Last night, as 7 million people in Hong Kong celebrated the biggest festival in the Chinese calendar, police clashed with protesters in a violent confrontation that lasted until the early hours of the morning. Protestors set fire to bins and threw bottles and bricks at police, who responded with pepper spray and fired warning shots. Over 90 police officers were injured, and 54 protestors have been arrested.
What sparked off the riot? A raid on unlicensed food stalls.
The facts are still emerging, and early reports have focussed on the level of violence and the response from city officials, but certain things have become clear. Traditional food stalls selling local snacks like fishballs pop up annually for the Lunar New Year holiday. These temporary stalls are not licenced, but have in the past been tolerated and ignored by authorities. This year, food and hygiene officials attempted a crackdown, and were faced by protestors who had come from all over the city to protect the stalls. The situation escalated into a full-on street battle, with a Twitter storm under the hashtag #fishballrevolution.
There are subtle echoes of the Arab Spring, which kicked off when Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and the way he was treated by officials for not having a licence. A revolutionary wave of popular uprisings in at least eight countries, which resulted in four regime changes, all began with one individual’s personal battle against excessive government control. But Hong Kong is not in the Middle East, and this is not the kind of event we would associate with the most economically free country in the world, a freemarket success story, and a hub of trade and enterprise. So what went wrong?
Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive who has close ties to Beijing, has focussed not on the cause of the turmoil but on condemning the protestors, regardless of intent. He has sided completely with the police, saying they exercised “maximum restraint” despite the gunshots. Other government officials have concurred, calling the protestors “lawless”, “radical” and “brutal”, and suggested the riots may have been an organised crime.
On the other side, supporters have been telling Western journalists that they had been attempting to protest peacefully in defence of their local culture. Hong Kong media soon began reporting that at the heart of the riots was a group called Hong Kong Indigenous, a “localist” anti-mainland group whose members dislike Beijing’s influence over their city and support independence. Edward Leung Tin-kei, who is standing as the Hong Kong Indigenous candidate in the Legislative Council by-election in three weeks, was among those arrested last night, although the group has denied being involved in the subsequent violence.
The more facts emerge, the clearer is becomes that the Mong Kok riot was about democracy as much as fishballs. Hong Kong has yet to fully heal after the Umbrella Movement of 2014, when 100,000 demonstrators, mostly young people and students, staged sit-ins across the city to protest against giving officials from the Chinese Communist Party the right to pre-screen candidates for Hong Kong’s elections. For two months, activists disrupted traffic and shut down parts of Hong Kong. In response, they were met with police violence, tear gas, and mass arrests. They did not succeed in achieving universal suffrage, or in forcing out their pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying. Last night’s riots proved that their feelings of frustration and disfranchisement have far from dissipated.
This is a struggle over Hong Kong’s identity, about a dynamic where officials endorsed by mainland China attempt to shut down symbols of traditional Hong Kong culture. It’s about calls for Hong Kong to choose its own leaders being met by police force, and concerns over the Chinafication of a city state being branded as radical extremism.
The most striking image of the New Year riots isn’t of protestors being thrown to the ground, or hurling bricks, or setting fires. It shows police, in full riot-gear, facing off against demonstrators, while in the foreground the street vendors continue calmly with their trade. Because at the heart of the tension in Hong Kong is the battle for freedom: freedom to elect leaders, freedom to preserve traditions, and freedom to sell fishballs on the street at Lunar New Year.
The hawkers keep their cool and keep on making great food, even with riot police just behind them. pic.twitter.com/YkpDmwGZZF
— Leo Weese 獅 草地 (@LeoAW) February 8, 2016