The mass movement in Hong Kong against the local stooges of the Beijing regime appears to be an unstoppable force coming up against an immovable object. Over the past nine weeks, around 600 people have been arrested, over forty of them on charges of riot that can carry a ten year prison sentence.
On Saturday (10 August) more rallies took place across the city and battles with police continued into the night. The occupation of Hong Kong international airport’s arrivals hall by thousands of protesters was going into its third day. The Chinese government has demanded that Cathay Pacitic suspends any workers and pilots who have been involved in taking protest action.
On Sunday (11 August) a massive crowd sat under umbrellas at a sanctioned rally in Victoria Park. Two protests went ahead in the city’s working class district of Sham Shui Po in Kowloon and at North Point, Hong Kong Island, in spite of the authorities refusing permission. Protests and clashes with police across ‘Asia’s financial hub’ are now an accepted part of life. But tension mounts by the day, rather than decreasing.
The original demands of the protesters were for the scrapping of a draft law allowing extradition to China for imprisonment and trial. Now, after more than two months, the demands have multiplied and an independent inquiry is being demanded. Other demands include far-reaching reforms to the constitution which they hope will establish a more democratic system establishing universal suffrage for elections to the local authority (LegCo), without special reserved seats for appointees etc..
Troops at the border
As July came to an end, there had been no easing of the confrontation. A senior Trump official said the United States was monitoring an apparent build-up of Chinese forces on the border. A press conference was held by the office in Beijing that deals with Macau and Hong Kong for the first time since the 1997 handover from British rule. A spokesman, Yang Guang, talked of a “dangerous situation” in which “violent crimes have not been effectively stopped”. On August 7th, the same office’s No. 1, Zhang Xiaoming, spoke of the 60 day crisis “getting worse and worse”…“Hong Kong is now facing the most severe situation since its handover”.
The People’s Liberation Army has 6,000 personnel garrisoned in Hong Kong and their commander, Major General Chen Daoxiang, has voiced full support for what the Hong Kong police are doing. He has released a video showing the PLA inside China carrying out training ‘exercises’ on how to ‘quell’ violent protests or uprisings. Chen says it is the US and Taiwan who are orchestrating violent demonstrations.
But some of the more far-sighted (and fearful) representatives of Hong Kong’s capitalist elite , such as Charles Li at the head of Hong Kong’s stock exchange, are firmly against PLA intervention. After two months of mass protests, they fear an escalation of the movement that could endanger their relatively comfortable position operating between “two systems”. An unpredictable situation is definitely bad for business!
How the conflict has developed
For more than nine weeks now, there have been mass protests – at week-ends, after work and increasingly during the day – which have involved more than two million people or over a quarter of Hong Kong’s population. A pattern has developed. Brutal police action and intransigence from the authorities engender yet more protests.
Sunday 21 July saw a shocking assault on commuters in Yuen Long, near Hong Kong’s border, by white-clad triad goons with open police collusion. The following Saturday – 27 July – no less than 300,000 protesters and residents defied a police ban to march in that area to show solidarity with the local people who had come under attack. They remained for several hours in the area, throwing teargas canisters back at the police and shielding themselves with large pieces of wood and surfboards.
Elsewhere, all kinds of objects have been used as defensive ‘weapons’ against the forces of the state – eggs, umbrellas and broken crowd control barriers – to frustrate the efforts of the police. The police have fired on demonstrators with pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas and used rifles that some believe fire live ammunition while police claim they use only sponges and bean bags!
On the night of Thursday, 2 August, police raided a building in Sha Tin in Hong Kong’s New Territories which housed demonstrators’ protective gear and what were described as “offensive weapons”. Eight people were arrested, including Andy Chan, founder of the banned Hong Kong National Party. Immediately, dozens of protesters appeared at the local police stations, surrounding them and shouting through the night, “Free the martyrs!”.
