By Kumar David –
Rioters repulsed by public sentiment without PLA intervention; Hong Kong citizens take back their city
It started in an unlikely way. About 50 soldiers from the Kowloon Tong garrison of the PLA, unarmed and clad in T-shirts and shorts, walked out of their barracks on Saturday (16) afternoon on Renfrew Rd and started clearing debris and wreckage left by rioting freedom-loving, democratic students. The effect was electric! In minutes local residents, fed up with being held hostage by student mobs, joined in; by five in the afternoon all roads in the vicinity were clear, people were walking to shops, stations, doctor’s appointments and traffic flow was smooth. The story spread, by nightfall Pokfulam Road, an important artery passing HK University was cleared by citizens. The concept of people taking their public spaces back into their own hands – hang rioting student-fascists, thank you PLA for the kick-start but now we can do it ourselves – has restored confidence, resilience and the pragmatism for which HK is well reputed. The soldiers were the catalyst that sparked it off.
There were outbreaks of sporadic rioting on subsequent days and there will be some violence from time to time. Student and other rioters deserted campuses and congregated in one – PolyU where I was a prof for many years. They formed a veritable Masada. (A bastion which 1000 Jews fortified from Roman siege in 73-74 AD in a hopeless trap which ended very badly for them). It is not easy to estimate the number of students and outsiders – mysterious outsiders – inside PolyU campus. At peak in was about 1300 including a goodly number of females and surprisingly, 300 school kids strong-armed by older youth. They rioted, set fires and hurled petrol bombs and projectiles. They held an arsenal of Molotov cocktails, fire tipped arrows, professional bows, and projectiles. They were armed with incendiary devices made from stolen university chemicals or supplies fed by outside ‘democrat politicians’ or the anti-China elite There was a full kitchen; the ‘fortress’ had ample stocks of food, vegetables, and water, supplied by the same sources. Imagine if some philistine decided to burn down the priceless collection in the university library – the best library in Hong Kong!
Most who barricaded themselves into PolyU have fled and 1000 arrested as they made a run for it or shamefacedly surrendered. About 100 are still holed up – about 20 students and the rest shady outsiders whose identity HK Democratic Party politicians are desperate to conceal. In a military sense a single platoon could have cleared the campus, but the police were reluctant to use force since many, apart from shadowy infiltrators, are hopelessly naïve and ignorant students. Diehards who said “give me freedom or give me death” and vowed never to retreat till they pulled down the government are on the run. I am here witnessing the dying hours of the drama but I cannot be sure how long the death-rattle will last. Outbreaks of sporadic mob riots may occur occasionally in other parts of the city
The way forward is for HK citizens to take the city back into their hands and banish the rioters. But this may not be smooth since the hardcore is determined and innovative. Though this outbreak of urban terrorism – one must call a spade a spade – seems to be over and HK will be back to its bustling self soon, deep problems remain. They have to be addressed. Concerns can be separated into three categories; the rising aspirations of a relatively well-off lower middleclass, political reform, and third and most complex, a not well understood mass youth psychosis.
HK is not poor, in certain ways it is rich; it has colossal foreign reserves (US$ 430 billion), AAA credit rating on all counts, GDP growth 3%, budget surplus 5.2%, human development index “Very High”, per capita GDP US$ 48,000 (2019), ease of doing business consistently within the first three in the world, and an FDI stock of US$2.5 trillion. It enjoys de facto political freedom including the freedom to criticise Beijing and the CCP, this writer is a case in point. The so-called HK miracle is not a con, it is true in all these respects.
The economic snag of inequality is explosive all over the world in this age of global hegemony of finance capital. A huge crisis of expectations arises within an economically rising and relatively free to demonstrate and riot middleclass. This phenomenon is volatile elsewhere too – Chile, Argentina, France, Iraq, South Africa, Italy. Finance capital intrinsically is ‘unequal capitalism’; the opposite of social-democracy. The captains of finance capital do not, knowingly, design and execute a policy of inequity; it’s just that the ‘laws of operation’ of modern finance capital pan out to promote the concentration of wealth in banks, financial institutions and high-end property and hence focuses wealth in the grip of the top 14%, if not 1%.
