Commentators, especially here in Taiwan, have drawn parallels between the Hong Kong “fishball riots” in Mongkok last week, and the 228 (February 28) massacre in Taiwan in 1947.
Certainly, It is true that in both cases popular resentment and frustration over police actions towards vendors boiled over into rioting. Some are trying to also trying to connect the then recent takeover of Taiwan to the recent handover of Hong Kong to China.
But in truth, the circumstances were very different.
In 1947, social order in Taiwan was breaking down. Inflation was out of control, the newly arrived KMT government was venal and corrupt, the economy was being looted for the ongoing civil war in China, new arrivals from China were being given jobs previously held by Taiwanese, the KMT army was famously corrupt and undisciplined and hated the Taiwanese for having been on the Japanese side in WWII. The situation was truly dire.
When police confiscated a widow’s entire livelihood–her contraband cigarettes–she protested, and one officer hit her in the head with a pistol. A crowd formed and the police fled, shooting one member of the crowd in their retreat. The next morning, crowds of protesters formed at the Governor-General’s office and several were shot by his security. This led to an island-wide revolt which saw Taiwanese across the country seize power, some proposing to run the province on their own, some arming themselves.
Wikipedia details what happened next: “The Nationalist Government under Chen Yi stalled for time while assembling a large military force in Fujian. Upon arrival on March 8, the ROC troops launched a crackdown. The New York Times reported, “An American who had just arrived in China from Taihoku [Taipei’s old Japanese name] said that troops from the mainland [China] arrived there on March 7 and indulged in three days of indiscriminate killing and looting. For a time everyone seen on the streets was shot at, homes were broken into and occupants killed. In the poorer sections the streets were said to have been littered with dead. There were instances of beheadings and mutilation of bodies, and women were raped, the American said.””
The Hong Kong fishball protests, in comparison, were against the local Hong Kong government only in part due to China’s interference in local affairs. Much of the anger and frustration is economic and tied to government policies, put in place by their local (not China’s) officials, and the riot was against Hong Kong police (not Chinese troops). The specific incident that triggered this riot was police trying to shut down the stalls that traditionally sell fishballs during the Lunar New Year holiday because of local hygiene laws–which were not imported from China.
The police response, firing shots into the air and violently putting down protesters with truncheons, was excessive and part of a worrying pattern of what appears to be increasing arrogance and brutality in the Hong Kong police, but a far cry from the official response in the 228 incident. The population hasn’t seized power in a revolt, Chinese soldiers are not roaming about in bands beheading and raping people. Over 130 people were injured, 64 arrested and so far 37 are going to be charged. In fact, Hong Kong has seen far worse in recent history, in both 1966 and 1967.
What happened in Hong Kong was a flash of anger, not all out revolution. Drawing the comparison, at least on the severity of the violence and the trauma to the society, would be inappropriate–so far.
But let’s hope it stays ‘so far’. Things are likely to continue to get worse, however. Hong Kong’s Chinese-influenced, or worse, Chinese-controlled, government doesn’t look to become any more popular in the near future. There is considerable public frustration with the society’s inability to change that. Property is not likely to become affordable to the general public again any time soon as more and more money pours in from China. China’s increasingly blunt actions–like kidnapping local publishers and taking over local media–are stoking tension and fear. Broader economic trends, such as rising income inequality and stagnant wage growth, are also increasing the public’s sense of insecurity.
As Joshua Wang of student activist group Scholarism put it: “Last night I saw the police firing shots into the air. After the shots, the violence from the police and the crowds escalated. It was the turning point for people, who began throwing bricks and setting fires. The protesters who chose to attack the police did not have any specific agenda in mind; the anger is not specific to the street vendor policy. It is a desperate response to the heavy-handed policies and stability maintenance tactics of the state apparatus.
For two years, the public distrust towards the government and the police has escalated. Protesters were beaten up by seven cops in a dark corner [during the Occupy Central protests]. The beating up of passerby in street. The “breast attack” charge against a woman protester. The “disappearance” of publishers and bookstore staffs. all these are accumulative and transformed into youth’s anger. There is no other choice within the pre-existing political system to resolve these tensions. That’s why they’re using violent means to defend their values.”
This all means that Hong Kong is likely to continue to see tensions rise, not diminish, which will probably lead to more clashes in the future. Hopefully, and this has happened before, the government will back down and take public opinion into account. Worryingly, in the Umbrella Movement and in this latest case, the government has dug in its heels and resorted to police violence to crack down. There is, thankfully, a long way to go before the situation gets as bad as 228. Let’s hope it stays that way.