My Take

Carrie Lam should heed the lessons of deadly riots that took place 50 years ago

Hong Kong is celebrating 20 years of liberation from colonial rule, but societal problems that led to unrest in the 1960s are still very much in focus

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2017, 12:53am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2017, 12:53am

I hate to be a party pooper. But given the gloomy mood in Hong Kong these days, the lessons of deadly riots 50 years ago seem more relevant than the 20th anniversary celebration of China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong.

It’s rather disturbing that there are profound parallels between what happened then and what is taking place now. The social discontents, corruption, inequalities and poverty are all there. It just needs a trigger to erupt to the surface. Then, the excuse was against British colonial rule. Today, it’s against Chinese rule (or the absence of “real” democracy). But the underlying causes are similar.

Mong Kok fish-ball riots point to deeper problems, like the 1966 unrest in Hong Kong

Back then, in 1966, a Star Ferry fare rise triggered a hunger strike, which struck a chord among many ordinary Hong Kong people. But the more violent bombing, murders and riots that took place in the following year were primarily the work of leftist agitators and communist provocateurs inspired by the Cultural Revolution across the border.

Their cause was anti-colonialism; the results were murder and mayhem. Today, the opposition is against the central government and the local government, which is viewed by some as no more than “a client state”. Those agitating against Beijing may not be as violent, but are just as misguided and dangerous.

Historians and social scientists today generally agree it was the underlying social malaise – ignored by the British colonials under the mistaken notion of benign neglect – that was the real cause of trouble in the late 1960s. In a similar way, the failure of government by successive administrations after the 1997 handover have exacerbated the living conditions of many people – in housing, education, welfare and medical care. There is even a deeper sense of injustice in that the business elite and the government have become richer than ever while the rest have been left behind.

Think how great Hong Kong might be had it been well run post-1997

It’s depressing that we are still merely tinkering – and living off – all those government services, which were either set up or considerably expanded by the visionary governor Murray MacLehose in response to the 1960s unrest.

The next government of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor needs to “do a MacLehose”, to focus on those fundamental livelihood issues. She has failed on political reform once already. Until conditions improve, it would be suicidal for her – and Hong Kong – to try again.