A year on, Mong Kok riot leaves lessons and scars for Hong Kong police and activists alike
Six people convicted and law enforcement measures beefed up in aftermath
Mong Kok might have regained a sense of calm a year after violence swept through the retail hub on the first night of Lunar New Year, but key figures of the unrest are still bearing scars of the overnight chaos that lasted more than 10 hours.
“You could say we were like a raging fire being put out very quickly,” said Ray Wong Toi-yeung, the leader of the localist group Hong Kong Indigenous who was accused of instigating the Mong Kok riot last February. “We do not have the power to start any social movements at this point as many core members are facing charges.”
Having been charged with one count of rioting, Wong, 23, could not comment further on what happened a year ago. But he said many supporters had turned away from him and that his group had since reflected on its actions.
“The main reason (for losing supporters) is that we often misjudged situations and lacked experience,” he said. “We must take responsibility for that.”
Wong described the party as experiencing a “time out” after raising its local stature, no more evident than when localist Edward Leung Tin-kei, 25, stunned pundits and politicians by garnering 15.4 per cent of votes cast in the Legislative Council by-election for the New Territories East constituency just three weeks after the riot.
Wong blamed the government’s aggressive political attacks for curtailing support for his group, claiming his voice was not heard in mainstream media.
“You can see how the government attacked us by disqualifying Leung from the Legislative Council elections,” he said. “We often have no chance to dismiss negative reports against us.”
He added that he and his members would engage in more community work to win back supporters and wait for the right moment to initiate social movements again.
Clashes erupted on February 8 last year, the first night of Lunar New Year, when a group of activists confronted hygiene officers and police to defend illegal street hawkers in Mong Kok.
The bloody overnight confrontation between protesters and police lasted over 10 hours and was said to involve more than 700 rioters. The unrest hit 14 streets and saw 2,000 bricks prised from 110 square metres of pavement and used as projectiles. Fires were set at 22 locations, and 800 policemen were dispatched to the scene at the height of the chaos. By the end, 130 people were injured.
The clashes were among the fiercest Hong Kong had seen since the city’s 1967 riots against the British colonial government.
Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying and senior government figures came out the following morning in support of police tactics and classified the clashes as a “riot”. Leung also accused the malcontents of engaging in an organised criminal act.
To date, the force has arrested 90 people, with judicial procedures pursued against 57. Of these, six have been convicted.
In October, a 31-year-old waiter was jailed for nine months for throwing water bottles and resisting police during the riot. He was the first person to be convicted over the clashes.
An 18-year-old McDonald’s employee who hurled a brick at a police officer and caused injuries was put on 18 months’ probation.
In August, the force recommended up to 300 officers for recognition for their “devotion to duty” during the bloody clashes.
Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo Wai-chung awarded a “lanyard in colours” to four officers. They included a traffic officer who controversially fired two live rounds in the air to protect his colleagues. Another recipient was an injured cop who was seen lying on the ground while being set upon by protesters armed with bricks, glass bottles and wooden boards. Yet another recipient was a female station sergeant whose fingers were broken in the violence.
Sergeant Wong Lok-on, who suffered skull and cheekbone fractures during clashes with protesters, was recommended for a “red lanyard” – a top honour to be presented by the chief executive.
It was understood Wong had undergone three surgeries to his eyes, nose and cheekbone over the past year, and had resumed his job duties.
Some angry frontline police officers slammed the force for poor arrangements and inadequate gear that left more than 90 colleagues wounded.
A police source said its management had learned a lesson from the riot and that the experience had made the force even stronger.
“It’s like learning to ride a bike. You fall several times before you succeed,” a police insider said. “We’d never encountered a riot before, so we learned from it. We underestimated the situation and the chaos escalated really quickly.”
The force set up a review committee immediately after the unrest to look into their operations, weapons and training.
Less than a month after the committee’s launch, the force equipped all Emergency Unit (EU) and Police Tactical Unit (PTU) vehicles with riot gear including tear gas canister, semi-automatic AR15 rifles, federal riot guns and rubber bullets for each deployment. In the past, the units stored the gear at five regional bases and police headquarters.
The measures were taken to ensure frontline officers were well equipped and to save time retrieving the gear.
Citing a thousands-strong rally in November over Beijing’s review of the Basic Law, the source said the force mounted a strong police presence at the central government’s liaison office in Western including elite officers from a special tactical squad known as the ‘blue team’ soon after protesters attempted to storm the building.
“Its all about criminal psychology,” the source said. “If one wants to clash or throw bricks, others will follow. We have to stop criminal behaviour from sprouting.”
As recommended by the review committee, pepper balls and paintball guns were added to the PTU’s gear for crowd control while the force was testing new rubber bullets.
The department also planned to recruit 900 extra officers. The proposal was approved by a high-level government committee known as the Star Chamber, chaired by former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
It was understood the force would establish a Major Incident Bureau this year to focus on intelligence exchange and security arrangements for large public order events.
“We are trying everything to prevent another riot,” the source said. “The radical groups won’t have a chance this Lunar New Year.”