Hong Kong protests demand democracy


Hong Kong is witnessing the most massive street protests in its history. Many thousands of people have stood up to police repression while maintaining an Occupy-style presence in the streets. The protests have become known as the “Umbrella Revolution” for the umbrellas that demonstrators have employed to help shield their faces from tear gas thrown by police.

The protesters’ main demand is for democratic suffrage rights—for citizens of Hong Kong to have the full ability to choose their chief executive, in opposition to the Aug. 29 edict of the Chinese government that would require any candidates for the office to be vetted by Chinese authorities. The protesters are also demanding the resignation of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, since he has presided over the police attacks on the demonstrations.

The mobilization began on Sept. 22 as a student boycott of classes. Two days later, about 10,000 students marched from the university of Hong Kong to the major government buildings. There is no doubt that the violent police attack on the demonstrators, over the weekend of Sept. 27-28, only served to swell the number of demonstrators, since popular outrage quickly mounted. By Sept. 29, crowds estimated as approaching 180,000 people, predominately students, were in the streets. In some localities, barricades were erected for defense.

Sean Starrs, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong, wrote an eye-witness account of the police violence in the Canadian on-line publication The Bullet (http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/1042.php): “The main organizer of the week-long boycott of classes, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), had planned on ending the strike and sit-in in front of the government buildings on Friday evening [Sept. 26], but late that night some 200 or so students stormed a police line and fence to occupy a square within the government complex. The police reacted violently with batons and pepper spray, making over 70 arrests, including one of the most high profile student leaders, 17 year-old Joshua Wong, co-founder of the mostly high school student group Scholarism.

“As news of the violent police repression swiftly spread, masses of students and other supporters poured into the whole area, eventually blocking major roads (on Monday afternoon there were still some abandoned BMWs and public buses in the middle of the road surrounded by throngs of students).”

Starrs wrote that “the riot police were formally taken off the streets by noon Monday, officially because the ‘illegal protesters’ have ‘mostly calmed down.’ In reality, the riot police were the ones that calmed down once they realized they could not defeat the students. During the climax of repression on Sunday night, I was in one area that was tear gassed around 4-5 times (each barrage with multiple canisters) in only two hours. The police formed two lines and fired tear gas in order to advance toward the epicenter in Admiralty [an area of government buildings], after which most of the crowd would flee and then quickly regroup, surrounding the police on both sides with hands in the air to show non-violent intent.”

The gesture of hands in the air, together with the chant “Hands up!” was borrowed by the demonstrators from the scenes that they witnessed on social media of people in Ferguson, Mo., and other U.S. cities who were protesting the police murder of Michael Brown.

Some unions responded with calls for workers’ solidarity actions. Starrs reported, “The Confederation of Trade Unions and the Professional Teachers Union both called on its members to strike in support of the students. At least 1,000 social workers, high school and university teachers joined the strike, as well as pupils from at least 31 schools. HKFS extended the student class boycott indefinitely. The Chairperson of Swire Beverages Employees General Union, distributor of Coca Cola in Hong Kong, announced to cheering students in Admiralty that more than 200 workers joined the strike, while 100 more reduced their hours. There were also reports of some taxi drivers striking.”

In calling for its members to participate in a Sept. 29 strike, the Confederation of Trade Unions demanded that police release all of the demonstrators who had been detained. The federation’s statement read in part: “Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) strongly condemns the police for their violent attack on unarmed students and people. We strongly condemn the government for suppressing the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly in Hong Kong. HKCTU calls for all workers in Hong Kong to strike tomorrow, in protest of the ruling of the National People’s Congress, as well as the brutal suppression of peaceful protest by the Hong Kong government. Workers and students must unite to force the totalitarian government to hand state power back to the people. …

“Workers must stand up against the unjust government and violent suppression. Workers must stand up, as the totalitarian government has to back down when all workers protest in solidarity. To defend democracy and justice, we cannot let the students fight the suppression alone.”
Hong Kong’s current governmental system was established in 1997, when the former British colony was restored to China. The official mantra at the time was “one country, two systems.” This slogan could be understood in two ways: first, that Hong Kong might remain relatively “democratic” (in bourgeois terms) as opposed to China’s authoritarian regime, and secondly, in reference to the fact that the Chinese economic system had been that of a Stalinized and highly bureaucratized workers’ state, while Hong Kong was a capitalist financial center.

Even by then, however, the “Communist” bureaucrats had already begun a restoration of capitalism in mainland China, with bargain handovers of state resources and industry to the burgeoning capitalist class together with a steep reduction of social services to working people. The Chinese rulers saw the advantages of using Hong Kong’s financial institutions as an open door to facilitate the entry of foreign capital into the mainland.

