Sixteen months ago, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens swamped the city’s boulevards and camped there for weeks, protesting against the refusal of Beijing to allow them to pick their own candidates for Chief Executive. These were the most placid, good-humoured expressions of mass civic anger I have ever witnessed. But when the protests finally fizzled out, it was hard to see what they had achieved beyond publicity.
The contrast with the events of the past week could not have been starker. Over the Chinese New Year holiday, the pictures from the former British colony were of flying bricks, charging riot police, cars set on fire, protesters with bloody faces dragged away, streets of rubble and ashes. An apparently trivial confrontation over potentially unlicensed food vendors went ballistic.
Had the gritty suburb of Mongkok turned into Tahrir Square? One commentator compared Hong Kong’s people to a woman worn down by years of domestic violence, who finally snapped and hurled a bottle at her husband. Was Hong Kong on the way to becoming ungovernable?
A little perspective is helpful. TV cameras love a riot, and this one erupted in the zone which saw all the most tense encounters in 2014. The violence looked more dramatic than it was, and the numbers involved were tiny compared to the Occupy Movement. Anarchic protests can only strengthen the government’s hand, so some suspected the involvement of agents provocateurs.
“The Hong Kong government now relishes confrontation,” a long-term expatriate said, “and goes out of its way to get people out on the streets so it can paint a narrative depicting democrats as violent trouble makers.”
Now, 15 students and 20 others appeared in court charged with rioting and unlawful assembly.
But there is no doubt that the riots showed a society in growing turmoil, facing a future profoundly different from its past, and one for which it has little appetite. And more ominous than the violence for many Hong Kongers is the disappearance in recent months of five men linked to a local publishing company that specialises in spicy books about the People’s Republic’s leadership.
One of the five men, Lee Bo, is a British citizen, and the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has accused Beijing of committing a “serious breach” of the one-country, two-systems treaty under which Hong Kong gained independence in 1997 by abducting him. Mr Hammond wrote in a report: “Our current information indicates that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process…This constitutes a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of ‘one country, two systems’.”
The Hong Kong government said that its police were continuing to investigate the disappearances and had sought assistance from mainland authorities. “Any suggestion that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland” was “speculative,” it said.
The abductions have given many in Hong Kong their nastiest fright since the ties with Britain were severed 19 years ago. “It’s really serious,” said the same long-term foreign resident. “This is precisely the spectre of the midnight knock on the door that everyone feared after 1997. Increased Chinese intervention in the running of Hong Kong was always inevitable…
“The whole point about Hong Kong is that it was supposed to be the place where there is a free flow of information and rule of law – precisely the things that do not exist on the ‘dark side’.”
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