Cardinal Joseph Zen and the three leaders of the Occupy Central protest movement turned themselves in at the Central Police Station in Hong Kong today, asking to be arrested for illegally occupying public places in an act of civil disobedience.
The police did not arrest or issue charges against them, they merely asked them to fill out forms giving personal information and warned that the protests were illegal.
The Shanghai-born cardinal went to the police station together with the three Occupy Central leaders: Professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. The three had started the non-violent civil disobedience campaign at the end of September after Hong Kong and Beijing authorities refused to allow direct elections to the post of Chief Executive of Hong Kong by universal suffrage as promised in the hand-over accord of 1997.
Some months earlier, the pro-democracy movement, in which the cardinal was also deeply involved, organized an unofficial public referendum on the universal suffrage. 800,000 people voted in favor, but the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities totally ignored this. At that point the Occupy Central leaders decided to begin civil disobedience on Oct. 1, but the student movement preempted that by starting it at the end of September.
Yesterday, the Occupy Central leaders announced they were calling an end to the civil disobedience campaign as the risk of further violence increased following recent clashed between police and students. They concluded that it is better to end the protests now and re-think the strategy. They urged the student movement to do likewise, also to avoid more violence. Cardinal Zen agreed with the three leaders, “it’s better to retreat and think again,” he said.
As the cardinal and the three Occupy Central leaders left the police station, Benny Tai, the most prominent of the three told the media, “I hope we can show others the meaning of the surrender. We urge the occupation to end soon and more citizens will carry out the basic responsibility of civil disobedience, which is to surrender."
At a press conference yesterday, Benny Tai sought to clarify their decision: "We are not abandoning the (student) occupiers. We are urging them to understand the fight for democracy is a long one and we need energy to fight on.”
Speaking by phone from Hong Kong after being dismissed from the police station, Cardinal Zen said the police were “very clever” because “they did not want the Central Police Station to be turned into another center of occupation.” They realized that if they arrested this group many others would turn themselves in too.
He calculated that 65 protestors, including members of the legislative council, turned up at the Central Police Station but the police only permitted them to enter in small groups. The cardinal and the three leaders were the first group to be let in.
An hour before going to the police station, I spoke to the cardinal by phone and he told me: “We would be happy to be put in prison for some time. We are law-abiding people, but we committed some act against the law just to draw attention to the fact that there’s something very wrong with the law. We denounce ourselves and ask to be arrested for breaking the law. We have to do that to conclude our act of civil disobedience.”
As we spoke, he was packing his bag to take with him to prison in case he got arrested. When I asked what he was taking in the bag, he said, “A little personal wardrobe, a cereal bar so that I have enough to eat, and my medicines – that’s important. I am taking a new book by a friend of mine in China. Then, of course, I am taking my breviary which has contains the psalms, Scripture and other readings and prayers. And I am taking the readings for Mass. That’s all.”
“I’m leaving now, because in one hour we hand ourselves in to the police. Good bye! God bless! Don’t worry about me. I will pray for you and for your family.”
According to Reuters news agency, the Hong Kong Police said 24 people aged between 33 and 82 had surrendered for “taking part in an unauthorized assembly,” and the authorities would conduct follow-up investigations based on the information provided.
It remains to be seen what the students will do now. One of their leaders Joshua Wong called on them to “regroup,” and announced that he and two others would start a hunger strike.