Letter from a Fishball Riot

Where to begin? Maybe with the end of the night – which was now 7 am – sitting outside McDonalds about a mile from the ongoing riot. Sitting with a local friend who always has the an answer: both official version, rumors, and his own nuanced assessment. He was only slightly less confused than I was about how things got to where they were.

I am not sure we’ll ever have a definite sequence of events that provides a logical step-by-step explainer about sequencing how got from fishballs to bonfires, blockades, and baseball bats in the middle of the densest neighborhood on the planet. SCMP’s timeline glosses over the two hours where things evolved dramatically. Passion Times stops their timeline with the gunshots. Maybe the essence of a riot is its incoherence and defiance of logic.

I can offer some vignettes, though. I arrived on the scene with a cab driver expressing sadness. It was Chinese New Year. This was supposed to be a day of happiness. I had handed him my phone for my friend to give him directions for how to get in (I did not know which roads, if any, were blocked). My friend told him something I did not know yet: an officer had just fired two (some say three) shots in the middle of Nathan Road. The first shot was aimed at the crowd; one more went above their heads. I likely would have stayed at home had I known.

Vignette 1: two young hawkers pushing their booth, selling handicrafts, down a sidewalk filled with people that initially came to protect them. The protesters were in a kind of dance with police – kicking a trashcan here, a recycling bin there to block Nathan. They out-numbered and out-maneuvered the cops. The goal seemed designed more to spread them thin than to occupy. I stayed in the median. Next to me was a small group helping who I assume was a friend on the ground. He had a few cuts and was bleeding.

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Vignette 2: about twenty minutes later, I was further down Nathan Road closer to the heart of Mong Kok. Nathan Road was occupied. I walked through and took a video of my stroll. I tweeted that I didn’t know how this was going to end. With the failure of the Umbrella Movement, nobody in the activist community seemed to have a taste for another prolonged occupation.

This was about provocation. Charles Tilly would call it a ‘forbidden performance.’ Police would do anything in their power to stop another occupation. A successful occupation is a statement that the police have failed to secure an area. It is a testament to who is in charge. On the other side of the road, I could hear a clash and saw bottles being thrown.

I took to a median in the middle of Nathan Road, being both in the middle but far from any clashes. I was there with other photographers and journalists. To stand there with a camera was to signal police that I was there to observe and document; not to fight or occupy. The median is a legal borderland: the road was safer, but to be on it was to occupy; a sidewalk is safer still, but you can’t see what’s going on.

Out of nowhere half a dozen cops jumped over the median with batons out. Everyone bolted. There’s a logic to following the herd when the police charge. The further ahead you are, the safer. The further back, the more likely you’ll get whacked, punched, pushed over, or arrested. I made it to the sidewalk and started recording video. Those same cops were now cornered on the sidewalk against a building. A mob surrounded them. People were throwing bottles at them. An officer went down and, in the perverse logic of a riot, he became the target.

In the video, you can hear me screaming, “STOP THROWING THINGS!” I was alone in this sentiment. I woke up this morning feeling guilty – thinking I should have made myself a human shield. I began to see the folly in this thinking: not only were the police in riot gear (and not needing civilian protection), they would have done violence to me two minutes earlier if I had run any slower. As a collective, the people pelting them had been pepper sprayed, clubbed, and been shot at by these cops. Because fishballs.

Vignette 3: I’m now with a group of friends. We’ve left Nathan Road and move one block east to Sai Ying Choi Street. Two or three blocks south of us we can see a clash. More accurately, we can hear it. It sounded metallic. Through Twitter, we learn people are now pulling up bricks from the sidewalk to throw at police. Within a few minutes, I spot a fire. Within fifteen or twenty minutes, the fire is massive. Rioters are burning the trash from the all the rubbish and recycling bins along the street. At the height of the fire, a message goes through their Telegram group “this is insane. THE COPS ARE THROWING BRICKS BACK.”

Maybe I have some PTSD-like symptoms from some of the clashes I saw at Occupy. I thought, “this is it.” I expected thousands of cops to swarm in. I expected tear gas, maybe rubber bullets. The situation was completely out of control. We were far beyond the threshold that had set off tear gas last year. Mong Kok was burning, police were being attacked.

For about 45 minutes, we collectively assumed this logic. We were tracking, over social media, police movements. We were thinking of escape routes. We did not want to be boxed in. We got within a block of the fire to get some photos before pulling back out. We watched someone barricade a road to prevent a firetruck from getting in.

It never happened. The police never regained control. In the weird logic of these events, I tried leaving by walking away from the chaos. Someone dressed for the occasion – face wrapped with a cloth to ward of later IDing and potential tear gas or pepper spray – told me the only way out was through. The road at the east end of the battle had no police blockade. As I passed through, the police charged. I ran, again, with the herd. This time, I did not go back.

