27 October 2016
Masked protesters throw objects at police in Mong Kok during clashes earlier this month. Photo: Duowei News
Masked protesters throw objects at police in Mong Kok during clashes earlier this month. Photo: Duowei News

Why the ‘Fishball Revolution’ must prompt new thinking

China has in the past decade witnessed a spike in “mass incidents”, a term that is in fact a fancy alternative to words like protests or riots in the Communist Party’s official discourse.

Hong Kong has also gone through similar developments in the past three years under the Leung Chun-ying administration, events so precipitous that the woes of the city’s previous regimes pale in comparison.

A policeman’s firing of two warning shots into the air during the Mong Kok standoff this month has laid bare the fact that authorities won’t hesitate to use stepped-up force against protestors.

Meanwhile, local activists are also displaying new levels of courage. It’s clear that after Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Taiwan, alienation sentiments are on the rise among Hongkongers due to Beijing’s political bullying. 

How hawker control has changed

I worked as a teacher at Pui Shing Catholic Secondary School in Kowloon Tong during the 1970s. At that time, there were several other schools including Maryknoll, Ying Wa, Moral Training English College, Jockey Club Government Secondary School and Wong Fut Nam College, in the neighborhood.

Lunch was a problem given the number of students and that gave birth to a “hawker street” with dozens of stalls along a small alley there. Students would always crowd the place during the lunch break and avail of cheap yet tasty food, a godsend to teenagers from poor families.

I bet some of my students, like Raymond Wong Yuk-man, former legislator Cheung Man-kwong, development secretary Paul Chan Mo-po as well as two graduates that became vice presidents at Citibank Hong Kong, all miss the street food there.

Vendors there would always clean up the street after the lunch break and the food was way cheaper than those at school canteens. Hawker patrols, like those from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, were also truly compassionate and seldom interfered or issued tickets to those trying to make a living.

One can’t help feeling that colonial authorities were more lenient than the SAR government, as the latter has cracked down on street vendors even during the Lunar New Year, when in the past food patrols normally used to turn a blind eye to unlicensed stalls.

When employed as a full-time member at the Hong Kong government’s Central Policy Unit during the Tung Chee-hwa administration, I proposed to loosen hawker control to alleviate sagging consumption after the city was hit by the Asian Financial crisis, bird flu and SARS epidemic.

I outlined detailed policy recommendations including suitable locations citywide, number of hawkers and stalls to be allowed as well as the estimated government funding.

Yet Tung dropped the plan due to opposition from chain-store retailers and major developers, and as some officials also feared that roadside stalls could be an eyesore and hard to regulate.

Street trading is for the convenience of the people, and it’s also an easy way for many to start their own businesses without investing too much. Governments of other leading metropolises all adopt liberal policies to nurture streetside stalls, but this is surely not the case in Hong Kong.

A fundamental question

Today the spat over hawker management has surfaced again, with far deeper implications involving localism and democracy that have transcended the original controversy.

The unrest, or the “fishball revolution”, that erupted on Mong Kok streets during the Lunar New Year has raised a fundamental question.

In an earlier column, I noted that “the SAR government, having fired tear gas at protesters during the 2014 Occupy movement, won’t hesitate to escalate the use of force in future crackdowns and that real bullets can be fired next time”.

Meanwhile, I warned that the reaction of demonstrators will also be much fiercer than what we saw in previous protests. Hong Kong may be constantly pushed to the verge of a catastrophe amid strong-arm tactics from the government and stiff resistance from the people.

These shifts pose a question to mainstream democrats – can we accept, or at least accommodate more radical approaches when the peaceful way and “democratic reunification” have led us nowhere?

It’s easy to come up with a negative answer, as one can cite precedents like Indian independence revolution or the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, which were largely peaceful throughout.

Also, most Hongkongers dread violence and are wary of full-on battle with authorities, who have batons, bullets and much more at their disposal.

Many are against a head-on tactic, but there is a case to be made for just such an approach, as what we have been facing is a totalitarian party that has used the most ferocious violence and keeps warning that it will use even stronger tactics in future. 

The threats have in a way justified the case for a more fiery and valiant way forward for the entire democratic camp.

In its own doctrine the Communist Party worships violence, and it is indeed an expert in it. Marxism, Leninism and Maoism all applaud violence, but the case now is that the ruler can use unlimited violence against the ruled but not vice versa.

Also, there’s no example in history in which a democratic movement against an authoritarian regime could attain goals without making some sanguinary sacrifices.

A word of advice to old-line democrats: never stand on a moral high ground to throw mud at younger protesters who opt for direct confrontation. Instead, they should seek synergy of a coalition even while sticking to their original non-violent strategy.

People who rioted in Mong Kok this month were either driven by sympathy for hawkers or were venting their anger against the police due to built-up resentment from previous rallies.

The motive may vary but all advocates of democracy must unite across a wide spectrum.

There were some rumors that the Mong Kok events were orchestrated by Leung and his lackeys to gain an advantage. 

Some say he deliberately delayed police reinforcement at the outset when some constables came under siege and were punched by angry protesters. The motive, the conspiracy theorists argue, was to galvanize public opinion in order to justify a high-handed crackdown.

But unless we have more evidence, I don’t buy such theory.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 11.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Protesters burn tires and other things as they battle police amid a rally in support of street hawkers. Authorities have described the incidents as a "riot". Photo: AP

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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