Extradition bill protests: what Hong Kong’s history of riots can teach Carrie Lam
- The best way for the embattled chief executive to find a way out of the city’s present crisis may be to look to its past, historians and former officials say
- After all, the British colonial administration weathered far more violent affairs
Published: 8:15am, 14 Jul, 2019
Rioting in Kowloon in April 1966. File photo
Temperatures are rising, tensions are boiling over, and the city’s leaders are feeling the heat of the worst political unrest since Britain handed back its colonial jewel to China more than 20 years ago. Now, it seems, is the summer of Hong Kong’s discontent.
Since an estimated 2 million-plus people – more than a quarter of the city’s population – took to the streets last month to oppose a bill that would allow for extraditions to territories the city does not currently have agreements with, including – and most controversially – mainland China, the government’s efforts to cool fraying tempers have had precious little effect.When Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngorsubsequently agreed to put the bill on ice, it was not enough for the young protesters who stormed the legislature on July 1, daubing it with graffiti in a sign of defiance that made waves across the world. And when the embattled leader went a step further this week, declaring the bill “dead”, most protesters remained unmoved, dismissing her comments as a public relations stunt. With no end in sight to the troubles, it’s perhaps not surprising that most minds are concentrated on what the protesters will do next. But some observers, former officials and historians among them, suggest the best way for Lam and company to find a way out of the current mess is to look to the past – at how former administrations dealt with the crises they faced. After all, when it comes to political disturbances, Hong Kong has a long history.
THE DOUBLE TENTH RIOTS
One of the deadliest incidents of civil unrest to hit Hong Kong happened on October 10, 1956 – the so-called “Double Tenth Day” – when fighting broke out between pro-Communist and pro-Nationalist factions. Fifty-nine people were killed and some 500 injured before the colonial administration reined in the situation with the help of armoured troops of the 7th Hussars.
The colonial government’s report on the riot suggested that at fault were “Nationalists egged on by criminals bent on personal gain and power”.
“Although there is no evidence of any planning prior to the outbreak of disorder in Kowloon, in Tsuen Wan it would appear that people of Nationalist persuasion joined in collaboration with triad gangs to redress old scores and to attempt to win a dominant position in the labour world,” it said.
Modern historians have questioned this assessment, suggesting that deeper social issues may have been at least in part to blame. But if, on this occasion, the colonial government chose to ignore its own failings, it found it harder to wash its hands of the issue when riots returned to the city 10 years later.
STAR FERRY FURORE
Fast forward to April 1966, and the British colony was facing another major disturbance – this time all because of a five-cent increase to the Star Ferry fare. In the days before the MTR, the ferry was one of the few affordable options for ordinary Hongkongers to travel between the two sides of Victoria Harbour, and the increase inflamed a public far removed from their colonial overlords. In four days of mayhem beginning on April 5, mobs pelted riot police with stones, looted shops and set fire to buses and public facilities, including fire stations. One person died and 26 were injured in the violence; 1,465 were arrested and 905 charged with breach of curfew and other offences.
Particularly disturbing for the administration was that, this time, the root of the unrest – known as the “Kowloon disturbances” – could not be dismissed as a product of the rivalry between pro-Beijing and pro-Taipei forces in the colony as it was 10 years earlier. Instead, this was a purely local issue.
An inquiry commissioned by then governor David Trench suggested that the events had also exposed a gap between the colonial government and the people – a gap that would be “a continual danger and anxiety for any form of administration”.
It highlighted the problems faced by Hong Kong’s youth, saying “The evidence before us points to the probability that young people are less likely to put up with conditions which their parents accepted without comment”. It said solutions depended on the continuing prosperity and success of Hong Kong “since its future well-being is in the hands of the young people of today” and that it was in the youth “that Hong Kong must make its major and most significant investment”.
The commission advised the government to be more responsive to public opinion and improve channels of communication with the public, concluding its remarks with a warning: “Within the economic and social fields there are factors that need to be watched, lest they provide flammable material which could erupt into disturbances should opportunities arise in the future.”
THE LEFTISTSThe following year, violence on an even larger scale erupted, claiming 51 lives, 15 of them in bomb attacks. The 1967 Leftist Riots were a spillover from the Cultural Revolution that had begun on the Chinese mainland a year earlier and saw Communist sympathisers demonstrating against British colonial rule. Triggered by a labour dispute at a factory in San Po Kong in April, the incident escalated as the leftist camp and mainland officials stationed in Hong Kong took the opportunity to mobilise followers against the colonial administration. Violent clashes with the police force ensued before the leftists took to planting bombs in the city, murdering journalists who opposed them.
Most observers agree that aside from political ideologies, social inequities also played a role in the riots. Before the disturbances, the colonial administration had paid little regard to the education and welfare needs of the socially disadvantaged.
