hong Kong. The small territory of 7 million currently enjoys special limited freedoms from the mainland. On Sunday, that spotlight on China became even harsher.
A mob of pro-Beijing thugs attacked hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, injuring 45. The violence immediately raised a difficult question for China’s ruling Communist Party. Does its version of rule of law include Hong Kong courts punishing the party’s most avid supporters?
If the attackers are not caught and fairly tried, then the party’s claim to equality before the law is as thin as a wonton wrapper. In addition, allowing the masked, baton-wielding thugs to go free would give the people of Hong Kong even more reason to demand direct elections, independent courts, no extradition treaty with the mainland, and all the other means to protect civil rights.
In recent years, the idea of equality before the law in China has itself taken a beating. Party chief Xi Jinping has clearly placed the party above the law and the state in contrast to his recent predecessors. He sees law mainly as a way to ensure party rule, not enhance individual freedoms or prosperity. China’s justice system is noted for its arbitrary detention, use of torture, and forced confessions. Mr. Xi even promotes the model to other nations.
Yet he is facing pushback, especially now in Hong Kong. Some pro-Beijing officials are demanding the arrest of those who attacked the innocent people on Sunday. Police said they would not tolerate “violent behavior” and were investigating the incident “in order to bring the offenders to justice.”
Hong Kong people still embrace the universality of equal standing before the law, which is rooted in the dignity and goodness of individual conscience. Unlike the Communist Party, natural rulers are those who respect such equality and do not use law as a tool for power. Equality is one more incentive in a society to do unto others as they would have them do unto them.
This is why Hong Kong’s pro-democracy advocates must continue to rely on nonviolent tactics. Peaceful marches are a signal of equality. Violence against the protesters only exposes those who see themselves as above the law. Once exposed, they lose legitimacy and, perhaps someday, power.