Hong Kong: Biggest democracy march for four years

More than 70,000 demand ‘one person one vote’ in biggest protest since Tsang took over

Democracy march

The temperature in Hong Kong was sizzling yesterday, both in climatic and political terms. Organisers of the afternoon’s ‘Big Walk’ for democracy put the turnout at 76,000, twice the number who took part last year, and the biggest July 1 march since Donald Tsang Yam-kuen became Hong Kong’s ‘despot’ (Chief Executive) in 2005.

While the organisers had hoped for an even bigger turnout following the record numbers – 200,000 – who turned out to commemorate the Beijing massacre of 1989 on June 4, the demonstration was a thunderous protest against the Beijing-appointed Hong Kong administration, and by implication also against the misnamed ‘communist’ dictatorship in Beijing. A rainbow alliance of pan-democratic organisations demanded an end to the government’s delaying tactics over democracy, with many calling for elections in 2012 based on one person one vote, rather than the still unspecified pronouncements from Beijing of universal suffrage in 2017 “at the earliest” for the election of Chief Executive, and 2020 in the case of the Legislative Council.

CWI stall

Beijing’s quandary

The Beijing regime is stuck in a quandary over Hong Kong and its people’s demands for full democratic rights. The massacre in the Chinese capital of perhaps 1,000 protesting students and workers in June 1989 set off a chain reaction in Hong Kong with demands for democracy acquiring enormous force. This was something the British colonial administration that ruled Hong Kong for 156 years (until the handover on July 1, 1997) had never seen fit to allow. Beijing feels menaced by these demands, fearing the ‘virus’ of democracy will spread to the rest of China, unleashing forces that could bring about the government’s downfall. At the same time the dictatorship is constrained by a series of economic and political factors and cannot simply use brute force to club the ‘genie of democracy’ back into its bottle. For starters this would threaten an exodus from the Special Administrative Region and the risk of massive collateral damage to its position as a financial and legal centre, and conduit for massive investment into mainland China.

These realities are reflected in the official Chinese media’s coverage of the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstration. While the official flag-raising ceremony and celebration of Hong Kong’s return to China 12 years ago is covered extensively, China Daily mentions only that “Later yesterday, some 26,000 people took to the streets according to police data, to protest.”

While not saying what the ‘protest’ was about, China Daily did report that several thousand took part in a separate protest against the banks over the Lehman Brothers ‘minibond’ affair. Without giving details (that major U.S. and also Hong Kong arms of mainland banks collectively robbed around 48,000 depositors of nearly HK$20 billion), the official media clearly felt safe to report on an anti-bank protest, but not one that directly challenges the methods and legitimacy of the Chinese regime.

Even the annual tug-of-war over numbers between the police and protest organisers is part of official efforts to downplay the July 1 demonstration. As quoted above, the police put the ludicrously low figure of 26,000 on yesterday’s pro-democracy march, just a third as large as the organiser’s estimate. Yet over the officially sanctioned pro-Beijing parade and ceremony we see organisers and the police arriving at the same figure of 40,000! Yesterday saw some angry scenes at the end of the day, as police penned in thousands who had waited for some time in the baking heat to join the march. Many people were treated by first-aid teams as the temperature in the shade hit 32 degrees Celsius. One politician even accused the police of deliberately holding up the progress of the demonstration so as to minimise the numbers participating.

Youthful march

Youthful march

Greater numbers of workers and youth

The great significance of yesterday’s demonstration is that it transcended its previous character as ‘purely’ a march for democracy. Several trade union groups joined the procession for the first time airing their grievances over the government’s crisis-handling policies. This is an extremely important development and represents the possibility to lift the struggle for democratic rights onto a higher level, by connecting it firmly to the organised working class rather than as now, a movement dominated by middle-class professional groups and intellectuals.

Postal workers fighting cutbacks and a large contingent of civil servants who face job cuts through outsourcing (this is a group whose leaders have traditionally exchewed taking a ‘political’ stance) were there in the thick of it. 160,000 civil servants in Hong Kong are being pressured to take a 5.8 percent pay cut to ‘reflect’ the situation in the private sector – where over 40% have suffered pay cuts. There were also several thousand migrant workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and elsewhere, demanding stronger protection and inclusion in any new minimum wage legislation. Not for the first time these mostly women workers, uprooted from their homes for many years to provide vital services in Hong Kong, proved to be among the most militant and class conscious. Their banners proclaimed “We are workers, not slaves!” and demanded “No wage cuts”.