So why was there a Fishball Riot? I see three compelling answers. The first, and most obvious, is that the public intellectuals, political junkies, and the government failed to appreciate the level of anger that had been building up. The political situation in Hong Kong has been rapidly deteriorating since Occupy. The Fishball Riot wasn’t about Lee Bo and the booksellers or Johannes Chan – it was a reaction to the larger contexts in which these problems were taking place. It was also a response to violence delivered to many of the ‘front-liners’ and ‘shield-boys’ who were asked to stand down and take the beatings, which were brutal during the closing days of Occupy.

The riot, in this sense, was far more emotional than it was ideological. Edit: it’s also clear that this worked from both directions. Police are reporting that morale is at an all time low. It “broke their hearts” that the Police Commissioner was investigating whether the cop that fired the shots followed protocol. The headline for that last SCMP link: “Angry Hong Kong police criticise ‘feeble’ senior management.”

The anger is directed as much at management as police upper-management. Police were outmaneuvered and humiliated throughout the Umbrella Movement. There’s a strong and growing mutual hate between protesters and the police. @jesuispoppie captures the mood well:

 


The next to answers relate to the Hong Kong SAR regime. Charles Tilly has argued that ‘regimes make repertoires.’ By repertoires, Tilly is asking us to look at contentious politics as being public spectacles with a limited number of scripts for actors – both the regime and those who challenge it – to work and improvise from. Riots have a tendency to look like other riots, just as the Umbrella Movement looked a lot like dozens of other ‘color revolutions’ before it.

Tilly uses a four quadrant box based on four variables: high or low levels state capacity and whether a regime is authoritarian or democratic. From this, he makes generalizations about what forms contentious politics take in the different quadrants. Edit: What makes Hong Kong unique is that it has long sat in a middle ground between these boxes. Tilly uses Freedom House scores, which are useful (if not uncontested) and notes that there’s a general correlation between the degrees of civil liberties and political rights. 

Below is a chart with Hong Kong in comparative perspective with our Asian neighbors. Hong Kong stands out as having relatively a relatively high level of civil liberties, with severely restricted political rights. All of the complexities of Hong Kong’s recent political struggles are captured almost perfectly in this simple abstraction – there’s a sort of background political entropy demanding that the score ‘level off’, either by increasing political rights (by democratizing LegCo and having competitive Cheif Executive elections) or decreasing civil liberties. I think these quadrants and their generalizations can be used to sort of reverse-engineer an estimate where the regime sits.  What we’ve been seeing is the latter: a decrease in civil liberties. 

Political Rights and Civil Liberties Scores from Freedom HousePolitical Rights and Civil Liberties Scores from Freedom House

All of the complexities of Hong Kong’s recent political struggles are captured perfectly in this simple abstraction – there’s a sort of background political entropy demanding that the score ‘level off’, either by increasing political rights (by democratizing LegCo and having competitive Cheif Executive elections) or decreasing civil liberties. I think these quadrants and their generalizations can be used to sort of reverse-engineer an estimate where the regime sits. What we’ve been seeing is the latter: a decrease in civil liberties. 

As the democracy/autocracy X axis, the Fishball Riot highlighted important two important contexts. First, over the past year, we witnessed the Hong Kong police force transform into a tool of political repression. The police were not in Mong Kok because of hawkers and fishballs. My neighborhood, Sham Shui Po, was filled with hawkers that night. I saw two stands selling smuggled cigarettes in the open. There were no riot police because there were no protesters.

They showed up because ‘localist’ groups, like Hong Kong Indigenous, were there to protest. Had there been anti-localist protesters there that night, we would probably have seen another new habit: police turning a blind eye to their violence, if not outright protecting them. Protests involving Localists groups are becoming ‘forbidden performances.’ It should be seen as a further slippage in both political and civil liberties in the SAR.

Why are they targeting Localists? Because they alone are challenging the very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and the validity of the One Country, Two Systems framework. They alone ask why Hong Kong shouldn’t seek independence. The regime rightly identifies these as dangerous ideas.

Edit: The Chinese Foreign Ministry has called the groups behind the protest, and subsequent riot, as “local radical separatist organisation.” Pro-Beijing lawmakers are demanding that the wearing of facial masks be made made illegal. SCMP’s front page says “it’s time to hit hard against the seperatists“:

Beijing has raised the stakes in its first official condemnation of the Mong Kok riot, branding the instigators as “separatists”… On the face of it, the classification appears to place the rioters in the same category as separatists from the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, who are seen as a serious threat to national security, although there is a difference in the Chinese word used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Hong Kong protesters.

Second, the Umbrella Movement should be seen for what it was: a very typical social movement. It followed the WUNC (worthiness, numbers, unity, and commitment) script tightly. Where I believe we can directly see Hong Kong de-democratizing is that it didn’t work. In fact, it would seem the single takeway Beijing wanted to deliver to the people of Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement was that social movements won’t work anymore. 

