The Hong Kong protests require working class support

The situation is getting increasingly tense in Hong Kong. To the fury of the Hong Kong people their Chief Executive and de facto ruler, Carrie Lam has given no concessions to the protest movement. She is seen as the direct and transparent agent of the Chinese Communist Party leaders back in Beijing whose support she needs to stay in her position. She has been unable even to respond to questions from the press, when any answers might go beyond her latest briefing from Beijing.

The protest movement

On the other hand, the protests get ever stronger and more numerous. At the latest demo on August 18, 1.7 million came out despite torrential rain. It was called by the broad coalition, the Civil Human Rights Front. One of whose demonstrations in the past exceeded 2 million – when it had not faced such bad weather.

These figures are about 1 in 4 of the entire Hong Kong population and in between these mass demonstrations, there have been more than a hundred other demos.

Generally more militant than and frequently defying police bans and attacks, these protests have still organised hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people. The core of these demonstrations are generally designated ‘protestors’, often distinguished from ‘residents’. Their protests have increased in frequency and militancy over the last three months.

They have turned out many thousands at short notice all over Hong Kong, often surrounding police stations in response to police arrests and brutality. They have been out almost every day over the last two weeks, often into the early hours of the morning.

There has been a lot of police brutality. Over a thousand tear gas grenades – some out-of-date and highly toxic. Similar numbers of pepper-spray or bean bags have been fired. One young protestor who was there to give first aid was blinded in one eye. There are now thought to be about 1,000 people arrested by police. Many have been charged with rioting  and if convicted will likely incur prison sentences of more than ten years.

At times, there has been tension between ‘protestors’ and ‘residents’. In some protests, especially in areas where the Chinese Communist Party has been strong, physical battles have broken out between them. However, most of the ‘resident’ retaliation has been clearly organised by police using the criminal gangs of the triads.

In most areas any tension has been overcome by common opposition to the police. Their intensive use of tear gas in the congested neighbourhoods of Hong Kong have led to breathing difficulties for children and have led to many residents joining the protestors on the streets.

Academic research has confirmed that protestors on these demonstrations are overwhelmingly young. Between 40-50% of the protestors have been women. About half and half non-university/ university educated. They have acted on the slogan ‘be (like) water’: avoiding set-piece confrontations and any violent retaliation to the cops. The hysterical denunciations of the ‘violent protests’ ‘bordering on terrorism’ by the Chinese Communist Party’s media, has cut little ice with those Hong Kongers who have been watching events on the ground.

The people involved in such protests have been claimed by organisers to already have been in excess of 2 million. Whilst there will be many protestors going on repeated protests, there must be a pool of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of protestors networked and prepared to respond immediately to calls for action.

In addition to the street protests there have been strikes and workplace protests and demonstrations of particular groups of workers, teachers, civil servants, medical staff. The general strike on August 5 was very well supported.

Will the Chinese regime clamp down?

Everyone is speculating about when and how Beijing might try to crush the dissent. Beijing has been doing a lot of sabre-rattling – through their press outlets such as Global Times they have broadcast the Chinese troop movements towards Hong Kong and training sessions of police and troops breaking up demonstrations. However they will know that a Tiananmen-style clampdown would be very difficult.

It would face a well organized movement with deep links into working class communities. A repetition of a Tiananmen-like repression in Hong Kong could well blow back in the face of Chinese President, Xi Jinping. An overt more brutal repression emanating from China whilst there are millions of well-networked determined and confident opponents, would face widespread civil and other resistance.

Even if it were to be successful, and that is in no way assured, it would create huge economic and political problems for the Chinese regime whilst the repression continued for months if not years.

Hong Kong is an important transport, commercial and communications hub for the whole of China. A major long-term shutdown of Hong Kong in response to a clampdown would impact across vast areas of China. That is not what Chinese Communist regime wants as it prepares lavish celebrations of its seventieth anniversary of coming to power in a few months.

But what about the powerful capitalist interests in Hong Kong?

The capitalist interests operating in Hong Kong and China are torn. Hong Kong has seen dramatic growth since the 1984 Declaration – highlighted by the slogan of “one country, two systems”. Directly the demands of the Hong Kong democracy movement hardly affect their interests. They may share some of the concerns of the democracy activists.

The 1984 Declaration assured protection to private property but it also assured the “(r)ights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law”.

Over the last 15 years many of these protections have been eroded. Bit-by-bit, it became clear that the rulers of Hong Kong, the Chief Executives were taking their orders from Beijing.

There have been attempts to put the same ideological straight-jacket suffered by mainland Chinese onto the Hong Kong people – in education, the press and political discourse. The owners of radical bookshops and publications have disappeared. Opponents have been imprisoned for insulting the Chinese regime.

Any pretence that Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive was mediating the interests of the Hong Kong people and those of the Chinese government, has evaporated. The protestors believe that Lam must go. They demand universal suffrage and for Hong Kong to be independent of Chinese authoritarianism.

A continuation of the erosion of the freedoms, that were protected by that declaration, may also worry some capitalists in Hong Kong.

They may worry less about the protections given to capitalist property in the 1984 declaration, after all, since 1984 capitalism has been given a pretty free rein in mainland China and the Chinese regime would probably have little inclination to nationalise Hong Kong businesses.