This is happening at the same time as the spread of mass freedom of expression, protest and opposition. Hong Kong is the prime example but Chile and Iraq also fit the bill. Unrest on this scale at the time of Pinochet or Saddam would have been mowed down in machine gun fire. The freedom to protest and riot, enjoyed by HK youth, ignites limited hopes for swift advancement, aspirations to own a flat and hankering for an American life style. To put it cynically, one could say too much freedom on the streets has set fire to middle and lower middle-class aspirations. (Yong people and students in HK enjoy privileges and material facilities that Sri Lankan students cannot dream of).
My second point is political reform. China will permit freedom in Hong Kong so long as it does not undermine the one-party system in the People’s Republic. That is, the PRC will be wary of anything in HK or any part of China that endangers the CCP’s hold on power. The risk of granting universal suffrage is the fear that a future elected Chief Executive may come into conflict with China. The PRC Constitution does not mention the Communist Party but the Party Constitution declares: “The CCP is the vanguard of the working class, the people and the nation. It is the core leadership for socialism and development of advanced productive forces in the interests of the majority of the people”. (Abbreviated). In truth the Party and its leadership are all powerful. Hong Kong, if it is wise, will negotiate a deal that maximises its own democratic spaces avoiding head on confrontation with Beijing. It can never win that way. Urban terrorism, vandalising public property and gross lawlessness will achieve nothing.
Finally, I turn to a complex and little understood phenomenon. People here throw their hands up in exasperation and exclaim: “I don’t understand. Why are all these young fellows so irrational and doing crazy, violent things?”. It is not unknown to me having lived through 1989-90 in Sri Lanka. Of course, there were problems, huge ones but the JVP was crazy and took 60,000 young lives away.
What drives people to take leave of their senses and into logic defying activities is called ‘mob hysteria’, ‘madness of crowds’, ‘mass psychogenic illness’ and ‘collective obsessional behaviour’. It is a phenomenon were collective illusions spread through a group in response to both real irritants and imaginary stimuli. It’s a psychological pandemic where the afflicted desert their own consciousness and become robotic portions, identical bits of a collective mind. A much-reported case was the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 when young girls in Massachusetts claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused local women of witchcraft. Hundreds were accused and 20 executed as witches. By 1692 the hysteria abated and public opinion turned against the accusers. There are much older reports of mass hysteria from pharaonic times and the Middle Ages.
A study by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay’s (1814-1889) ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ was published in 1841. Mackay ridiculed economic bubbles and debunked the crusades, duels, fortune-telling and haunted houses. In modern times he would be called a rationalist. Freud (1856-1939) was the first clinician to use the term “conversion hysteria” and propose a mechanism of psychological trauma evolving into somatic symptoms. A new (2019) book ‘The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity’ is by British journalist Douglas Murray. He is said to have distinguished between “malingering conscious” and “conversion hysteria” but not having read the book I cannot comment further.
Let me not leave you with the impression that all is irrational hysteria. Not at all, in Hong Kong it is my observation that it is a mix of the illogical with the practical-real. I will list the real-world aspects before signing off.
- The overlap of unfair capitalism with political freedom
- The conflict between expectations and opportunities of a rising lower middleclass
- An identity crisis where many HK people don’t want to be identified as Chinese citizens, and with which goes a sense of Hong Kongers feeling superior to Mainlanders
- The denial of universal suffrage in the election of the Chief Executive
- Incitement and funding from foreign sources and from anti-communist business and political classes in Hong Kong
I will conclude by what I said at the beginning. Th city seems to be returning to normal and HK people are taking control of their lives and their city. The madness seems to be subsidising; so from me a cautious Hurrah!