Events in the preceding days, with thousands of police threatening their first protest march for 30 years (narrowly averted by some deft official manoeuvring) underline the scale of the social crisis developing in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post commented that the mood of some demonstrators “was angrier than in past years”. There was even a ‘complaints choir’ on hand to underline the rise discontent in the city!

More than ten thousand ‘bank victims’ organised a march earlier in the day that ended in turbulent scenes, with crash barriers torn down and some tussles with police, outside the headquarters of Bank of China. This bank, the Hong Kong arm of the mainland’s second largest bank, was the single worst offender in the Lehmans scandal. Later in the evening several hundred mostly young demonstrators staged a protest outside the government buildings, vowing to stay until Donald Tsang cam out to speak to them. These demonstrators, including ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-Hung were forcibly removed by police in the early hours of the morning.

The youthful composition of the march, a surprise to some commentators, has been a hot topic in the media and clearly has the establishemnt politicians worried. “A considerable number of young people have developed an anti-establishment mentality,” commented professor Lau Siu-kai, who is the government’s top political advisor. Students turned out with tee-shirts bearing the slogan “We are not Donald’s [Tsang’ s] slaves”. League of Social Democrats legislator Wong Yuk-man saw the high youth participation in the following way: “They are the fresh force of democracy. Donald Tsang take heed.”

Need for a mass workers’ party

In outline, but not yet as a conscious or organised movement, yesterday’s demonstration represented the awakening of a new social force in which workers’ anger over the effects of the capitalist crisis is fusing with impatience over official foot-dragging in relation to democratic demands. This confirms a trend of radicalisation in Hong Kong dating back to last year’s Legco elections (only half the seats are actually elected) in which the radical League of Social Democrats (LSD) got ten percent of the vote in its first electoral test. The mass turnout yesterday follows a record turnout of 7,000 on May Day, and the mega Tiananmen vigil on June 4. With unemployment having almost doubled to 5.3%, and the economy plunging into a crisis even deeper than in the 1990s (GDP is set to shrink 6.5% this year) no wonder Tsang at the flag-raising ceremony spoke of a “challenging year”!

The crucial factor lacking in Hong Kong is a mass workers’ party that could provide a political focus and a vehicle for struggle for these different, but connected, layers. The gains of the LSD, while it is still a small force at this stage, undoubtedly show the potential for a new workers’ party to develop. This is becoming more and more urgent as the struggle with the Chinese regime over universal suffrage moves into its thirteenth year. Annual marches are not enough to shift such an entrenched regime that stands to lose so much from such an outcome. This does not mean the regime cannot be pushed into making retreats – yesterday (ironically, the ruling party’s 88th birthday) also saw it climb down over the introduction of the Green Dam-Youth Escort computer hardware that it wants installed in all mainland sold computers. Internet campaigners are warning, however, that their campaign must be continued as the authorities will undoubtedly return to this in future.

Socialists and the supporters of chinaworker.info point out the need for more resolute measures in the fight for democracy, and especially for the mobilisation of the working class in this struggle. We call for democratic committees in every workplace, school and housing estate to put muscle into the struggle. Youth could spearhead this movement by preparing as a first step a one-day school and college strike, linking the demand for universal suffrage with protests against youth unemployment and slave wages for young workers – for example at fast food restaurants. All such campaigning must be linked with the need for change in mainland China and support for workers’ struggle there. As we pointed out in the leaflet issued by CWI supporters for yesterday’s demonstration: “While the struggle for democracy can certainly start in Hong Kong, it cannot be won here alone – it is part of a wider struggle on an all-China basis to end one-party rule and introduce fundamental democratic rights”.

The supporters of the CWI and chinaworker.info took part in yesterday’s demonstration making the case that the struggle for democratic rights, and against unemployment and wage cuts, is linked to the need to break with crisis-hit capitalism and build a genuine socialist society with democratic control over the big companies, banks and wider economy.

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July 2009