“This is a riot!,” said Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Zhenying Liang on the second day of Chinese New Year, referring to the unrest that erupted overnight on Feb. 9 in the city’s Mong Kok district.
According to Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, anytime people participating in illegal gatherings threaten public safety, the event is legally categorized as “riot.” This is the first time this official term has been used publicly since Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997.
Liang wasn’t alone in his assessment. On the afternoon of Feb. 9, Commissioner of Police Weicong Lu also characterized the incident a “riot,” saying protesters intended to set police cars on fire and threw bricks into the crowd that could have killed people. Immediately after the incident, various political parties in Hong Kong publicly criticized the violence. All Hong Kong was in a state of shock. Though New Year’s fireworks displays went on as usual, the city was in a terrified state.
The descent into chaos began with a group of young people supporting street food vendors. Here is an account of what happened:
Supporting food stalls: peace, rationality and non-violence
On the evening of Feb. 7, a lecturer at Hong Kong Community College, Xiaoli Liu, decided to protest a move by Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) to chase illegal food vendors off the streets during the New Year celebrations. Liu had earlier been known for creating a platform called “Xiao Li Classroom for Democracy” in the wake of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. She said in an interview, “I have long been supporting peace, rationality and non-violence. When I decided to support the vendor’s rights, I made up my mind to take the risk.”
On the night of Feb. 7, Liu was arrested while helping a vendor sell fried squid on a Hong Kong street. After being released at 1 am on Feb. 8, Liu went back to ask various street vendors if they wanted to keep their stalls open despite the government crackdown. Liu and the vendors she approached decided to go to Mong Kok in Kowloon for the night because of the larger number of vendors there.
At 4:58 pm, Liu made a post on her Facebook page urging popular support for vendor rights. She also called for a gathering in Mong Kok that evening to defend street food sellers. The post was liked more than thousand times and shared more than five hundred times.
Just one street apart: Military force, conflict and pepper spray
Five hours before Liu’s post, at around 12:30 pm on Feb. 8, another local group, Hong Kong Indigenous, called for a rally on Facebook to support the vendors in Mong Kok at 9 pm. Hong Kong Indigenous was founded in January 2015 and is composed of members who actively participated in the Umbrella Movement.
One witness, Wen Chen (a pseudonym), recalled that, at 9 pm, about ten FEHD members were on the scene at Mong Kok. They were surrounded by a crowd of forty to fifty residents in a noisy confrontation. The FEHD staffers were “kicked out” of the area soon afterwards. About ten stalls were selling food to customers at the time.
There are different versions of the incident.
The Chief of Food and Health Bureau, Yongwen Gao, said that the staff from FEHD were surrounded by more than fifty people. He says they were yelled at and pushed by protesters. Some were said to have been injured. Concerned about the staff safety, Gao says he called for police assistance at around 9:45 pm.
According to the local Apple Daily, Taiyang Huang, the 23-year-old Hong Kong Indigenous leader, was in the crowd. He reportedly jumped on top of a car and used a loudspeaker to call for support from local residents. He also asked police to back off.
Police and protesters, including members from Hong Kong Indigenous, physically began to clash around 11 pm. The police force used pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Activist Xiaoli Liu and other vendors who were one block away said they didn’t expect the clash to escalate into violence. One vendor said angrily that he thought someone was using the name of street food to make trouble.
Big and small world: Two activist groups met in Mong Kok
Xiaoli Liu says there was a disconnect between what she and her vendors were doing and what others were doing. She and her group were part of a small world. They were handing over all sorts of street food to local residents and were enjoying the hot and noisy atmosphere. But outside this small world, there was a big world one block away that had descended into chaos.
Around midnight, about thirty policemen arrived in the area to disperse the crowd. After using the pepper spray, about one hundred police clashed the protestors. One person who actively supported the confrontation was Jinchen Liang, the leader of the North District Parallel Imports Concern Group.
Liang recalled in an interview that he didn’t expect things to get worse until he heard two gun shots. “I was very shocked,” Liang said, “the police provoked the crowd’s anger.”
One policeman who asked to remain anonymous said the area where the shots were fired was not heavily guarded by police force at the time. But Liang thought that “we have to do something in respond to the shots.”
Liang and the crowd then began to occupy the street. The crowd threw water bottles and trash at the police. Until 3 am Liang saw some people throwing bricks. He says “protesters were also injured, what was wrong with throwing bricks at police?” By 5 am, fires had been set in several spots. Liang said that he didn’t care about using his real name. “I don’t have a nickname,” Liang responded.
A brick thrower: Gun shots made me go to the street
A thirty-two year old constructive worker, Xianwei Huang (pseudonym), went to the street because police fired shots.
“At 2 a.m. in the morning, I heard the news that the police fired two shots into the air. It was right there outside of my home. I couldn’t stand it anymore and went to the street.” Wearing a helmet, Huang quickly joined the protesters. During the clash, Huang said, “I suddenly felt a strong burning sensation in my face, eyes, hands and arms. I realized I was caught by the pepper spray. I backed up quickly. The police kept hitting me on the back. It still hurts right now.”
After Huang recovered his vision, he went back to the street again. “I was very angry and was shivering all through my body. Partly because I was injured, and partly because I was very scared,” he said. Huang saw some people starting to dig bricks from the street.
“I never thought things would turn into such a mess. I didn’t expect people to the attack police. You would go to jail for it. But I have long hated the Hong Kong government. I graduated from Hong Kong University, and had been working in a low-income job for a long time. Still, I could only afford to rent an apartment at Mong Kok. Last year, I became a constructive worker. It was a dangerous and hard job, but I could make thirty thousand (Hong Kong dollars) a month now, which doubled my previous salary. But still, I cannot afford the down payment. I am already thirty-two. My life was in despair.” At that moment, Huang recalled that he heard an English-language song in his head “You Are Not Alone.” He made up his mind to fight back. He says he then picked up the bricks and threw them at the police.
Police say it was already a riot when guns were fired
Faced with such a violent reaction from the crowd, police say they called for reinforcements. They say the steps they followed were consistent with a police manual issued after the pro-democracy protests in 2014 on how to handle such cases. According to police, the manual stipulates: First, the director of the Police Tactical Unit will assess whether it is a riot or not. Then, increased police force will follow. When the situation is judged as a ‘riot,’ an increased Police Tactical Unit will be equipped with pepper spray. Each police officer will also be issued a handgun containing bullets. Under normal situations, police officers will only carry revolvers. But in a ‘riot’ they will be equipped with arms such as shotguns to be well prepared for the situation.
The police deployment is supposed to be led by at least one senior police officer with Special Tactical Squad (STS) who will oversee the dispersal of protesters. STS was specifically created to control the umbrella movement in 2014. At 4 am Feb. 9, the STS was officially deployed to disperse the riot.
Asked at what point the protest was officially deemed a “riot,” former committee of Independent Police Complaints Council, Chenglong Zheng, explained that when gun shots were fired in the air at 2 am, the situation was assessed to be a “riot.”
The chaos continued until 8 am on Feb. 9. Activist Liang says this form of popular protest will eventually be accepted by the public. “This is the first time, but never the last.”
As of 10 pm. Feb. 9, 61 people, including 52 men and 9 women, aged 15-70, had been arrested for charges ranging from unlawful assembly, assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, obstructing police officers, possession of weapons, and disorderly conduct.
This article was first published in Chinese on Feb. 10, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. It was reported by Chen Jiayin, Huang Minghao and Zhao Yanting. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated by Tenei Nakahara for Asia Times.