• Zhuo Ling

Hong Kong Protests: The Right to Remain Neutral



Lautsi v. Italy was a case stemming from a request of Mrs Soile Lautsi, an Italian national, against the School Council of a school in Abano Terme. Mrs Lautsi required the Council to remove the crucifixes hanging in the walls of the school, contending that such display is a violation to her child’s right of freedom from religion. When the School Council decided not to comply, Lautsi applied to the European Court of human rights. A Chamber of the Second Section of the Court declared that there had been a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.


This decision caused an uproar in Italy. The case was referred to Court's Grand Chamber, which on 18 March 2011 announced its decision, reached by 15 votes to 2, to overturn the ruling of the lower Chamber. It granted that, "by prescribing the presence of crucifixes in State-schools’ classrooms - a sign which undoubtedly refers to Christianity - the regulations confer on the country's majority religion preponderant visibility in the school environment." But it declared: "That is not in itself sufficient to denote a process of indoctrination on the respondent State's part". It added that "a crucifix on a wall is an essentially passive symbol and cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities".

The Italian mother wants her child to have freedom from religion, as many would praise the existence of a blank wall in the protests of Hong Kong. They feel it repulsive when Hong Kong and Taiwanese artists talk about democracy, they expect Hong Kong to be like Macau, where people’s energy is dedicated to casinos, where no one talks about politics. Many aren’t openly in favour of either the protestors or the government, “I remain politically neutral,” they claim, “but can we just stop demonstrating on the streets and all go back to work?”


A counter-intuitive question is, why is a blank wall more neutral than a wall that is required to hang a crucifix on? When talking about secularism and religion, when choosing the former, aren't you also choosing a position opposite to the other side? Neutrality becomes more like a pseudo-concept when it’s taken into the context of the politics of China, where the suppression of freedom of speech has already become a serious problem. When the voice of one side is muted by public authorities, the neutrality you think becomes fundamental prejudice against the one suppressed – the white colour you want on the wall is exactly the white terror the government want in its governance. You have already taken your side without even knowing it. Now the thing is, you still have to choose one among the blank wall and the crucifix.


How do Italians solve the problem? While they still hang crucifies on the wall, they incorporate tolerance and pluralism in their schools’ curriculum, they educate their children that believing in God is not an old wives' tale, and that the secularism is also a good way of life. It’s an accommodation in a diverse society, the only solution where nobody is entirely unhappy. Take another instance of the Church of England, as the queen said in her speech at Lambeth Palace in 2012, its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions, instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents, but also, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.

In a society where people could not reach a consensus regarding diverse culture or opinions, neutrality does not automatically become the best solution. Another problem is, how hard it is to remain “neutral”? Neutrality is not easy and safe standing one may imagine. First and foremost, you must have the strength the strong counterattack capabilities (like Switzerland): when you choose to be neutral, you’re actually choosing to be an enemy to both sides. There will be considerable risks, and there will always be a price.


Second, the neutral needs to draw a very clear line, restraining both others and himself. You have to let everyone know that others should not actively violate your boundaries. But at the same time, you can't and shouldn't, just cross your boundary and fight back to the limit. Just like Switzerland would shoot down Nazi and Allied aircraft, but would not chase them outside of Switzerland, or even though it had been invaded by Nazis, it did not attack and occupy Nazi territory. When most people see something they don’t agree with, the first reaction is to criticize and oppose. But if you claim yourself neutral, you can’t do that. You have to think clearly about what others are doing that you don’t agree with, whether it really violates your field or not. Can the protests in Hong Kong be considered “a process of indoctrination” or “didactic speech” that you must fight against? Although you disagree with one’s political opinions, as long as he doesn’t invade your field and even improve your situation to some extent, you have to tolerate something different from your principles.

For example, if you are neutral, when someone uses violence to fight another, will you choose to treat both sides as your enemy? Then you will probably be flattened by both. A more reasonable approach in the face of two kinds of violence that you do not agree with is to choose one that is better for your survival, maybe you can support it tacitly, at least you don't have to obstruct that party. Why do this as neither of them has the same position as you? Although the counterbalance between two parties can guarantee your neutrality, when one violence overwhelms the other, it will not allow you to remain "neutral", your so-called neutrality is the secondary enemy for the winner. So next time when a protest happens and there is someone who claims to be neutral, ask him, are you really ready?

The Glue

When you read how the mainstream of Chinese press and media, which are under strict instruction or surveillance of the government, described this protest and the protestors, you’ll absolutely agree that there aren’t many who really value either national or political identity. The reason why the media remained silent during the whole peaceful period of the protest, and why they demonized the protestors as “thugs” “cockroaches” once the conflict came up between the protestors and the police, seem pretty self-evident, and remain in a consistent way with the Communist Party’s policy: safeguarding the stability of society and its governance weigh more than anything else. Also, such propaganda serves as an efficient way of justifying any possible armed suppression that Beijing might use in the future to put down the protests.


