"Junk the WTO!", "Derail the WTO!", "Stop the Doha Round", these were some of the slogans echoing Hong Kong last Sunday.
Protests kick-off in Hong Kong
Around 5,000 protesters, predominantly women migrant workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, joined the march organised by the Hong Kong People’s Alliance Against the WTO – a broad coordinating group in which the HKCTU trade union organisation plays a key role. The target of their anger is the sixth ministerial meeting of the big business-dominated global trade body which started on Tuesday, 13 December. For more information on the WTO meeting itself, which is beset by major internal bickering, see Hong Kong: New WTO Fiasco?.
Migrants out in force
Despite massive propaganda by Hong Kong’s unelected government aimed at portraying the protesters as violent troublemakers, the demonstration was "like a carnival", according to the South China Morning Post. Colourful floats, one depicting the WTO as a giant octopus strangling the world’s poor majority, made a striking contrast to the familiar skyscrapers of one of Asia’s biggest financial centres. Dancers, drummers and musicians, even a human chicken with a placard "WTO more deadly than bird flu", added to the fun.
The prize for most effective organisation undoubtedly goes to the more than 2,000 Indonesian and Filipino women workers whose colourful anti-WTO outfits, singing and chanting dominated the event. There are 80,000 migrant workers in Hong Kong, mostly domestic workers caring for children and the elderly. They have one day off per week – Sunday – and last Sunday used the occasion to press their demands for higher pay and better job security. "No to Commodification of Migrants – Stop GATS!" was one slogan, on dozens of red T-shirts. It is aimed at the WTO’s infamous General Agreement on Trade in Services which, if approved, would intensify the exploitation of these workers.
"Farmers, fishermen and workers are forced to work overseas because they cannot find jobs in Indonesia," said Panny Sri, who has worked in Hong Kong for two years. "They are unemployed because our government supports the WTO."
Underlining the explosive mood among migrant workers in Asia (pointing to what can develop elsewhere in the coming period) hundreds of migrant workers demonstrated at the same time in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, holding placards with the word "slave" written in Chinese. Earlier this year, Vietnamese and Indonesian construction workers in southern Taiwan rioted against low wages and management bullying.
For the CWI members visiting Hong Kong, despite the jetlag, it was exhilirating to march with the youthful contingent of Hong Kong and Taiwanese Marxists singing the ’Internationale’ in Chinese and one or two other languages. For the uninitiated, these genuine socialists are not to be confused with the pro-capitalist (and pro-WTO) Chinese "Communist" Party which is selling China to foreign capitalists and giving orders to shoot protesting peasants.
The Marxist contingent of the demonstration – represented by such groups as Pioneer (Hong Kong) and Workers’ Democracy Association (Taiwan) – stand for resistance to capitalism and genuine socialism based on workers’ democratic control of the economy and state. While many on the demonstration were not socialists, it’s clear that socialist ideas expressing the only clearly worked out alternative to capitalist globalisation, are gaining ground among young people in the region.
The Taiwanese socialists brought a contingent of 30 people to Hong Kong. They had toured universities and schools throughout the Autumn, showing a film on the WTO and explaining its anti-working class character. Otherwise the participation from Hong Kong itself was quite low, reflecting the effects of government pro-WTO propaganda. Consciousness of the threat posed by the WTO is undoubtedly higher in countries savaged by WTO agreements such as Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea. But even Hong Kong could experience a sharp change of mood in the next period.
The hysterical predictions of riots and violence form an important element in the government’s propaganda. They have built a one-metre high wall in front of one of the two harbour front protest areas. The move was denounced by HKPA spokeswoman Elizabeth Tang, who complained it would stop the protesters’ message getting across to the dignitaries inside the WTO conference.
Kwok Gil-seong, who represents up to 2,000 members of the Korean Peasants’ League, in Hong Kong for the protests, also complained about the antics of the police. "This isn’t the violent protest everyone is worrying about. We will comply with Hong Kong protest laws," said Kwok. The farmers are fighting against WTO rules which force their government to cut tariffs on agricultural products like rice, causing bankruptcy for tens of thousands. As everywhere, the Seoul government hides behind the WTO in order to attack workers and farmers and "restructure" the economy in the interests of the big companies.
Three Korean farmers killed themselves last month in South Korea in protest at these plans. In Hong Kong, their organisation plans to hold a candlelight vigil for the farmers who died. Meanwhile, the local media have branded the South Koreans as the ’bad boys’ of the anti-WTO protests, leading to blatant cases of racial harassment and discrimination. At least one hotel was reported to have cancelled a booking made three months ago by a Korean protest group.
Discussions of an alternative
The week of action is continuing with a new demonstration on Tuesday as the WTO meeting was opening. Seminars and meetings are organised on issues like "Trade and War: a two-headed monster". There is a whole series of meetings on Labour rights in China and how to assist independent trade union organisations in China – the world’s biggest non-union workplace. For socialists these demonstrations provide a big opportunity for discussing and learning from countless rich examples of struggle across Asia. It is important to raise the need for new working class socialist parties to undertake the work of rebuilding mass, fighting trade unions and other campaign organisations of the working class and oppressed.
CWI members distributed around a thousand leaflets in English and Chinese under the heading "Down with the WTO – End Poverty and War – Fight for a Socialist World". We sold 24 copies of the journal ’Socialism Today’ and 150 anti-WTO badges. CWI members also gave brief interviews to the Ming Pao (Chinese language) newspaper and the local cable news channel.