Today, there is no real difference in essential economic terms between the systems of Hong Kong and the rest of China, while the fiction of Hong Kong’s being “democratic” has been torn away for all to see. Nevertheless, the current protests come at a worrisome time for the Chinese Communist Party, whose top echelons are concerned over indications of economic slowdown and increasing popular discontent.

This has magnified the fear of party bureaucrats that the Hong Kong protests might get “out of hand” and spread to workers throughout China. This was reflected in the editorial issued by Beijing’s official People’s Daily on Oct. 4, which stated, “For the minority of people who want to foment a ‘color revolution’ on the mainland by way of Hong Kong, this is but a daydream.”

Sean Starrs points out, “With President Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption campaign’ so far targeting only his rival factions, the CCP is currently in the midst of the one of the most serious tests to its unity in decades. More broadly vis-à-vis the Chinese people, the CCP is increasingly using nationalism and China’s ‘glorious’ past, including reviving Confucianism, once reviled by the CCP as a product of feudal and patriarchal authoritarianism, in order to replace ‘communist’ ideology.

“Indeed, the CCP announced that class struggle was officially over in China, and therefore removed the right to strike from its constitution in 1982. Yet, since especially the Nanhai Honda strike in 2010, there have been hundreds if not thousands of increasingly daring strikes across China, the largest of which was earlier this year when 40,000 workers at a Dongguan shoe factory went on strike, less than 100 km north of Hong Kong. …”

“Hence, especially over the past ten years, burgeoning social unrest in China seems to be increasingly rattling the upper echelons of the CCP. Since 2009 China spends more on domestic security than external military defense. And the CCP has reacted to the Umbrella Revolution with record Internet censorship on the Mainland, banning many search words such as “Class boycott,” “Occupy Central,” “Hong Kong police,” and “Hong Kong tear gas …”

While Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung has raised the threat of police action to completely clear the streets, Beijing appears hesitant to go further by sending Peoples Liberation Army units into Hong Kong, fearing that brutal repression would only spread the revolt. Their hope is that moderate elements among the protesters might be utilized to “calm things down.”

Participation in the pro-democracy demonstrations surged in early October in response to counter-demonstrations that had been whipped up by the media and violent attacks by thugs and criminals. By Monday, Oct. 6, however, the ranks of protesters appeared to have thinned considerably. Civil service employees were allowed to pass through barricades and return to their jobs.

Liberal and authoritative figures have been utilized to urge the protesters to dismantle their camps and go home. For example, in a commentary for Radio Free Asia, Bao Tong, the most senior Chinese official jailed over his sympathy for the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, praised the protesters but told them: “The seeds have already been sown, and they need time to lie fallow … Take a break, for the sake of future room to grow. For tomorrow.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on Oct. 5 that leaders of the movement are certainly feeling the pressure: “For much of Sunday, leaders of two student groups and activist movement Occupy Central were holed up in meetings to form a strategy on whether to call off or continue protests before the start of the workweek Monday…

“Late Sunday evening [Oct. 5], the Hong Kong Federation of Students [HKFS], one of the organizers, said the pro-democracy demonstrations would continue but that it would start discussions with the government to prepare for official talks.” At the same time, in an attempt to distance itself from more determined protesters, HKFS leaders made it clear that in their view the “Umbrella Revolution” was “not a revolution” at all.

In the meantime, the United States has brazenly inserted itself into the situation, with high-level U.S. officials backing the call for “dialogue” between Hong Kong authorities and protesters. Hoping in the process to score a few points against Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “As China knows, we support universal suffrage in Hong Kong … We believe an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.” Of course, in other situations around the globe, Kerry has had no difficulties in hobnobbing with dictators who flout the principle of universal suffrage.

U.S. imperialism has nothing to offer the people in the streets who are fighting for democratic rights. Democracy can only be won by resolute and uncompromising struggle against both the governmental authorities and the international corporations and banks that control Hong Kong.

What has not yet come to pass in Hong Kong is the formation of a central leadership that can unite all the disparate groupings within the protests, and proceed with a clear perspective of how to advance the struggle. Ultimately, Chinese workers and their allies both in Hong Kong and the mainland must build a mass working-class party, armed with a full program for the working class to take political power in a socialist revolution.

Photo: Hong Kong protesters raise their hands in the “Hands Up!” gesture popularized in U.S. protests over the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting of Michael Brown. Alex Ogle / Getty Images

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