Posted: March 14, 2016
Hong Kong hates the idea of political violence. Everyone frowns at the very mention of using physical force for ends that have anything to do with politics, policy, or governance. Not for us, they say. No way. Not here.
The threat of violence was one of the arguments the British used back in the day, whenever some well-meaning reform-minded individual came along with the suggestion that Hong Kong should have at least a few elected representatives somewhere in its governing set-up. There were many such suggestions.
But elections meant competition for political power and there had been too much violence in 20th century China committed by people competing for political power. The city was full of mainland migrants who had fled those violent upheavals including both perpetrators and victims, and the suggestions were always set aside. Thus the British kept the peace and Hong Kong became a placid political backwater where everyone who settled here tacitly agreed to put China’s violent past behind them.
And yet the tradition of political violence survives even in so inhospitable a setting. Its survival can be seen not in any great past precedent or present threat but in the responses that follow after the fact … on the rare occasions when political violence has occurred here.
There are now three such episodes that have registered a community-wide impact since the 1960s. Afterwards, despite the usual law-and-order punishments meted out to those directly involved, the government and community responded in ways that seemed to vindicate the violators. Things were wrong. They were not being set right. Violence erupted … precipitated by minor incidents but with obvious wider implications that were then acknowledged and addressed.
The obvious questions asked afterward: why wasn’t remedial action taken beforehand instead of only afterward? And if that’s ultimately what it takes to register an effective official response and redress grievances, then maybe violence is justified after all? Not a settling set of questions since one of the three violent episodes has only just occurred and the public is responding in ways that suggest people are asking those same questions.
1966: STAR FERRY RIOT
Also remembered fondly as “Elsie Elliott’s riot” … but not regarded quite so fondly at the time … this episode was about an increase in cross-harbor fares proposed by the Star Ferry Company. In those days, ferry services were the only means of getting from one half of the city to the other and the company ran the main crossing between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Elliott was an Urban Councilor and one of the few British voices speaking out loudly on matters related to corruption, injustice and poverty. There were many such matters.
The company’s initial request submitted on October 1, 1965 entailed a 10-cent increase for both first and second class fares, adults and children, on the outbound crossing from Hong Kong to Kowloon. The company also wanted to increase monthly tickets from $8 to $10 for adults and from $4 to $5 for children. A revised proposal from the government-appointed Transport Advisory Committee, issued on March 17, 1966, was actually worse. It retained the 10-cent fare increase and would have raised the price of a monthly ticket from $8 to $12 for adults, $4 to $6 for children.
The initial proposal provoked widespread public opposition and much negative comment in the Chinese press. A precedent would be set. More would follow. Utilities and services were all due to rise, the public was already hard-pressed, and so on. Elliott had organized a protest petition and initially collected 23,000 signatures. Later she claimed to have 150,000. All in vain. The authenticity of the signatures was questioned and the need for a fare hike reaffirmed.
Then on April 4, a young man, acting alone, positioned himself at the Hong Kong entrance to the ferry and declared he was beginning a hunger strike to protest the fare increase. He hailed Elliott’s effort but said it was no use. Action was needed. He urged others to join him. They did.
A demonstration was hastily organized and his arrest a day later probably helped the cause. Supporters moved across to Kowloon, the crowd grew, so did the police presence, there were night marches uptown to Mong Kok, violence ensued. The April 4-9 episode resulted in 1,500 arrests; 26 people were injured; there was one fatality.
But on April 25, the government approved a fare increase … 5 cents for first class adults only. The price of an adult monthly ticked was raised from $8 to $10. Everything else remained unchanged. *
The powers that be blamed Elliott who defended herself with her usual brand of righteous indignation. And while it would be an exaggeration to say the government accepted responsibility, a carefully worded verdict was reached at the end of a meticulous investigation. It concluded that a “gap” existed between government and people. The official report, Kowloon Disturbances 1966, also alluded to the source of the trouble in existing social and economic conditions that had produced Hong Kong’s tinderbox living environment.
In fact, that environment was overdue for across-the-board remedial action … which even so might not have been undertaken so thoroughly had there not been another more serious outbreak of violence the following year.
1967: A “PATRIOTIC” UPRISING
It, too, caught fire in Hong Kong’s tinderbox economic and social environment. But there was also an equally flammable political accelerator. In retrospect, however, perhaps the most interesting thing to note about the 1967 episode is that it, too, has been given a positive gloss.
Grassroots defiance over livelihood issues was still in the air from the year before when a series of labor disputes broke out in early 1967. The key incident occurred in early May at an artificial plastic flower factory (owned by tycoon-to-be Li Ka-shing) over onerous new working conditions. After protests began the company partially shut down operations affecting several hundred workers. Protests escalated and the police intervened, but instead of dying down agitation increased.
Then, as now, Hong Kong was not an island unto itself. Workers were mostly organized by or affiliated with the pro-communist Federation of Trade Unions … the very same FTU that is now successfully contesting elections to fill seats in councils throughout the city.
Back at the beginning, the 1950s had been a tense time in Hong Kong but one source of tension eased after Britain came to an understanding with the new communist rulers in Beijing. The FTU could carry on here as long as it kept to itself and off the streets. The arrangement served everyone well for a decade or so.
