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Is Hong Kong heading for a Tiananmen-style crackdown? Probably not, even if some seem to be itching for it

Yonden Lhatoo sees plenty of provocation, but does not expect the PLA to march out of their barracks even if there’s worse unrest to come following the Mong Kok riot

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 February, 2016, 6:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

Since the Mong Kok riot, I’ve been asked by several overseas journalists whether Hong Kong is heading for a Tiananmen-style crackdown.

I remember quickly dismissing the same question every time it popped up during the Occupy protests in 2014. There was no dearth of opinion and analysis pieces in the foreign press raising the possibility of Beijing taking such drastic action, but my confidence in both the Hong Kong and central governments to handle the crisis without bloodshed turned out to be well placed.

Whether it was a matter of clinical cynicism or patient wisdom, the government’s strategy to wait 79 days for the majority of the population to grow fed up with the road blockades in the name of democracy proved effective. In the end, I daresay, there was a collective sigh of relief when the last of the occupiers were driven off the streets without a fight.

Fast forward to the present day, and my answer is still “no way” People’s Liberation Army troops will march out of their Hong Kong barracks to quell the unrest, even if the Mong Kok riot is a precursor of worse to come, as some have openly warned.

Tiananmen is too far-fetched and, at the end of the day, cooler heads will surely prevail, I told the inquiring journalists. “Really? But you guys seem to be begging for it,” was one response.

I have to agree. Some people in this city seem so hell-bent on provoking Beijing that I can’t help wondering if disaster is their endgame. What else could they possibly hope to achieve with that shocking display of cowardly mob violence in the heart of Kowloon’s retail hub last week?

I find it jaw-droppingly ludicrous that people are still arguing about whether it can even be called a “riot” in the first place. “A violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd” is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. Not good enough? How about “criminal anarchy” then, or “murderous rampage”?

After another long look at television footage of the violence, I was struck – no pun intended – by the ferocity of the rioters in clips showing a bunch of them hurling bricks with full force at an injured policeman lying on the ground while his colleague was trying to shield him with his own body. Try picking up a brick if you can and think what it means to bash someone’s head in with it. That’s attempted murder right there. The word “riot” is a limp euphemism, actually.

It turns out now there were 700 rioters spread across 14 streets in Mong Kok that night. They dug up about 2,000 bricks (Hong Kong is meticulous in keeping such tallies) and “rained” them down on shell-shocked police officers, according to the official account.

One of the biggest blowbacks from the Occupy protests was the untold damage to the morale, authority and street credibility of frontline police officers.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Hong Kong’s police force is an asset it cannot afford to devalue. It defies comprehension that so many people in this city see the police as the enemy and complain about their “brutality” or “abuse of power”. Hongkongers need to get out more and experience real brutality and corruption around the world so they can understand how good they have it here.

But, no, we have more defiance and provocation instead. Some people are now going on the record to threaten more radical action like occupying the Legislative Council building to “fight injustice” and “break away from all the oppression”. Really?

In my more than two decades in Hong Kong, the only thing I’ve found oppressive is the summer heat/humidity. That blows.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post