If someone is unhappy, that's one thing. But if a city is unhappy, that means something very different.
HONG KONG — On the evening of July 1, outside the Sogo Department Store in Hong Kong, Leung Kin-fai stabbed a police officer from behind with a knife and later killed himself. The incident was described as a "local lone wolf terrorist attack" by authorities. According to Ming Pao, a local newspaper, Leung, a man in his 50s, had no accomplices and wrote a suicide note before the murder, mentioning his dissatisfaction with society and criticizing the brutality of police, who he said harbor criminals and are not subject to checks and balances. Further, he expressed his belief that "freedom has been lost" after the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law. The police have not yet released the full contents of the suicide note.
According to the theory of French sociologist David Émile Durkheim, such acts are classified as fatalistic suicides. Durkheim argued that when a society over-regulates individual life and even suffocates people with repression, then there are bound to be suicides as the only outlet to escape this control. But has Hong Kong reached this point of desperation?
Even wearing black clothes is considered a political statement
In the past two years, Hong Kong's government has indeed become increasingly suppressive, and the situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse ever since the enactment of the National Security Law in 2020, with most civil movement leaders either fleeing or being detained as freedom of speech is severely curtailed. This April, pollster Gallup released its Global Happiness Index, which ranked Hong Kong 113th in terms of freedom of choice in life, lower than mainland China or Taiwan; it's worth mentioning that Hong Kong ranked 66th in this index in 2019. In other words, Hong Kongers are becoming more depressed and pessimistic. If someone is unhappy, they could try changing their environment or leaving the source of pain; but if a city is unhappy, is forbidden to speak out and cannot complain, its residents would only die or explode in silence.
This theory might also explain other suicidal attacks in China, with citizens retaliating against government officials for unfair treatment and injustices. The Chinese government is, of course, sensitive to those issues, but hardly counts those incidents as terrorism attacks. In the Chinese understanding of national security, attacks that target government agencies, police and military are defined as terrorist activities.
On the other hand, Chinese state media often combines violent terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism (referred to as the Three Forces) in narratives, so the fight against terrorism is in fact the same as eliminating those three forces. The terrorist attack on July 28, 2014 in Xinjiang is a typical example: A group of armed Uyghurs attacked the government and police stations and burned cars along the way, resulting in 37 civilian deaths. 59 Uyghurs involved in the attack were shot. 215 others were arrested and evidence of "terrorism" including "jihad" flags were seized.
The separatist movement in Xinjiang has a long history, but it is only recently that it was labeled as terrorism. After 9/11, the Chinese government used the U.S.-initiated international counterterrorism mechanism to officially classify the Xinjiang independence movement as terrorism, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the crackdown on Xinjinag and reducing external criticism of China's handling of the region. However, from 2001 to 2013, even though there were many attacks orchestrated by Xinjiang independence activists, the Chinese government did not act much to put an end to the independence movement other than just monitoring and handling the attacks. It was not until 2014, when a number of major terrorist attacks took place in various parts of China by such activists, that the government began to establish the Xinjiang Vocational Skills Education and Training Camps.
So how would the Chinese government tackle suicidal attacks like the one in Hong Kong? Take for example the series of self-immolations by Tibetans since 2009. Most of those who set themselves on fire are lamas and nuns, but also quite a few are peasants. Although such incidents are occasionally mentioned in state media, not all were reported or confirmed. The administration has taken a relatively conservative approach to the self-immolations, blaming them on the Dalai clique, but not publicly labeling them as terrorism.
Back in Hong Kong, the context is naturally different from that of Xinjiang and Tibet, but the authorities have already been treating attacks on the government as "local terrorism" and defined its meaning as secession. As a result, all those who support Leung Kin-fai are being recognized as supporters for secession and have become government targets. Officials are now on high-alert for similar attacks on police, with all mourning activities for Leung regarded as support for terrorist activities. Even wearing black clothes is considered a political statement.
In today's context of rule under the National Security Law in Hong Kong, when a tragedy of fatalistic suicide happens, it is undoubtedly the biggest outbreak of conflict between the powerful and the powerless. What is worrisome is that this incident might not be the end of it.