Report from Hong Kong: The rise and outlook of the mass struggle

Sept. 2019 HOng Kong (Athit Perawongmetha:Reuters)By LAM CHI LEUNG

Protests are continuing in Hong Kong, despite the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Sept. 4. Protesters have raised the slogan, “Five key demands, not one less!” They want direct elections of Hong Kong leaders, an independent investigation into acts of police brutality, unconditional release of the detainees, and no more labeling of the protests as riots.

An earlier article, by Hong Kong revolutionary socialist Lam Chi Leung, follows:

Warm greetings to comrades around the world! I am grateful for your invitation to introduce the present situation of Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Movement as well as the contexts under which it emerged. I will also attempt to provide a simplified analysis of the movement’s internal dynamics and contradictions, as well as my hopes and advice to the movement as a member of the socialist left.

At the time of writing (Sunday, Aug. 18), over 1.7 million citizens of Hong Kong returned to the streets in protest. In face of the police’s directive that restricted the rally to take place inside a single park, the leading organizers around Civil Human Rights Front refused to comply, let alone the ordinary people who stepped into the streets. Both the organizers and the rank-and-file participants understand that this will be a peaceful demonstration. They would not storm any government buildings or police barricades, to block the government from blaming the masses for “rioting” and thusly crackdown on the entire movement.

Change in tactics

How is there such a consensus? This is because, in the past one and a half months, the repression from the government against protesters became ever more brutal. They allowed the police to launch teargas, pellet rounds, and rubber bullets at close distance, not to mention the liberal use of the baton. At the same time, the police unleashed mobsters to attack protesters and ordinary people on the subway platforms and inside the trains. Some of these elements even attacked protesters with knives.

Last week, the police disguised as protesters to infiltrate the movement and provoke adventurist violence. Some mainland Chinese police and state journalist operatives (many of whom hold both credentials) went to the airport to deliberately expose their identities to protesters to incite violence, to create footages of mainland Chinese officials being bullied. The escalation of the government’s violence and conspiratorial tactics led the protesters to conclude a need to change tactics. This means halting any confrontations or surrounding actions in favor of peaceful demonstrations. They hope that by doing so more people would be attracted to the movement while depriving the government an excuse to slander the movement and increase repression.

The two phases of movement

The process of the Anti-Extradition movement that erupted since June 9 could be roughly divided into early and later phases.

The first phase would be between June 9 and July 20. During this phase, there were mostly peaceful demonstrations (with the two million-strong protest of June 16 at its height), which also included the besieging of Legislative Council and government buildings. These resulted in Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s concession to postpone the extradition bill that fell short of a full retraction.

This first phase was characterized by the defensive posture of the government and the masses’ bravery, creativity, and flexibility. For example, as the police were ready to charge the protesters after the masses encircled the Legislative Council building, the masses rapidly conducted an orderly retreat rather than fighting the police. Another example was in early July when the movement was spreading to other districts outside of Hong Kong island by way of active organizing of protests.

The second phase is from July 21 up until now. During this phase the government condoned the mobsters’ attack on protesters; the police also increased the level of repression. The Hong Kong government refuses to respond to the Five Demands from the protesters (including the retraction of characterizing the movement as “riots,” the release of arrested protesters, the retraction of the extradition bill, the responsibility of police brutality, and the formation of an independent investigation commission into violence).

The CCP regime further accused the movement as a terroristic riot engineered by the U.S. and Taiwan, even deploying a large number of forces along the Shenzhen border with Hong Kong as a deterrent to the Hong Kong masses. While the Hong Kong masses remain unbowed, most protests are approaching the methods of urban guerrilla tactics. The exploits of preventing people from boarding subways or airlines as a means to “civil disobedience,” or the unwise handling of the mainland Chinese police provocateur, have inspired internal discussions and self-reflection within the movement. At the moment the movement is at a crossroads that can only be advanced with a better strategy.

