The Hong Kong government has officially described the clashes between police and protesters on Monday night last week as a “riot”, and the hunt by police for those involved in the violence is now underway in full swing.
So far, dozens of arrests have been made, and the Department of Justice has charged several “riot leaders”.
The government may now be obsessed with its witch hunt against those involved in the clashes that night, but in my opinion, dealing with the repercussions and after-effects of the so-called riot is far more important than getting busy with putting people behind bars.
Arrests and prosecutions alone might be able to deter another clash in the short run, but they won’t be able to address the root cause of the biggest clashes between the police and citizens this city has seen since 1967.
I therefore strongly urge the government to conduct an independent inquiry into what caused that fury among our citizens on that fateful night and take the initiative to mend fences with our young people, just like the British colonial government did after the 1966 riot — or else an even bigger crisis could be in the making.
On April 6, 1966, several thousands of people assembled along Nathan Road, throwing stones at the police and setting fire to cars to protest against an increase in fares on the Star Ferry.
The riot lasted for one day. In the end, the government had to declare martial law and call out the British garrison to suppress the mob, leading to one death and 1,800 arrests.
Despite the magnitude of the violence involved in that incident, the colonial government officially referred to it only as “disturbances” rather than a “riot”.
One month after the “disturbances”, governor David Trench announced the establishment of the “Kowloon Disturbances Commission of Inquiry”, led by chief justice Michael Hogan, to look into the causes of the incident.
Trench especially put emphasis on the importance of identifying the underlying social elements that contributed to the outbreak of the “disturbances” and ordered the inquiry commission to follow all the facts wherever they led.
After dozens of hearings, the commission submitted its report to the governor in December the same year.
It gave a very detailed analysis of the causes and the course of development of the incident, as well as the profiles of the chief instigators and the deployment tactics of the police.
As far as the motive behind those “disturbances” is concerned, the report concluded that the incident was not politically motivated.
Rather, it said, one of the main reasons behind the outbreak of the incident was the lack of a sense of belonging to society and an underlying sense of insecurity plus distrust of the government among grass-roots young people.
The problem was also compounded by economic recession, high unemployment and a shortage of housing, it said.
The report also put forward a number of suggestions for the Trench administration to improve the quality of governance, one of which was the establishment of district officers (民政事務專員) to facilitate communication between the government and the local public, a set-up that remains today.
I really hope the government can draw some lessons from the response of the Trench administration and immediately conduct an independent inquiry led by a prominent judge into what caused the clashes last week.
For the sake of the well-being of our society, it is time for the government to seek reconciliation, not retaliation.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 12.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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