The 1967 riots and the Anti-Extradition Amendment Law Bill (Anti-ELAB) movement are titled as two of the most serious social movements in Hong Kong. China, surprisingly, played polar opposite roles in the two social movements: the former being the core of the protest and the latter being the oppressor.
What Actually Happened?
Prior to the 1967 riots, the public was not able to enjoy their universal rights and social welfare due to severe corruption of the British Hong Kong government, dire inequality and exploitation of lower-class labour. According to Dale Lü, due to the differential treatments between the local blue collars, who might be the first or second generation of the mainland immigrants, and the higher socio-economic status, especially British people, hostility towards the British government was intensified throughout the years of the colonial era. As per Cheung’s《六七暴動：香港戰後歷史的分水嶺》 [The 1967 Riots: A Watershed Moment in Hong Kong’s Post-War History], workers’ benefits and labour rights laws were virtually non-existent somewhen in the 1950s – 1960s. The exploitation-driven economic development in the post-war era accumulated mainly socio-economic dissatisfaction and anger towards the governance of colonial upper hand.
On the contrary, the Anti-ELAB movement is the manifestation of people’s ideological dissatisfaction towards the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) regime and their adherence to the so-called core values of Hong Kong. The movement is backed by the accumulation of preceding political and identity conflicts. Since the return of sovereignty, CCP has failed to live up to its promises to Hongkongers (e.g. universal suffrage), which causes distrust, fear and even disgust towards the local government. With Xi Jinping’s vision, CCP has implemented a more repressive and comprehensive control policy on the country, which was more stringent than the Hu-Wen administration. The tightening of policies on Hong Kong, such as the 831 framework that the National People’s Congress decided in 2015, contributed to the Umbrella Revolution, the 2016 Fishball Revolution and the Anti-ELAB movement. The deep-seated political contradictions exasperate the unfavorability towards the Communist regime, leading to the emergence of separatism.
China’s Roles in the Continuation of the Incidents
Regardless of the British Hong Kong government’s mismanagement, it is not the driving force of the entire movement. Although the conflict between the proletariats and the bourgeoisies triggered the riot, the support from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the leftist movement in Hong Kong on May 15th was directly in charge of the commencement of the riot. The continuation of the riot was boosted by local correspondent leftist organizations, for instance, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions and the Hong Kong-Macao Worker Committee, which were in favour of the violent anti-British, anti-imperialism and anti-persecution activities. The Anti-ELAB movement, on the other hand, has no similar organizations. The conflict between China and Hong Kong’s political discourses and values have been the driving forces that dominate the entire movement.
At the beginning of the 1967 riots, riot police were mobilized, and 17 workers were arrested. After the establishment of the pro-CCP All-Circle Struggle Committee, 3,000 demonstrators petitioned and demonstrated at Government House. According to Vanished Archives, the British colonial government allowed peaceful-to-mild demonstration with an agreement with the leftist organizations. Yet, the demonstrators started to provoke violent protests. As a result, 167 demonstrators were detained. As violence intensified, curfews were imposed, and demonstrations were monitored in a stricter manner. In the later stage of the 1967 riots, terrorism broke out and there were incidents of the bombing. CCP’s role was made apparent when a pro-communist base with firearms was stormed in the Kiu Kwan Mansion and several extreme left-leaning individuals were arrested.
At the early stages of the Anti-ELAB movement, the government attempted to resolve the political conflict purely with economics and brute force, but both absolutely failed to regain public trust. Although the government put forward livelihood-related policies in its August and October (2019) policy addresses, they were not sufficient to bring the movement to cessation. On the contrary, the mishandling caused further resentment towards the government.
In the post-Anti-ELAB movement era, tighter top-down political controls are observable. Owing to the squeezing intolerance of the Chinese government for protests, not only did the government appoint Erick Tsang, who is experienced in the disciplined forces, as the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, but also dispatched Luo Huining and Xia Baolong, who have been highly involved in the crackdowns of Xinjiang independence activists and churches, as directors of the Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office respectively. Such a decision shows that, even with immense international pressures, the central government’s attitude is steadfast. The subsequent National Security Law that was approved directly by the CCP has successfully replaced and superseded the power of Article 23, which aims to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, to further the absolute governance over Hong Kong. Apart from hard measures that have been recently imposed, propaganda and cultural manipulations remain their popular strategies to cope with CCP’s internal and external affairs. State-controlled media outlets People’s Daily and Ta Kung Pao are simultaneously responsible for disseminating information and constructing the “new Hong Kong” ideologies. With digital platforms, propaganda becomes even less apparent as state-leaning messages can be sugar-coated as “public opinion”, which are distributed by the Wumao (五毛, 50 cents) and Little Pink (小粉紅, young jingoists on the Internet).