On the evening of Sunday, 4th August, demonstrators appeared and disappeared in seven different districts of Hong Kong in what have been described as “flash mob” demonstrations. This was a new tactic to divert protests away from where most of the police were gathered to protect the Chinese Liaison Office that had been the target of previous occasions by demonstrators. On the same evening, Hong Kong’s cross-harbour tunnel was blocked and a police station in Kwun Tong was targeted with laser beams (and rocks!).
Last week, the movement reached a new level, with the organised participation of workers in a series of different strikes or ‘stay-aways’ culminating in a one-day city-wide stoppage on Monday, 5 August.
It is not clear how far the trade unions in Hong Kong have been involved in this development. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions claims over 60 affiliated branches and is described as ‘pro-democracy’ but it seems to have failed to use the reserved seats it has on the legislative body, LegCo, to shout about injustices either at work or in society. The pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions would obviously not encourage participation in the present angry movement against direct rule from China!
Nevertheless, a whole array of Hong Kong’s working population has ‘downed tools’ on different days of the week. It appears like a roll call of different sections of workers all wanting their voice added to the protests. On Friday of last week (2 August), tens of thousands of civil servants defied a general ban on ‘industrial action’ and a government order to remain “totally loyal” to the regime of Chief Minister, Carrie Lam (who had again been missing from public view, this time for two weeks).
The Monday general strike saw workers from many different walks of life taking industrial action – striking or phoning in ‘sick’ for the day. Bank employees, advertising workers, building workers and shop-workers all participated. “I’ve never seen protests on this scale, nor people so angry at the government,” said a theatre administrator.
One of the leading ‘pro-democracy’ activists, Joshua Wong, commented to reporters: “In the past it was assumed that Hong Kong people were economic animals, but this (strike) proves people can choose not to go to work…We are willing to pay the price, whatever it takes”.
Carrie Lam, who had been attending PLA celebrations in Beijing, came out to address a press conference, echoing the words of her bosses in Beijing that the protests ‘threatened China’s sovereignty’ and had to stop!
Two days later hundreds of lawyers dressed in their black work-clothes came onto the streets, protesting in silence, angry at the political nature of the prosecutions being doled out to protesters. They were demanding that Hong Kong’s Legco government safeguards the independence (at least from Beijing) of the justice department.
Anger has been fuelled by the apparent collusion of Hong Kong police amongst the ‘Blue Ribbon Volunteers’ with the white-shirted triad gang members when they viciously attacked the commuters in Yuen Long. Carrie Lam has refused to categorise what happened there as a ‘riot’ because that would mean that those who caused it (friends, if not members of state forces) could carry a ten year prison sentence.
Similarly, the earlier vicious crackdown in Sha Tin New Town Plaza on Sunday 14th, in which serious injuries were inflicted on the public, sees no prosecutions against the state forces. Police officers aimed guns at crowds who gathered on a protest outside Kwai Chung police station. Tear gas and rubber bullets fired at demonstrators have caused serious injuries and hospitalisations.
In the present atmosphere, the death of a democracy fighter would almost certainly leas to a real explosion of anger. The need for a more organised approach to strikes and demonstrations would be keenly felt. Only after nine weeks has there been a ‘citizens’ press conference’ with masked protesters “bringing the people’s unheard voice to the public”. They angrily condemned the empty rhetoric of the Hong Kong government, but offered no perspective or programme for taking the movement forward.
A party that can express the feelings of the demonstrators in a worked-out programme for an alternative to capitalism and oppression – in the whole of China – is woefully absent. Some news of ‘riots’ in Hong Kong has been filtered through the censors into the media in China. The appetite of workers and young people for more news will be whetted. The voice of rebellion will grow and the tasks of socialists will grow greater.
“Revolution of our time!” is being chanted by demonstrators outside court-rooms in Hong Kong when protesters are on trial. They also shout “Liberate Hong Kong!”. What kind of revolution do they want? Liberation from the iron grip of the Chinese regime but for a society dominated by the banks and big business? Some may have illusions in the period of British colonial rule but these are false because, as the Chinese regime hypocritically points out, there was never any democratic regime during the colonial period.
