Hong Kong: What Sparked the New Year’s Violence?

In Hong Kong, 64 people have been arrested for their alleged role in riots that broke out on Lunar New Year, February 8, when police tried to remove street food vendors in an incident that has become known as the “Fishball Revolution.” Protesters angered by the security action skirmished with police for close to ten hours, with cops firing warning shots and protesters throwing rocks, bottles, and other objects. Stratfor outlines the issues raised by protesters and the grievances that led to the outburst of violence, a rarity in the territory:

Although the protests targeted local law enforcement, it appears to many Hong Kongers that the actions of the police are becoming synonymous with those of mainland authorities. These protests reflect not just the tension between residents and local authorities, but issues Hong Kongers have with the mainland itself. Though the pan-Democrat movement was able to fight off a government proposal for universal suffrage that was skewed in Beijing’s favor, the current system is inherently tilted toward the mainland’s preferred candidates. Additionally, large numbers of Chinese tourists continue to flock to Hong Kong, giving rise to well-organized nativist groups that call for a separate Hong Kong identity, political autonomy or even independence.

The bottom line is that Hong Kongers feel they are being subsumed by China in various ways. Politically, domestic freedoms and autonomy under Hong Kong Basic Law appear to be eroding. This is exemplified by the abduction last year of five Hong Kong booksellers. Economically, Hong Kong retail businesses are reorienting to cater to “parallel traders” engaging in arbitrage in Hong Kong goods — such as milk powder and electronics — seemingly at locals’ expense. Demographically, large numbers of mainland mothers are visiting Hong Kong to give birth.

Most tellingly, the underlying grievances that helped fuel the protests of 2015 have not diminished. The incidents this week demonstrate that grassroots tensions have reached the point where small-scale incidents are increasingly likely to spark larger protests. [Source]

Hong Kong resident Trey Menifee posted a firsthand account of the violence and explains his observation that the protesters’ response grew out of the 2014 Occupy Central movement:

So why was there a Fishball Riot? I see three compelling answers. The first, and most obvious, is that the public intellectuals, political junkies, and the government failed to appreciate the level of anger that had been building up. The political situation in Hong Kong has been rapidly deteriorating since Occupy. The Fishball Riot wasn’t about Lee Bo and the booksellers or Johannes Chan – it was a reaction to the larger contexts in which these problems were taking place. It was also a response to violence delivered to many of the ‘front-liners’ and ‘shield-boys’ who were asked to stand down and take the beatings, which were brutal during the closing days of Occupy. [Source]

For Hong Kong Free Press, Jason Y. Ng compares the so-called “Fishball Revolution” with the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia in 2010, which was sparked when a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, self-immolated to protest against official harassment:

Never underestimate what the little guy can do.

That appears to be the lesson of the day for C.Y. Leung and his dysfunctional government. Revolutions often begin with the most inconsequential and unlikely of events. Ben Ali would never have imagined in his wildest dream that a 26-year-old hawker could upend his presidency. Just the same, our chief executive would not have predicted that a few shots of tear gas would trigger a 79-day occupy movement, or that a run-of-the-mill crackdown on unlicensed food stalls of curry fish balls, beef tripe and stinky tofu would provoke an all-out riot. It is believed that whatever happens on New Year’s Day will repeat itself throughout the year. If Leung is a superstitious man, he should brace himself for many more unpleasant surprises in the Year of the Fire Monkey.

The significance of the fish ball hawkers lies in their very insignificance. Many in Hong Kong are asking the same question that Bouazizi had asked himself: why did the government systematically target these petty outlaws and mobilized an army of riot police to go after them and their supporters, when, well, the five missing booksellers are still unaccounted for, none of the cases of police brutality during the occupy movement have been resolved, tens of thousands of public housing residents continue to drink water from lead-leaching pipes, and the high-speed rail link project with a whopping HK$85 billion price tag is delayed and may possibly be abandoned at the expense of taxpayers. Then there are the chronic political Gordian knots like the cross-border tensions, the marginalization of Cantonese, and, above all, the broken promises of universal suffrage that have left the city of seven million despondent and disenfranchised.

And so this so-called “Fish Ball Revolution” really isn’t about fish balls at all – it is about citizens fed up with the daily abuse by an unelected and unaccountable government led by an unelected and unaccountable chief executive. One commentator compares Hong Kong people to a battered woman, who, after putting up with years of domestic violence, finally snapped and threw a beer bottle at her husband. [Source]

Of the 64 arrested, several were members of a localist group, Hong Kong Indigenous, which advocates for the interests of Hong Kong citizens and against Beijing’s political interference in the territory. A South China Morning Post explainer on the group outlines their goals and those of the broader “localist” movement:

“Localist” is an umbrella term for radical groups with strong anti-mainland sentiment, with many seeking either independence for Hong Kong or to fight for a limit on Beijing’s influence in the city.