Aftermath and Impacts
The “long-term and full manipulation” strategy of the CCP in the post-war era was in fact not in the favour of implementing violent struggles in Hong Kong. The intellectual united front should be of significance instead of violent ones as quoted by Liao Chengzhi, the ex-director of Xinhua News Agency during the time of The Cultural Revolution. Therefore, the extreme violence that happened in Hong Kong in fact shook the high officials of CCP and they halted nearly all violent activities along with the British government’s countermeasures. Hong Kong is then followed by Deng Xiaoping’s grand strategy of “hide your ambitions and disguise your claw” that allowed high freedom for the British government to implement its goals and plans before the return of sovereignty.
Although the 1967 riots brought about a deficit of nearly 37 million dollars to Hong Kong at that time, it did reinforce the determination of the British Hong Kong government to implement a long-term strategy to improve the socio-economic environment of Hong Kong. Leo Francis Goodstadt, the former chief adviser of the Central Policy Unit, admitted that Hongkongers were reasonably fighting for their basic rights and the government was at fault. Previous colonial governor David Trench too highlighted that the riots marked the end of the era of immense inequality and the “laissez-faire” attitude of colonial government.
Without excuses, the British Hong Kong government needed to make fundamental changes. MacLehose stepped up as the colonial governor, decided to improve infrastructure, review existing laws, and create a society with more public participation with a view to negotiating the return of sovereignty with China. During MacLehose’s reign, the Home Affairs Department was set up to collect public opinions and complaints (1968), working hours were shortened (1971), the nine years of free education and the public assistance scheme were initiated (1971), Independent Commission Against Corruption was established (1974), etc.
In the course of the current social movement abeyance (from the mid-2020 until now), the negative impacts have gradually emerged.
Unlike the post-1967 riots period, the current society is polarized and dualistic, which leads to the obstacle of reaching consensus and compromises. The dramatic soar in the turnout rate in the district election and the dissident camps’ victory illustrates the people’s unprecedented political participation in both camps. Furthermore, not only is the society polarized but also the police-citizen tension has been intensified, which is rooted in the growing strictness under Xi’s iron fist ruling. Mike Chinoy hinted at the possibility of crises turning up in the form of the Northern Ireland Conflict if Beijing falls through to manage the extreme distrust and hatred of Hongkongers, specifically the younger social stratum, towards the government. On account of Hong Kong’s international status, the social movement has affected the national image of China, as one of the most dominant powers in the world. This can be observed that, as one of the consequences of the Anti-ELAB movement, Taiwanese were well aware of the infeasibility of one country, two systems and the movement aggravated their disassociation with the identity of being a Chinese. This is evident when we look at the outcome of Taiwan’s general election. The movement, with several other local factors, brought victory to Tsai Ing-wen. From the perspective of international relations with a larger geopolitical coverage, it hinders China’s grand plan of peaceful unification. In addition, due to COVID-19, a new position must be located for China for the strategic planners in the West. As the Anti-ELAB movement revealed China’s attitudes towards democracy and human rights, as well as the failures in some countries in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a stumbling block can be foreseen for the China Plan: a plan which is way more ambitious and influential than any other five-year plans.
Standing at the junction of the new Cold War, Hong Kong has become the forefront of the battle between democracy and authoritarianism. As a gateway for China to connect with the world, Hong Kong is destined to be a pawn of both China and the United States as we can see from the sanctions, as one of the political tools, imposed by and on China. And the uncertainty forces policymakers, scholars and governments to find ways to mediate various parties and uphold the value of multilateral cooperation with respect to human rights and the general benefits of people in distinct societies and communities.
Edited by: Sajal Bhateja