While the 1966 and 1967 riots had different origins, many local academics described them as “twin riots” due to the proximity of timing.
Ten years on and the colonial government was facing another political storm. This time the challenge came from within government itself: the police force.
Fears over rising corruption within the force had led the government in 1974 to create the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The move frightened and angered many police who felt they could be hunted down for what were at the time widespread methods of earning illicit income to boost meagre wages. Their anger came to a head in October 1977, when hundreds of police officers and their families took part in a huge protest that culminated in dozens of police officers storming the ICAC offices in Central.
The crisis was defused by then governor Sir Murray MacLehose, who granted a partial amnesty for cases before January 1, 1977, giving a clean slate to all officers bar those involved in the most serious scandals. The move was a masterstroke. As Leo Goodstadt, head of the colonial government’s Central Policy Unit think tank from 1989 to 1997, noted, the force “came to be regarded as a model in many ways for the rest of Hong Kong”.
HANDOVER TO OCCUPY
Since 1997, the July 1 march marking Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule has become an annual occurrence. But it was not until six years later that the march really captured the public’s imagination. In 2003, a demonstration involving 500,000 people forced the government to withdraw its proposal for national security legislation that states Hong Kong would “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against the central government. The demonstrations also appear to have prompted a more proactive approach to Hong Kong by Beijing, which helped to prop up the administration of then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa by unveiling initiatives like the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between Hong Kong and the mainland and the solo traveller scheme for visitors from the mainland to revitalise the city’s ailing economy.
Tensions over Beijing’s reach returned in August 2014, when the central government set out a framework for Hongkongers to pick their next leader from two or three candidates endorsed by a 1,200-strong nominating committee. This was not the universal suffrage Hongkongers had been expecting as it meant the 2017 Chief Executive election would be narrowed down to candidates acceptable to Beijing.That decision triggered Occupy Central, or the Umbrella movement, a civil disobedience drive that saw protesters block main roads in the business district for 79 days. The movement had mixed fortunes: while it gained international headlines, and led the Legislative Council in June 2015 to reject the Hong Kong government’s proposal to carry out the 2017 election under Beijing’s framework, the protesters fell far short of their goal of universal suffrage. Some commentators say the failure of Occupy Central to prompt any meaningful reform is part of what is driving protesters today.
MONG KOK MAYHEMIn February 2016, a row between officers from the hawker control team and street vendors on Argyle Street, Mong Kok, during the Lunar New Year sparked a riot in which protesters hurled bricks and glass bottles at police and set fire to the streets. At least 91 people were arrested in the incident, which bears striking parallels to the 1966 disturbances when it comes to the socio-economic status of those arrested. The 1966 inquiry found that most of the protesters were poorly educated, poorly housed and lacked good jobs. Among those charged, most were aged 16 to 20. Of the 27 people who had pleaded guilty or been convicted of offences during the Mong Kok Riot of 2016, 16 were classified as “low-paid workers”, while four were unemployed. Some saw this as dysfunctional and alienated youth expressing their discontent with the status quo.
LESSON 1: WAKE-UP CALL
Former officials and historians say that in each of these examples, while different forces may have been at work, there are parallels with today’s unrest – and lessons, should the Lam administration care to learn them.
The Star Ferry Riot was a “wake-up call” for the colonial government to adjust its governing strategy, according to former undersecretary for transport and housing Yau Shing-mu, who likened its style of rule to the Lam administration’s attempt to bulldoze through the extradition bill.
“The colonial government ruled the city in a high-handed manner and the fare increase by Star Ferry made the life of grass-roots residents more difficult. It is also noteworthy that young people formed the backbone of the participants in both the 1966 disturbance and the current saga,” he said. Yau said the colonial government showed signs of listening, introducing shorter working hours in the 1960s and making at least nine years of education compulsory in the 1970s, when it also began an ambitious public housing project.
Ian Scott, a former head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, agreed that there were similarities between the riots of 1966-67 and today.
“In 1966-67, young people were discontented because of labour conditions; the police were perceived to be repressive and corrupt; and social policies were generally underdeveloped,” he said. “In 2019, the young have few opportunities for social mobility, the police are seen to be repressive; and social policies increasingly lag demand.”
However, he said there were also “significant differences … in terms of the manifestations of the legitimacy crisis. In 1966-67, there was a far less articulated vision of civil liberties and organised concern about the lack of democracy was in its infancy”.
LESSON 2: RECONCILIATION
Much like the disturbances over police corruption in the 1970s, some form of reconciliation process could go some way to healing today’s divisions, observers say. Key issues still motivating protesters today are that they want police officers investigated for using excessive force and a guarantee that no protester will be charged with “rioting” – an act that carries a possible 10-year jail term.
