If the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong were the breakout original, then this past week’s #FishballRevolution in Mong Kok can be considered the uglier, grittier sequel.
A dispute over illegal street food hawker stands during Lunar New Year festivities escalated to full blown riots in the early hours of Tuesday morning, leading to 65 arrests and around 100 injured. Whilst the numerous social and political difficulties Hong Kong faces may justify frustration, such abject violence does not constitute a coherent plea for greater democratic governance. Instead, these riots will be manipulated by those in power to impede the movement for greater civil liberties as a whole.
The exact sequence of events remains unclear; some accounts suggest the unwarranted arrival of police carrying riot gear to shut down unlicensed street food stands sparked the conflict, whilst others believe ‘localist’ (pro-Hong Kong, anti-China) rioters attacked the officers before they could even begin their investigation. Regardless, the resulting fracas remains the same: demonstrators threw bricks, litter bins, and glass bottles as the police retaliated with batons, riot shields, and pepper spray. It speaks volumes about the state of affairs in Hong Kong that cooking street food has become an act of resistance.
Clearly these riots were not solely over fish balls. Rather, they are symptomatic of Hong Kong’s mounting existential anxiety in the face of China’s continued encroachment. Leader of the localist group Indigenous, Ray Wong Toi-yeung, has described himself as a “young person born and raised locally” but feels that “this Hong Kong – that should belong to Hong Kong people – has slowly changed beyond recognition”. Many see the ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle, which ostensibly guarantees Hong Kong ‘a high degree of autonomy’ from China, as a distant memory. A lack of opportunity, a high cost of living and a loss of trust in the Police have compounded this alienation.
Having been refused universal suffrage and consequently any effectual political voice, many feel they have been backed into a corner, and are now fighting for personal freedoms that are being systematically dismantled by an unelected Chief Executive at the helm of an apathetic Government which is itself at the beck and call of Beijing. These pre-dawn riots are the most severe instances of abject, anti-authoritarian violence since the 1960s. This situation is akin to a child being terrorised for years by a bigger and stronger bully, before finally snapping and throwing a punch back.Whilst in my view scenes like those in Mong Kok last week should always be avoided, the frustrations of the rioters are valid. The troubling issue here is that the riots are being exploited to disgrace the wider movement for greater civil liberties.
Already we can see the usual rhetoric rear its ugly head; a senior political commentator in Hong Kong, Alex Lo, has branded the rioters’ frustrations as “violent hatred” and has criticised those trying to “explain away” their behaviour with the “fit-for-all purpose excuse” of being marginalised. This mentality is indicative of a certain demographic in Hong Kong which has been raised with a dogmatic approach to school, money, and life in general: work hard and keep your head down. Critical thinking and social justice do not come naturally; a necessary discourse surrounding personal freedoms is thus prevented and the status quo is maintained.
Again, scenes like those in Mong Kok last week should be avoided at all costs, as senseless violence lacks exactly that: sense. Hong Kong’s current identity crisis has and will continue to be exploited to discredit the wider movement for democratic governance, threatening the future of the region and alienating a generation. This is deeply worrying for a city that I, and so many others, hold so dear.
Image: Gateway Hong Kong