However totalitarianism, whether of the Chinese regime or others such as Saudi Arabia, creates problems for business. The need to keep the totalitarian party happy, with the risk that if they don’t, there will be a powerful and massive reaction; the obligation for businesses to bribe officials; the risks that if they upset the CCP retaliation might be fierce – in a country which executes about 2,000 people a year, some for ‘economic crimes’ (the exact figure is a state secret); this can only be a worry. There may well be capitalists based in Hong Kong who are also worried about the possibility of extradition to mainland China.

However foreign capital needs the Chinese regime and vice versa

For example, look at Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific in the current crisis. Cathay Pacific has 27,000 employees in Hong Kong. As a result of the Chinese regime finding out that one of its pilots had been arrested in the street protests it demanded that Cathay Pacific sack him and any other employees who joined the protest. Its CEO was summoned to answer to answer to the regime in Beijing. Two pilots and two other members of Cathay Pacific’s staff were found to have taken part.

Cathay Pacific faced the threat of their flights being blocked flying over Chinese airspace. Their majority shareholder and de facto parent company, the Swire Company is also Hong-Kong based and has even greater investments in property development and services across China. In 2017 the Swire Company had profits of HK$26,070 million (about £2 billion). Undoubtedly when Xi Jinping summoned Cathay Pacific’s CEO to Beijing, further threats would have been made to the business interests of Swire Company.

The tension led to the resignation of Cathay Pacific’s CEO, Rupert Hogg even though he had already declared a policy of ‘No Tolerance’ being given to Cathay’s staff being involved in future protests in Hong Kong.

On August 13 the Swire Company followed the earlier sackings of staff by Cathay with an even more explicit statement of condemnation of the protests and expressed loyalty to the HK police, Carrie Lam and the Chinese regime.

The implications of Beijing bringing to heel a multi billion company like Swire and Cathay Pacific  will not have been lost on Chinese-oriented big businesses both those based in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

This explains the rather muted response to the Hong Kong crisis in Britain. The current Johnson government desires to ‘Make Britain Great’. It increasingly uses British imperialist nostalgia in the hope of mobilising Brexit voters behind them. You might have thought that they would be threatening to send gunboats into the South China Sea. However the only statement from Dominic Raab was one of wanting things to get back to normal. He supported the demand for an inquiry into police violence but there was no condemnation of Carrie Lam, nor support for any movement towards a democratic government under universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

Even Raab’s moderate criticism was shouted down by Beijing. Hua Chunying, for the Chinese foreign ministry, said the days when Britain ruled Hong Kong were “long gone” and asked to “stop making random and inflammatory accusations”. In response, nothing from the British Tory government.

The truth is that the Tories are preoccupied with Brexit and the subsequent trade crises. If there is to be a choice for Johnson and Raab between the Hong Kong people’s fight for democracy and the Chinese regime with the enhanced trade that they might enable, they and probably any other capitalist politician will choose China.

The need for workers action

The implications of the Swire and Cathay Pacific decision to back the Chinese government should not be lost on the protest movement either. During much of the protests, Hong Kong capitalism has mostly sat on the fence. However when their profits are threatened, they may jump off that fence and support the forces of repression.

Cathay Pacific and Swire probably have about 40,000 employees in Hong Kong. Many thousands of whom will now be under threat of dismissal because of their support for the democratic protests. If the Chinese regime has to be opposed by those workers so does their employer and its complicity with Beijing.

Unfortunately the trade union movement has not taken a prominent role in the protests. It is split between two union federations. The pro-Beijing HK Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) with a claimed membership of approximately 400,000 and the pro-democracy HK Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) with a membership of about 160,000.

The CTU supported the August 5 general strike but appears to have done little to organise to get its members out. It has organic links with the Hong Kong Labour Party, one of the ‘pan-democratic’ parties. The pan-democratic parties forms the bloc in the Legislative Council that wants moves to democracy in Hong Kong. They are blamed by the new movement for doing little to fight for it. Their ingrained gradualist methods have not prepared them well for the radical changes in consciousness that we are now seeing in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless those workers that have protested in the main seem to have come from the CTU. Hong Kong teachers, 90% of whom are in the CTU affiliate the HKPTU, had their own demonstration on August 17 which attracted 22,000 teachers: 1 in 5 of all teachers in Hong Kong.

Even in the pro-Beijing federation there has been movements. Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong Railway Employees Union, part of the pro-Beijing FTU, has refused to back the protests allegedly as it is a ‘non-political’ union. The underground stations have often been battle-grounds as protestors are pursued down them by police and triad gangs after demos. Protestors were badly beaten particularly by the triad gangs but police have fired at close range on protestors with tear gas and pepper spray.

In response protestors have on occasion tried to paralyse transport. Transport staff were not instructed by their union to back the protestors. As a result many workers found themselves caught between some angry passengers – not every Hong Konger supports the protests – and the protestors.

As a result and independently of their union 700 railworkers signed a petition condemning the police actions and the use of tear gas in the underground stations. There is a clear will of rank and file workers to link up with the wider democracy movement.

Determination of socialists and labour movement activists in Hong Kong is needed if the initiatives of such people as these railworker petitioners and the demonstrating teachers are to be built on. The Hong Kong protests, their ability to defy anything that Beijing throws at them, will depend substantially on the ability of workers to take control not only on the streets but in their workplaces.

In the next article – hopefully published in the next couple of days – I will comment on how socialists and labour movement activists should give support to the Hong Kong peoples’ struggle for democracy and independence 

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