Hong Kong was providing only bare-bones public services and amenities for tens-of-thousands of newly-arrived mainland migrants. The FTU helped fill the gap with schools for workers’ children, clinics, and canteens while employers enjoyed a ready supply of docile low-wage labor willing to work in sweatshop conditions.
Just across the border, however, 1966-67 was a time of growing political radicalism. Chinese workers and students were engaged in a new revolutionary upsurge, this time to ferret out “those in authority going the capitalist road” and reactionary representatives of the old order wherever they might be found. What better place to look than in capitalist colonial Hong Kong?!
Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and the fervor of mass-line action soon spilled over into both Macau and Hong Kong. Support for local labor grievances here spread rapidly throughout the pro-Beijing loyalist community (that liked to call itself “patriotic” in those days). Agitation also reverted quickly … from disputes over wages and working conditions … back to the anti-imperialist struggle the British had preempted in the 1950s.
The FTU moved from the shadows to center stage and its chairman Yeung Kwong became leader of a new headquarters organization that spearheaded the struggle. They called it the Hong Kong-Kowloon All Circles Compatriots Anti-British-Hong Kong Persecution Struggle Committee.
By the time this episode wound down at the end of 1967, 51 people had been killed, thousands arrested, hundreds injured, and the police claimed to have defused 8,000 home-made bombs. Most were fake, many were not, and the police gave as good as they got, but the general public seems not have become actively involved in the violence. Leftists were on the offensive and their main adversary was Hong Kong law enforcement. **
2016: MONG KOK AND THE BY-ELECTION
This history came back to life after last month’s Mong Kok riot (Feb. 19 post), but not as a nostalgic remembrance of times past. The history retold suggests a willingness to accept violence as a means of righting wrongs when all else fails … and a willingness to exonerate the violators if their cause seems just.
After the Mong Kok riot, several hundred academics and professionals signed a petition asking the government to investigate the causes, both immediate and underlying, as the colonial government had done in 1966.***
The petition reflected pro-democracy leaders’ immediate response to the events of February 8-9. Everyone had come out to deplore the violence. But they also called on the government to consider its own responsibility for what had happened.
The Hong Kong government rejected the petitioners’ demand. And pro-Beijing loyalists doubled down by focusing not just on 1966 but on 1967 as well. They explained how totally justified “their” violence had been in response to the failures and injustices perpetrated by the colonial government. An editorial in Ta Kung Pao on February 19 put it all together from “their” perspective … and was reprinted on February 26 with an English translation.
To be sure, a long list of upgrades had followed the riotous 1960s. Universal elementary education was finally introduced in the early 1970s. Then came major improvements in public housing, public health, welfare, labor, and the anti-corruption drive. But all of that was only to relieve pressure on the colonial government, claimed the editorial.
It continued. To blame the current Hong Kong government for conditions that led to the February 8-9 violence in Mong Kok was a travesty. So great had been the injustices suffered by the patriotic community at the hands of the colonial government that 1967 and 2016 should not be mentioned in the same breath.
Patriotic schools and labor unions had long been treated unfairly. Graduates of leftist schools could not be admitted to college. Civil servants were not allowed to visit the mainland. They could even be penalized if seen shopping in China products stores or going to leftist movie theaters. And the police were responsible for provoking the violence in 1967 because it began when they cracked down on the flower factory protesters. The patriotic community’s resistance only followed afterwards.
Still, there was one similarity between 1967 and 2016 that Ta Kung Pao editors failed to acknowledge either directly or otherwise.. Unlike their own righteous 1967 adventure, Mong Kok 2016 was not condoned by anyone, they wrote. Nor do Hong Kongers support the ideas behind it.
Had they been writing 10 days later, after the February 28 New Territories East by-election, the editors would have had to qualify their claims. Candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei and his Hong Kong Indigenous group precipitated the violence and he was unapologetic afterward. He claimed that violence is justified here and now because pan-democrats have tried everything else and everything else has failed … a debatable point that Leung has yet to debate or qualify (Feb. 25 post).
Yet many Hong Kongers either didn’t object to his argument or agreed with it because 66,500 people came out to vote for novice candidate Leung on Election Day (Mar. 2 post).
So if past experience is any indication, something is wrong here and needs tending. And from everything pan-dems are saying … in many different ways … the problem has to do with pressure from Beijing for cross-border political integration. All the arguments therefore point in the same direction: begin by elminating the 50-year 2047 time limit that Article 5 of the Basic Law imposes on Hong Kong’s way of political life.
* Appendix 4: Kowloon Disturbances 1966, Commission of Inquiry Report (1967).
** Gary Ka-wai Cheung, Hong Kong’s Watershed: The 1967 Riots (HKU Press, 2009 … English trans. of Chinese original); and A City of Sorrows: The 1967 Riots (FlintStone Culture, 2012 … in Chinese). The official government report, Hong Kong Disturbances 1967 remains classified. CORRECTION, Mar. 30: this document on the 1967 leftist disturbances is no longer classified. It is available at the Hong Kong government’s Public Records Office for reading and photocopying.
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on March 14, 2016.