Citizens rising en masse to defend street vendors abused by state agents: is it Hong Kong in 2016 or Taiwan in 1947? Some commentators have pointed to outward similarities between the Fishball Revolt and the first volleys of the 2-28 Massacre, but at this juncture, the comparison doesn’t yet seem apropos.

The events in Taiwan snowballed into state-sanctioned slaughter: Chinese Nationalist troops killed thousands of civilians to quell popular protest. In Hong Kong, enforcement remains a police action. While 2-28 represents one of the darkest extremes of a government’s response to citizen outrage, the confrontation in Hong Kong, though uncomfortable, has only begun.

Rather than weighing specific actions or comparing the scale of brutality, it may be more instructive to consider the emotional state of the local populace during the lead-up to these events. In gauging the public mood and uncovering the violations to which they have been subjected, we find hints of a broader narrative on communities, democracy, and the search for dignity.

 

1. Popular Frustration with a Tone-Deaf Government

Clearing street vendors might appear to be an odd cause to provoke such a heated response, but it’s important to remember the larger backdrop of the event. Some Hong Kongers have experienced social or economic friction. Others express dismay at the Cantonese language being displaced by Mandarin, or that the city’s unique way of life is slowly being snuffed out.

Much of this came to a head during 2014’s Umbrella Movement, when citizens peacefully occupied major thoroughfares, using festive (and exceedingly tidy) civil action. Hoping to remedy the problems faced by their society, peaceful protesters demanded free and fair elections instead of the stacked deck that ensures Beijing’s view holds sway.

The C.Y. Leung administration, however, turned a deaf ear to the demonstrators, and ever since the thoroughfares of the city were cleared, has heaped on the insults, such as ramming through the appointment of a pro-Beijing apparatchik to the leadership of Hong Kong University, over the strenuous opposition of students and faculty.

What seems like a minor incident involving local vendors can generate outsized push back because of accumulating grievances, as the public is pushed toward a breaking point.

Point of comparison: In the period leading up to February 1947, the Taiwanese public was growing increasingly fed up with the corruption and maladministration of the Republic of China (ROC) government, under Governor Chen Yi. While the Nationalists had initially been welcomed with open arms as fellow Han Chinese, the unfair treatment of the local Taiwanese led to great resentment that eventually boiled over into popular protest.

 

2. Real and Symbolic State Violence

During the incident in Hong Kong, a police officer fired his weapon into the air to disperse the crowd. Action films aside, firearms are heavily restricted in the territory, and robberies using guns are exceedingly rare. It is uncommon for police officers to even draw their weapons in the course of their duties, and the call of “shots fired” is much more momentous compared to say, America, where gun violence and gun ownership are far more prevalent.

In civilized, law-abiding Hong Kong—some would characterize the society as “obedient”—the image of an officer of the law brandishing a deadly weapon that callously threatens citizens’ lives is both psychologically jarring and provocative.

Though the gun’s muzzle was aimed into the air, not at people, it still presents a barbaric symbol of life-snuffing state violence deployed against Hong Kong’s own citizens. The imagery underscores state power being used to violently coerce, rather than defend citizens’ basic rights and interests.

Point of comparison: In Taiwan, a woman street vendor was beaten senseless by KMT officers, drawing an angry crowd. During the confrontation, a bystander was shot, sparking protests the next day and a broader uprising thereafter. Whether coming to the defense of a pleading middle-aged woman, or a group of street vendors being evicted from public spaces, local crowds chose to take a stand for “our own people,” in the face of what they perceived to be unfounded harassment and state violence.

 

3. Emulating How China Operates: A Better Comparison

Not only are the authorities failing to reassure the populace of their rights—there is growing fear that the Hong Kong government has itself become the machine that quashes their freedoms, by channeling the Chinese Communist Party’s controls over civic life.

Rather than historical massacres, the enforcement actions in Hong Kong smack much more of the activities of China’s chengguan (城管), the highly unpopular municipal bureau-cops who arbitrarily wield city regulations like truncheons.

Whether smashing up food stands or arresting local vendors, their behavior ranges from irksome to loathsome to absolutely vile. (Feel free to peruse a collection of some of their infamous exploits or a broader analysis of their role in society.)

The eviction of fishball vendors in Hong Kong mirrors the actions of an unaccountable Chinese government employing thuggish lackeys to enforce rules that are increasingly seen as illegitimate. Ironically, local citizens coming to the aid of cheng guan victims is a recurring theme in Mainland China as well.

Point of comparison: The swaggering local cop bludgeoning hapless vendors into cooperation, or even paying up protection money, is a powerful trope. Corrupt officials are seen as enforcing rules that enrich themselves or benefit the state’s interests, but neglecting to protect the basic rights of citizens. Thus, the law becomes an instrument of state domination rather than of justice.

