What will happen after the protesters are punished?

February 18, 2016 15:40
The government has condemned the clashes in Mong Kok last week as a "riot" but refuses to reflect on its underlying causes. Photo: TVB

I attended a public forum with young people in late November 2014, when the Occupy Movement was on the verge of faltering.

At the time, I said I had never seen in my entire life so many young people feeling so discontented with and distrustful of the goverment.

I went on to say that if the government failed to address the mounting grievances of our disgruntled youth, sooner or later the confrontation could turn ferocious and ugly, and the gloves would be off between our young people and the police.

Much to my dismay and sadness, my prediction finally came true on Monday last week.

Worse, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did not seize the opportunity to address the deep-rooted discontent and grievances among our young people and call for reconciliation.

Instead, he characterized the clashes last week as a “riot”, blaming the tragedy on a small number of ignorant and naïve troublemakers who either took reckless action of their own accord or were incited by political parties.

The problem is, once again, the administration has oversimplified the facts and chosen to turn a blind eye to the underlying causes of the crisis we are facing.

Unfortunately, sweeping all the dirt under the carpet doesn’t mean it will cease to exist.

Talk is cheap, but numbers don’t lie.

The most recent survey by the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program shows Leung's approval rating among Hongkongers aged 18 to 29 is only 8 percent -- 87 percent are against him, compared with 86 percent in December 2014, at the height of the Occupy movement.

In other words, more than a year after the Occupy movement, the chief executive remains as unpopular as ever among our young people.

Also hitting a record low is the approval rating of the Hong Kong government as a whole, which stands at 24 percent, compared with 27 percent in October 2014.

Even more disastrous is the plunge in satisfaction ratings of the police force, which dropped from 74.8 percent in July 1997 to an appalling 28.7 percent in November 2015, thanks to the police dragging their feet in investigating several officers’ brutal acts against protesters during the Occupy movement.

Simply put, more than 14 months after the Occupy movement, things have not improved at all, and the grudges and grievances among our young fellow citizens against the authorities have hit explosive levels.

What happened last week in Mongkok spoke volumes about the touch-and-go situation our society is facing.

Why were they so angry?

While members of the public who were watching the television news on that night were cursing the protesters for throwing stones at the police and setting fire to sidewalk trash cans, did it even occur to them for a few seconds to ask why these bare-handed young people were suddenly losing their minds and taking on police officers in full riot gear?

Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely not finding excuses for those who committed violent acts and disrupted public order that night.

They should be brought to justice for what they did, and I also highly respect the professionalism of the vast majority of our law enforcement officers.

My point is, these people who are now facing charges of inciting and participating in riots, an offense that draws a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment, are mostly average young people aged between 18 to 30 with no criminal records or connection with triads whatsoever, and some of them are even university students.

Obviously they are not born violent, so why did they suddenly behave like that?

Where did their anger and fury come from?

Since Leung has vowed that he will not allow another “riot” like that to happen again, may I ask: apart from making further arrests and pressing charges, what else will his administration do to prevent the same thing from happening again?

Was he implying that he was going to tighten his grip on the freedoms of speech and assembly of the people of Hong Kong?

To me, the cause of the “riot” is as simple as it gets: the incident took place because the indignation among our young people at mounting social injustice, deteriorating judicial independence, Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance and the uneven enforcement of the law by the police over the past few years has reached the tipping point.

Many of them are getting increasingly frustrated with the unjust political system and their powerlessness, and an increasing number of them are now becoming more eager to go to greater lengths to redress the injustice.

Our society is sitting on a powder keg that is continuing to expand, and all it takes is a small spark to ignite it, like what happened in Mong Kok last week.

Now that our government has characterized the clashes last week as a “riot”, there are two choices before it: either it tightens its grip on our civil liberties and intensifies its crackdown on dissent or it reviews its governance strategy as a whole, reflects on its wrong policies in the past and gets to the root of our governance crisis and fixes the problems with an open mind.

The result of any wrong diagnosis by our leaders of the disease that is plaguing our society could lead to a full-scale disaster from which none of us can be spared.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 17.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government