On Friday, October 2, 2014, all hell broke loose in Hong Kong; Occupy Central was under siege from all corners. At 2:30pm in Mong Kok during a thunderstorm, an unknown group of men and women stormed into the occupied area and tore down a tent. The police came running into the scene from around the corner and attempted to quench the fire. Even under the police’s watch, the anti-occupy group managed to tear down tents one by one save for one in the middle of Nathan Road and Argyle Street.
This group of about 30 slowly turned into an angry mob thousands strong that claimed to support the police. Since the police were not clearing the streets, they would do it for them. The older men and women swore and yelled, evidently very worked up. Declaring that this was all self-initiated, they denied allegations of being paid or sent from any group. They screamed that they were true Hong Kong citizens who also had a right to use the space. The angry mob cussed at the Occupy Central protesters in Cantonese and frequently broke the police line of officers’ linked arms. They appeared leaderless and worked off of each other’s energy. Their loudest complaint was how Occupy Central was destroying their rice bowls.
Mong Kok standoff; a call for help
While the anti-occupy protesters became more violent and threatened to give police 15 minutes to clear the streets, the Occupy protesters stood, arms linked, guarding their last tent. Amidst the escalating tension, the HKFS sent a tweet calling for “more people to support and occupy in Admiralty and Mong Kok”. Four hours later, they warned people that because of conflicts, “please do not go to MK at the moment”. Occupy Central’s Twitter account also said: “Benny Tai and Joshua Wong urge supporters to leave Mong Kok and Causeway Bay to continue struggle in Admiralty”. Despite these warnings from Occupy Central’s initial organisers, and a girl in tears begging people to leave, the occupy protesters stood strong in MK.
When asked why he didn’t leave, one student said, “If we leave, they will just go attack Admiralty. Hopefully by us holding down the fort here, it will deter them from causing trouble over there. And honestly, over these past few days, Mong Kok has been our pride. We’ve worked together with the infamous “MK boys and girls” and fended off countless opposition. We’re not going to give it up and we’re not scared.”
Around 6pm when the mob of anti-occupy protesters started intensifying their assault, the crowd composition changed dramatically. As more people wearing black t-shirts and yellow ribbons showed up, the tide turned and chants turned from “clear the streets!” to “protect the students!”. Occupy Central, HKFS, and Scholarism were not in control and had nothing to with this. Waves of people turned up as Occupy protesters messaged and called their friends frantically for backup. They too, were leaderless.
Sandwiched right in the middle between these two camps were the police. From the start, they had a tough time controlling the hysterical and violent anti-occupy protesters. They formed a human chain to keep the two camps away from each other. At different points in the square around the last occupied tent, the anti-occupy protesters kept rushing at the police line to attack Occupy protesters.
Not just gangstas; valid concerns
These are important questions but what is more vital to consider are the concerns articulated (rudely and loudly) by the anti-Occupy protesters. Many people suspect that they were triad members paid to cause disorder. However, it is dangerous to dismiss all anti-Occupy protesters as people faking it. Perhaps some were paid but their presence drew out some genuinely concerned Hong Kong citizens. For instance, take Mr Wong, an English teacher from Australia who has been living in Hong Kong for the past 5 years. He owns two tutoring centres, one in Mong Kok and one in Causeway Bay.
He openly shared, “I think why people are angry here today is because the movement has negatively impacted our daily lives. I have hundreds of students canceling classes but I still have rent and staff to pay. Who is going to compensate us for this economic loss? If students want to gather, they can gather in Kowloon Park or wherever and I will gladly support them. I want democracy too but we just don’t agree with their method of achieving it”.
Whether or not people were paid to put on a show, the violent opposition shows that the movement may fast lose momentum by alienating a large part of the public. Those rallying for true universal suffrage are doing so because they want a government that is accountable to them to make policies for the economic benefit of the average Hong Kong citizen. If they want to expand their appeal beyond a mainly youth driven movement that is perceived as causing too much economic disruption in the average Hong Konger’s life, then Occupy Central supporters need to rally around more underlying economic issues that people care about rather than around relatively vague ideas of democracy.
There is no clear leader to the Mong Kok movement and no viable goals from the group or way forward as talks with Carrie Lam were called off. To be effective, disruption needs to be quick. When a protest drags on with no end or practical solution in sight, then disillusionment and rapid loss of popular support follow.
So far, the police have been the target of public anger. Many are still asking who those on the ground ultimately receive orders from. If Mong Kok was a government tactic to delay things to pit Hong Konger against Hong Konger – vehemently denied by the government – then the Mong Kok incidents may be evidence that it worked. It is time to stop attacking those caught in the crossfire and find a way for all Hong Kongers to unite around the root cause of why democracy is such an important battle to fight.