The Hong Kong government needs to gather its best minds and determine how to make the Fishball Revolution a footnote in history, not the birth of a monster it seems determined to create.
No one comes out of this looking good.
Not the police and not the protesters. In case you’re confused – this was not Occupy Round II. This is something very very different. And if not handled properly, something more dangerous.
Although Occupy didn’t unfold as planned and wasn’t led by its putative leaders, some of their ideas infused the spirit of the Umbrella Movement, in particular peaceful resistance. It was in the DNA of the occupation that led to study halls, gardens, artwork and garbage collection.
“There was little harmless about the group out Monday night.
When trouble happened, an electronic cry went out and was answered. This happened on multiple occasions and people responded by showing up with whatever supplies and manpower was requested. On most occasions, when confronting police, people raised their arms to show their hands were empty and exposed their bodies.
The Fishball Revolution was different. This was a small group of people – a few hundred, not OC’s scores of thousands. They came ready for trouble, with makeshift shields. They had prepared for a camera ready standoff with police, riot shields against homemade shields. HK Indigenous flags, supposedly for an election march, were in place.
There were none of the dignified old of Occupy Central, just the exclusively angry young. Electronic calls for support were rare, half-hearted and ignored. No one came that wasn’t already there and itching for a fight.
And they were vicious. Many of Occupy Central’s protesters were inspiring in their harmlessness. There was little harmless about the group out Monday night.
Occupy was jumped on by long-standing democratic politicians who were among the last to be carried out by the police. The students led, the older people followed. But this time, a small group led and has since been followed, in words, by the undergraduate student unions of HKU, HKUST, Baptist, CUHK and Polytechnic.
And the agitators were desperate. Occupy/Umbrella was hopeful in its inception and execution. It may have ended in pessimism, but it wasn’t born that way. It is the desperation and pessimism that Occupy has bequeathed to localists and now, Fishballers.
In American lingo, a baller is a gangster that has made it to the next level. The big times. This may resemble the unfortunate graduation of a small group of the angriest coming out of the Umbrella Movement.
Police unwise enough to get separated from the meagre herd were set upon, brought to the ground and beaten for extended periods until help could arrive. When the infamous two warning shots were fired, there was an officer down, unmoving with debris being piled on top. This was no Euro-football style HKU Council professor taking a dive (see video from a bird’s eye view here).
“It is the desperation and pessimism that Occupy has bequeathed to localists and now, Fishballers.
The police appeared to be undermanned and out of control on many occasions leading to desperate measures. The use of pepper mist looked almost comical with rioters not even bothering with goggles. The footage of a Ming Pao reporter taking a beating from police lends credence to other media who claim abuse. The evidence of police throwing bricks, the antithesis of proper crowd control, deserves harsh disciplinary action.
But if the police were using outdated 1967 era riot techniques at Occupy Central’s outbreak, it appears whatever updated training they have done in the meantime was not appropriate for this new phenomena – a small hardcore willing to inflict real damage on people, especially the police.
Herein lies the real danger. Politicians and political activists used to be pro-establishment and pro-democracy. Now it is pro-government and anti-government. The anti-government breakdown into the old pro-democracy (now reduced to constant filibustering) and they are none too keen on the new anti-government faction, the localists.
The localists are at a point where they are deciding whether to take the radical road or prepare themselves for real politics. Youngspiration, a political aspirant, conceded the localist candidacy in the NT East by-election this month to HK Indigenous leader Edward Leung – arrested at the Fishball Revolution.
His arrest could be a huge mistake on their part – or part of a master plan. In today’s column, Law & Order columnist Bill Majcher references an imaginary “Insurgency for Dummies” Handbook. Such a book exists. It is Saul Alinsky’s famous tome, Rules for Radicals, and it recommends jail time for a leader of a calculated three to six months (choose your protest form wisely). Long Hair’s done it and now it is Edward Leung’s turn.
The old generation has little to say on the Fishball Revolution other than the rare quip on the ‘underlying problem’. This is not their game and it may be why so many are stepping down now, at a loss for the future game.
The dangerous bit
The amount of negativity flowing around Hong Kong is not going to be dispelled by some free museum passes. The government seems caught between knowing it needs to genuinely engage people and the needing to be onside with Beijing’s hardline stance. The latter has won out in every instance.
One of the vehicles for expressing the negativity is Ten Years, a wildly popular independent, 5 vignette movie imagining Hong Kong in 2025. In the third segment, Self-Immolation, the desperation felt by the city is embodied in a person who burns themselves to death in front of the British Consulate.
This type of desperation, down a couple of notches, is seen in the people taking to the streets of Mong Kok. They simply didn’t exist in the numbers necessary for this kind of action until now. If mishandled, it’s going to get worse.
Arrests are taking place as there is ample photographic and video evidence to charge people with zero threat to the rule of law. However, successful prosecution of people creates an underclass of people already driven to desperation. A criminal record means no hope of travel or of emigration. Or of getting a proper job.
These people, with a newly found backbone to inflict and endure violence, will form the core of an indigenous insurgency. The bogeyman the government has been warning about has finally, as a result of their best efforts, been brought into being.
The only other people who fit this description are those in organised crime. In many places, the criminal underworld, out of profit, and high minded freedom fighters, out of necessity, cooperate. If the triads can turn a buck and have the police occupied by a determined political fringe, they’ll be happy to grow their enterprise. Hong Kong gets political unrest and increasing lawlessness.
The political side could evolve into a broadly anti-government faction with dangerously radical elements. Those elements would have the politicians they can work with, much as was seen in places like Northern Ireland where no one was ever quite sure how close the respectable face was to the violent shadow world. Moderates would be considered traitors, forcing honest brokers out of politics and increasing the divide.
“Our CE needs to be down in the CNY street market, having some fish balls and locally brewed beer
There is another way. The one night of fishball excess could receded into memory as a last gasp of the dark side of the Umbrella’s last gasp if our politicians get the symbolism and substance right.
Substance – actually meet with people from across the divide and recognise their concerns from time to time. For example, does anyone outside of the entertainment business really care if the Copyright Ordinance passes? Even the pro-establishment people can barely be bothered to show up to support it. Negotiate to put it aside in return another government priority, and move on.
Meet with localists that are not too far gone. While I disagree with the milk powder ban and restricting travel (yes, I know, comments section open below), there is probably more that can be done to address their concerns that would be widely popular, hopefully without further hurting the economy (i.e. banning travelers hitting tourism, retail).
As for symbolism, the government needs to out-local the localists. Our CE needs to be down in the CNY street market, having some fish balls and locally brewed beer (a welcome, modern addition to the Mong Kok market this year), not sending the FEHD to rout a popular, local, traditional activity. He needs to be cheering for the football team, even when they play China. And, if something could even be countenanced, a carefully stage managed and polite disagreement with someone of significance in Beijing (a real disagreement would be too much to ask). Global Times would blow a gasket, but they do about everything anyways – it’s their thing.
In other words, find a way to step and lead Hong Kong for Hong Kongers. Progress is being made in many areas, but the government needs to be seen to doing good, not just convincing itself and Beijing that its actions now will be good in the long-term. A lot of permanent damage can be done in the short term.
Going further down the hardline road will create a permanent insurgency from a desperate underclass. The government couldn’t manufacture or produce ‘foreign influence’, but it may turn its imaginary monster of a homegrown insurgency into a real one if it doesn’t change direction.
He has run The Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, founded The Lion Rock Institute and has over 25 years engagement in media, politics, policy and community engagement.