But while Leung’s protests may be physical, he says they are not violent.
“The one kind of violence [I used] is sacrificing myself,” says Leung.
The concept of civil disobedience is not new. There are many examples from history of successful movements in which protesters adopted a non-violent approach to violate certain laws. They intended to bear the legal responsibilities of their actions to highlight the injustice of the laws or systems.
Examples include the suffragettes who chained themselves to railings to win the vote for women in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, the campaigns against British rule in India led by Gandhi, the bus boycott in the American Civil Rights Movement and the acts of civil disobedience that spread through Arab countries in the Arab Spring 2011.
In Hong Kong, one of the most controversial laws is the Public Order Ordinance, which requires organisers of any public procession with more than 30 people to obtain a “Letter of No Objection” from the police. Some activists believe this violates the freedom of expression and fosters political prosecution. Their refusal to apply for the authorisation is a kind of civil disobedience. Other significant movements include campaigns to withhold a small portion of tax and pirate radio broadcasts.
All this could reach another level if Benny Tai Yiu-ting gets his way. The associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, sees the possibility of larger scale resistance in Hong Kong based on his research on institutional rule and democratic transition in other regions.
In January, Tai wrote a commentary titled “The Deadliest Weapons of Civil Disobedience” calling on 10,000 citizens to block major roads in Central to paralyse the financial hub. Tai says the current chases and standoffs with police are too disorganised to be effective.
“We must have something more powerful, a more powerful weapon, in our own hands to allow us to put pressure on Beijing government to give us real universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council,” Tai says.
Tai says the power of the weapon would not be measured by the number of protesters but by their level of commitment. He says the participants must make a solemn declaration that they will bear the legal responsibility for the unauthorised assembly. He, for one, is ready to be prosecuted.
“You have to ask yourselves do you want democracy in Hong Kong? If you want that, do you want to pay the price for it? There is no cheap democracy,” Tai says.
It may seem unthinkable that a legal scholar would ask people to break the law. But Tai believes that complying with the law is just the superficial meaning of rule of law. The highest goal is to achieve justice.