 

4. A Creeping Sense of Disappointment and Fear

Before its handover from Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, Hong Kong saw a mass exodus of people and money to Canada, the United States, and other countries. The memory of how student protests in Tiananmen Square were crushed was still raw, and the Chinese economy had not yet unreservedly embraced capitalism.

Since then, however, Hong Kong’s populace has appeared relatively complacent about governance by “One Country, Two Systems.” Some were lulled into misplaced patriotism by the promise of joining a larger Han Chinese sphere and shedding the colonial past. Many others remained agnostic as long as they could pursue business opportunities.

However, the passing years have witnessed the gradual dilution of freedom. The experience of Hong Kong today doesn’t reflect what many citizens—particularly younger generations—believe was promised under the Basic Law. While harmless fishball vendors and Umbrella Movement protesters are vigorously prosecuted, the government has demonstrated a remarkably lackadaisical attitude when a series of Hong Kong civilians—presumably protected by the territory’s laws—were allegedly abducted and transported to Mainland China, all for the non-crime of printing political books and salacious novels.

Imagine the horror of waking up one day and realizing there is no one standing between you and Beijing, other than a quisling regime doing the Communist Party’s bidding. At this point, what can even be done? Outrage and desperation are growing as the public increasingly feels there is no entity on the side of Hong Kong’s people: no one to look out for their interests, no one to defend their livelihoods, no one to protect their very lives. No wonder the movie “Ten Years,” which imagines life in 2025 if current worrisome trends continue, has proven so popular at the Hong Kong box office.

For a shell-shocked public already fearing abandonment, forcibly ejecting local fishball vendors while nonchalantly waving off the disappearance of civilian booksellers is one more sign of capricious interference in Hong Kong’s daily life by contemptuous rulers and their proxies.

Point of Comparison: The dominant mood in Hong Kong today is a mixture of fear and defiant concern; in 1940s Taiwan, it is indignation and disappointment. After half a century of Japanese rule, the Taiwanese public had at first welcomed the arrival of the Nationalists, just as some Hong Kong residents bid a fond farewell to the colonial British government. Instead of liberation, what has transpired is a new form of colonization—this time by one’s own ethnic kin, who feel entitled to discriminate against locals. The new abuses are enough for some locals to recast earlier foreign occupation (whether it was Imperial Japan or the British Empire) in a far rosier light.

Both share a similar sense of feeling looked down upon or despised by the Chinese, who believe they can deprive locals of basic rights, even though one’s society is more developed, educated, wealthy, and orderly than contemporaneous China. Meanwhile, a sense of separation, distinct historical experience, and genuine cultural difference may one day crystallize into the recognition that one has always had a distinct identity—and that this difference is worthy of acknowledgement and respect.

 

5. The World Has Changed …

Unlike the KMT’s slaughter of the Taiwanese in 1947, this incident in Hong Kong takes place in a world with much stronger norms against indiscriminately massacring civilians. Governments today have a “responsibility to protect” their citizens; they do not exercise absolute sovereignty over prostrate subjects. Ethnic cleansing draws strong condemnation, if not necessarily concerted action.

Furthermore, in an always-online world of social media and near-instant reporting, numerous news channels covered the events in Hong Kong, whereas very few correspondents could immediately gain access to the bloody streets of Taiwanese cities. One hopes, therefore, that the violent reprisals and systematic executions deployed against the Taiwanese populace cannot be repeated today in Hong Kong.

… But Some Things Stay The Same

Despite massive changes in technology and politics during the twentieth century, at least one thing remains constant: when people feel disrespected and abused by their government; when repeated attempts to raise solutions are ignored or serially frustrated; when they detect unfair threats to their livelihoods, their community values, their sense of identity—they will take a stand.

Resistance can be channeled into productive political discourse when a functioning democratic system is available. It may manifest as protest or boycott when electoral mechanisms are blocked. Direct action can become even stronger still, if popular anger over government malfeasance does not abate, and demonstrations escalate. Wise governments embrace peaceful dissent to improve social conditions. Repressive regimes take advantage to crack down.

In considering the popular mood in these societies, whether seventy years ago in Taiwan or today in Hong Kong, what we see is that aspirations for good governance, for dignity, and for the right to decide one’s own fate, are still very much a part of the human story.

(Feature photo is a wood cut print of the 228 Massacre, by Rong-zan Huang)

Kevin Hsu

Kevin Fan Hsu is Lecturer in Urban Studies at Stanford University and co-founder of the Human Cities Initiative. He crafts open online courses and designs other educational experiences with a social mission at Skyship Design (www.skyshipdesign.net)