24 October 2016
Zhang Xiaoming (inset) is blaming last week's violence in Mong Kok on 'radical separatists' the same term Beijing uses for militants in Xinjiang and activists in Tibet. Photo: HKEJ
Zhang Xiaoming (inset) is blaming last week's violence in Mong Kok on 'radical separatists' the same term Beijing uses for militants in Xinjiang and activists in Tibet. Photo: HKEJ

Labels are no way to respond to violence

Seven days after the Mong Kok clashes between protesters and the police, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong broke his silence by blaming “radical separatists” for the incident.

Zhang Xiaoming, director of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, said radical separatists have become “increasingly violent, even carrying out activities that showed terror tendencies”.

Many Hong Kong people are wondering if Zhang was specifically referring to the protesters and whether he considers them supporters of separatism.

Voters in New Territories East will get a chance to weigh in on the issue in a by-election in two weeks when the opposing political camps will face their first public test since the violence.

Already, Beijing’s propaganda chiefs are trying to link pro-democracy activists and politicians to the incident to try to paint them as a threat to social stability.

They are determined to win the hearts and minds of the silent majority.

But why the rush to label the protesters? 

The term “radical separatists” is being used by Beijing to describe militants blamed for recent violent attacks in Xinjiang and for opponents of central government rule in Tibet.

The question is, are the Feb. 8 Mong Kok clashes comparable to either of those circumstances? If those protesters are “radical separatists” what are they trying to separate from?

The only reason they gathered in Mong Kok that night was to support street vendors who were facing a police crackdown during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Sure, they had no license but that did not bother the police in previous years.

But in this particular instance, the protesters are being accused of inciting separatism.

Beijing is making no distinction between that and localism, which is about maintaining Hong Kong’s uniqueness.

That is why many ordinary Hong Kong people are starting to feel like they are being tarred with the same brush as those involved in the violence.

How long will it take before the fight for rule of law, free speech and individual freedoms become a bad omen?   

To be fair, the police had to respond to stop the violence.

That is plainly what we saw. Similarly, the causes of the violence should not be overlooked.

In fact, public anger has been simmering in recent years, for instance after the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build white elephant infrastructure projects that mainly serve Beijing’s political goals.

These include the high-speed rail link, the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge and the third airport runway.

The government, together with its pro-Beijing allies in the legislature, has used its dominance to get funding for these projects.

If the government did not get legislative approval, it pressed ahead anyway by skirting the legislature altogether.

There is your recipe for mass disaffection with a government that has no hesitation to use the tyranny of the majority to stifle dissenting voices.

But instead of listening to this disgruntled section of the populace, the government is alienating them by painting them as troublemakers bent on hiving Hong Kong from the rest of the nation.

The high-pressure rule by Beijing is no doubt forcing the political opposition, especially the younger generation, into a defensive mindset.

Older Hongkongers might remember the Feb. 28, 1947 massacre in Taiwan in which tens of thousands of people were killed by the Kuomintang government for opposing its rule two years after the end of the Japanese occupation.

There is no indication such extreme governance is about to happen in Hong Kong.

But it’s worrying that both sides in the Mong Kok clashes — the violent protesters and communist loyalists — are threatening more violence to achieve their agenda.

The authorities in Beijing should think carefully how to respond to violence in our streets but simply labelling the perpetrators as radical separatists is not a response.

It’s just a convenient excuse to supplant one form of violence with another.

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EJ Insight writer

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