Which way forward for “referendum” campaign and struggle for democratic rights?

Around 4,000 people staged a rally a week ago on Wednesday evening 27 January to salute the five members of Hong Kong’s pseudo-parliament – two from the Civic Party (CP) and three from the League of Social Democrats (LSD) – who quit their seats in a move designed to trigger simultaneous by-elections that will serve as a “referendum” on universal suffrage. The two parties and a host of other pro-democracy campaign groups that back the move, have called it a “new democracy movement”, a means to step up pressure on Hong Kong’s autocratic government and its bosses, the even more autocratic central government in Beijing.

The crowd in Chater Garden, which included large numbers of “post-1980s” youth, was in festive mood. Speeches were interspersed with songs that included John Lennon’s protest anthem ‘Power to the People’ and even ‘The Internationale’ sung by one of the five, ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung of the LSD. Chants of “abolish functional constituencies” and “referendum, referendum” rang out in the shadows of the Legislative Council (Legco), where earlier in the evening the five had been prevented from giving resignation speeches as a result of a walkout by ten pro-Beijing members that left the council inquorate.

“Wasting taxpayers’ money for the by-election. Shameful!” shouted the leader of the Legco walk-out, Wong Kwok-hing from the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU). This body, with four members in the Legco, retains a certain trade union base but is dominated by a right-wing parliamentary apparatus. The FTU leadership along with the other pro-government political groups are little more than proxies for China’s ostensibly ‘communist’ dictatorship.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen expressed “deep regrets” over the five resignations. Echoing the Chinese regime’s line he said that the pan-democrats’ “so-called referendum” was in breach of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and that his government would not recognise it. Two weeks ago, Beijing intervened in the conflict for the first time, saying the “so-called referendum” campaign was a “blatant challenge” that would “provoke disputes and damage [Hong Kong’s] hard-earned achievements”. This was a veiled threat to block further electoral reform altogether unless Hong Kong’s pan-democrats tone it down.

The political temperature has risen markedly in recent days with ferocious denunciations of the “referendum” plan by Beijing loyalists. The main arguments of the pro-government camp are firstly that there is no provision for referendums under the Basic Law, that the exercise is a waste of money, and that by defying Beijing the pan-democrats will only slow the pace of democratisation.

“There has been a heavy chorus of artillery going around town these few weeks and there is a central theme to all these,” said Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, the Civic Party leader. “It shows that they are afraid of people’s will. They are afraid that people will be given a right to vote in the referendum.” Eu’s lawyer-dominated party called in newspaper ads for the campaign to become a “civic uprising for universal suffrage”. Perhaps marking a retreat from this wording, which drew frenzied denunciations from the pro-government camp, the Civic Party put up a banner at its press conference with the slogan “referendum not revolution”. The Chinese regime, which has grown increasingly jittery and repressive of late, may not see much difference between these two methods.

‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, one of 5 MPs resigning seats in push for universal suffrage

Not cowed by the pro-establishment camp’s attacks upon them for staging an “uprising”, LSD chairman Wong Yuk-man led the crowd in chanting: “They don’t want us to say those words, right? Then let’s chant it a few more times... five districts referendum. All people rise up, rise up, rise up.”

In reality, the legalistic arguments about what the South China Morning Post called “by-elections-that-are-not-a-referendum” are entirely secondary. These arguments are an attempt by the capitalist pro-Beijing establishment to avoid being pressed on the central political issue: the glacial pace of “democratic reform” (the long promised shift to an electoral system based on one-person-one-vote). This is because Hong Kong’s capitalist elite, while paying lip service to it, are in reality deeply opposed to and fearful of “democracy”. Only half of the 60-seat Legco is directly elected, with the other half consisting of “functional constituency” seats chosen largely by a small pro-Beijing business elite. The city’s Chief Executive is not directly elected and even if the franchise is widened under future reform, the Chinese dictatorship will want strict controls on who can stand for the post, to block ‘unpatriotic’ elements, i.e. anyone not entirely malleable to its will.

The defiant stand by the LSD-CP in triggering these byelections is a reflection of the massive build-up of pressure for change in Hong Kong. While the issue of universal suffrage is top of the agenda, the upsurge in discontent encompasses many other issues including government-Big Business collusion and corruption, the total lack of welfare provision, and repeated failure to deliver a minimum wage law. While there is a lack of clarity or agreement over the way forward, there is no doubt in the minds of a growing share of the population that the current system is rotten and must be challenged.

Hong Kong’s pro-government parties are now desperate to find ways to sabotage or downplay the coming byelections, again concentrating their fire on the legalistic aspects of the type: “this is not a real referendum”. Under pressure from Beijing, to which the establishment camp are beholden for their positions, it now seems they will collectively boycott the proceedings in the hope that voter turnout will be low. This they hope will make it possible to dismiss the byelections as a “sideshow”. In reality, however, this struggle is anything but. Should this line hold, we can expect a massive establishment campaign for people to boycott “meaningless” and “wasteful” elections, that must be countered with a vigorous mass campaign of education and organisation. Under these circumstances, turning their backs on the election campaign may prove to be a costly error for Beijing’s proxy-parties.

