Familiarity with China breeds contempt in Hong Kong

Riot police arrests a protester after a clash at Mongkok district in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Riot police arrests a protester after a clash at Mongkok district in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
February 13, 2016

A protester carrying a rod walks past a fire at a junction in Mongkok in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
A protester carrying a rod walks past a fire at a junction in Mongkok in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The only surprise in the Monday night clashes between Hong Kong police and demonstrators demanding self-rule is that it hasn’t happened before.

Over 40 policemen were injured, and 24 people arrested in clashes in the working class district of Mong Kok as the city celebrated Chinese New Year. The degree of violence was unusual for Hong Kong, where peaceful protests are the norm. But on Monday night protesters attacked the police with sticks and any weapon that came to hand. Police responded with baton charges and tear gas. One policeman even drew his revolver and fired two warning shots into the air.

In all likelihood the Mong Kok riots herald increasingly violent clashes as Hongkongers vent their frustrations with Beijing’s refusal to keep its promises of political reform and the steady erosion of the territory’s freedoms.

The Chinese government has only itself to blame for the alienation of Hong Kong’s seven million people. They have shown incredible patience in the nearly 19 years since China regained sovereignty over the territory in 1997 after 155 years of British colonial rule.

From the start, the Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing has done everything possible to disavow its promise to allow Hongkongers to government themselves “with a high degree of autonomy.” It has also failed to swiftly introduce full democracy in the elections for the legislative council and the government leader, known as the Chief Executive. Instead, Beijing has crafted systems that ensure only its loyalists are candidates for high office.

This led to stormy protests in 2014, when tens of thousands of people occupied the main streets of Hong Kong’s business district, Central, for 79 days demanding free elections to pick the Chief Executive. The protest became known as the Umbrella Revolution, when demonstrators used their umbrellas to fend off riot police. But the protest failed to win any concessions from Beijing.

Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong has tightened since Xi Jinping became Communist Party leader and China’s President in late 2012. His imposition of a tough, authoritarian regime on the mainland that is a throwback to the days of Mao Zedong has been matched by equal intolerance for Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms.

There have been regular attacks by thugs apparently in the pay of the Communist Party on outspoken Hong Kong writers and journalists. A favourite tactic is to maim the victims with meat cleavers so they remain a visible warning to others of the dangers of crossing Beijing.

This campaign of intimidation reached a new low point in December with the disappearance of five Hong Kong people involved in book publishing and a book store known for its works critical of the Chinese leadership. The five appear to have been abducted and taken to China for questioning by authorities. Publisher Lee Bo was about to produce a book with revelations on the love life of President Xi, who is notoriously thin skinned. The purpose of the abductions appears to be to get the five to reveal the sources of their information about Xi.

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An unidentified injured man is escorted by riot police at Mongkok in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
An unidentified injured man is escorted by riot police at Mongkok in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The British government is convinced the Chinese authorities are behind the disappearances. On Friday the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement Lee Bo was “involuntarily removed” to the mainland. This, said Hammond, is a “serious breach” of the treaty under which Hong Kong was returned to China.

The abductions sparked a protest march on January 10 by thousands of people demanding the Hong Kong authorities investigate the disappearances. The administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying bowed to public pressure to launch an inquiry, but no one expects the Chinese authorities to give straight answers.

It was a much smaller spark that lit the riots in Mong Kok on Monday night. It has become traditional for the poor and unemployed to take advantage of public holidays like the Lunar New Year to make a little money by setting up stalls and selling snacks to revellers. In Mong Kok the speciality is fish balls, and the police usually turn a blind eye to this unlicensed trade.

However, for some reason on Monday night the police in Mong Kok were ordered to crack down on the street food vendors. The situation swiftly turned into a riot as local people rushed to the aid of the fish ball sellers.

Comparisons have been made with Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable seller, who set himself on fire in late 2010 in protest at police harassment and whose death unleashed pent-up frustrations around the Middle East and launched the uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

When one looks at the reasons behind the Mong Kok riots it is clear that there is a new volatility in Hong Kong that suggests social instability and clashes with the authorities will only increase.

The people who rushed to defend were from a number of groups who want independence for Hong Kong and an end to Chinese rule. Such groups existed during British rule. Indeed, there was a significant minority of Hongkongers who in 1997 wanted independence and not a return to Chinese sovereignty. But the number of groups advocating independence and their following has increased substantially as anger at Beijing has increased. Polls suggest about 25 per cent of Hongkongers support independence.

The group known as Hong Kong Indigenous led the defence of the Mong Kok street vendors on Monday night. Others are the Hong Kong Front, which wants the territory to be an independent republic; The National Independence Party; the Hong Kong Independence Party; and Hong Kong Resurgence.

Several of these groups operate almost as vigilantes in various districts of Hong Kong, protecting their neighbourhoods from mainlanders wanting to buy up homes and businesses.

Riot police guard a junction with a fire set by protesters at Mongkok district in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Riot police guard a junction with a fire set by protesters at Mongkok district in Hong Kong, China February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Most Hongkongers are not so radical, and simply want the autonomy they were promised by China before the handover. But the disdain and mistrust of China is constantly increasing. Various polls show that the vast majority of the territory’s people now identify themselves either has Hongkongers or as Hong Kong Chinese. Very few identify themselves only as Chinese. The proportions are even higher among young people in the 18 to 29-year-old age range, suggesting the cultural gap between Hong Kong and the mainland will only get wider.

There are many causes for Hong Kong’s increasingly rebellious attitudes. Beijing’s refusal to allow democracy and its persistent efforts to curb the territory’s freedoms are high on the list. But much of the contempt comes from Hongkongers’ enforced familiarity with mainlanders in the last 19 years.

When mainlanders started coming to Hong Kong as tourists after the handover they were treated as a joke. Their country bumpkin ways, such as leaving the price tags on designer sunglasses as a demonstration of wealth, were the source of many chuckles. But the laughter has died as the number of tourists keeps rising and so has the rudeness and arrogance with which they too often treat the Hongkongers. The Hong Kong administration has been forced to appeal to Beijing to restrict the number of tourist visas it issues.

At the same time, wealthy and well-connected mainlanders have found ways either of emigrating to Hong Kong or of buying homes and businesses there. There is widespread perception in Hong Kong that the influx of mainland money has fuelled the territory’s ballooning real estate prices and made the city the most expensive place in the world to live.

As in the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Toronto, and cities in the United States, Australia and New Zealand that are targets for the vast amounts of money being siphoned out of China by the wealthy — $1 trillion last year according to The Economist magazine – one of the country’s major exports is disparity. It’s the same in Hong Kong. Since the Second World War there has been a relatively small elite of super rich tycoons in Hong Kong. But the bulk of the population could be called middle class, with good education, good salaries, their own homes and good prospects. The influx of mainland money has created a more pronounced wealth gap, and with it much resentment among Hongkongers. About one million of Hong Kong’s seven million people now live below the poverty line, among them the Mong Kok fishball hawkers.

It hasn’t helped that the whiff of corruption hangs over much of the mainland money. In many eyes this is tainting Hong Kong’s hard-won reputation as a safe and honest level playing field for doing business in China and Asia.

Recently Vancouver is seeing the same infection with the revelation that some real estate agents have been using their positions as middlemen to inflate their own take on deals by duping sellers and gouging buyers.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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See also: Hong Kong’s Fish Ball Revolution turns bloody — Report

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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