Posted: Feb. 19, 2016
Hong Kong gets to celebrate New Year’s Day twice, thanks to the borderline spot it occupies along the great East-West divide. That means extra holidays … and extra demo days as well. This year the political message was the same for both January 1 and February 8, the first day on the Chinese Lunar New Year calendar. Both heralded the start of “another fighting year.” The phrase was coined by retired school teacher James Hon when activists were casting about for a theme to mark their traditional January First New Year’s Day protest march. Only he didn’t mean it literally.
On January First, a few thousand people walked peacefully along the usual Hong Kong Island protest route and ended as usual with nothing to show for the day’s effort despite their many causes demanding redress (Jan. 7 post).
Only a few hundred people turned out on February Eighth. But they were not a peaceful lot and their protest ended with plenty to show in the form of a spontaneous eruption of violent frustration at the futility of Hong Kong’s peaceful protest tradition. Together they left behind ominous predictions of more to come from sympathizers and detractors alike.
VIOLENCE IN THE NAME OF DEMOCRACY
The provocation seems to have been trivial although details remain murky. Since events unfolded overnight on February 8-9, at the end of the first day of the three-day Lunar New Year break … the one time each year when even professional news providers take time off … what actually happened was not immediately apparent. It still isn’t. But the issue was an alleged government plan to remove some unlicensed cooked-food hawkers from places they were occupying in a busy late night street market.
The outburst flared quickly just because it was so unexpected. Political violence is rare here and political gatherings are so well prepared in advance, both by participants and by law enforcement, that no one worries much about the possibility of events proceeding otherwise.
In this case, after 10 hours of mayhem, it was officially decided that what had happened deserved to be labeled a full blown riot 【暴亂】. By the time calm was restored next morning, over a hundred people had been injured including 90 police officers. One traffic policeman, finding himself and a colleague surrounded, fired two warning shorts into the air, an unheard of occurrence during street demonstrations here.
Luckily, protesters’ weapons of choice were mostly bricks dug up from the pavement … police estimated 2,000 had to be replaced … and they were seen throwing them back, giving as good as they got. But the level of deliberate one-on-one violence between the two sides, police and protesters, was far greater than any of several incidents recorded during the Occupy Central street blockades in 2014. Some serious animosity has now developed on both sides.
Among the 60 people arrested, 40 have so far been formally charged with various offenses. But there were no serious injuries, no serious property damage, the hawkers themselves did not get involved, and the government continues to claim there had been no order to remove them.
Whatever the immediate details of this unusual flare-up, its key ingredients were: location, the unprepared improvised police response, and the tensions being created by the growing mainland political interventions that Hong Kong’s authorities seem unwilling even to acknowledge much less deflect.
MONG KOK TINDERBOX
First where it happened. The site is across the harbor from Hong Kong Island where all government offices are located and where everyone goes to protest and petition. The Mong Kok 【旺角】district is uptown in Kowloon, centered around the intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street … mostly south of Argyle, east and west of Nathan. The side streets run through unfashionable rundown neighborhoods where crowds of locals and tourists go shopping for bargains in the open outdoor markets. Vice and virtue exist side by side together with bars, brothels, drugs, residential buildings , and ordinary shops of all kinds.*
When some of the 2014 Occupy Central protesters branched out and moved across town to block the main Nathan-Argyle junction, one of their loudest critics reminded them that Mong Kok is organized crime turf and the Triads would likely make quick work of idealistic young universal suffrage agitators.
Instead, the Mong Kok detachment adapted and learned to hold its own in a tough neighborhood, as the police learned well enough when they tried to clear that area ahead of the main encampments on Hong Kong Island. Triad groups seem to be “polarized” like everyone else: between democrats and others.
As for the protesters, something like a division-of -labor developed during the 79 days that they blocked the streets. Student leaders spent most of their time on Hong Kong Island trying to lead while liaising with political party leaders in the nearby Legislative Council building. Their “radical” counterparts set up homes for themselves along Nathan Road and guarded it as if it really was their own.
Street orators found more congenial listeners there for arguments about why Hong Kong’s mainstream democracy advocates had “failed.” And why the non-violent civil disobedience Occupy Central movement was doomed to fail as well … with its vain hope of convincing Beijing to acknowledge demands for something other than mainland-style managed elections were voters can only rubber-stamp communist party nominations.
This line of thinking is what led some individual student unions to quit the all-university student federation last year and inspired the growth of localist politicking as well (Mar. 3, 2015 post). Focus first on strengthening Hong Kong’s autonomy, they say, push back against the mainland intrusions … the tourists with all their spending power and the hordes of cross-border traders and the expensive transport links being promoted by Beijing that will effectively erase the border. Resist, say the localists, fight harder, and if violent confrontations result, so be it … a price worth paying for liberty and a signal of the alienation taking hold.
Equally important for what happened on the night of February 8-9, was the way Occupy protesters insisted on trying to keep the “Mong Kok spirit” alive. Soon after their encampments were cleared in late 2014, they hit upon the idea of faux “shopping trips.”
These are something like flash mob affairs, organized via mobile phone with groups large or small walking the streets. The protests consist of pretending to be window shopping so the police can’t charge them with loitering or demonstrating without the mandatory letters-of-no-objection. This rule about prior permission is still being followed and enforced for marches and meetings of more than 30 and 50 people, respectively … despite the precedent set in 2014 when Occupy protesters deliberately disobeyed.
The Mong Kok “shopping” trips have continued off and on ever since and something similar transpired on February 8. A timeline was pieced together, in Chinese, by Initium Media.** It followed events from around noon on February 8, when one of the new groups set up last year, in the wake of Occupy, began posting online. The group calls itself Hong Kong Indigenous in English, or Local Democratic Front in Chinese 【本土民主前線】.
