If hundreds of young people armed with makeshift shields set fires, hurl bricks at police and kick them to the ground, would you describe such violence as a riot? Before you decide, you need to know the exact definition of a riot. The Oxford Dictionary defines a riot as a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd. The Cambridge Dictionary has a similar definition.
By that definition, the overnight violence in Mong Kok from February 8 to February 9, 2016 was definitely a riot. Youths wearing protective gear set fires and attacked police by hurling bricks, bottles, and trash cans. They repeatedly kicked and beat policemen who had fallen to the ground. Over 40 policemen were injured, some seriously.
When a judge last week jailed Edward Leung Tin-kei, a leader of the independence movement, for six years for his role in the Mong Kok violence, critics attacked her harsh sentence as political persecution. They castigated her for accepting the government’s assertion that what happened was indeed a riot.
Even opposition legislators, some with legal backgrounds, took issue with the judge’s sentence and refused to call the violence a riot. They insisted it was just an incident involving frustrated young people venting anger over the broken promise of so-called genuine democracy in Hong Kong. They blamed the violence on the authorities for ignoring the root causes of youth discontent in Hong Kong.
Some have chosen to call the violence the “Fishball Revolution”. Others have called it civil unrest. People are, of course, free to even call it a tea party if they want. But to tweak Shakespeare’s famous quote about the smell of a rose, a riot by any other name is still a riot, just like the 1989 Tiananmen massacre was still a massacre, even if you prefer to call it an incident.
Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying wrote on Facebook that police elsewhere would have shot dead those involved in such violence. He is only partly right. Police did shoot dead numerous rioters during the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. But police in democracies normally quell riots with teargas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. They do not use live fire.
The most recent large-scale riot in the US took place in the mostly African-American district of Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 after a white policeman shot dead a black man suspected of the armed robbery of a convenience store. Police used tear gas, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. No one was shot dead.
There have been many incidents over recent months of US police shooting dead mostly African-American civilians. But those deaths involved confrontations between civilians and trigger-happy police officers, not riots.
While Leung was partly right about foreign policemen shooting dead rioters, opposition legislators were not totally wrong in trying to justify the violence. But they went about it the wrong way. Anyone who saw video footage of what happened in Mong Kok cannot but conclude it was a riot.
Instead of blinding themselves to the truth, the opposition should accept a riot did occur but demand government action in tackling the underlying causes, of which there are many. Leung Tin-kei and his supporters are both the product and victims of these root causes. I met him when I co-hosted a radio debate by candidates for the 2016 Legislative Council by-election.
He is an intelligent and soft-spoken young man who passionately believes in his cause. I felt really sorry for him when the judge jailed him for six years. He could have gone far in Hong Kong politics had he used common sense instead of impulse to play his cards.
Leung was convicted after an open jury trial and must spend years of his young life behind bars. He can, of course, appeal. There is no reason why he can’t win even though many have recently slandered our independent judiciary by accusing it of political bias.
Our last British governor, Lord Patten, is among those who have claimed the government used the law to politically persecute Leung, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, and other young activists. But as I have said many times before, political persecution is only possible if the government and the judiciary join hands to persecute people.
Our independent judiciary makes that impossible unless Patten has proof Hong Kong’s judges are no longer independent. If he has proof, he should make it public instead of staining the good name of our judiciary on the world stage.
Leung’s jailing is a wake-up call not only for him and our young localists but also for the whole Hong Kong, including our government. Something is terribly wrong when young people are driven to go on a violent rampage. We have seen it happen elsewhere but never imagined it could happen here.
The Mong Kok riot was an offshoot of the failed 2014 Occupy uprising to press for greater democracy. Hong Kong is now a dysfunctional society ravaged by the world’s highest home prices, a disillusioned young generation, stagnant wages, and Beijing’s tightening grip on us.
The Occupy movement failed but that doesn’t mean the government succeeded. Leung’s jailing, the Mong Kok violence, the young generation’s hostility towards mainland China, and the refusal of many Hong Kong people to identify themselves as Chinese are all rooted in a government that has failed to be in sync with the people.
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