The Chinese regime is not only – nor even primarily – concerned with the implications of this struggle within Hong Kong, serious though these are. The regime also fears the ripple effects across the Chinese mainland, especially in restive regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang – where 26 Muslim Uighurs and at least one Han Chinese have been sentenced to death since last July’s rioting. Anything that even faintly resembles a “referendum” is anathema to Beijing. The ‘legality’ of a referendum in Hong Kong, however triggered, is an open question for what that is worth. As Frank Ching points out in the South China Morning Post (27 January), the Basic Law Drafting Committee proposed in 1989, to the then British-controlled Legco, to organise a referendum over their draft. In other words, “legal precedent” exists. But again, such arguments are secondary, while the political problems and issues are crucially important.

In Hong Kong, whose people are being told they are “not allowed” a referendum, there are perhaps understandably some exaggerated ideas of what this can achieve. The main thing, from the standpoint of struggle against the current system, is that a good result can have an electrifying effect in lifting the self-confidence of the masses and in shaking the ruling elites of Hong Kong and China. But as we have seen in other countries, especially in the European Union, referendum results are widely ignored even by “democratic” capitalist governments such as in Denmark and Ireland. In these countries, which are far from unique, when the ruling classes lost important referendum decisions they merely re-staged them until the voters “got it right”. International experience shows that referendums in themselves are an arena for maneuvering by a ruling class or political regime, and when they sometimes show the real mood in society, if there is no workers’ alternative to pursue the struggle, the effect on government policy is limited. This is why a mass rank-and-file campaign is crucial.

30,000 march for universal suffrage in January

Wednesday’s 4,000-strong rally to launch the campaign was in many ways an impressive start. But while the podium speeches made devastating criticisms of the iniquities of the present system and dishonest role of the pro-establishment camp, the political message lacked sufficient explanation of how this struggle must be organised. In the opinion of chinaworker.info this means organisation from below, with the decisive input not just of the youth and the “people” (a nebulous term), but above all from the working class. The focus now must be to get as many as possible to take an active – not just supporting – role in this struggle.

Big challenges remain if the byelections are to succeed in mobilising mass support and overcoming the risk of an electoral setback for one or more of the five pan-democrats, which in that case would of course be seized upon by the pro-government camp. While at this stage it seems as though the pro-establishment parties will boycott the elections, this does not mean the five will not face fierce opposition from the full panoply of pro-government forces. With Beijing and the local capitalist class defending what for them are vital interests, they can – even while feigning disinterest – mobilise massive resources against the pan-democrat candidates.

This can be done through their control of the media (only Apple Daily of the main newspapers claims to support the “referendum”), by mounting challenges in the courts, or by financing ‘spoiler candidates’ that are not officially connected to the pro-government bloc. And it is not ruled out that pro-government parties could revise their boycott line, perhaps putting up candidates in one or two seats only. Such a tactic would allow them to deny they are participating in the “referendum”, which in their eyes and Beijing’s would give it legitimacy, but merely taking part in a “normal” byelection in order to go all-out to unseat one or other pan-democratic candidate.

The only sure way to defeat such manoeuvres and attacks is to turn the “referendum” campaign into a mass democratically-controlled movement. Democratic grassroots committees – “referendum” or “2012” committees – are needed in every locality, workplace, school and college, linking with existing trade union branches, students’ and other campaigning organisations. Such committees should become the mainspring of the movement, to debate and decide the way forward, canvass and mobilise for action. Mass demonstrations and even strike action should be raised to coincide with the “referendum” campaign, particularly a call for a Hong Kong-wide student strike, even a one-day stoppage, as an all-important first step.

This conception of the character of the coming battle is radically different from a purely electoral campaign that calls on the masses to vote and leaves matters there. Only the building of mass organisations of struggle, and especially worker’s organisations – fighting trade unions and a mass workers’ party – can insure lasting victory in this struggle. The LSD, which has assembled a fighting core of left activists and youth, while it is not at this stage a distinctly socialist political formation, could play an important role as an initiator or catalyst for a future mass workers’ party.

A mass movement organised democratically through grassroots committees would need to hammer out a strategy for what follows the “referendum”. It would be a mistake to place great hopes on negotiations with the government. Even in the event of a landslide victory for this campaign, the government and the capitalist class will do their best to continue their delaying tactics. This is because the capitalists, whose profits from the status quo are almost beyond imagination, are opposed to Western-style bourgeois democracy. The same reasoning goes – with interest – for the Chinese regime, which for reasons primarily of control and elimination of potential challenges, will insist on retaining some “firewalls” in the Hong Kong political system. If they are forced to sacrifice the functional constituencies to popular pressure, they will try to insert new barriers and control mechanisms.

The struggle for democracy in Hong Kong is therefore inextricably linked with the need for mass struggle on the mainland to end one-party rule and state terror, alongside the creation of a fighting labour movement in Hong Kong, China, and globally, with the aim of sweeping away capitalism and creating a genuine – socialist – democracy.

Note: The five Legco members who have resigned their seats are Tanya Chan and Alan Leong Kah-kit of the Civic Party, and Wong Yuk-man, ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung and Albert Chan Wai-yip of the League of Social Democrats. While the pro-government camp may mount legal challenges to block the byelections or the five candidates, these are not expected to succeed in time for these byelections. Nominations are likely to open in March and the byelections will probably take place in May.

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