People often forget that the two largest social movements before the Umbrella Movement – the Article 23 and anti-National Education protests – succeeded. While the governance structures of Hong Kong barely qualify as democratic, that the social movements achieved their objectives in the past showed that the SAR regime was willing to back down from unpopular policies in the face of public pressure.

The failure of the Umbrella Movement was nearly total. The regime didn’t even offer token concessions. The aftermath of the Umbrella Movement saw major infighting within the dissident camp with ‘left plastics’ on one side wanting to continue with social movement repertoire on one side, and ‘yungmo’ Localists on the other arguing that that only a more aggressive repertoire was was worth the effort.

Regimes shape repertoires of contention. ‘Yungmo’ was a response to de-democratization. The riot was a reaction to the police acting as the enforcers of autocratic rule, where legal protests are met immediately with police in riot gear. This isn’t meant to justify the violence – I found it abhorrent – but to say it should be expected. Even at HKU, we’re witnessing student activists resort to ever more aggressive tactics because their voices are increasingly irrelevant. Silent marches, petitions, and rallies accomplished nothing. They were given the choice of either giving up the struggle or escalating tactics. They chose to lock the HKU Council inside their chamber until the Council Chairman agreed to speak with them. Council Chairman Arthur Li, like CY Leung, let the police do the ‘speaking’ for them.

On the X axis, Tilly argues that low-capacity states see the most violence in their contentious politics. While a Mainland China has occasional flashes of ultra-violence like Tiananmen, far more often than not the internal security apparatus can stop protests before they happen. When they do happen, they manage them in ways where they fizzle out quickly, and organizers are identified and punished. It serves both as a useful warning to would-be agitators while acknowledging the legitimacy of some the grievances that lead to protests (by letting the bulk of participants leave unscathed).

Violence is more frequent where states have lower capacity. By way of analogy, compare the Iran-Iraq War to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. More than a million soldiers died in the former, as the war dragged on for nearly a decade because neither side could find a decisive victory over the other. Less than 200 Americans and somewhere between 8,000 and 30,000 Iraqi soldiers died in the 2003 invasion. Overwhelming force leads to quick, decisive victories and fewer casualties.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether HK police incompetence is a strategy – i.e., they wanted a riot – or simply incompetence in its own right. I increasingly subscribe to the latter theory. I believe the Hong Kong Police Force were trained on a mid-1990s British model but are now tasked with political repression. They are unfit for this new role.

During the lead-up to the Riot, the Hong Kong Police arrived in Mong Kok with what seemed like the intention to stop all protest in the neighborhood. They showed up under-manned for this job (which would have required ‘locking down’ Mong Kok). Nor did they have a clear strategy for how they would accomplish this. I was able to walk in at 2 am without police saying a word to me; they were too busy kicking away trash cans.

They were likewise unable to separate – and detain – the violent protesters from the non-violent ones. At one point, I saw four police in riot gear beating a man resisting arrest. The man weighed probably 250 pounds (113 kg). He was able to escape and run away. It begs the question of whether they were too incompetent to keep up with this guy, or whether their primary goal was to beat him.

Repeatedly, groups of about a half-dozen officers would charge at protesters, hitting and capturing whoever they could, and more often than not find themselves cornered or surrounded by the very people they just attacked. A year ago, I saw this same dynamic play out during the tear gassing. They would charge forward and fire their shots, and retreat a minute later as protesters rushed back in. They seem to operate on a logic of fear and intimidating. They are only feared when they’re charging.

This under-capacity for the over-whelming task is what led to the three shots that were fired. It was an act of desperation: half a dozen police surrounded by a mob they had just attacked. No reinforcements to be found. Rioters were acting with little fear of repercussion. The officer fired three unaimed shots – one into the crowd, two above their heads – out of a well-placed panic. I’m convinced none of this would have happened if the police came in with overwhelming numbers at midnight to execute the task they kept failing at with only a few hundred officers.

The police seem similarly unaware of, or unable to cope with, the complexity of the situations. They seem unable to comprehend, deal with, or stop the escalations of violence. They charge only to retreat – or in the case of the Riot, get beaten and pelted. They seem unaware of, or unable to plan for, how their own aggression draws larger protest crowds.

Were Hong Kong to be a more democratic polity, we would be having a conversation about the police needing training on how to de-escalate situations. That’s impossible – unthinkable – for Hong Kong’s increasingly autocratic regime. As Hong Kong slips further into autocracy, the voice of police officers is quieted. Were they able to speak freely and without fear of professional repercussions, we might hear them tell CY Leung and the Liaison Office to come out of hiding and use the appropriate tools – dialogue, persuasion, and compromise – to fight the petty fights they keep picking.

Surely some of the police were thinking this as bottles and rocks flew at them over fishballs. How many told themselves, “this isn’t what I signed up to do”?

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