By Daniel Lee, of progressive bookstores HK Reader and The Coming Society. Translation by Jeffrey Yeung.

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, a riot surprisingly broke out in Mong Kok. A Wikipedia entry titled “Fishball Revolution” sprang up within a couple of hours. Most commentators condemned the violence, and most commentators outside the pro-Beijing camp emphasized that the riot stemmed from poor governance. There are also commentators who, afraid of the riot’s potential to undermine the pro-democracy movement, urged the rioters to consider society’s reaction. Whereas the rioters call these commentators “left plastic”, I regard them as liberals. The liberal democratic camp, the backbone of the Umbrella Revolution, found it difficult to accept the violence of the Fishball Revolution. What went on between the two incidents? That period marked a dramatic paradigm shift from social activism rooted in civic values to one that discards them. To understand today’s circumstances, an examination of the civil society paradigm is in order.

Photo: Kris Cheng, HKFP.

Up till the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong’s mainstream society had functioned within the parameters of civil society. The British colonial government gradually set up these parameters after the riots of 1966-7. These parameters, informed by a set of ethical rules, constituted the civil society paradigm. The paradigm was the basis of the city’s shift to a ‘modern’ society – a feature more fundamental to such a designation than the provision of public services like healthcare, education and housing. For example, the establishment of the ICAC successfully cleaned up the endemic corruption that had afflicted many government departments. Moreover, the government also respected and responded to public opinion. By the 1980s, the three-tier representative bodies (the District Council, the Urban Council and the Legislative Council) had established a political society that worked public opinion into its governance, despite an incomplete framework for political parties. By the 1990s, Hong Kong had become accustomed to the norms of civil and political society, along with its interactions with the government via its institutional framework. It seems as if Hong Kongers were more receptive to the good governance of the colonial government than that of the current one.

File photo: HKFP.

There are many universal values in a civil society. One of the civic values is the rule of law, and how Hong Kongers identify with this value differs from the citizens in Western liberal democracies. Not only does the rule of law in the West entail abiding by the law, more importantly, it protects the rights of the citizens so the government does not interfere with their lives. But Hong Kongers tend to conflate observing the rule of law with maintaining social order. Another civic value is rational communication. Although the Legislative Council is undemocratic, many people believe that participating in it can effect changes in government policy and resolve societal problems. Also, media coverage can shape public opinion, and it is considered that political commentaries from newspapers and television can effectively influence government policy. Given these two civic values, it follows that one agrees with nonviolence. As abiding by the law and maintaining social order forbid violence, rational communication is at odds with violent behavior.

These values and parameters they demarcate need their basis in social reality to prove their effectiveness. The late colonial government succeeded in doing so and brought about ‘good governance’. That is why we respect the government councils, its administration, press freedom, and have never thought of resorting to violence. That said, after the Handover, the civil society paradigm started to fail. The government councils have become unrepresentative of the public’s interests as they catered to vested interests, producing a political dead-end. The government has increasingly neglected public opinion. It has eroded press freedom and editorial autonomy through its co-option and makeover of radio stations, TV channels and newspapers.

The emergence of Occupy Central was premised on rescuing the civil society paradigm. The organizers understood the issue regarding the relationship between civil society and the political system. With the aim of establishing a better political system and civil society, they sought to democratize Hong Kong through the enactment of such civic values, hoping for reform at the institutional level. The ideal then was not merely good governance, but the higher aspirations of democracy and freedom. They are indeed the champions of liberalism. Observing the early stages of Occupy Central, one can better understand what these civil values are. The organizers required that participants partake in deliberations twice a day to consolidate clear demands for universal suffrage. This indicated that they endorsed rational communication, for the purpose of formulating a proposal to which the government could respond. Such is the traditional route that civic groups and NGOs take: first a group of citizens and their grievances, then a clear set of demands.

Photo: HKFP.

Now, turning to a discourse on civil disobedience. Since Hong Kongers have long misunderstood the rule of law, civil disobedience constitutes an illegal disruption of the social order. For the liberals to channel the spirit of the rule of law, they needed to consider civil disobedience as a means to achieve justice. After all, in their eyes, civil society and governance constitute an organic whole. To engage in civil disobedience is to recourse to public opinion, which makes for a legitimizing force to pressure the government to yield and democratize. As such, the Umbrella Revolution’s logic was to capture the mainstream public opinion to pressure the Hong Kong and Chinese government, in hopes that the government would respond to the organizers’ demands, as per the logic of civil society, and revert to good governance.

Beijing refuses to yield: the failure of the civil society paradigm

Unfortunately, Beijing did not relent. The liberal camp could not use the logic of civil society to deal with the issue at hand. So far, such a paradigm has lost its capacity to actualize the movement’s demands. Increasingly, people are losing faith in social activism informed by civic values.

File photo: HKFP.

