In the days leading up to the Lunar New Year, Hong Kong people flock to one of the new year markets in the city to buy flowers, sweets, and other traditional goods for the festival. In recent years, however, it’s also become a place where people air their political grievances.
This year, the most prominent political theme is the upcoming “election” for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, who will be elected by a 1,200-member committee that largely reflects pro-Beijing interests. Since the call for universal suffrage sparked the months-long Occupy protests in 2014, political tensions have remained elevated in Hong Kong.
At this year’s event in Victoria Park, the largest of these markets, many political groups used the opportunity to raise money as revellers loosen their purse strings in the new year. But the task takes on a new sense of urgency this year, as the Hong Kong government is suing to boot four pro-democracy lawmakers out of office, and the four have been denied legal aid. The government already succeeded in its attempt to force two pro-independence legislators out of office for espousing pro-independence views.
“We have to raise HK$ 10 million ($1.3 million),” said 23 year-old Nathan Law, chairman of political party Demosisto, who is one of the lawmakers being sued by the government. “Every penny counts.” Demosisto is selling t-shirts adorned with the Lion Rock mountain, a symbol of the city.
Another pro-democracy political party, the Civic Party, used a wheel with the faces of the candidates standing for chief executive on it to illustrate the rigged nature of the chief executive race—the wheel is designed to always land on one candidate, Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker. The Democratic Party sold sets of “airplane chess,” a classic Chinese board game adapted for the chief executive contest. Players are only allowed to start the game when they roll a five on a starred dice—a reference to the five stars of the Chinese flag and the fact that any candidate running for the top post must have Beijing’s blessing.
There is a heavier side to this year Lunar New Year revelry, however. Following the violent clashes that happened during the holiday period in 2016, dubbed the “Fishball Revolution,” Hong Kong police are not taking any risks this year. Local media reports say that the police will deploy over 1,500 officers to prevent a repeat of what happened last year, when outrage against a government decision to bar stall owners from hawking traditional street snacks like fishballs turned into a violent confrontation between police and protesters. Many saw the authorities’ decision as another way of snuffing out local culture. The government blamed the violence on pro-independence forces.
Indeed, the need to safeguard “public order” was the reason provided by the government for prohibiting pro-independence groups like the Hong Kong National Party and Youngspiration from setting up shop at the markets. The two lawmakers who were ejected from the legislature in November after losing a legal challenge by the government, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, are members of Youngspiration.
For the less politically inclined, an array of cute avian themed items in celebration of the Year of the Rooster were in no short supply.