The start of the Lunar New Year marked a return of the demonstrations and violence that have marred Hong Kong in recent years. Tensions across the city surround the increasing influence of Beijing’s government over the supposedly independent former British colony.
In recent months the city has been rocked by allegations that Chinese government agents have undertaken a campaign to intimidate, silence, kidnap and even murder anti-mainland activists. The most public of these cases has been that of the disappearances at a popular anti-mainland book store, whose owners and staff have gone missing. Conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment have pushed unrest to a dangerous high, especially since student led protests brought the city’s economic heart to a halt in 2014 during the so-called “Umbrella Revolution”.
“Why was there this kind of violence? Because under the rule of [Chief Executive] C.Y. Leung we can’t see any future” – Joshua Wong, student leader of the Occupy movement.
Fish Balls and Riot Squads
The heart of the largely working class and popular shopping district of Mong Kok became the site of violent skirmishes that have once again shut down the city. Tension erupted after police took an uncharacteristic harsh approach towards unlicensed street vendors who have traditionally been allowed to sell their cheap treats such as fish balls during national holidays. In the past authorities have turned a blind eye to these small stall-holders, allowing tourists and locals to enjoy cheap food to celebrate with friends and family. The riots were kicked off after news of the police operation leaked out through social media, allowing protesters to organize ahead of time and resulting in a violent stand-off that continued well into the next day.
Demonstrators hurled projectiles such as bottles and bricks at police and set fire to cars and rubbish bins along the streets. During one violent skirmish, a police officer drew his gun and fired into the air and then waving it at the crowds, a move that has disturbed locals in a city where police rarely use their fire-arms.
This years crackdown has therefore been viewed with a deep cynicism towards the local government which has sought to strengthen its ties to the mainland through clamping down on the city’s formerly liberal western values.
While officially autonomous, the city is still almost entirely at the mercy of the mainland economically. Although the city is now a part of China, it holds its own separate political system under the Hong Kong Basic Law that was instituted by the United Kingdom prior to its handover in 1997. Many activists and politicians believed that Beijing’s central government broke its promise to the locals that the city would ultimately continue to enjoy fully democratic elections for its independent government.
Whilst Beijing vehemently denies that it has reneged on this promise, it has stacked the local government and senior executives who run the city with pro-Beijing sympathizers, most notably the chief executive Leung Chun-Ying.
The net result has been deep-seated tension between the pro-mainland government and a population, especially the young, who want western-styled freedoms.
The occupy protesters sought to push the case for democracy in 2014. Those protests fizzled out with no major concessions from the government, and mr. Leung – appointed to his role by a committee largely loyal to Beijing – is still in place as chief executive.
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Gentrification has also been a central issue on the peninsula. Locals have been increasingly unhappy with the continuing development across the city, with many being priced out of areas by new office-blocks and apartments that have replaced the old way of life.
So far, Mong Kok has resisted the change, though many feel uncertain about the future of the area that is famous for its narrow and congested streets as well as its famous markets.There have been bitter protests against changes across the city that locals believe to be the assimilation of their unique culture by the mainland government.
Since 1997, the city has seen immense levels of “brain drain”, where top level intellectuals, businesses, and professionals have left the country following its closer ties with China and erosion of civic and economic liberties.
With the mainland’s influence to inevitably expand post-colonization, Hong Kong’s independence looks increasingly uncertain. As the super-power seeks to increase its influence across the world and particularly within its backyard, having a rogue city-state within its borders is certainly something that Beijing does not desire.
How China will treat the city will, however, have broad ripples for others across the region. As Taiwan’s independence looks increasingly untenable, it watches events in Hong Kong with unease as a glimpse to its own possible absorption.
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