25 October 2016
Protesters set fires and throw bricks at police in a confrontation in Mong Kok this month. Photo: Bloomberg
Protesters set fires and throw bricks at police in a confrontation in Mong Kok this month. Photo: Bloomberg

Fishball revolution: When the egg becomes a brick

Beijing has labeled the Mong Kok “fishball revolution”, which took place amid the government’s mainlandization push and widespread discontent among the masses, a “riot premeditated by a small bunch of extreme, localist separatists”.

Some participants have been arrested and could possibly face jail sentences. Meanwhile, politicians, including those from the democratic bloc, have dissociated themselves from the protesters.

Now, let us bear in mind that when history charts a new course, it is never for the contemporary generation to lay down the verdict as to who is the hero and who is the desperado.

When visiting my family in Canada during the Lunar New Year break, I was invited by the University of Toronto Chinese Politics Society for a speech on the state and future of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The symposium was held after the Mong Kok clashes, and most of the questions during the Q&A session were about the use of violence in social movements.

Media coverage highlighting the violent scenes may have galvanized public opinion as many believe there’s no justification for any violence. Such thinking displays a knee-jerk mindset to side with the ruling power to defend the status quo, never mind if the rulers lack legitimacy.

History may offer some insights.

At the end of Emperor Qianlong’s (乾隆) reign, the Qing dynasty was plagued with corruption. A rebellious movement called White Lotus (白蓮教) erupted in regions such as Sichuan, Hunan and Shaanxi where people lived in utter poverty. Though the regime was precarious, central authorities mounted a full crackdown and took over ten years to quell the uprising.

Imperial historians in the following decades called it a “heinous revolt”, and the same derogatory tone was also applied to other crises like the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (太平天國) movement.

But after the Qing dynasty’s collapse these rebels were called “revolutionary pioneers”.

Sun Yat-sen’s endeavors to overthrow Qing also involved a lot of violence. After his rout following the first Guangzhou uprising, Sun went into exile in Yokohama and sought refuge with his Japanese friends, who funded his activities and even the purchase of weapons. To the Qing dynasty, Sun’s political agenda was violent through and through and his crime of insurgency should not be forgiven.

If Sun lived in today’s China, one might expect him to have been spoken by Beijing in the same breath as the Hong Kong “rioters” since Sun colluded with overseas forces to plot mayhem and subversion.

But in reality Beijing now calls Sun, in the party’s official discourse, a “revolutionary pioneer” who toppled the feudal rule in China. This suggests that the use of violence is not a determinant factor and that the result justifies the means. The same applies to the American Revolution as well as the US civil war that gave birth to the Emancipation Proclamation.

When stepping up rhetoric against Hong Kong protesters, Beijing is never shy about advocating the use of heavy force to clamp down on unrest. Party leaders, for instance, think the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square in 1989 has ensured stability in the mainland in the ensuing decades.

Here in Hong Kong, the Tung Chee-hwa administration awarded the Grand Bauhinia Medal to Yeung Kwong, a mastermind of the 1967 riots against colonial rule.

Hong Kong’s democratic path is like an egg that breaks against a high wall. But after Mong Kok, the egg has now become a brick. This development, and the emergence of a more strident tactic, has led to erosion of the public’s faith in the traditional democratic camp.

But my question is, should the egg always remain as an egg when the wall is not at all shaken?

It’s ludicrous for Beijing, which has relied on tyranny to rule the country, to take a hypocritical stance against violence after youngsters hurled bricks at the police in Mong Kok streets.

Sticking to non-violence can be the safest bet but when you are faced with an unyielding wall, one is ready to accept stronger tactics. As the dovish way has turned out to be a dead end, future protests can only take a more valiant form.

If Beijing genuinely wants a solution to address the violence, it should turn to Friedrich Engels.

Engels was once a steadfast advocate of violent revolutions as judged from his book Anti-Dühring, where he wrote that “revolution is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, to help social movement force its way through and shatter the dead, fossilized political forms”.

But, having dedicated his entire life to Marxism and theories of violent, Communist revolutions, Engels, in his later years, gained insight that the only way to avoid violence is free elections at all levels of a political group or a country, a means through votes and parliamentary democracy — as noted in his introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France.

His new observations were indeed a striking departure from Marx’s assertion about the realization of proletariat dictatorship through revolutions.

We are pretty sure that Beijing will never take Engels’ advice.

This article combines two separate columns that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 15 and 22.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese versions 中文版 1, 2]

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Protesters throw a burning object at police officers in Mong Kok during the night of Feb. 8. Photo: Bloomberg

Pedestrians take photographs after the police resumed control of Mong Kok. Photo: Bloomberg

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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