Last year's Mongkok riots can't compare with the 1967 protests, but still serve as a warning against complacency. Photo: Reuters

Mounting social and economic grievances, a darkening public mood turning violent, a government and police force seen as enemies of the people – for many, that’s an apt description of Hong Kong as the city prepares to celebrate/lament the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule.

Step back to the May of 50 years ago, however, and those same conditions applied – though manifested in a much more extreme form. Magnified by spillover from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution raging across the border, a series of industrial disputes in Hong Kong blew up into eight months of rioting and bombings that left 51 people dead and hundreds injured, with thousands more arrested.

The colonial government was shaken to its core by the fury of the protests, and responded by launching programs that continue to this day in education, public housing and social welfare to address the festering inequalities laid bare during the mayhem.

Hong Kong would never be the same. Yet not a commemorative word has been spoken by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying or any other official in the Hong Kong or central governments about what was certainly one of the most critical periods in the city’s post-World War II history.

Of course, this studied reticence is not difficult to understand. For the Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping, talk of the riots harks back to the dark old days of the 10-year mass hysteria of the Cultural Revolution, in which millions were persecuted, at least 400,000 died, and which left a colossal gash in the nation’s psyche. Any honest examination of the Hong Kong riots – and for the latest of these see Connie Lo Yan-wai’s two-hour documentary, Vanished Archives – shows the Communist Party’s hands all over them.

Lo’s film breaks new ground in revealing a plot by the state-owned China Resources Company to supply rioters with more than 8,000 sugarcane knives. In the end, that plan was vetoed by Ng Tik-chow, deputy head of the foreign affairs office in Hong Kong at the time, but leftist demonstrators carrying Mao’s Little Red Book were indeed aided and abetted by Ng and other Chinese officials stationed in the city and also encouraged and applauded in editorials published in state media throughout the eight months of violence and unrest.

General Huang Yongsheng, then the commander for the People’s Liberation Army in Guangdong Province, even suggested an invasion and takeover of Hong Kong; Premier Zhou Enlai shot down that hair-raising idea. Seeing that leftist groups were losing steam in their battles with police and that public opinion stood firmly against them, it was also Zhou who in December finally called a halt to the bombings and demonstrations, bringing to a close one of the most gut-wrenching chapters in Hong Kong’s modern history.

For mainland officials, revisiting this chapter during this 50th anniversary month would mean exhuming the horrors and humiliations of the Cultural Revolution, and that is something they are loath to do. That’s especially so now, with little over a month to go before the 20th anniversary of the handover, celebrations for which the Hong Kong government has splashed out HK$640 million (US$82 million).

For Hong Kong leaders, the 1967 riots are also an awkward conversation piece. The city bears little resemblance to the colony of the 1960s, pocked with shantytowns overpopulated by mainland refugees fleeing Mao’s dystopian vision for China. Still, political, social and economic tensions are running high and Leung’s unpopular and dysfunctional government – whose five-year term ends on July 1, the day the lavishly funded anniversary celebrations begin – has exacerbated rather than relieved these divisions.

In a dense city of 7.3 million people with one of largest wealth gaps in the developed world, only the privileged can afford to indulge in the dream of owning their own home; at the same time, the poor are left to compete among themselves for public housing for which, if an applicant is fortunate enough to qualify, there is an average wait of almost five years.

The 1967 riots showed the colonial British administration that it was a big mistake to focus its policies on catering to the Hong Kong elite while ignoring the plight of the poor. At an explosive time in China’s history, Communist Party officials exploited that mistake and helped to transform Hong Kong into a city of terror for eight tumultuous months.

The situation in Hong Kong is much different now, but there are nevertheless lessons to be learned from 1967 about the dangers of an aloof leadership that props up the rich while offering meager fare to the poor. Let’s not forget that Hong Kong suffered its worst riot since 1967 on the first day of the Lunar New Year of 2016 – 10 hours of civic madness during which more than 700 perpetrators set 22 fires in the streets and prized some 2,000 bricks from the pavement that they then used as weapons against shell-shocked police for whom the rioters displayed a startlingly naked animus.

Thankfully, nobody was killed, but 130 were injured, more than 90 of them police officers, and a shaken city was left wondering what happened and what comes next.

The prolonged, bomb-punctuated violence of 1967 makes the Mong Kok riot, nasty as it was, look like a cakewalk, and one should be wary of drawing parallels between that time and our own. That said, too many people in today’s Hong Kong are angry and losing hope for the future of a city whose government spends HK$640 million to celebrate its troubled 20-year reunion with the motherland but doesn’t seem to care about the livelihood issues most affecting them.

And, judging by opinion polls, the public doesn’t believe Leung’s successor – former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, handpicked by the Chinese leadership over her far more popular rival, former finance chief John Tsang Chun-wah – is going to offer much in the way substantive change.

A week before March 25, when she was chosen as CE by a 1,194-member election committee dominated by Beijing loyalists, Lam trailed Tsang by 17% among the public and was derided by critics who, referring to Leung’s initials in English, dubbed her “CY 2.0.”

Since her election, Lam has said and done nothing to raise expectations that she will offer anything beyond business as usual in Hong Kong. That’s not good enough in an anxious city wondering whether another Mong Kok – or worse – is waiting to happen.

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