Mong Kok riot

To break the cycle of violence, Hong Kong must deal with the root causes of society’s problems

Surya Deva says addressing the deeper reasons for the Mong Kok riot and other rowdy protests can halt the cycle of suppressive action and violent reactions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 February, 2016, 5:05pm

After the Umbrella Movement, protests against parallel traders, the University of Hong Kong saga, and now the “fishball revolution”, what next for Hong Kong? Is the city embracing the road to violence? And what does this violence mean for Hong Kong’s future relations with mainland China under the “one country, two systems” principle?

The nature of violence (and the extent of hatred against the police reflected in violence) is unseen in recent years in an otherwise safe and peaceful city.

The nature of violence (and the extent of hatred against the police reflected in violence) is unseen in recent years in an otherwise safe and peaceful city

Whereas the Hong Kong government classified the violence involving localist groups as a “riot”, the Chinese government labelled the Mong Kok rioters “separatists”. Picking up on the cue, Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, said the actions of the “radical separatists” were “leaning towards terrorism”. And a former Hong Kong security minister described young people involved in the riot as “beasts”.

This labelling game is merely responding to symptoms rather than reflecting on problems underpinning the violence. Neither this, nor a reactive “law and order lens” – buying water cannons for police, training firefighters to deal with riots, and enacting a law to ban masks during protests – would help avoid a repeat of Mong Kok’s violent scenes.

READ MORE: Discontent runs deep: Hong Kong faces a real risk of losing its alienated youth

Rather, Beijing and the Hong Kong government should join hands to address the root causes that are pushing the city down the road to violence.

First, there is a growing feeling among some Hongkongers that peaceful protests are fruitless in achieving legitimate goals. The frustration that even the massive protests seen during the Umbrella Movement could not bear any tangible results is alienating such people, especially those from the younger generations, and stopping them exploring other alternatives.

More often than not, the government is perceived as the sole agent of Beijing rather than the protector of local people’s interests

Second, there is basically no viable government institution which Hongkongers can approach to address their grievances. More often than not, the government is perceived as the sole agent of Beijing rather than the protector of local people’s interests. The chief executive and his Executive Council epitomise this. The Legislative Council has become dysfunctional because of filibustering by pan-democrats.

Even Hong Kong’s image of a corruption-free city has been seriously dented by the conviction or prosecution of high-profile politicians and bureaucrats conniving with business tycoons.

Third, the Hong Kong government needs to improve its governance skills in solving deep-rooted social, political and economic problems. When people have no hope to gain and little to lose within a system, incentives to change the status quo, even by radical means, are very high. It is not merely a coincidence that about a third of the people charged with Mong Kok rioting are unemployed.

Fourth, local people are increasingly worried about the “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong and its governance system. Hong Kong’s financial secretary noted that the people involved in the Mong Kok clashes have “smashed” the city’s values. But Hong Kong government officials do not show an equal amount of concern when one of the city’s core values – the rule of law – is trampled by the mainland authorities. The recent “involuntary removal” of Lee Po and other booksellers from Hong Kong and their detention on the mainlined is a case in point. Hong Kong’s chief executive does not see such brazen breaches of the “two systems” and personal freedoms as “violence”.

It appears then that the Mong Kok violence, while not justified, was a reaction to “another type of violence” which Beijing, in collusion with the Hong Kong government, is practising to interfere with Hongkongers’ way of life.

It is unlikely that China – which routinely practises violence against its citizens as a state policy – will be swayed by violent protests in Hong Kong. Nor has the suppression here reached such a stage that the use of violent means would start enjoying widespread public support.

READ MORE: Full coverage of the removal of Lee Po and other booksellers from Hong Kong

READ MORE: Radicals should stop using the 1967 riots to justify Mong Kok violence

Violence is not in the interest of any side of a divided society. Yet, future episodes of violent protests in Hong Kong cannot be ruled out, unless conscious efforts are made to break the current vicious cycle of suppressive action and violent reactions.

It will not be easy to accomplish this goal, in view of the lack of mutual trust and Beijing’s exaggerated national security fears originating from Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, the central government should realise that Hong Kong neither posed a threat to its national security in the past nor does it pose any real threat now. But if Beijing continues to alienate Hongkongers by adopting the hardline approach seen on the mainland, Hong Kong has the potential to become a hot potato. It is for Beijing to decide whether it has enough on its plate in the form of Tibet ( 西藏 ), Xinjiang (新疆), Taiwan and the South China Sea disputes, or whether it would like to see Hong Kong added to this list.

Surya Deva, an associate professor at City University’s School of Law, specialises in business and human rights, and comparative constitutional law