Hong Kong citizens and Canadian-Born-Chinese have a good idea of what fishballs are, but very rarely are these Chinese delicacies intertwined with politics and violence. On the night of February 8, Lunar New Year, violent clashes broke out between protestors and police in the retail district of Kowloon. Hong Kong authorities issued tickets to street vendors who have traditionally always sold food during the Lunar holidays. Although technically illegal, since they operate without a health permit, Hong Kong has been touted as a tourist country due to their cheap merchandise and native street food including fish balls and stinky tofu. This Kafkaesque act angered many locals in Hong Kong, especially the ‘localist’ group Hong Kong Indigenous, who threw their support behind the street vendors and confronted the police. Violent clashes occurred regularly throughout the night until controversially, a policeman fired two warning shots into the air.
According to Shannon Tiezzi of The Diplomat, a magazine on Asia-Pacific relations, tensions have been rising since the Occupy Central movement back in 2014. Tiezzi and many other locals believe that the ‘Fishball revolution’ is about more than just street food. “It’s clear there are deeper motivations at play. There’s a lot of anger amongst certain sectors of Hong Kong society,” Tiezzi informed “A lot of [citizens] fear that their culture and way of life [are] being taken over by mainland China and signifying that Beijing is having more control.”
Hong Kong had been under British Crown rule since 1841 and not until 1997 was Hong Kong handed back to China. Under British rule, Hong Kong citizens experienced democracy unlike many of their northern counterparts in mainland China. Since ‘the Handover’ back to the central government, many locals in Hong Kong fear that their democracy and freedom would be eroded by the powers in Beijing. This led to the peaceful protest known as Occupy Central, where thousands of people stormed the streets and blockaded the financial and business district of Central. Due to the lack of conclusive resolution in the peaceful protest of 2014, Tiezzi says that these protestors have now ‘split into two camps.’
“Some of them continue to believe that peaceful protest is the way to go and they’re actually trying to win seats in the government,” Tiezzi said “There’s another camp that thinks ‘Our peaceful protest failed, so we are going to need to do something more drastic to save our society.’” Joshua Wong, 19, is one of those student activists who hopes to achieve democracy though peaceful means. As one of the organizers of the Occupy Central protests, he condemned the violence on February 8 and is currently hoping to the run in the upcoming Legislative Council elections. Contrarily, the other camp composed of ‘localist’ groups, calls themselves ‘rebels’ and are much more dangerous due to their unexpected nature. “Some of these localist movements as they are called are more primed to respond with violence when they’re met with opposition from the police because there’s a high level of distrust of the police and the current HK government already.” Tiezzi stated.
Although fighting for what seems like similar goals (democracy in Hong Kong), Tiezzi reiterates that there isn’t ‘a unified movement’ specifically. “There’s lots of different groups and people with different motivations. Some people want CY Leung (Chief Executive of Hong Kong) to leave, [others] have outright said that they want HK to separate from China and become its own country sort of along the lines of Singapore as a city-state.” “And then there are people in between who say they just want their local government to do more to stand up to Beijing when Beijing seems to be interfering in HK’s local government.”
In a public opinion poll conducted by Hong Kong University, over 40 per cent of HK citizens consider themselves as Hong Kongers (or HKers,) distinctly from Hong Kong and not from mainland China. This differentiation is indicative of the attitude HKers have in wanting to be a separate entity from mainland China. Back in 2010, the same opinion poll was conducted and only 25 per cent of residents consider themselves ‘HKers’, with the rest identifying as Chinese (from HK and China.) This indicates a drastic shift away from identifying as ‘Chinese people’ to strictly identifying as ‘Hong Kong citizens.’
In the end, it is hard to blame Hong Kongers for wanting to maintain the status quo. They have experienced democracy for nearly a century and a half and they will be reluctant to revert to the stifling arm of the central government. Beijing has been known to suppress dissent and that was evident when five Hong Kong booksellers simply vanished and then reappeared in China in early January. These booksellers were responsible for selling and publishing ‘gossipy, juicy’ stories on China’s leadership. They reappeared on Chinese television stating that they left Hong Kong voluntarily and that they confessed to the crimes the Chinese authorities accused them of.
“Most people aren’t buying that; most people think it’s suspicious that all five of those people voluntarily went to China within a few weeks.” Tiezzi analyzed. “And a lot of people [are] concerned with the legal prospects in Hong Kong and what that means for Chinese censorship in HK.”
Beijing proposed a plan where only those nominated could run for the top position in Hong Kong; Chief Executive. But locals lambasted that proposal and protested in Central as the bar was set so high that anyone who wasn’t affiliated with or had central government’s approval would not be chosen as a candidate. Hong Kong legislature blocked this proposal of direct election, and instead, the Chief Executive is elected via a council of 600 people ‘who are mostly handpicked by Beijing.’
“So I think Beijing has made it very clear that they are not going to compromise on this…It is crucial for the central government in Beijing to maintain tight control over HK,” Tiezzi said. “That’s why you are seeing so much violence, because a lot of people have given up hope that their peaceful protest can achieve their goals.” “The problem with using violence is that it gives both the Hong Kong government and Beijing an excuse to move in and use force.”
It is a bleak outlook for those hoping that central government will relinquish control over Hong Kong, but even more than a year away from elections, protests are slowly starting to get violent. Only HKers themselves know what they truly want as a country, but without a unified movement Beijing will only continue to enforce its will.