There are actually clues that suggest so during the Umbrella Revolution. Some people would use factional conflict to understand the differences between the Mong Kok occupiers with the student associations (HKFS and Scholarism). While this analysis isn’t necessarily wrong, it overlooks the factions’ ideological differences. The localists who emerged from Occupy often called themselves chivalrous radicals, and expressed disgust at the deliberations. They would sometimes forego seeking support from the mainstream public opinion as well, thinking that Hong Kongers are lazy pigs incapable of truly engaging in resistance. They believed that as long as there are a small number of radicals, new potentialities could be opened for the movement. They occasionally viewed the mainstream media with hostility, and reckoned that enough supporters could be mustered through online and independent media. Given the localists’ ideology, it becomes clear that civic values have no effect on them. They thus think that doing politics within the parameters of the civil society paradigm is ineffective.

What are the consequences of the failure of the civil society paradigm? Are there other paradigms to draw upon? Many commentators deem the riots an expression of societal problems, a reaction to the government’s poor administration. In a society where life is good, there won’t be anyone who would want to riot. To move away from a situation where riots would arise spontaneously, as in the 1960s, the colonial government modernized their techniques through the cultivation of responsive civic institutions. Now that the civil society paradigm has collapsed, there is no way to resolve the tensions in society. With deteriorating living conditions, it is inevitable that riots will re-emerge. But riots are not without logic. Just because they are violent doesn’t make them irrational.

Photo: Kris Cheng, HKFP.

Right now, public opinion, including that of the liberal camp, overwhelmingly condemns the riot, because everyone is using the civil society paradigm to understand the Fishball Revolution. Undeniably, since the rioters did not draw upon an adequately articulated discourse to explain their actions, they couldn’t satisfactorily respond to the condemnations. But there are commentators who did not strongly condemn the riot. Instead, they started to look into what sort of discourse could justify it. As has been the case, social activism does not emerge from a fully articulated discourse; rather, a social movement gradually articulates a discourse – they then complement one another. Although the government can suppress a social movement and its participants, the movement’s successors can take up its maturing discourse. Hence the saying “ideas are bulletproof”. When a discourse has yet to mature, social scientists, accustomed to the habits of the existing paradigm, tend to view new forms of activism as reckless, disorderly, and bound to crumble. They would urge the activists to revert to the existing paradigm. The thing is, an idea spreads quicker than the plague as it matures. Think of the march in July 1st, 2003. How many social scientists expected Hong Kongers, docile economic creatures, to take to the streets en masse?

Hijacking the prosecution of hawkers? Every societal problem fuels the riot

The Fishball Revolution points towards many kinds of new, unarticulated discourses and paradigms. One criticism of the localists is that they hijacked the FEHD’s prosecution of unlicensed hawkers as a means for their riot. But “hijacking” is a concept rooted in the discourse of the civil society paradigm, entailing that the rioters did not respect the wishes of the hawkers. In a civil society, there is no general societal problem, but different groups with different issues that appeal to the government for resolution. Accordingly, the hawkers’ plight ought to be the main issue at hand; such is the logic and discourse of the civil society paradigm. But for the rioters, the civil society paradigm has failed. There are not discrete groups and issues, but pervasive, fundamental societal injustices. Consequently, all the rioters were unified by their status as the oppressed, and acted in unison to challenge the state and police apparatus.

Photo: Kris Cheng, HKFP.

A communistic moment characterizes the paradigm of the Umbrella and Fishball Revolution. Many remember the display of selfless behavior during the Umbrella Revolution, from the voluntary cleaning of public bathrooms to the sharing of supplies. People also acted together to resist the police at the frontlines. When there were people moving steel barricades, other people automatically came to help. When protesters advanced, there were people counting “one, two, three!”. It is the same with the Fishball Revolution. Strangers cooperated with one another to dig up the street bricks and road signs. When the police attempted to arrest a rioter, there were rioters who acted in a concerted effort to rescue them. This spirit of brotherhood (yes, with its patriarchal connotations) and mutual aid would not be possible if it weren’t for the norms that had sprung from the Umbrella Revolution.

Faced with the violence of the Fishball Revolution and condemnations thereof, how might one make sense of all this? You could definitely criticize the riot, articulating the need to conform to the civic values you cherish. But that may be untimely, because the effectiveness associated with those values in changing the social circumstances has dissipated. Another possibility is that we articulate a new paradigm to do politics in a post-Occupy environment. The fact is, the riot lacked a set of adequately articulated parameters. Many who supported the riot could not accept that some rioters attacked the reporters on scene. Perhaps a ban on such attacks could become the norm. Should someone attack a reporter next time, their fellow activists nearby may stop them. Furthermore, one might wonder to what effect does a riot have on achieving justice? What sort of justice is being articulated? Does it suffice to proclaim that one would rather fight for a just cause than live in humiliation?

Don’t assume that the rioters are without logic or norms. They are capable of absorbing different discourses from the web and even the mainstream media. They have at least accepted the discourses that regard the thirty years of democracy movements, and the tenets of “peace, reason, and nonviolence”, as unproductive. They thus have decided to proceed with violent resistance.

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.