16 January 2019
Although the Mong Kok clashes have dismayed most Hongkongers, authorities have refrained from using the violence as a pretext to revive plans for a new national security law. Photo: Bloomberg
Although the Mong Kok clashes have dismayed most Hongkongers, authorities have refrained from using the violence as a pretext to revive plans for a new national security law. Photo: Bloomberg

Moral high ground: Lessons from Mong Kok clashes

Following the so-called Fishball Riots in Mong Kok earlier this month, the protesters who were involved in the violent clashes with the police have come under fire from all sides.

Even some of the pan-democrats who had blamed the incidents on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s poor governance quickly disavowed in no uncertain terms any connection with the “rioters” and dissociated themselves from the instigators of the clashes. 

It appeared that “violence” was a politically radioactive matter in our city. So we need to examine this: why are Hongkongers particularly sensitive about physical violence in social movements?

Undeniably, Hong Kong has long been a peaceful city after the Second World War. The place has seen very little social unrest and violence apart from the 1956 “October 10th riot” and the notorious 1967 leftist riots.

In particular, horrible pictures of the 1967 riots have left such a deep scar in the minds of our older citizens that even those who took part in the protests refrain from touching on the subject and opening old wounds again.

The destruction, horror and the haunting memory of the 1967 riots might be one of the reasons that contribute to the repulsion among Hong Kong people at any social movement that contains even the slightest element of violence.

That begs another question: why didn’t the Leung Chun-ying administration, pro-establishment camp lawmakers and even director of Beijing’s Liaison Office, Zhang Xiaoming, seize the opportunity to call for the enactment of Article 23 of the Basic Law after this month’s “riot”, given that most Hong Kong people are opposed to violence?

While all the top brass condemned the violence, almost all of them asserted that the riot was irrelevant to the issue of legislation of Article 23. So what’s the deal with their unanimous restraint?

One reason, I believe, is that both Beijing and the pro-establishment camp have already learned the painful lessons of the July 1 rally back in 2003 and the anti-Moral and National Education Curriculum movement in 2012.

It’s apparent that they have learned it the hard way that whatever policy initiative the administration wants to press ahead with, the golden rule is, never to provoke any large-scale social movement again, especially in election year.

It is because once a movement attracts hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens to join, it automatically conquers the moral high ground, no matter how weak its cause or how flimsy the arguments put up by the movement leaders.

Once a big monster of mass social movement is born, it will definitely dwarf the government and put it on the defensive, and it will only be a matter of time before the administration is forced to go on its knees.

Besides, once a mass movement attracts hundreds of thousands of people and gathers momentum, it takes on a life of its own, and can no longer be controlled even by the movement leaders, such as what happened during the Occupy Movement in 2014, thereby creating even more political variables and even a firestorm of public uproar that might eventually threaten the rule of the government.

And now let’s get back to our subject: is there absolutely no room for violence in our social movements? The answer is both yes and no. “Yes” because any violent act by protesters, no matter how noble their cause might be, is unlikely to gain public approval in Hong Kong. However, “no” because protesters can still resort to extreme non-violent or even “borderline” violent means to push the tolerance of the authorities to the limit.

Once the authorities lose their patience and respond with excessive force, like what happened on Sept. 28, 2014, when riot police officers suddenly fired tear gas canisters directly into the crowd in Admiralty, it is almost certain that public opinion will immediately turn against the government, and the protesters will win.

“Borderline violence” might not be able to achieve immediately what the protesters are fighting for, but once it succeeds in provoking any overreaction or excessive force from the authorities, it is very likely that it will swing public opinion their way, and put them on the moral high ground.

In modern society, whoever claims the moral high ground can always negotiate with their adversaries from a position of strength.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 22.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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