On The Fishball Revolution

On the very first day of the Chinese New Year, Hong Kong police fired two shots in the air to warn Localist protesters against pursuing alleged violence. This all started because of a row over fishball sellers — and yes, this sounds a bit funny, but it isn’t. Hong Kong has undergone yet another chaotic confrontation, belying greater political struggles for democracy and local identity. Much has been said, but often emotionally. After a long night reading through a lot of news reports, here are my impressions.

1. On gunshots: The individual policeman who fired two shots in the air and pointed the gun at protesters overreacted. He may also have committed an illegal act, based on comments made by the Police in 2007. That person has a track record of emotional reactions to protests as shown by footage from the Umbrella Movement, and should probably not be involved in suppressing protests due to his volatile record. That much is clear. Does this mean the whole police force are protest-hating, democracy-bashing evil bastards? Not necessarily. Does this mean clearer standards on proportionate responses to protests is needed? Probably, yes.

2. On deploying armed policemen: how should the police react to protests? Are pepper sprays legitimate responses to a volatile crowd with no intention to leave despite repeated warnings, and a tendency to violent language and actions? My gut instinct is that armed police and pepper sprays are an overreaction which serve to incite more volatility amongst protesters, demanding even more dramatic responses… But I cannot be sure. How threatened do policeman truly feel when they are faced with 300+ protesters, with just 20–50 armed policemen by their side? How much can we trust them to respond rationally?

3. On allegedly violent protesters: questions remain on whether protesters started the violence, or whether policemen incited it by cracking down on fishball sellers. Some even blame HK01 for publishing a map of fishball resellers to begin with, which provided venues for confrontation. Videos cut by major TV and news media tend to strip away important sections to emphasize their viewpoint (eg TVB removing initial periods of police attacks on protesters to emphasize protester violence.) There are also questions about the extent of violence deployed by protesters: videos captured them throwing bins, wooden boards and signposts. One photo claims to show a protester throwing a flaming bamboo stick, but that is at best ambiguous. Pro-establishment groups such as 港人講地 claim that bricks have been delivered by masked groups to assist the protesters. That is completely unproven, and should probably be discarded. The bottom line is too much action, reaction and re-reaction has happened to assign blame accurately.

4. What we can do: don’t post emotional, black and white statuses blaming one side or the other. Don’t start long arguments without on the ground knowledge about who was right or wrong. Focus on the bigger picture: the reason why even fishball resellers can cause such a huge, destructive event is because the trust between police and the public has been fundamentally dismantled; democratic reform is nowhere to be seen; the collective identity of Hong Kong is perceived as being depleted by Mainland immigration, threats to the rule of law, and the lack of democratic change; and the fundamental dilemma between Beijing’s intentions to limit political autonomy, and the Hong Kong people’s desire for more freedom, without bargaining power, remains unsolved.

What we can do is call for better governance on a number of things: clearer, transparent standards on what proportionate responses to protests mean; a roadmap to democracy with consolidated promises; more votes for knowledgeable and measured pan-Democratic politicians and Third Way candidates in LegCo and local council elections; online advocacy on socioeconomic policy as well as palatable democratic reform plans. Above all else we need to promote an understanding of democratic reform as a geopolitical issue, not a purely local one. We have no ability to influence Beijing today. But we can build momentum, and utilise each of our positions to create the external pressure necessary whilst retaining our unique cultural identity.

5. On the bigger picture: is violence and civil disobedience legitimate means to pursue political causes when we have no other resort? It is clear that votes in LegCo and other elections no longer have the desired immediate effect. But can we be said to have exhausted all our options? Doesn’t violence increase division, not decrease it, and make it less likely for apathetic middle ground voters to come out in support for greater democratic reform?

Tonight was a tragic night. Depending on your political viewpoint, you may think it was tragic because of the police, or because of ‘extremist youth’. But at heart, we are all confused, powerless, and short of knowledge of what truly happened on the ground. All we can do is to begin resolving these differences by letting them go. It isn’t easy, but vitriol and emotion after every violent confrontation will never bring us peace.

For so many of us, speaking out risks so much criticism that it just isn’t worth it. But like the most fervent supporters on both camps, the ‘moderates’ (wishywashy beliefless hypocrits like myself) need to speak up too. None of us is fully right, but together, we may just have a slightly more accurate picture.

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