Mong Kok riot

Regina Ip: the Mong Kok riot was no spontaneous outburst, but just who was behind the violence?

Regina Ip says the unrest in Hong Kong shows signs of having been carefully plotted, and law-abiding citizens must brace for more such agitation in these sensitive times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 February, 2016, 7:10pm

Mong Kok, a busy shopping and entertainment area in the heart of Kowloon, was a major battleground between protesters and the police during Occupy Central. About a year later, when the police were lulled by the festive opening of the Lunar New Year, it ­became the scene of riots unseen in Hong Kong for decades, sending shock waves throughout the nation.

READ MORE: ‘Don’t do stupid things’: PLA blames ‘separatists’ in Hong Kong for Mong Kok riot

Unbeknown to many living in more peaceful parts of the city, since the end of Occupy Central in December 2014, anti-mainland-shopper protests in Mong Kok never ceased. Bands of about 10 youngsters, unfurling the British Hong Kong flag and bad-mouthing the police, gathered nightly in Mong Kok. Then, as though being paid by the hour, they would stop when their time was up.

Foreign journalists labelled the riot the “fishball rebellion” – an uprising of suppressed street vendors against a harsh authority.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. A hawker management team was on duty in Mong Kok on February 8. Before taking any clearance action, team members were surrounded by more than 50 hawkers. Vendors of “stinky tofu” (a popular street food) in boiling oil lunged towards them. The team had to call in the police for support.

READ MORE: Mong Kok riot is a symptom of Hong Kong’s fraying social fabric

Those familiar with law enforcement practices during the Lunar New Year period would know that on the first day of the new year, frontline law enforcement squads would normally go easy on street vendors.

Alan Lau Yip-shing, director of police operations, testifying before the Legislative Council security panel last week, reported that no intelligence pointing to a possible outbreak of rioting in Mong Kok had been received.

Suspicion is now growing in informed circles that the riots were carefully planned. Plotters picked a day on which roughly 10 per cent of force members, especially among senior ranks, were on leave. In the evening, many had just finished their “New Year parade” duty, while others had been assigned to take up “fireworks” duty the following day.

As an emerging world power, China can ill afford to be painted as a bully, a loser, and an authoritarian dinosaur that cannot make ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ work

Conspiracy theories as to the “black hand” behind the riots flew thick and fast. Among those who hate China, a view is spreading that Beijing fomented the riots, so that it could clamp down on protests more harshly, and more effectively “control” Hong Kong.

This theory has not gained much traction, as it does not make sense for China to foment chaos in a city which is an “inalienable part” of itself.

That would not only amount to shooting itself in the foot, but would also invite more global condemnations of China’s failure to adhere to its promise of “one country, two systems”.

China already has egg on its face over the alleged abduction of bookseller Lee Po across the border.

As an emerging world power, it can ill afford to be painted as a bully, a loser, and an authoritarian dinosaur that cannot make “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” work.

READ MORE: Full coverage of Hong Kong’s missing booksellers

The more likely plotters are those who do not want “one country, two systems” to succeed, and those harbouring such macabre intentions are legion.

It ranges from those who want to show that China, a laggard in the protection of rights and freedoms, cannot run Hong Kong as well as the departed British colonial rulers, to those who do not want to see “one country, two systems” succeed as a showcase for Taiwan.

A breakdown of police morale would force Beijing to deploy the People’s Liberation Army in the event of further outbreaks of riots

One theory even went so far as to suggest that the plan was to force frontline police officers, pelted with bricks and faced with serious risk to life and limb, to shoot at protesters, thus turning the already politically beleaguered force into arch villains and driving them to the ground. A breakdown of police morale would force the central government to deploy the People’s Liberation Army in the event of further outbreaks of riots, thus torpedoing the implementation of “one country, two systems” once and for all.

Such a theory is not implausible, considering how many powers, great and small, there are that do not wish China to rise peacefully, and which want it to be permanently painted as an uncivilised member of the international community.

The riots come at a sensitive time in Hong Kong’s electoral cycle. A Legco by-election in New Territories East will take place at the end of the month. Pundits are watching intensely to see which way voters will turn – towards the anti-violence, pro-establishment front runner Holden Chow, or Civic Party barrister Alvin Yeung, who has been campaigning on an anti-government platform.

If more plots are being hatched, people are living in dangerous times. Indeed, the worst of times; but perhaps also the best of times if and when the tide turns.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People’s Party