In December of 2014, as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement came to a sputtering end, the leaders of the 79-day occupation that blocked major intersections in three different parts of the city made good on their civil-disobedience pledge to turn themselves into the police. They were not charged.
Now, more than two years later, nine of the movement’s leaders, including its three founders, face jail terms of up to seven years as outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-yin looks to settle old scores before his five-year term expires in July. These belated arrests on an antiquated charge —“creating a public nuisance”— may offer some degree of satisfaction and revenge to Leung, whose administration has been marred by the intense social and political divisions symbolized by the prolonged street demonstrations of 2014. But they are also guaranteed to make life difficult for his successor, former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has pledged to unify a bitterly divided city in the aftermath of her March 26 election.
Indeed, if the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and academics Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man – the three co-founders of what was originally known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace – wind up behind bars for having inspired tens of thousands of people, especially young people, to join a nearly three-month protest marked chiefly by idealism, order and dignity, then Lam could find herself dealing with protesters of an entirely different sort during her time as CE. Look for a more frustrated, cynical and violent segment of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million populace to take the streets unless she changes the script.
The city was given a preview of this new and fiercer brand of radicalism when a riot erupted in Mong Kok – also the most hostile of the three Occupy venues – on February 8, 2016, the first day of the Lunar New Year.
Dubbed the “Fishball Revolution” by sympathizers on social media, the unrest was triggered a day earlier by a Food and Environmental Hygiene Department crackdown on unlicensed hawkers selling popular street food (including fishballs), but it soon escalated into a war between police, still resented for firing 87 canisters of tear gas at peaceful demonstrators during the first night of Occupy, and hundreds of protesters who poured into the streets after learning of the hawkers’ plight online.
By the time the nasty tumult had ended around 9am the next morning, it was clear that this cathartic outburst was about much more than street food. Furious protesters lit fires on the street and prised bricks from sidewalks that – along with glass and other objects – they then heaved at stunned police officers. As the violence escalated, one officer, a colleague lying prostrate near him after having been felled by a brick to the head, pulled his gun and fired two warning shots in the air; still, the madness continued.
In the end, 61 people were arrested and nearly 90 officers and several journalists were injured in the worst violence witnessed by Hong Kong since 1967 riots inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution happening over the border from what was then a British colony.
The perpetrators of the riot were denounced across the city as low-life “criminals” and “thugs,” which some of them surely were, but there was also a collective desperation and rage on display that night in Mong Kok that went way beyond the rights of street hawkers and straight to the heart of the city’s social and political ills. It was Hong Kong’s “We’re-mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” moment.
The city’s police force had experienced a similar breaking point at the height of Occupy after one protester, Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, poured a foul-smelling liquid, thought to be urine, on 11 of the thousands of officers who had been put under extraordinary pressure and strain by the stubborn longevity of the movement. Tsang was subsequently arrested and roundly beaten by seven officers, whose assault was filmed by a local TV news crew.
Last month, all seven were found guilty of “assault occasioning actual bodily harm” and sentenced to two years in prison. Tsang had earlier been convicted of assaulting police and resisting arrest and sentenced to five weeks in jail.
Those verdicts, fair or not, left parties on both sides mad as hell. Following the sentencing of the seven officers, the police have also turned into protesters, staging an emotional mass rally to air their grievances.
It didn’t use to be like this. Hong Kong was once famous for the civility of its protests, as when 500,000 people peacefully filled the streets in July of 2003, forcing the government to shelve proposed anti-subversion legislation that they worried would restrict their freedom of speech and assembly, or when one million turned out following the Chinese government’s murderous crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, which left hundreds if not thousands dead.
That’s why so many people around the world admired those mostly orderly, well-behaved Occupy protesters whose humble symbol became the umbrellas they employed to ward off sun, rain, tear gas and pepper spray. They were upholding a proud Hong Kong tradition of peaceful resistance to injustice and oppression.
While it is not so long ago, in years, that the Occupy protesters folded their umbrellas and went home, it seems like an age has passed. Protests continue to be a way of life in Hong Kong, but the protest culture has changed dramatically.
Now young people, fed up with the failure of Occupy to produce any concrete results, are increasingly abandoning traditional forms of passive resistance such as marches and sit-ins. Many have simply given up and lost interest, but a group of radical localists who reject all association with the mainland advocate violence and demand not just democracy but outright independence from the central government in Beijing. Meanwhile, countering and at times directly confronting the localists, pro-Beijing groups such as Voice of Loving Hong Kong and Silent Majority – which are dominated by the older generation – have engaged in violent protests of their own.
The generational clash of values erupted last year in the Legislative Council (Legco), the city’s parliament, when two popularly elected pro-independence lawmakers – Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, 30, and Yau Wai-ching, 25 – enlisted the physical aid of their pan-democratic colleagues to force their way into the council’s chamber after the council president had rejected their oaths of office and refused to seat them. Four security guards were injured in the ensuing melee, and the council meeting was adjourned.
Leung and Yau, both of whom had staged pro-independence protests during their swearing-in formalities, were eventually banned from Legco by a High Court ruling that found them in violation of the Oaths and Declarations Ordinance. That court judgment was rendered after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp Chinese parliament, issued a so-called “interpretation” of the Hong Kong Constitution, known as the Basic Law, stating that oaths must be taken “sincerely and solemnly.”
The legislative chaos wrought by Leung and Yao was hardly the first time that partisan havoc had reigned in the Legco chamber. These days rowdy pan-democratic filibusters have become a council norm, and the chief executive and his ministers enter the chamber with the expectation that they will not only be insulted but also quite possibly targeted with projectiles such as fruit, luncheon meat and – in one instance resulting in another court case – a drinking glass that was hurled at Leung Chun-ying by lawmaker Raymond Wong Yuk-man (aka “Mad Dog”), who has since lost his seat.
The politics of Legco have become indistinguishable from the politics of the street. Indeed, in the present atmosphere, an open umbrella seems a pretty tame instrument of opposition.
Yes, the occupation of three key parts of the city – Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok – was illegal. And, yes, in a manifesto advocating civil disobedience that was written and published prior to the actual launch of the Occupy protests, the movement’s founders confessed to their crime even before committing it.
At this point, however, the government would have been wise to let sleeping dogs lie. Reopening the old wounds of Occupy two years after the fact could very well foment a second mass movement in Hong Kong. But Occupy 2.0 would likely be a lot uglier.