Hong Kong: Over 200,000 march for democracy and against property tycoons

Interview with Socialist Action (CWI) in Hong Kong after July 1 demonstration

Yesterday’s annual July 1 march in Hong Kong became a massive anti-government protest. According to organisers, 218,000 joined the march, which makes it the largest since 2003. This unmistakeable sign of growing radicalisation and dissatisfaction will be seen not only in Hong Kong, but by China’s rulers in Beijing. One of main demands of the Hong Kong march was for the unelected government of Donald Tsang to resign.

July 1 is the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. The huge turnout was a surprise for many, and four times bigger than the organisers had predicted. In 2003, half a million people protested against an anti-subversion law – ‘Article 23’ – and forced the resignation of former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Pollsters and political commentators are now talking of a “governance crisis” for Tsang’s administration as public support nosedives and protests proliferate. The turnout on July 1 has furthered compounded the government’s problems.

Socialist Action (CWI) activist fundraising on demo

Socialist Action in the demo

After the demonstration, chinaworker.info spoke to Jaco, of Socialist Action, which is part of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).

“The main demands on the demo were for universal suffrage, against Article 23 and against the government’s new plan to abolish by-elections. This issue, the byelections, has become very important in recent weeks. Many are opposed and joined the march for this reason. The government wants revenge for last year when five legislators from the LSD [League of Social Democrats] and Civic Party, resigned to force byelections,” he said.

“There were many different layers represented. Migrant workers from Indonesia, Philippines and other Asian countries demonstrated to demand a HK$4,000-a-month minimum wage. Unions and workers’ groups mainly raised the issue of demanding a full pension system. The system today is very bad for ordinary workers and low-income people.”

“There were lots of contingents of youth, post-80s and post-90s (school students). They were protesting against the ‘national education’ plan.”

At the behest of the central government in Beijing, Hong Kong is introducing a new ‘national education’ curriculum to inculcate patriotism in the younger generation. Top Chinese officials have complained about ‘anti-China’ sentiment growing among Hong Kong youth, meaning anti-government sentiment. One top official from Beijing recently described the new curriculum as “necessary brainwashing”.

“The turnout today is extremely significant,” said Jaco. “Many people have been surprised by such a big turnout, which shows the anger in society. It is due to many different factors affecting both Hong Kong and China, both because the economic development does not benefit ordinary people, especially workers, and because the Chinese regime is becoming more dictatorial. There are similarities between the mood that is growing in Hong Kong and the wave of youth radicalisation around the whole world – in Greece, Egypt, England and Spain. The mood is for democracy and against the system, it is radical, but it is not clear to the majority exactly how to fight the system, which is capitalism.”

House prices in Hong Kong have risen by more than 70 percent in the last two years, and the demand to end ‘property hegemony’ – the rule of the property tycoons – was one of three official slogans on the demo. Just two companies account for seven out of ten new apartments sold in Hong Kong in the last few years. These capitalists have made fabulous gains out of the housing bubble, while a majority of the population cannot afford even the cheapest apartment on the market.

But as Jaco explained, the crackdown in China and attempts to ‘import’ this to Hong Kong, are also a major concern especially among youth in Hong Kong.

“There have been a number of attacks on democratic rights in Hong Kong – this is a very big issue. The latest plan, to abolish byelections, has shown that unless the masses fight to defend democratic rights, these can be taken away. After 2012, when the new government is chosen, there is a big danger they will try to revive ‘Article 23’. This was one of the main issues we raised in the demonstration.”

Byelection battle of 2010

Last year’s July 1 demonstration was very polarised, coming immediately after a major struggle to block an anti-democratic government electoral reform. This struggle was unsuccessful – the government managed to push through its plan with the support of the leaders of the Democratic Party, who broke ranks with other pan-democratic parties, in return for some cosmetic ‘concessions’ from government. The Democratic Party’s contingent last year was protected by security guards. This year, a greater mood of unity – against the government – prevailed.

“The normal marchers were not openly hostile to Democratic Party, even though the official slogans for this march, calling for Donald Tsang’s resignation and for universal suffrage in 2012, are not supported by the Democratic Party which thinks this is too radical,” said Jaco.

“Also on the byelection plan, the Democratic Party leaders have given signs they will not oppose the new version, which is slightly watered down from the original government plan, but still is very undemocratic.”

After 500,000 people voted in anti-government byelections last year, billed as a ‘de facto referendum’ on democracy, the government has been determined to change the rules. Their original plan was for the highest unsuccessful candidate of any party to replace a legislator in the event of resignation. This has been revised, but its aim is very clearly to remove the option of byelections being used to challenge the government.

Mass arrests

Following the march, groups of demonstrators numbering around 2,000 defied the threats from police and staged sit-ins at several sites around the city. Their main demand was against the plan to abolish byelections. Police used pepper spray to break up the protests and 228 people were arrested for “unlawful assembly” in the early hours of Saturday morning. Among those arrested was ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, legislator for the LSD, and the party’s chairperson Andrew To Kwan-hang. Another legislator, Albert Chan Wai-yip of People’s Power, was also arrested. All of those arrested were released on Saturday July 2.

Aggressive policing was evident for weeks in the run-up to the demonstration. Police spokesmen banned the playing of music in the demonstration, and also fund-raising, saying this would slow down the march. A rival event organised by pro-regime parties was given a police permit to play music.

The annual march is a key event for pan democratic parties and groups to raise funds, and this was the real reason for the police ruling. On the day, however, the police could not intervene to stop the collection boxes that appeared everywhere.

“We had a very good response and raised a lot of money,” said Jaco. “I won’t say how much, because the police may read this, but it was nearly double what we raised last year. Generally we get a very good response for our magazine, Socialist, and our main campaign slogans, which this year was against Article 23. We stress the need for a new workers’ party to link the democratic struggle to the struggle against capitalism. Under capitalism we will never get genuine democracy, nor can the housing problem and other social problems be resolved.”

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July 2011