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Holes in our history: today’s students could learn much from the 1967 riots

The harsh six-year jail sentence recently meted out to localist leader Edward Leung Tin-kei for his part in the 2016 Mong Kok riot has sparked a number of comparisons—some of them quite spurious—likening what happened on that first night of the Lunar New Year to the bloody uprising that racked the city for months in 1967.

One striking similarity has so far been overlooked, however: neither of these violent mutinies against city authorities—one occurring more than 50 years go against a colonial British administration and the other a far lesser explosion against post-colonial leaders perceived to be in thrall to the very Communist Party that inspired and encouraged the mayhem of 1967—is included in the revised Chinese history curriculum to be studied in Hong Kong secondary schools.

mong kok fehd riot protest

Mong Kok unrest. File photo: Joel Christian.

That’s a shame and a disservice to Hong Kong students as both of these events—different as they were—have had a profound effect on the development of Hong Kong and should be examined and debated in their historical contexts in the city’s classrooms.

In scale and ideology, of course, the 1967 riots were a much bigger deal than the one night of chaos that occurred in Mong Kok two years ago, and their end result—a series of social and economic reforms undertaken by a startled and sobered colonial regime—was quite positive.

The prolonged clashes of 1967 started as a labour dispute focused on, among others, disgruntled employees at the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works. In May, after months of simmering complaints, frustrated workers came to blows with management in the company’s San Po Kong factory. Riot police, called in to quell the disturbance, set upon the striking workers, inflicting multiple injuries and arresting 21 of them. Later, unionist leaders who had gone to police stations to protest these arrests would also be incarcerated.

1967 riots

The riots in 1967. File photo: Apple daily.

The next day police arrested 127 more people and imposed a curfew after demonstrators, many of them carrying Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book and shouting slogans supportive of the massive Cultural Revolution unfolding across the border, poured into the streets. A wave of violence that included bombings and the assassination of a local anti-leftist radio commentator would follow.

At one point, hundreds of protesters from the mainland, including members of a paramilitary force, streamed across the border in an attack on Hong Kong police as rumours of a Chinese invasion and takeover of the city gathered steam.

It wasn’t until December of 1967 that China’s then-premier, Zhou Enlai, ordered a stop to the riots—which, despite the pervasive atmosphere of threats and intimidation, a large majority of the city’s people continued to oppose—and Hong Kong finally returned to calmer days.

1967 riots

1967 riots outside the Government House. Photo: Citizen News.

In the end, 51 people had been killed—15 by so-called “pineapple bombs”—and 832 injured. Colonial police arrested nearly 5,000 suspects associated with the violence, 1,936 of whom were convicted of crimes.

The shaken colonial governor at the time, David Trench, would use the lessons of the riots to introduce badly needed social reforms including the legislation of an eight-hour work day, a six-day work week and six years of compulsory primary school education—a reform legacy greatly expanded on by his successor, Murray MacLehose.

By comparison, the Fishball Revolution—so named because the Mong Kok protests began as a demonstration of support for lowly unlicensed hawkers of fishballs and other street food favourites— pales in significance in terms of the damage it wrought and the threat it represented.

True, nearly 90 police officers and dozens of protesters were injured in clashes that night and into the next morning, but the violence was over within 12 hours and never represented a serious challenge to the overall safety and order of the city.

The fact that those who took aim at police in Mong Kok included young, well-known advocates of Hong Kong independence such as Leung, 27, and Ray Wong Toi-yeung, 24, inevitably linked the violence to their political cause.

Unlike Leung, Wong would later choose to flee Hong Kong rather than face the charges levelled against him as a result of his actions in Mong Kok, certainly undermining that cause. But by the time the last brick and bottle had been thrown on the morning of February 9 and the streets were clear, it was already apparent that there was no coherent political message to be gained from this explosion of anger and frustration.

Ray Wong

Ray Wong. File Photo: Alex Leung/inmedia.hk.net.

This was anarchy and catharsis, pure and simple. And it is imperative that the pent-up fury that detonated that night be better understood and addressed by this city’s leaders as it is caught up in a web of intertwining, interlocking social, economic and political issues that are not going away any time soon, no matter how many are charged, convicted and jailed for their part in the Mong Kok madness.

While Leung is facing six years behind bars, his 31-year-old co-defendant, Lo Kin-man, was sentenced to a seven-year prison term. These are sentences harsher than any received by perpetrators of the 1967 riots—which, again, cost the lives of 51 people and caused far more disruption and destruction than the fishball insurgency.

No sensible person should argue that the judge who sentenced Leung and Lo, Anthea Pang Po-kam, is acting on orders from the central or Hong Kong governments. That said, however, judges, like everybody else, can easily find themselves caught up in social and moral issues of the day, and that could well be the case with Madam Justice Pang.

Edward Leung

Edward Leung. Photo: Citizen News.

The legacy of the Mong Kok riot—which can be viewed as an ugly, convulsive consequence of the failed pro-democracy Occupy movement that paralysed key parts of the city two years earlier—has taken the form of an increasingly overt crackdown on perceived acts of radicalism of all sorts, from severely limiting pan-democratic filibustering of the government’s preferred agenda in the Legislative Council to requiring Legco candidates to pass an I-pledge-my-heart-and-soul-to-the-motherland patriotism test to rounding up and jailing as many people as possible who were involved in the Occupy and the Mong Kok protests.

One of the government watchwords these days is “deterrence”—the very word that Pang used to justify her unusually harsh sentences for Leung and Lo. No, she is not a tool of the government. Nevertheless, she has certainly allowed herself to be its echo.

In any case, no matter who is on the right or the wrong side of history, Hong Kong students should be encouraged—indeed, exhorted—to read about that history and decide for themselves.

Holes in our history: today's students could learn much from the 1967 riots