Fishball fury

Chinese New Year riots are another sign of disaffection in Hong Kong

A riot policeman walks in front of a fire set by protesters at a junction in Mongkok district in Hong Kong

City inflamed: Hong Kong welcomed the Year of the Monkey with unrest

After Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Andrew Li was appointed as the territory’s Chief Justice, staying as its top judge until 2010.

Not long after Li got promoted, Tsang Tak-shing, then the chief editor of a pro-Beijing newspaper, took on a key role as the government official responsible for Hong Kong’s youth policy and community relations.

Li and Tsang had met before: in a prison. Back in 1968 order had just been restored after a series of riots instigated by pro-Communist activists had ravaged the British colony a year earlier. Li was then an intern at the Far Eastern Economic Review. The Cambridge law school graduate interviewed Tsang, an 18 year-old student who had been jailed for distributing anti-government leaflets in classrooms.

Li and Tsang had different political allegiances. Yet both agreed that social inequality was the root cause of the 1967 riots. Tsang also told Li why he sided with the Communist cause: “One day after school, I saw a policeman overturn a hawker’s cart of tomatoes and then stamp on them deliberately… I believe something has to change.”

Nearly half a century on, Hong Kong was rocked once more by violent protests this month. And once again street food vendors seemed to have played a part in the unrest.

The chaos erupted on February 8, the first night of the Chinese New Year, and a prime time for unlicenced food stalls to pop up on the city’s busier streets. Food hawking is one of the so-called “local heritage activities of Hong Kong” that political activists have vowed to protect. Things began to turn ugly – according to the protesters – when health inspectors cracked down on vendors selling fishballs and other traditional snacks in the shopping district of Mongkok.

The government has a different version of events. It says food safety inspectors were simply completing their regular checks and had no intention of removing the vendors.

Yet, it is also contended, the food stalls were soon surrounded by young activists who seemed well prepared for confrontation.

One of the “nativist groups” was Hong Kong Indigenous (the body behind some of the high-profile protests targeting mainland Chinese tourists, see WiC271), which had been rallying its supporters to “protect the street food vendors” on social media before the Chinese New Year.

When police were called in, the handful of officers were confronted by the gathering mob. Bottles were thrown. Reinforcements arrived, primarily from the traffic division, but they soon found themselves in the firing line of the angry activists. Rampaging protesters then fought pitched battles with outnumbered officers. One officer was forced to point his pistol at the mob and fire warning shots in the air, after a colleague was knocked off his feet by the barrage of bottles and bricks.

It was not until the arrival of properly-armed officers that rioters began to disperse. By then at least 130 people had been injured, more than 90 of them police (four reporters were also hurt).

The term “fishball revolution” quickly gained traction on social media. But the authorities found little that was heroic in the disturbances, slamming them as the worst riot in Hong Kong since the 1960s.

“I believe the public can see for themselves from TV news reports the seriousness of the situation,” Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary CY Leung said in a press conference. “The government strongly condemns such violent acts; the police will apprehend the mobs and bring them to justice.”

Those arrested – 68 so far – face serious charges, such as participating in a riot, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from across the border in mainland China has been hawkish.

“We strongly condemn those radical separatists who are becoming increasingly violent, even engaging in activities verging on terrorism,” said Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Liaison Office for the Chinese government in Hong Kong. “We strongly condemn those unreasonable remarks that agitate for violence and confuse right and wrong, and even attempt to shift the blame onto other people.”

The state media sector was quick to condemn the disturbance too. Xinhua said in an editorial that Hong Kong’s tourist industry, economy and international image will suffer due to the violence.

“When respect for law and the peaceful and rational forms of expression are discarded, it is imaginable that… social stability has been damaged,” the editorial suggested.

The Hong Kong government is now planning tighter regulations for public demonstrations. Singtao Daily polled 67 (out of 69) lawmakers last week and reported that 46% of them would support new laws banning protesters from wearing masks. Global Times also reported that the riot has rekindled talks on a controversial proposal to enact laws prohibiting treason and subversion against the central government.

More liberal observers believe a better strategy would be to recognise younger Hongkongers’ growing discontent, rather than suppressing it.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, believed that the brawl was fuelled by the failed pro-democracy protests of 2014 (known as Occupy Central, see WiC244) and that angry youngsters simply can’t see any future under Leung’s administration.

Xiake Island, a popular commentator from the WeChat account of the People’s Daily newspapers, took a similar line. “There is a growing wealth gap in Hong Kong and home prices are running away. There is no upward social mobility for younger people. These are all deep-lying social problems,” it warned.

That’s why a group of academics have called on Leung’s administration to borrow a lesson from Hong Kong’s former colonial rulers.

Following the riots in 1967, the British government set up an independent commission to investigate the causes of the disturbances, leading to a host of new government policies like the provision of more subsidised housing.

The 1967 riots began with a labour dispute on May 1 at a plastic flower factory. Riot police were called in and picketing workers were arrested. Pro-Communist labour unions seized the chance to rally large-scale demonstrations requesting the workers’ release. The protests boiled over into riots and attacks across Hong Kong for much of that year.

Is history repeating itself?

“It’s worrying that even a small group of radical hooligans could start a riot of such scale. Had the social atmosphere been better, the mob wouldn’t have stood a chance of instigating anything. There is bound to be a lesson to learn after so much violence and so many arrests,” a commentator in The Standard, a Hong Kong newspaper, wrote of this month’s unrest. “In most democracies, it’s common to follow up on a riot with a formal inquiry.”

For the time being, Leung’s administration has refused a formal probe into the Mongkok riots, although Qi Pengfei, a director of Renmin University’s research centre on Hong Kong affairs, warned that clashes could erupt again if the government fails to respond to public dissatisfaction.

Hong Kong overcame its year of difficulties in 1967. While some businessmen panicked and fled the city, Li Ka-shing snapped up real estate on the cheap, transforming himself from a maker of plastic flowers into a property magnate.

And once again Hong Kong’s property market has a fragile feel today ­– there are predictions real estate prices could fall 40% or more. One key reason is dwindling interest from mainland Chinese buyers, who had hitherto been aggressive purchasers. Now with speculation that a Hong Kong-based bookseller was kidnapped from the territory by Chinese security forces, the mainland’s rich may no longer feel that Hong Kong’s status is quite so “special” and some are said to be opting to purchase bolt-holes in other overseas cities instead.

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