The present movement spans all kinds of political outlooks and involves people from all walks of life. Among those arrested have been an electrician, a teacher, a Cathay Pacific pilot, a nurse, two gym owners, a chef, a building worker and several teenage students, one as young as 13.
Some of the most determined fighters are the youth – without decent education or job opportunities, without a place to live independently and without adequate social and welfare provision. For them, this is more than resistance against dictatorial rule. They are fighting for a future that will be provided neither by billionaire bosses and multinationals in Hong Kong nor by massive privately owned or elite run state banks and industries in China, under the rule of the so-called “Communist” party.
China and socialism
The regime of Xi Jin-peng occasionally pays lip-service to the idea of socialism in theory, discrediting it in practice – establishing a type of state capitalism with not even basic democratic rights. Over decades, since the 1949 end of capitalist and imperialist rule, different cliques at the top of society have exploited the labour of hundreds of millions of workers – in the fields, in the sweatshops, in vast modern factories, on building sites, in banks and government offices as well as in the hard-pressed public service sector at national and local level. Mao Zedong’s original approach of copying Stalin’s autocratic and bureaucratic planning of state-owned ‘enterprises’ has, over the years, given way to the setting of capitalist style profit targets and schemes enriching ‘leading’ members of the ‘Communist’ Party, some of whom now rank amongst the richest billionaires in the world.
Resistance to the demands of the bosses in China is sometimes expressed through the state-sponsored union federation, but more often than not invites vicious repression. Sometimes successful resistance – even strikes – can be organised clandestinely and ingeniously through social media. This is in spite of, and in defiance of, very heavy censorship and laws that forbid action in opposition to the state or private bosses. Just verbal criticism of the authorities voiced on social media can end in arrest and imprisonment.
Numerous incidents of ‘unrest’ are reported each year. Anger and resentment is bound to grow with every new clamp-down by the state.
On top of this internal situation, the increasingly turbulent international relations and shaky world economy mean that news of the tremendous resistance in Hong Kong to the dictates of Beijing is extremely dangerous for the Chinese regime. Because of the stored up resentments, it can spread like wildfire and lead to an explosion of pent-up anger across what is the biggest nation in the world.
A lot is at stake for the Chinese regime. More troops could be moved up to the border, ready for deployment in what would become the most violent and bloody clampdown on protest since Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.
Many (including US President Trump) rule out the likelihood of such a direct intervention. Wei Wei, the dissident Chinese artist, has pointed to the unwillingness (and incapacity) of a Johnson government to put up a fight.
If PLA troops went in, it would be vital to make clear class appeals for solidarity to the drivers of the tanks – the workers or peasants in uniform. This is what happened when tanks were first sent in by the Stalinist-led Soviet Union against the revolution in Hungary in 1956. But this begs the question of the working class becoming the leading force in the struggle, electing leaders and linking up with neighbourhood representatives and the most combative youth.
One commentator has described the situation in Hong Kong as a “Political crisis that has deepened as the authorities have tried to repress it”. The duration and impact of the movement is impressive. However, a long, drawn-out battle without a clear programme and perspective for the struggle can result in the exhaustion of the forces involved. What is needed now is a clear strategy with tactics and aims that go beyond the immediate demands for democracy.
The longer the struggle goes on, the more urgent becomes the need to organise the defence of protesters and of residential neighbourhoods against police and other state forces. Urgent also is the task of organising and coordinating further strike action. The leaders of the unions must be put under pressure to prepare and organise general strike action to paralyse the territory. Workplace assemblies and votes on policy and action are needed, regardless of the wishes of the compliant union leaderships if they resist.
The ruling layer even within Hong Kong is weak and divided on how to proceed. Over the past nine weeks splits have developed in the ruling layer on how to proceed. There have been reports of “disaffection” within the police and a certain degree of fraternisation or, at least, passivity. Sections of the middle class and youth, and now the working class have shown a tremendous will to fight without even having a clear end in sight. They know what they don’t want, but not what they want.
It is the task of socialists to channel these unconscious strivings into a struggle against the very class nature of society – in Hong Kong and in China as a whole.
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