Running riot: Is civil unrest the new normal for Hong Kong?

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The Year of the Monkey opened with chaos on the streets of Mong Kok. Jamie Law investigates whether protesters in the Fishball Revolution deserve to be charged with ‘rioting’ and whether civil unrest is the new normal for Hong Kong. Additional reporting by Josiah Ng and Charles Seymour-Lyttelton


Protesters amid the violence in Mong Kok. Photo courtesy of Anthony Kwan / AFP.

The first night of the Lunar New Year saw a level of public disturbance that has been absent from Hong Kong since the anti-colonial and labour riots of the 1960s. On the streets of Mong Kok, fires were set, bricks were thrown and warning shots rung out. In their attempts to restore order, police officers, primarily from the traffic division, quickly found themselves in the line of attack. Approximately 130 people were injured, 90 of who were police officers, and 65 people were arrested. Following Hong Kong police commissioner Lo Wai-chung’s suggestion that rioters may have been ‘prepared and organised’, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sought to blamed the rioting on a ‘local radical separatist organisation’ rather than general discontent.

The catalyst for the violence was an unexpected crackdown on Portland Street hawkers, to whom the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has traditionally turned a blind eye during Chinese New Year. According to Mong Kok residents, this process began with minor interruptions to the hawkers’ trading and did little to cause serious offence or spark an angry reaction.

“It started off as a very small incident. The hawkers were going about their business and people from FEHD asked them if they could be neater and that was it. There was no need for the people who were protesting to make this into such a big thing,” complains local storeowner Mr Lee Wai-ming.


Crowds gather round a hawkers’s stand in Mong Kok. Photo by Calvin Sit

While many see the eruption of violence as excessive, others consider it a necessary demonstration against everything they perceive to be wrong with Hong Kong’s current political situation. “Nativist groups like HK Indigenous organised a Facebook campaign calling on hundreds of citizens to show up in Mong Kok to support the street vendors who were being pursued by government officials for hawking cooked food without a permit,” claims Jason Ng, writer and author of Umbrellas in Bloom, the first book published in English about Hong Kong’s Occupy movement of 2014. “The hawkers were just a conduit,” Ng adds. “The government’s decision to crack down on small business owners trying to make a modest living, and to do so on Chinese New Year’s Day, was considered merciless and oppressive.” Though some may consider this intervention to be of little consequence in itself, to others it exemplifies the continued erosion of a way of life that is part of the fabric and identity of Hong Kong citizens. Belief in the creeping Mainlaindisation of Hong Kong is what fires localist groups like HK Indigenous, whose member Edward Leung Tin-kei – running as a candidate in the Legislative Council by-election in February – was among those arrested in Mong Kok.

Many see a connection between the Mong Kok flare-up and continuing dissatisfaction in the wake of Occupy Central and disappointment that the 79-day protest failed to produce political change. Human rights lawyer Alvin Cheung explains. “Although I suspect some localists were ‘spoiling for a fight’, it seems much more likely that that the Fishball Revolution started because of mutual miscalculations and distrust. In a political environment where the police view protesters and journalists as enemies to be beaten up, and where public trust of the police had not recovered from the revelations of abuse during Occupy, an outbreak of violence on this scale – especially in Mong Kok – was inevitable.”

Although the need for political change in Hong Kong is acknowledged, opposing views disagree as to what form it should take and how it should be achieved. Localists purportedly using hawkers as an excuse for violence has been condemned not only by government officials, but also by Mong Kok residents. “To turn such an unimportant issue into a riot is uncalled for. Although [HK] Indigenous really wanted to protect the hawkers, they did not need to make a scene of it. They can protest if they want to, but it was unnecessarily gratuitous to spark such uproar. I believe the police intended to maintain order. This will also affect confidence in Hong Kong, especially from tourists,” laments storeowner Lee. A market stall vendor, Chan Mei-ling chips in, “It isn’t all black and white. I’m only speaking for myself, but, as with Occupy Central, the students were not completely wrong. However, as it unfolded, there were triad members who went in to stir things up. That’s when it got out of hand.”


The aftermath in Mong Kok. Photo courtesy of Xaume Olleros/ Anadolu Agency

Despite the widespread alarm over the rapid escalation of violence on New Year’s Day, the government has rejected calls from academics to establish an independent commission to investigate the incident. Claims that the Mong Kok riots are not a governmental issue have resulted in a backlash from pro-democracy groups. Claudia Mo of the Civic Party questioned the decision during the Panel on Security held on February 16, asking, “How can you say that it had nothing to do with the government? You [Lai Tung-kwok, Secretary for Security] are diverting attention. The government has said that there won’t be an independent commission of enquiry… but you’re doing an internal investigation with your own people investigating your own.” She went on to ask, “So how are you going to give an unbiased account to the people of Hong Kong?” Not everyone disagrees with the government’s perspective. Christopher Chung Shu-kun, member of pro-establishment party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has countered, “Opposition members are trying to shift [the] focus. This incident has only just happened and a lot of investigation work still has to be done. We are talking about a criminal investigation… If we have a commission enquiry it will just disrupt the investigation.”

Of the 65 people arrested in Mong Kok, 37 have so far beencharged. Controversy has arisen from the decision to charge all but one of the defendants with rioting, which carries a higher maximum sentence than the lesser crime of unlawful assembly. Only one of the 37 charged, Tam Hiu-tung, has been charged with the later. Illuminating the difference between the two activities, barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung told The Standard unlawful assembly involves an intention to breach the peace whereas rioting involves unlawful assembly and actual breach of peace.

The severity of the charges towards the remaining 36 has unsettled some. Citing the violence that took place surrounding Star Ferry fares in March 1966 – which was deemed a disturbance – League of Social Democrats lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung is demanding the government explain its decision. Hong Kong lawmaker James To has supported this call, urging the government to present sufficient evidence to back the charge. “It’s important to show clear evidence of exactly what the defendant did at the scene, while others were committing acts of violence,” To says. In response, secretary for justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has said that the disturbance in Mong Kok was a unusual case, and rebutted the accusation that the charges are politically motivated. “There are absolutely no political considerations. I do not wish to see people use [the phrase] ‘political considerations’ as a cover-up for illegal activities,” Yuen told reporters. “Since the 1997 handover have you seen something similar to what happened that night? ... It is exactly because it is rare that we charged the suspects with rioting.”

In a city which has for many years been deemed extremely safe, where residents have been considered quietly compliant, recent events may mark an important change – political passivity appears to have been replaced by increased awareness and activism. Ng concludes, “Many, myself included, predicted an escalation of anti-government clashes after Occupy ended. The idea is ‘if this doesn’t work, we’ll try something else’. Violent clashes will be the new normal, until protesters realize that that too doesn’t work and [try] something else.”

Though members of the localist movement declined an interview, one member told us, “This was not a riot, it was a prelude to a revolution.”

Find out more about Legco’s Panel on Security at legco.gov.hk

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