The noontime Facebook post called on supporters to gather in Mong Kok that evening. The mission was to protect unlicensed mobile food cart operators who customarily come out to provide late night snacks during the Lunar New Year holidays. Unlicensed hawkers are not allowed but this rule tends not to be strictly enforced during this special holiday when people are out and about at all hours of the day and night.
How anyone knew at noon that the hawkers were going to be harassed by the hawker control force that night is unclear. Or it might just have been assumed since hawker patrols are routine and someone is always causing an obstruction. In any case, it seemed a worthy localist cause: defending local culture and local workers who need the few extra dollars they can earn in this way.
According to entries in this timeline, and contrary to subsequent government denials, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department did send staff out and they did try to move some hawkers off their pitches. Whereupon, the scuffles began.
The hawker control people called police for help around 10 p.m. but help only arrived an hour later. Sometime after that, Hong Kong Indigenous sent out messages calling for reinforcements. Supporters were warned to bring along their protective anti-pepper spray gear, water, goggles, masks, etc. … paraphernalia familiar from Occupy clearance operations in 2014.
The growing crowd defied police orders to disperse. But the police had not come prepared to enforce the order because there had been no advance warning and evidently no contingency planning for just such an unexpected flare-up. The police didn’t start arriving in force until dawn. Finally, around 8 a.m., Hong Kong Indigenous posted a message telling everyone it was time to retreat.
Most melodramatic quote of the night came from the “last post” of Hong Kong Indigenous convener Ray Wong Toi-yeung 【黃台仰】, saying in effect better to die than live in shame (HKFree Press, Feb. 11). Most incriminating photo-op also featured Wong … striking a heroic pose, loudhailer in hand, on top of a stalled Mong Kok taxi (Apple, Feb. 17).
The names and details for the first batch of 37 arrested were announced when they were formally charged a few days later. Most were young … in their teens and twenties. Seven were students, and many gave their occupation as unemployed (Feb. 12: Apple, Wen Wei Po, Standard). Police estimated the number of rioters at about 700 total.
A LOCALIST ELECTION CAMPAIGN
Ringleaders both online and on the street were Hong Kong Indigenous members and in the forefront throughout was 24-year-old Edward Leung Tin-kei 【梁天琦】. Leung is a philosophy major at the University of Hong Kong and had devoted himself to street politics until recently when he decided to stand in the by-election to be held on February 28. His change of heart came after the success of several young post-Occupy “umbrella soldier” candidates in last November’s District Councils election.
The by-election is being held to fill the Legislative Council seat vacated by Ronny Tong last year, in protest over the democracy movement’s stand on political reform. He quit the Civic Party at the same time and set off in search of the ever elusive “third way.” A roster of seven candidates is vying to succeed him.
Strongest of the new post-Occupy groups during the District Councils election campaign was Youngspiration. But after much deliberation about the February 28 by-election, group members agreed not to do what democratic groups here usually do.
Instead of working together against their common adversary, they run for the sake of running and compete with each another for the attention of democratic voters. These in past elections have tried to vote “strategically” by watching the polls but the polls aren’t always reliable enough to make this an effective remedy for a problem that many decry but no one has yet been able to solve. The pro-Beijing juggernaut has built its majorities in no small measure on pan-democrats’ self-centered election strategies whereby they have succeeded in losing seat after seat, year after year.
Younspiration thus decided not to field a candidate. But Leung could not be persuaded and said he would use the campaign as another opportunity to publicize his localist cause.
As it happened, around midnight on February 8-9, Hong Kong Indigenous sent out a Facebook message announcing that by-election candidate Edward Leung was calling on supporters to join him for an election march in the Mong Kok street market. He was arrested a few hours later, with plenty of photo-ops all around. Leung needs to explain when he got the bright idea for a late-night Mong Kok election march and whether he only tried to exploit an opportunity once created, or precipitated it with intent beforehand.
Probably not many voters in the New Territories East constituency had ever heard of Edward Leung or Hong Kong Indigenous. No problem with name recognition now. Many will be able to recognize him in the line-up of seven candidates competing for the seat.
The Civic Party had hoped its replacement candidate, Alvin Yeung, could win but Ronny Tong has declined to endorse him. Leung will no doubt earn some sympathy votes and these should set him apart from the field of lesser-known independents and moderates … while the pro-Beijing camp stands to gain as usual and is pulling out all the stops as usual. Their one and only candidate is Holden Chow, long involved in youth work and now vice-chair of the main pro-Beijing party, Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).
Edward Leung must understand the reasons for Beijing’s focus on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Officials have given the DAB a mission: win the five seats needed to achieve a veto-proof two-thirds super-majority in the council. Beijing’s intentions are no secret and deliberations among the potential by-election candidates continued for weeks. Everyone knows the stakes.
Yet despite localists’ disdain for Hong Kong’s conventional democratic political parties and politicians, Leung has succumbed to one of their greatest temptations … using elections to draw attention to their individual groups instead of running to win and using other means to generate public opinion.
If Holden Chow wins the seat on February 28, he won’t likely lose it in September. The pro-Beijing machine can see to that. And Beijing’s first debt of gratitude will not be to Hong Kong voters or the DAB. First credits will go to Hong Kong’s fragmented democratic opposition and especially to its newest recruit, Edward Leung.
* South China Morning Post, Feb. 16, carried a long backgrounder on the district. But for readers without an online subscription, the paper won’t come formally under new “Alibaba” management until April so the SCMP paywall won’t come down until then.
** For an English translation: http://www.ejinsight.com/20160211-twelve-hours-of-mong-kok-clashes
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on February 19, 2016