Hong Kong Government Rejects Calls For Inquiry Into 'Fishball' Riots

2016-02-15
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Members of the media surround a car as supporters (top C) help escort a protester (not visible), who is facing charges of taking part in a riot on Feb. 9 in the district of Mongkok, after a court hearing in Hong Kong on Feb. 11, 2016
AFP

Hong Kong officials on Monday rejected growing calls for an independent inquiry into last week's violence in the working-class district of Mong Kok which has been compared to the "Star Ferry" riots of 50 years ago, but which Beijing has branded the work of "radical separatists inclined to terrorism."

"Following the disturbances in Hong Kong in the 1960s, a commission of inquiry was set up by the government at the time," the government said in a statement on its official website.

"But the Government considers it inappropriate to make direct comparisons between the incident and the Mong Kok riot," it said.

Hong Kong officials are viewing the unrest, which was sparked by confrontations between unlicensed food vendors and police last Monday, as a "serious violent incident," and has vowed to round up all of the "culprits."

"Hong Kong now enjoys free access to information and is a highly democratic and transparent society," the statement said. "People are entitled to freedom of speech and can express their opinions and aspirations on social problems and government administration through different channels."

The statement followed an open letter from some 40 academics citing the inquiry into the Star Ferry riots of 1966, and the 1967 violence in which supporters of late supreme leader Mao Zedong played a key role, as a precedent under the British colonial regime.

Hundreds of others also added their names to the letter in an online petition.

"There are a lot of things that remain murky about [the Mong Kok] incident, for example, who was working in the background, but the government is refusing to diagnose the problem so as to take measures to fix it," letter signatory To Yiu-ming, associate professor of journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

"All we are allowed to see is the surface phenomena; the fact that some people got violent, but there's no attempt to address the causes of that violence," To said. "That means it will be hard to avoid a recurrence in the future."

To said more than 1,000 people had signed the petition to date.

Meanwhile, Mak Hoi-wah of the Hong Kong City University said unemployment and a lack of prospects for young people could be factors behind the unrest.

"The big picture could be that their income isn't stable, and some people are beginning to feel that they have lost out, that the benefits that should be available to them aren't," Mak said.

"Maybe they couldn't get the jobs or the college places they wanted, and so they have a certain amount of anger towards society," he said.

"But we won't know exactly why until we research it in depth."

'Radical separatists'

Beijing's top official in Hong Kong on Monday condemned the Mong Kok protesters as "radical separatists," however.

"We strongly condemn those radical separatists whose behaviors got more and more violent and even showed terror tendencies," Beijing's central government liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming was quoted as saying by the state news agency Xinhua.

"We strongly condemn those remarks and sophistries that agitate for violence and confuse right and wrong, and even attempt to shift the blame onto other people," he said.

And in Hong Kong, the pro-Beijing establishment camp appeared to be taking a similar line, with a former security chief branding the Mong Kok protesters as "not human beings," and "monstrous."

Lee, who also represents Hong Kong in Beijing's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), said the violence suggests Hong Kong's police force needs more crowd-control weapons in its arsenal.

"They were throwing things at police, hitting them with sticks, and yet the police were unable to fire in the face of these attacks," Lee said. "I don't think it would have been considered outrageous if the police had hurled a few of those bricks back at them."

"After a few of these incidents, we need to think about buying some water cannons, which mean the police can keep demonstrators at a greater distance," he said.

Edited and removed

The current government under chief executive Leung Chun-ying is unlikely to welcome comparisons between last week's violence, when crowds set fire to trash in the street and hurled bricks at armored riot police, and the unrest of the late 1960s.

An official history of Hong Kong's police force was recently edited to remove any reference to leftist agitators and Mao-inspired unrest, according to the Economic Journal.

The Hong Kong Police official website was edited last September to remove all reference to the Cultural Revolution across the border in Maoist China, and to bomb attacks, marches with Mao's "Little Red Book" and the killing of several police officers and journalists, the paper reported.

Paragraphs referring to to communist militia, communist sympathizers, bomb-making and Maoist slogans were all removed, it said, as well as the name of the group blamed for the violence, the Hong Kong and Kowloon Committee for Anti-Hong Kong British Persecution Struggle, the paper reported.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Wu Yisan accused the ruling Chinese Communist Party of agitating the unrest in the first place.

"They are orchestrating social tension, because they want to destabilize Hong Kong," Wu said. "That way, they'll be able to increase the level of interference in Hong Kong's affairs."

"They don't want Hong Kong to become an advertisement for democracy and universal values like the rule of law, because that really isn't in their interest," he said.

Beijing's hard line in Hong Kong

Former City University politics professor Joseph Cheng said Beijing is continuing to tighten its grip on the city, which was promised a "high degree of autonomy" after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

"This has been going on for the past two or three years now, and Zhang Xiaoming's comments are supportive of Beijing's hard line in Hong Kong," Cheng said.

"They are supportive of the Communist Party's unwillingness to allow Hong Kong to become the vanguard of democracy."

Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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