It was a 5-cent fare hike for Hong Kong’s iconic Star Ferry that set off the protests. Cars and buildings were set on fire. Riot police patrolled the streets. Tear gas was fired—and still the crowds kept coming.
That was Hong Kong in the spring of 1966. And the violence didn’t end there. A year later, leftists inspired by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party launched a series of riots and bombings that killed 51 people in the then-British colony.
The Hong Kong Police Force—and the British military—employed emergency laws, sweeping raids and mass arrests, sometimes facing accusations of excessive force. Yet, what followed was a broader set of policies that ushered in one of the city’s golden ages.
The colonial administration embarked upon an infrastructure-building spree that included public housing to address underlying social tensions. They undertook a more collaborative approach to defuse tensions with demonstrators—building trust and eventually helping restore the peace.
Now, as Hong Kong reels from more than two months unrest—with hundreds of thousands of protesters filling the streets, besieging the airport, setting fires outside police stations and hurling petrol bombs at officers—the similarities to the 1960s upheaval are hard to miss.
So far, though, there’s been little more than a general acknowledgment of the need for reconciliation from the Beijing-backed administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. “That is my very serious political commitment and responsibility to the people of Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters Tuesday, saying she would act “after the violence has been stopped.”
Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997 altered the delicate balance between the public and the police established after the 1960s. That’s making it increasingly difficult for Lam to engineer a peaceful end to the current unrest.
In recent weeks, the police have increasingly leaned on a harsh rioting statute rarely used since it was passed at the height of the 1967 chaos, charging dozens of protesters with crimes carrying a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. That’s inflamed tensions between protesters and police still recovering from clashes during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014.
“By the end of British colonial rule, policing had become fairly community-based and cooperative, rather than confrontational,” said Andreas Fulda, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham and author of “The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.”
Recent years have seen a “move away from restrained British colonial policing strategies aimed at de-escalation and toward a swift politicization and militarization of the Hong Kong Police Force,” he said.
A senior police official told reporters Thursday that the agency could handle law-breaking behavior by protesters but not address deeper grievances. Political issues need a political solution, in additional to the police, the official said.
This year’s protests began in June over a controversial bill that would have enabled extraditions to mainland China. Still, protesters often cite the other worries driving them, including the world’s most expensive home prices and rising inequality.
While Lam has since put the proposed legislation on hold, she has refused to formally withdraw it. Beijing and Hong Kong’s administration have also refused to concede to any of the protesters demands, which include an inquiry into police tactics—and more broadly the root causes of the discontent.
Regina Ip, a pro-establishment legislator, joined government in the 1970s after she said the authorities “decided to increase local recruits to be closer to the people.” The governor, Murray MacLehose, launched an ambitious program that transformed the city—and could serve as inspiration for Hong Kong now, she said in her office.
“He launched a massive housing program, music offices all over the territory, cultural centers, recreation and sports programs, you know, responding actively to social ills, and that restored Hong Kong,” she said, a copy of a government report on the 1966 riots on her desk. “That should be what we do now.”
In the absence of a political solution, a vicious cycle has emerged whereby aggressive responses fuel further protests that are sometimes exclusively about police tactics. Clashes have only escalated.
The demonstrators have brandished iron poles, flung bricks into police stations with catapults and last weekend injured a police officer with a Molotov cocktail. The protesters also caused Hong Kong’s airport, one of the world’s busiest, to briefly shut down.
The police, meanwhile, have come under international condemnation from the U.S., U.K. and the United Nations for increasingly aggressive moves. Most recently, they fired tear gas in the enclosed confines of a train station, dressed up as demonstrators and were filmed making a tense arrest kneeling on a protester’s bloody face.
The police have argued that they’re merely responding to violence from radical protesters, and have received staunch support from Lam’s government—as well as Beijing.
It’s all a long way from the days of the 1980s and 1990s, when police officers would store their riot gear in trucks around the corner from demonstrations, and hand out water to protesters in the summer heat, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of numerous books on Hong Kong.
Although there were incidents of police brutality in the colonial period, commanding officers didn’t condone the violence, and ordered investigations, Tsang said. The post-handover government has overseen “a shift to a more mainland China style of policing,” he said.
There is at least some sign that the government, which has stressed the damage the unrest is doing to the economy, is also worried about the underlying causes. On Aug. 15, the government announced a $2 billion stimulus plan to revive the economy, which included measures for low-income families such as student subsidies and extra payments to social security recipients.
Yang Guang, a spokesman for China’s top agency overseeing Hong Kong, told a briefing on July 29 that Beijing would work with the local government “and various industries in the Hong Kong society to create better conditions for them.”
Nonetheless, the government rejects one of the key demands of the protesters—an independent investigation into police conduct—on the grounds that such an inquiry is impossible while the protests continue.
“We should do what the British have done—rather than look back we should look forward,” said Ip, the lawmaker. “We should be moving on, and look how we can tackle the really deep rooted social and economic problems in Hong Kong.”