It’s time for a post-riot reality check
History shows violence is rare on Hong Kong streets
“It would not be killing Hongkongers. It would be killing rioters.”
Junius Ho Kwan-yiu
The best scene in the slapstick comedy Police Academy is where a policeman throws a half eaten apple out of his patrol car. It hits a bystander on the head. The bystander turns and punches the man next to him who runs, knocking down an open fire, which lights a gas main – you get the picture. Behind the patrol car, and oblivious to the coppers, the city erupts in flames.
Every riot has a trigger. The trigger factor for the Mong Kok riot was a row between the police and hawkers, amusingly dubbed the Fishball Revolution. As we know, police/hawker disputes have been around for the best part of a century. The police usually creep from behind a corner sending hawkers running like so many cockroaches when the lights go on. This is preferable to using force, which can escalate into violence.
It doesn’t take an Emeritus Professor of Rioting Sociology to see that the Mong Kok riot was unusual. Violent riots elsewhere are common; indeed by the standards of riots in China, London 2011, Occupy Wall Street, and Ferguson Missouri, this one was pretty wimpy. However, this is not something that happens in Hong Kong. Indeed, commentators are using comparisons as far back as the 1966 riots; so rare is a violent fracas on our streets.
Yet the post-riot bandwagon is creaking with the weight of those leaping on to advance their personal agenda. Foremost have been those rushing to pin the name of democracy onto the rioters. Mr. Ho of this camp was merely using extreme language because, as a Johnny-come-lately, he wanted some attention. Get in line, Junius. Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong Zhang Xiaoming, clearly not one for moderate discourse, poured fuel on the fire by branding the rioters as “radical separatists” who were “inclined towards terrorism”. “Thugs” would have sufficed, Mr. Zhang. Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, long retired former security minister condemned rioters as “beasts”, while describing the police as “tolerant”. “Opportunist bullies” and “restrained” might have been more accurate.
The riots do not bear the hallmark of a traditional democracy protest. The people were different; older and clearly more aggressive. They were tiny in number and most of the arrests were of unemployed people, not students. Violence has not characterised democracy protests so far perhaps because it is difficult to find anyone in the skinny democracy camp strong enough to lift a brick, let alone throw one.
Pushed into a corner, the pro-democrats clung onto the sides of the moving wagon by saying how difficult life is for the rioters. But the fact that they may come from a broken home does not entitle them to break someone else’s home. All of these bandwagonistas come from a position of ignorance, while seeking a position of advantage.
But we don’t know why the riot escalated. The enquiry into the three-day London riots, illustrated that such a public disturbance brings out disaffected and usually unpoliticised individuals who don’t want to waste a good period of disorder.
Poverty, crime, moral breakdown, the yob culture; all contribute to those who have little respect for the police. It may be that a few unwashed and girlfriend-less localists may have seen an opportunity to join in. It may be that the triads saw an opportunity to give our finest a cheap thump in the dark. Maybe it was just a New Year’s Eve rave. We don’t know - but the only way to find out is to have an independent judicial enquiry.
In the meantime, those in the higher echelons must avoid fanning the flames by blindly accusing their opponents. Zip it. If our own leaders are negatively briefing against Hong Kong in public, what are foreign investors supposed to think? Will they take a lesson from HSBC deciding not to move their headquarters back to Hong Kong (a decision made way before the riots), or Cheung Kong who have moved their registration from Hong Kong to the Cayman Islands. Unconstructive leadership will certainly damage the stock, property and investment markets as investors assess the attractiveness of Hong Kong for investment.
Senior figures need to learn to engage brain before mouth; to support, spin or shut up; to be statesmanlike and to avoid bandwagon-jumping. Let the story drop off the front pages. The bricks thrown from the bandwagon after the event can be infinitely more damaging to Hong Kong’s economy than that done by the rioters on New Year’s Eve.
Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment Management