The volume of rubbish written and spoken about events that unfolded in Mong Kok last week is shocking. It’s almost as shocking as the bloody riot that shook this city as it has not been shaken since the Cultural Revolution spilled over its borders nearly 50 years ago.

And much of that rubbish, unfortunately, is coming from pro-democracy voices that seek to blame the violence on the police and exploit it for political gain.

Photo: Kris Cheng, HKFP.

For example, in a remarkable show of blinkered thinking and naivety, student unions at seven of the city’s universities have expressed their unqualified support for the protesters who attacked police with bricks, bamboo spears, glass bottles and anything else they could lay their hands on in a running 10-hour battle that was sparked by the earlier eviction of illegal street hawkers.

“Forever we stand with the rebels,” wrote the Hong Kong University Student Union in a statement released on Wednesday.

“Always stand on the side of the protesters.” Photo: Facebook via hkusupage.

Ironically, just two weeks before the madness in Mong Kok, HKU students had been falsely accused of staging a riot of their own by the new authoritarian chairman of the university’s governing board, Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, whose controversial appointment had prompted their 200-strong demonstration.

Now their student union has endorsed a vicious assault on police that ultimately had no purpose other than to vent anger, inflict injury and cause destruction.

The so-called “fishball revolution” is a gross misnomer. It was not the illegal hawkers of fishballs and other street-food favourites who took up arms against the police. Those humble people had already been told  to pack up and go home by misguided hygiene officials on the first night of the Lunar New Year.

Rather, the ensuing anarchy was perpetrated by a hodgepodge of extreme localists whose bricks, torn from the streets they vandalised, left 90 police officers injured, many of them with fractured bones and bloody faces.

What happened last week should be named for what it was—a rabid strike against Hong Kong’s reputation for order, civility and peaceful protest. There was nothing noble or admirable in what was wrought during the 10 hours of chaos and mayhem that rocked Mong Kok.

Was the police officer who fired two warning shots into the air justified?

Photo: TVB Screenshot.

It’s hard to believe this has become a topic of city-wide debate. Of course, he was; indeed, the rioters were lucky that was all he did.

Under such violent circumstances, tear gas also would have been wholly justified, but police held back, no doubt skittish after the international criticism they received for the mistake of using it against unarmed, peaceful demonstrators as the Occupy protests began in September of 2014.

It is a terrible shame to see the same students who showed the world how eloquently peaceful, orderly and sustained a protest could be during the 79 days of Occupy—a demonstration whose message became all the more powerful due to that prolonged peace and order—now support a barbarous mob of anti-China localists whose crude denunciations of the mainland go far beyond objections to central government policy and Communist Party ideology, shrilly descending into what can only be characterised as a peculiarly perverse form of racism against their own people.

Such thinking can only lead Hong Kong down a dead end of more and greater violence and polarisation. It must be robustly and categorically rejected, and it’s not just the city’s student leaders who are failing to do that.

Photo: Kris Cheng, HKFP.

Many of their elders—pan-democratic politicos bent on exploiting any bad news into an attack on the Leung Chun-ying administration—refuse to condemn unreservedly the actions of the Mong Kok mob.

One does not have to be a fan of Leung or his policies to reject violent extremism as a solution to Hong Kong’s deep-seated problems—which, let’s be honest, started long before Leung occupied Government House.

The pronounced economic and social inequality that mark Hong Kong society today is rooted in its colonial history and the economic and political framework that was part and parcel of the 1997 handover agreement, the lease on which has another 32 years to run.

That protects the city’s tycoon class in a low-tax haven in which assistance to the poor is minimal and government land policy and tycoon greed keep property prices so high that ordinary people cannot even dream of owning a home anymore.

A fully democratic system—in which the votes of the poor and sandwich class would be equal to those of tycoons— would transform Hong Kong’s socioeconomic landscape dramatically and thus is resisted tooth and nail by central authorities in Beijing and by those who serve at their behest in the Hong Kong government.

Leung Chun-ying. File photo: StandNews.

In a remarkably candid interview with foreign media in October 2014, as the Occupy movement was gaining full steam, Leung bluntly stated that it was not possible to give in to student demands for universal suffrage because that would grant Hong Kong’s poorer residents a dominant voice in city elections.

“You have to take care of all the sectors in Hong Kong as much as you can,” Leung said at the time, “and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 [HK$14,000] a month.”

Leung added: “Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies.”

In a nutshell, it is this inherited mentality of elitism that must be changed—but not by demonising the police and pummelling them with bricks and glass.

That’s not Hong Kong—at least it wasn’t until last week.


Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.