What's behind the Mong Kok 'fishball revolution'

February 11, 2016 15:05
A police officer (left) fires two gunshots into the air and points his weapon at protesters, who throw bricks and set fires. Photos: HK01.com, Bloomberg

It's sad to hear that more than 100 people, including police, journalists and protesters, were injured in violent clashes in Mong Kok between police and protesters Monday night and early Tuesday.

The incident was triggered by the government's attempt to clear unlicensed food stalls from the streets, a Hong Kong tradition during the Lunar New Year holidays, of which Monday was the first day.

It became a special day in the history of Hong Kong, when what some dubbed the "Fishball Revolution" took place. 

Localists -- activists who advocate more autonomy for the city, some going as far as to demand independence -- and other young people were on the front line to protect the hawkers when the police made their presence felt. 

Soon, the clash between the police and the localists escalated.

While some protesters set fires on the street, police officers, witnessed by several online media, were losing their control and hitting protesters with batons and pepper spray.

Some officers even beat up a journalist covering the protest.

Many Hongkongers wondered what happened that night.

Of course, Hongkongers don't want to see violent clashes on the street, but front-line police shouldn't abuse their power to arrest people without evidence of their having taken part in the fighting.

In many cases, people who were merely watching the protest were arrested and warned by the police.

Most controversially, a police officer fired two gunshots as a warning as protesters attacked an injured police officer lying on the ground.

But the gunshots demonstrated that the police, as well as the government, treated protesters as their enemies.

There have been signs that the government led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is exploiting the clashes to take action against anti-government organisations in an attempt to further suppress opposition voices.

Student activist group Scholarism became the latest victim.

Police arrested one of its members, Derek Lam Shun-hin, on Wednesday, accusing him of rioting.

But the student group said Lam was in fact with four other members of the group, including its founder, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who went to Mong Kok to show their support to the unlicensed hawkers.

Lam played no role in the "riot" and did not take part in any protests that night, Scholarism said.

It condemned the government for fabricating excuses to blame Scholarism for taking part in the clashes.

Leung called the protest a "riot". 

In fact, Hong Kong hasn't experienced a riot since the 1967 riots triggered by the pro-Beijing political struggle campaign against British colonial rule.

Even the Occupy campaign in late 2014 was not classified as a riot.

This time, young people took a radical approach to voice their anger over government policies and drew massive condemnation from government officials and politicians from both the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps.

The protest on Monday night shouldn't be defined as a riot, since the affected area was limited to several backstreets of Mong Kok.

Damage was also limited to only a small number of premises.

The government did not cancel the fireworks display the following night, indicating that concerns about the "riot" were exaggerated.

Leung made a political decision to use the term "riot" in an attempt to raise the level of concern in Beijing that Hong Kong is out of control.

As a result, he hopes, he will be allowed to take even a tougher line in Hong Kong and suppress the opposition.

But that could trigger even more violence, as the more he tries to suppress the opposition, the greater the likelihood that it will use force to defend and avenge itself.

The pro-establishment media is, of course, following the government's official line in describing the protesters as "rioters" and focusing on their attacks on police.

It is also stressing the importance of the warning shots fired by police, a rare move, as it could trigger public anger.

How the government handled the clashes shows it is no longer a government of the people but a government that stands on the opposite side of the people's interests.

It seems that government officials still do not realize that the deep-rooted conflicts between different levels of society have transformed Hong Kong into a city where trust is absent.

Government officials doubt the people's political loyalty.

Rich people condemn youngsters as a source of social instability.

Government policies protect the interests of the rich rather than those of the poor.

Young people are unable to see a bright future for themselves given the government's unfair policy of allowing mainland Chinese students to take school and university places in Hong Kong.

All these problems of social injustice in the past few years paved the way for the protest on Monday night by a younger generation that has been feeling increasingly helpless.

What Hong Kong's young people can do is seize any opportunity to voice their anger to the government.

The protection of unlicensed food stalls on Monday night is just one example.

Such protests may be expected in the future if the government continues to take a hard line against the opposition without listening to its demands.

In fact, it may be part of the Leung administration's style of political struggle to lay the foundation for such clashes.

What Hongkongers want, in the short term, is for Leung to step down as the city's chief executive.

Beijing's top leaders should understand that Leung is the prime source of instability in Hong Kong.

The removal of Leung would be the best way for Beijing to achieve the goal of a harmonious society in Hong Kong.

At least, it will allow most of the people of Hong Kong a rest from political struggle and an opportunity to focus on their lives.

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Were the Mong Kok clashes a riot?

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After Mong Kok clashes, fresh questions about the police

Ming Pao reporter files complaint of police violence

EJ Insight writer