As an intense week of anti-WTO protests wound to a close yesterday, leaving 800 mostly South Korean workers and farmers still in arrest cells following a fierce police attack on demonstrators on Saturday night (17 December), the capitalist WTO leaders strained to put a brave face on their own failure to clinch a new round of anti-working class and anti-poor trade "liberalisation".
In opening the official WTO meeting last week, its director-general (and leading member of the French ’socialist party’) Pascal Lamy waved a magic wand urging the assembled ministers to wish for a miracle, but warning that "this magic will only work if everyone believes in it". This moment symbolised the increasing desperation (not to say flight from reality) of WTO leaders as their organisation continues to lurch from one failed round of talks to another.
"Once it became obvious he wasn’t going to pull a rabbit out of his hat, Mr Lamy swapped the Harry Potter wand for a Houdini disappearing act," quipped the SCMP. As explained on chinaworker previously, a weak face-saving agreement cobbled together to prevent an open collapse of the Doha trade round (named after the meeting in Qatar held in 2001) was one possible outcome in Hong Kong. This is what happened yesterday as the ministerial meeting, staring disaster in the face, united around a minimalist declaration to give an impression of progress. The main imperialist powers who dominate the WTO fear the growing "UN-isation" of the WTO, its decline into a powerless talking shop. This, they fear, "would result in ’Balkanisation’ of the global trading community into a fractured collection of protectionist minded regional trading blocks or free trade areas (FTAs)," warned the SCMP.
Thus the final "agreement" included a commitment to end agricultural subsidies by 2013, to remove tariffs in 97% of exports from the 40 or so ’Least Developed Countries’ - mostly in Africa and the Caribbean. To illustrate the emptiness of this last-minute deal, the US offer to cut export subsidies on cotton merely restates an earlier WTO ruling, leaving 90 percent of US spending on farm sector support untouched.
With this fig leaf the round limps on to a "Hong Kong II" meeting in Geneva to be held no later than 30 April next year.
A more realistic verdict on the Hong Kong meeting came from Britain’s trade and industry secretary, Alan Johnson, who described it as "not in any way a success". But for socialists and anti-WTO activists, this is the wrong time to sound "danger over". Despite their inability to railroad poor countries which comprise 80 percent of WTO membership into swallowing more neo-liberalism in Hong Kong, the main imperialist states will undoubtedly mount fresh assaults in coming months, through the agency of the WTO itself, but also through other imperialist institutions like the "Group of Eight" and the debt agencies, IMF and World Bank.
The colourful daily demonstrations in Hong Kong have played an important role in exposing the WTO’s imperialist agenda: to force open ever greater segments of the market in neo-colonial countries to their control. The biggest WTO powers like the United States and the European Union see a successful deal as a means to speed-up mergers and takeovers in potentialy profitable sectors in the neo-colonial world, and push into service areas like banking, water, education and healthcare, by reducing these governments’ ability to protect vital services from foreign takeover. At the same time, increasingly, the dominant powers and an emerging "second tier" of larger but still poorer economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa, are beginning to clash, refusing to surrender their own interests inside the WTO talks. This was summed up by Mali’s industry minister, Choguel Kokalla Maiga: "[The US and EU] are like elephants fighting. We are like the grass under their feet."
On Saturday night, anti-WTO demonstrators, inspired by the militancy and discipline of the South Korean contingent in particular (over 2,000 farmers and members of the KCTU trade union federation), broke away from the official march route imposed by the police, which kept the protesters out of sight and sound of the WTO meeting, and pushed to within 100 metres of the conference centre.
Hong Kong police have reportedly been studying video footage of South Korean police clashing with farmers and workers, in order to prepare for the WTO meeting. A campaign of media vilification of the South Korean visitors has been conducted for weeks, portraying them as bent on violence. But this has failed to make an impact on the local population, who have poured out of shops and offices to watch the disciplined lines of chanting Korean farmers, accompanied by massed ranks of drummers, wind their way though Hong Kong’s streets. The real fear of the Chinese regime and its stooge Hong Kong government, is that the militancy of the South Koreans, shaped by two decades of struggle for trade union rights and against military dictatorship, would rub off on the Hong Kong population. This, at a critical juncture when the Beijing regime are attempting to head-off growing demands for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Recent polls show that since the massive 250,000-strong pro-democracy demonstration on 4 December, the mood has shifted sharply against the territory’s government led by Chief Exceutive Donald Tsang. A new poll by the University of Hong Kong shows support for Tsang’s electoral "reform" plan (which refuses to set any date for real elections) has slumped from 56% in early December to 37% today. As SCMP columnist Wang Xiangwei noted, "the December 4 march has stoked [Beijing’s] fears about the impact of Hong Kong’s democratisation on mainlanders. Ever since the series of ’velvet revolutions’ in neighbouring Central Asian nations such as Kyrgyzstan, Beijing has become paranoid about such a revolution spreading to China and has begun taking tougher measures against dissenters."
Tear gas and mass arrests
On Saturday 17 December, as the WTO ministers debated agriculture, the Korean farmers - divided into smaller, more mobile groups - outwitted the Hong Kong police and succeeded in breaking out of the confined march route designed to keep them away from the WTO meeting. Thousands, the Koreans joined by many local youth inspired by their spirit of determination, pushed towards the conference center where they were met by rows of riot police. After a series of smaller skirmishes in which marchers were doused with pepper spray and sludge from water cannon, the security minister declared a state of emergency at six in the evening, sanctioning the use of tear gas to clear the streets.
"They sprayed me with sewage water and pepper spray and then told me to calm down. How could I?" one journalist exclaimed. Seventy people were injured including 21 Chinese and 33 Koreans. Later, as 900 demonstrators defiantly staged a sit-down protest, the police moved in making mass arrests. 800 are still being held at the time of writing, including the local independent member of ’parliament’, "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, who describes himself as a Trotskyist. Local supporters of the detainees (mainly Koreans although locals, Taiwanese and Indonesians were also among the arrested) have been staging demonstrations demanding their release. The Asian Human Rights Commission has demanded the release of all those arrested, condemning the police action as "excessive".
Even a catholic bishop visited those Korean demonstrators still at liberty to tell them, "as a Hong Kong person, I feel ashamed. I want to apologise to the Korean farmers [for the police action]."
Clearly, despite the government’s propaganda, the message of resistance brought by the Korean contingent has won significant support among ordinary Hong Kong people.
Young working class
For the CWI, the week of action against the WTO has been an incredibly valuable experience and a great step forward for our work in Asia. The overall impression from the series of protests, debates and meetings is of a strong, young working class, fresh to struggle and forging new traditions. It has perhaps not yet absorbed the lessons of the betrayals and setbacks for workers’ organisations in the older capitalist countries, the problem of bureaucratisation etc. The CWI members in Hong Kong sold all the material we had with us (books on Che Guevara, History of the CWI, Vietnam War, China, plus 100 copies of Socialism Today) bringing in a total $HK 5,560 (600 euros). The week was one of endless discussions with workers and youth keen to learn more about marxism and the campigning work of the CWI.