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Hong Kong’s ‘fishball revolution’ is a load of bull, but there’s no denying the dangers of marginalising angry young people

Yonden Lhatoo rejects any justification for the Mong Kok riot but argues that it’s become more necessary than ever to tackle the root causes of youth anger

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 6:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

Let’s get a couple of things straight: Mong Kok is not Tahrir Square and the “fishball revolution” is no Arab spring or anything of that sort.

This is Hong Kong. You can make all the clever-sounding, pseudo-revolutionary analogies you like and romanticise your developmentally disabled distortion of reality, but what happened in the heart of Kowloon’s retail hub on Monday night was a shocking disgrace.

It began with a poorly timed government crackdown on illegal – but harmless – hawkers trying to make an extra buck at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday selling fishballs and other snacks. A bunch of youngsters spontaneously took up the hawkers’ cause as self-appointed guardians of public justice at the scene.

Social media-savvy crowds responding to rallying calls online soon outnumbered frontline police officers, and what followed next was a riot featuring mob violence on a scale this city has not witnessed even during the worst of the Occupy Central clashes in 2014.

I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years reporting Hong Kong’s ups and downs. Hundreds of rioters started fires in the streets and fought pitched battles with police using bamboo spears, glass bottles and bricks ripped up from pavements.

I was particularly stunned by video footage showing a handful of traffic policemen under vicious attack by a large mob. This was the incident in which one of the officers, with a colleague lying senseless at his feet, pulled out his weapon and fired two shots in the air. It’s almost surreal that some people in this city are now debating whether he should have fired live rounds into the air as someone could have been injured when the bullets came down. Really?

If he failed to stick to protocol, let me commend him anyway for not killing someone by firing into an out-of-control crowd intent on doing him harm. That’s exactly what would have happened in New York, or London, or any other more “democratically developed” city. Someone would be dead.

I hope those who perpetrated, or participated in, that orgy of anarchy on Monday night are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, go to jail, and realise what it means to have a criminal record after they get out. Some people will just have to learn the hard way.

Investigators should have a field day with evidence in the vast amount of video footage taken by local TV stations or posted online by citizen journalists.

Having said all that, can we not go overboard with the wider witch-hunt for culprits, please? Yes, it makes sense to crack down on some fringe groups that have been openly advocating violence, but let’s not forget we’re talking about a minority in a city of 7.3 million.

If scores of those arrested are aged below 30 and dozens of them are students, let’s use that troubling factoid to ask what is driving so many of our youth to such ferocious hatred of police and authority. It’s something that has been flagged to our leaders many times, and with increasing intensity over the last couple of years, but their siege mentality is not helping.

As clichéd as it sounds, the root causes lie in Hong Kong’s acute lack of affordable housing and atrocious wealth gap. It’s so obvious that’s why there are so many angry people out there, whether the flashpoint is fishballs or football.

By the way, among all the unreal images I’ve seen from Monday night, I can’t get over one showing a man lying on his belly with a policeman’s foot on his back to subdue him. Even in that uncomfortable position, in the middle of a riot, this “victim of police brutality” was using his smartphone. Go figure.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post