But can any form of suppression cure the fundamental split that evoked those protests? In 2014 they put down the Umbrella Movement, which lasted 3 months, today the youths come back again, only more determined than before to change the status quo. It is a pity that even until this day, the policymakers still don’t understand the importance of a uniformed sense of national identity, they don’t understand the word “demos”. How important that is? Why must Italians keep the crucifix on the wall?



Such a crucifix is glue. Europe, where various culture, various religions coexist and fuse, is a great example to illustrate the issue. How many Britons singing god saves the queen don’t believe in God at all? But they still want to keep their state religion, keep the Church of England. In the United Kingdom, faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging. It can act as a spur for social action. Also, religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, like the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind Britons of the responsibilities they have beyond themselves. Right, the tricky problem – tyranny of the majority, as an inherent shortcoming of democracy, might come up here, a well-functioning democratic society would always check and balance through institutional design, but all of this is built on a key premise: (from an identitarian view) how can you have a strong democracy, a better society, if you have a thin "demos", a weak sense of national identity? Religious differences led Ireland and Scotland to fight for independence; Americans have whatsoever recognized Trump as the president of each of them, because they feel that they belong to this one nation.


The issue of national identity is particularly pertinent to Hong Kong. It was reunited with the PRC on 1 July 1997, but the fact that 97 per cent of Hong Kong’s population is Chinese does not guarantee the automatic development of a sense of national identity. Objective differences between mainland and Hong Kong, such as those found in the political, legal and economic systems, make the ‘other’ like a stranger. Unlike in many former colonies, Hongkongers did not abhor their outgoing British rulers, in fact, many were quite nostalgic about the colonial period. In 1997, a poll by Apple Daily found that 39.4 per cent of respondents had affectionate memories of the British administration, compared to 20.6 per cent who had negative feelings. Conversely, more recent experiences shattered the illusions they may have had about China. When Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the Reform and Opening-Up Policy, released China from the straitjacket of communism, China enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth and improved living conditions in the 1980s. This period of hope and euphoria abruptly ended with the military crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. Hong Kong society was quite united in its support for the student protestors.


It’s not only Beijing’s fault for not securing a democratic society that Hongkongers could build their political identity on, the Hong Kong government also contributed to the labelling of PRC as “significant others”. When national identity-building came into conflict with local economic interests, the latter took precedence over the former. In a landmark decision made on 29 January 1999, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (CFA) ruled that on the principle of equality, children born to permanent residents of Hong Kong had the right of abode in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). The HKSAR government did not welcome the ruling. It feared the entrance of a flood of Mainland immigrants to Hong Kong within a relatively short period of time, thus placing enormous pressure on existing resources. The government soon launched an impact study to discover the number of additional immigrants eligible to enter Hong Kong as a result of the ruling, which laid the groundwork for the government to label potential Mainland immigrants as ‘others’. As a result of these statements, negative images of potential mainland immigrants filled the Hong Kong media, where they were portrayed as a group of free-riders who wanted a share of Hong Kong’s prosperity without contributing anything. It was another strike on the flimsy concept of demos.

And how high the level of solidarity have Hong Kongers reached among themselves for the values they are fighting for together? After the election for district councils took place in November, some social commentators were worried that "Hong Kong will enter a period of collective social silence, after the victory of the election, more and more would feel tired about this movement and just want to return to their normal life as before." That’s not how the reality goes.



On the first day of the new year, the first day of the new decade, more than a million people – a number bigger than that in June – went to protest on the street, they never forgot that their ultimate destination is the real right to vote, is a real democratic society. During all historical periods, such political identity glued Hongkongers together, there is no reason to say that such belief is weaker than a religion. The use of words "thugs" "cockroaches" which has never stopped in the mainland is not only wrong in fact, but also strategically counter-productive. When the gap between the two is deepened, the only effective way of damage-control is to enhance the reliability of public authorities by giving people the truth, by realizing the promise they made about establishing a democratic regime, in any way, stigmatization and the manufacturing of “others” is one of the most counter-productive ways to do that.

Still for some people, Hongkongers’ solidarity doesn’t constitute a safe way to build a stable society. They are worried that in the future, Hongkongers may not easily love each other because of the identity of “Hongkongers”, the political spectrum will become the new basis of identification. The tearing of the local society is inevitable. Such weak imagination of this pluralistic society and the denial of the possibility of accommodation would actually lead the solution to a much more sensitive direction: after all, to avoid moral critics, what the mainstream of Hongkongers are fighting for now is only a true “one nation, two systems”, which might be the only solution where nobody is entirely unhappy, while the continuing denial of such demands might lead to a much more controversy solution – the separation, the independence.


Views expressed are solely those of the author.


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About the Author

Zhuo holds a bachelor’s degree from Wuhan University in China. She is currently pursuing her L.L.M. at the School of Law, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Enchanted by the complexity of our world, she is mindful of illustrating the cause of significant events with expertise. She is interested in issues of human rights, entertainment, and feminism. She aspires to contribute her passion to the process of writing and publishing, and to contribute towards the well-being of the general populace.

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