Mong Kok riot is a symptom of Hong Kong’s fraying social fabric
Stephanie Cheung says our capacity to both reason and empathise is needed for the community to come together
Many of us sat appalled, eyes glued to TV screens, as scene after scene of police officers being attacked in Mong Kok appeared. Orange rubbish bins flew through the air, soon replaced by glass and bricks. A fallen officer was not spared by the angry crowd wielding sticks, some wearing hoodies in uniform colour and masks. Reporters from three TV stations were wounded. A young man on top of a car articulated in measured, mesmerising tones through a megaphone: “Here we are, local people, just trying to have some street food to celebrate the new year, and what do we get? Corrupt policemen intent on curbing our freedom.”
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He urged the crowd to rise and resist such injustice, and to rally friends to gather and help. That was midnight on the first day of the Year of the Monkey.
On the second day, one of the leaders of a Hong Kong localist group was asked during an interview whether he considered what took place to be violent, and he said, “No. Not when you consider what happens in the UK and America.”
Two issues arise from his response. First is an issue of the mind. How can striking with sticks, throwing hard objects at people in a way that can kill or maim, not be defined as violent?
Second is an issue of the heart. Granted, the attackers were frustrated and angry, but the object of their anger were men of flesh and blood, people with fathers and mothers, wives and even children, and severely outnumbered. Is there no twinge of kindness, conscience or even sense of dishonour in striking out at someone who has fallen? Or are we so far down the road that mention of words like “kindness”, “sympathy”, “honour” or “courage” are scorned in our society?
The first issue, the ability to think, reason and analyse, is like the vertical warp thread on a weaving loom. The second issue, such as integrity, honour, honesty, courage, kindness, respect and empathy for others, and concern for society, is the horizontal weft thread.
When we weave the two threads together, they form the fabric of our society. The more rigorous our reason and thinking, the tighter and more taut is our warp thread, which anchors the fabric and makes it strong. On the other hand, it is our heart, our values, which give the fabric its texture, and completes the finished piece with glorious colours. Neither can do without the other. Neglect of either one leads to the fabric becoming frayed, and ultimately falling apart.
The Mong Kok riot is symptomatic of a lack of rigorous reasoning which has been prevalent in Hong Kong these past few years. And this does not apply exclusively to the young, but also to government officials, politicians and opinion leaders.
One aspect of bad reasoning is the trend to treat different concepts as somehow opposite, without any room for middle-way negotiation. We saw a notable example in the January cold spell, when a woman berated a police officer standing between her and a climb up Tai Mo Shan. The police had been called in to rescue stranded hikers. Going uphill to see frost was her freedom, she claimed, and she alone had the right to determine her personal safety, whereas rescuing people was the police’s duty. The police should not curb her freedom in carrying out their duty.
“Freedom”, “duty”, “safety”, “justice”, “love of local traditions”, “love of city”, “love of country”, “democracy”, “academic freedom”, “good governance”, “law and order”, “rule of law”, “academic excellence”, “benchmarking of schools”, “monitoring government”, “governmental efficiency” and “patriotism” – these are all good things in themselves.
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However, when we portray one concept as opposite to another, we are pushing people to choose sides. Without proper reasoning, choices are made based on prejudices and emotive appeal. The Mong Kok incident was a case of people rallying round a call for protection of local traditions. Applying this black or white mode of reasoning, respect for law and order was inevitably thrown out of the window, since it was portrayed as being opposite to localism.
The fact is that these concepts are not necessarily opposites of one another. They can coexist. As such, our energies should not be focused on, say, whether love of city as opposed to love of country is correct, but, instead, on the extent one’s love of city should prevail over one’s love of country, and vice versa.
Take the example of the woman aspiring to climb Tai Mo Shan. The question should not be whether she had the freedom to climb, but a question of to what extent should she be free to court unnecessary danger for herself, and in turn, for those who might need to rescue her.
The real issue is, accordingly, one of proportionality, degree and balance.
When freedoms are exercised without restriction, and without analysis of whose other rights they might impinge upon, society becomes unhealthy. The challenge for the Hong Kong community is to apply more rigorous reasoning in its decision-making, and pay attention to the grey areas between the extremes, where wisdom often lies. The call by Emily Lau Wai-hing of the Democratic Party for the government to convene a four-party meeting, including copyright owners and internet users, to break the impasse over the copyright bill was a big step in the right direction.
Let’s hope the coming year sees bigger advances by Hong Kong in rigorous thinking, with the agility and cleverness of the monkey.
Stephanie Cheung participated in the student movements in the 1970s, and is currently a solicitor and mediator, and volunteer in youth work and education