South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Gary Cheung says those who romanticise the leftist-inspired uprising as just action against tyranny forget that the militants had little public support and arguably limited positive impact on social change
Hong Kong has become unrecognisable to me with all the flawed logic put forward by those who defended the violent disturbances that erupted in Mong Kok on the night of February 8. Some sympathisers even made an inappropriate analogy between the unrest and the leftist-inspired riots in 1967.
They argued that while some leftists resorted to excessive action, launching bomb attacks, social anomalies and discontent with the colonial government were among the reasons behind the bloody 1967 riots. In an oblique justification of the violence in Mong Kok, they contended that the 1967 riots succeeded in forcing the government to introduce sweeping reforms in the 1970s.
The leftist camp completely lost the support of the public after some militants resorted to indiscriminate violence
In a statement released a day after the unrest in Mong Kok, the pro-democracy Progressive Lawyers Group said it was disingenuous of the colonial government to blame the 1967 riots on a small group of violent agitators, when much deeper social problems existed in Hong Kong at the time, and it would be similarly disingenuous to pretend that the Mong Kok riot was an isolated incident.
These kind of interpretations – or misinterpretations – of the 1967 riots, are reminiscent of the leftist camp’s defence of the disturbances, which claimed 51 lives and rocked the city to its core.
After the publication of my book on the 1967 riots in 2012, I was content to leave this chapter of Hong Kong history behind. Yet, I believe I am now duty-bound to set the record straight against the fallacies about the disturbances.
The social background to the 1967 disturbances, such as the lack of labour rights protection, should not be ignored, though the extremist means deployed by some militant leftists must be condemned. But I must remind those who do not have a good understanding of the 1967 riots that they were a spillover from the Cultural Revolution, which erupted on the mainland a year earlier.
It is too simple to say that the riots were the cause of the subsequent social reform, as there was already momentum within the colonial government in the mid-1960s to initiate change. The disturbances, which started with a labour dispute, generated sympathy among some people outside the leftist camp before the unrest was escalated. The leftist camp completely lost the support of the public after some militants resorted to indiscriminate violence.
If there is any lesson to draw from the 1967 disturbances, it is that deploying violent means of struggle is a recipe for alienating activists from mainstream society and that the end, no matter how noble, cannot justify extremist means. Edward Leung Tin-kei, spokesman of the radical localist group Hong Kong Indigenous, tested the limits of public tolerance last Tuesday when he vowed that they “knew no bounds” when it came to means of protesting.
In the past two years, social media and newspapers have been flooded with complaints that Hong Kong is now under “high-handed rule” of its governing authorities, and that it is only a matter of time before there will be a popular revolt against the “tyranny”. It is beyond doubt that the city is plagued by a widening wealth gap and decline in social mobility, and we have every reason to be angry with the slow pace of democratic development and the problems with Leung Chun-ying’s governance.
Notwithstanding these grievances, let me remind those with a nostalgic view of colonial rule of the plight facing Hongkongers in the mid-1960s: the colonial administration paid little regard to the education and social welfare needs of the socially disadvantaged. In 1965, only 18.3 per cent of primary school leavers were admitted to government and aided secondary schools, or given assisted places in private secondary schools.
And those who heaped praise on the colonial government for launching an inquiry into the disturbances in 1966 – which were triggered by a 5-cent fare rise for the Star Ferry ride between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui – should note that officials approved the Star Ferry’s application for the fare rise three weeks after the disturbances.
Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor and author of Hong Kong’s Watershed: The 1967 Riots