They often actively utilise social media platforms to spread their political philosophy.

“We are a group of nameless Hong Kong people who are on the frontline of protests. Since the old resistance methods have failed against the authorities, we have no choice but to stand out and break the stalemate,” the statement on the Hong Kong Indigenous’ Facebook page read. [Source]

BBC also looks at the group and the source of their grievances:

Sing Ming, a politics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says localists tend to be young people who cherish their Hong Kong identities, as well as those who face economic difficulties.

Government figures show that about 960,000 out of Hong Kong’s population of 7.2 million live below the poverty line, making it the 12th most unequal place in the world.

There is a sense among localists that the government has failed to address the needs of the poor.
Mr Sing says some localists are “extremely dissatisfied” with the government’s handling of this, and “may even think that the policies are the results of collusion between government and business”. [Source]

After Monday’s protests, Hong Kong Indigenous leader Ray Wong Toi-yeung issued a public statement which stated that he was expecting his arrest and explaining why defense of Hong Kong’s street vendors had become an important rallying point for the group. He has not been heard from since:

He said that he had joined many different protests in the past, but felt disappointed as they have all failed to succeed. But the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014 changed his mind as many Hong Kong people did not fear the guns held by riot police or tear gas canisters. He started Hong Kong Indigenous after the protests ended.

The group started by calling for anti-parallel trading protests in Tuen Mun on February 8 last year. It also gathered in Mong Kok during the Lunar New Year holidays last year from February 19 to ensure street hawkers could open for business, rather than being cleared out by government hawkers control officers.

On February 8 this year, the group again called upon the public to support street hawkers during the Lunar New Year break, as Wong said they believed changes in society could be made if they held on to their values. [Source]

But many in Hong Kong do not support the localist activists. Columnist Alex Lo at the South China Morning Post writes:

So why are they angry? Basically, all the political problems and social and economic ills from which Hong Kong is suffering have been offered as an excuse for their violence.

First, it was the fault of the police and hygiene officers’ crackdown on illegal hawkers, so the rioters were only fighting for the downtrodden. It turned out there was no crackdown as the officers were quickly surrounded and beaten up by localist rioters before they could ticket or charge any hawker.

So this clearly could not justify causing a mass riot. Other reasons are then being trotted out. It’s our housing problem, it’s our extreme wealth gap, it’s our education problem, it’s our lack of democracy, it’s our inadequate health care, it’s the lack of job opportunities for your people, it’s Leung Chun-ying and his unresponsive government, it’s Beijing… Or the fit-for-all-purpose excuse: Our kids are being marginalised and ignored.

There you have it. [Source]

An editorial in The Economist notes that many in Hong Kong oppose the protesters, but also acknowledges that both the Beijing and Hong Kong governments bear responsibility for resolving festering social and economic grievances:

In no sense was the violence righteous. Most Hong Kong residents were appalled. Their city is renowned for the peacefulness of its many protests. In an unusually prolonged outbreak of unrest late in 2014, known as the Umbrella Movement, pro-democracy protesters mostly remained on good terms with police. Not since the 1960s, during the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in mainland China, have the territory’s streets seen such bloodshed.

Nonetheless, #FishballRevolution was undeniably political. Activists from a group called Hong Kong Indigenous, which stresses Hong Kong’s separateness from mainland China, were involved in the mêlée. Their pretext was the protection of a cherished tradition—eating from food stalls during the Chinese new-year holiday—from zealous officialdom.

Hong Kong Indigenous is a fringe group. Officials will be tempted to dismiss its resort to violence as an aberration over a triviality. In fact the central government in Beijing, and that of Hong Kong, should see what happened as evidence of social and political discontent. They have a role in putting it right. [Source]

Beijing, for its part, has so far laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the protesters, by indicating its full support for Hong Kong authorities, and calling the protesters “separatists”—a politically loaded term, as Stuart Lau and Tony Cheung report for the South China Morning Post:

On the face of it, the classification appears to place the rioters in the same category as separatists from the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, who are seen as a serious threat to national security, although there is a difference in the Chinese word used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Hong Kong protesters.

“On the early morning of February 9, a riot plotted mainly by local radical separatist organisation rocked Mong Kok,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in the official statement, which did not specify whether one or more such organisations were involved.

China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said it was unprecedented for Beijing to identify separatists in the city. He called it a “wrong” categorisation that would lead to unnecessary escalation of anti-mainland sentiment. [Source]