In a statement released on June 27, Yau Shing-mu and seven other former political appointees called for an independent inquiry to look into the actions of protesters and police at a demonstration in Admiralty on June 12. They want the prosecution of any protesters and officers to be suspended until after the inquiry has concluded, and they have called on Lam to exercise her discretionary power to pardon offenders in accordance with Basic Law.
“Reconciliation must go with action. My view is that subject to the overall findings of the inquiry, the chief executive may consider amnesty for those people involved in misdemeanours,” Yau said. “Our proposal could provide room to ease the tension.”
LESSON 3: INQUIRY TIME
Former secretary for transport and housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the inquiries into the 1966 riot and the police corruption disturbances were examples of how the colonial government had responded well to major crises.
“Since the middle of the 1960s, the mechanism of commission of inquiry has been invoked by the government to look into major controversies or social conflicts,” he said. “An independent inquiry into the actions of police and protesters today would be instrumental in cooling the tension arising from the controversy over the extradition bill.”
Statutory investigations have been initiated in the wake of various major controversies, such as the chaos surrounding the opening of the new airport in 1998, the Lamma ferry collision tragedy in 2012, and a scandal over lead-tainted water at public housing estates in 2015. Observers say there’s no obvious reason that a similar approach shouldn’t be taken to the extradition bill crisis.
Andrew Li Kwok-nang, the first post-handover chief justice, also backs an independent inquiry into the clashes between police and protesters on June 12.
So far, these suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. The government has rejected calls for an independent inquiry and insisted that complaints about the police’s actions during clashes with protesters in Admiralty should be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC).
Sources have claimed the government refused to set up a commission of inquiry because of its concern about the negative impact on police morale and even a possible revolt from the force.
But Andrew Li said that without the scrutiny of an inquiry, there was a serious danger that grievances against the police would fester.
LESSON 4: LET’S TALK
Goodstadt, the adviser to Sir Murray MacLehose, said the crisis over the extradition bill stemmed from the government’s arrogance and unwillingness to engage with what is a well-informed public.
For some observers, this arrogance was shown in the government’s move to allow only a 20-day consultation period for the controversial bill, an unusually short period for canvassing views on policies. “Those in power seemed to believe that the average resident lacked the educational or social qualities to be taken seriously,” Goodstadt said. “Power holders too often have given the impression of arrogance, which is very misplaced in a community which is as mature and socially disciplined as Hong Kong.”
LESSON 5: ENGAGE YOUTH
While Carrie Lam apologised last month for mishandling the extradition bill, she remains hugely unpopular among young people. A poll by the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese University last month found that people aged 18-29 gave her a performance rating of 18.1 out of 100, compared with 37.9 among those aged 30-59.
Much as the inquiry into the 1966 riot urged a focus on youth, observers today have similar advice. A government source said the lessons the government had learned from the saga over the bill was that Hongkongers, particularly the younger generation, cared much about the city’s core values, like freedom of expression.
Andrew Li said the administration had misjudged the public’s mistrust of the mainland’s legal system, and concern at the perceived “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong.Chinese literature student Sam Loo, 22, who has taken part in the protests, said motivating the youth was a fear of the Chinese Communist regime. “The regime terrifies Hong Kong people,” Loo said. “Freedom in Hong Kong has been eroded [under China’s rule] … Like many others have said, if this bill is passed, this movement will be the very last fight Hong Kong people can have.”
Occupational therapist and part-time Judicial Doctor student Ray Liang, 35, said there were implications to the bill he “dared not imagine”.
“The key point is that it will open a door for the mainland authorities,” said Liang, father of two young children. “We all know that the chief executive is subordinate to the central government, so whoever is in that post won’t be able to provide a safeguard when Beijing makes a request.”
DIFFERENT THIS TIME?
When Lam offered her “most sincere apology” for mishandling the controversial bill, she promised to redouble her government’s efforts to heal a divided city, listen to the grievances of alienated youth, and roll out policies to improve livelihoods.
That suggests the lessons of the past aren’t lost on her. But even if she is willing to learn from history, Lam may be facing an even tougher task than the governments of yesteryear.
Yau said that while the colonial government’s social reforms in the wake of the 1966 and 1967 riots did much to address its problems, similar actions by Lam would not be enough. “For many young people unhappy with the government today, it’s not a matter of more welfare payments or getting better jobs,” he said. “Carrie Lam would heal the wounds with the wrong medicine if she thinks the ongoing crisis can be addressed simply by focusing on livelihood issues.”
Lam may also face a longer journey to redemption. John Carroll, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, noted that despite the many deaths in the 1967 riots, life had soon returned to normal because the colonial administration enjoyed the support of most Hongkongers. “The current government needs to do a better job of understanding its people, and their needs and aspirations, especially those of young people,” Carroll said. “[In 1966 the tensions] blew over relatively quickly. Ditto for 1967. The ones today will not.” ■