The deep crisis

How is it that the present mass struggle can last for 11 weeks and counting? We can attribute to it several main reasons:

First, the Extradition Bill, once passed, anyone who criticizes the Chinese government, attends Tiananmen commemoration events, or generally support more democracy in China may be vulnerable to be extradited to mainland China and be tried. This will significantly infringe on Hong Kongers’ freedom and basic human rights, it also encroaches upon the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party’s) promise for allowing “Hong Kongers to govern Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy” since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. The CCP forbids democratic elections in Hong Kong but would grant a degree of freedom of speech and protection of the law. The Extradition bill thus doubtlessly struck a nerve on the ordinary Hong Kongers.

Second, poverty and social inequality have been exacerbated. Since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the government forcefully pursued neoliberal policies, commodifying education, health care, and housing. The monopoly of large capital became especially trenchant, real estate prices have shot through the roof. Employment for young people became highly precarious, while wages never catch up to the actual cost of goods, rendering the youth to see no hope in their future.

In the past 20 years, Hong Kong’s real wages have stagnated, while the population under the poverty line increased to over 1.37 million, almost one in five Hong Kongers. The Gini coefficient of Hong Kong, which measures inequality, has reached 0.539, higher than that of the U.S. and Singapore. Public housing has decreased, forcing over 220,000 people to live in what’s called “sub-divided flats,” i.e., extremely small subdivided apartment units. This is the deeper social factor that drove the ferocity of the Anti-Extradition movement and the large participation of the youth, as well as their radical measures, winning a degree of understanding of the otherwise peaceful, nonviolent wage workers. Some youths even have drafted up wills to prepare for a literal life-and-death struggle. The severity of social contradictions is self-evident.

Third, in the 20 years since Hong Kong’s return, the elevation of repression is helping the masses to see that the CCP has no intention of allowing for real general elections. At the same time, the increasingly authoritarian Xi Jinping regime, as well as the worsening social conditions, have rapidly driven the Hong Kong masses away from China in the past 10 years.

Finally, Carrie Lam’s arrogant and snobbish attitude, as well as the deployment of the police and mobsters against the protesters, have ratcheted up even more anger of the masses.

Umbrella Movement and Anti-Extradition movement

Perhaps we all recall the 2014 “Umbrella Movement.” Although the present Anti-Extradition movement has not ended, we can still compare the current experience with that of five years ago.

First, the Umbrella Movement struggled for rights to a general election and in particular the right to elect the Chief Executive, whereas the Anti-Extradition movement sought to defend the existing personal freedoms and basic human rights from further encroachment, making it a defensive struggle.

Second, the Umbrella Movement pursued long-term road occupations, stresses for a no-retreat “valiant” struggle, while the Anti-Extradition movement adopts more flexible tactics. Protesters don’t stubbornly defend their grounds in face of police repression and stress the need for a “smart struggle.”

Third, during the Umbrella Movement, many far-right localists were able to highjack the attention and support of many youths with their demagogy of “Hong Kong First,” rejecting new mainland Chinese immigrants and tourists. The far-right localists’ influence over the present movement has diminished. The masses do not all insist on the “valiant struggles” championed by the localists, and many have actively sought to win over the masses of mainland China. The most representative example was the Kowloon district protest of July 7. Despite some leading organizers themselves tending towards xenophobic localism, the rank-and-file protesters instead started distributing flyers in simplified Chinese to tourists, and even started to sing the Internationale! This shows that not all protesters tend towards localist ideas.

Backed by foreign forces?

The CCP regime and Carrie Lam have slandered the Anti-Extradition movement as one backed by foreign forces. Yet the entire movement erupted spontaneously, with many road blocking and clashes of the youths stressing the “leaderlessness” of their actions. The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy has indeed funded some of the oppositionist parties in Hong Kong, but the masses are not under these forces’ control. They mostly strategize and decide on slogans via online chat forums or communication software.

Even the “Civil Human Rights Front,” which is composed of over 50 pro-democratic civil societies and parties and largely credited as the organizer of many demonstrations, has admitted that they can only act as a platform and does not have the political authority to lead the entire mass movement. In fact, since the Umbrella Movement, decentralization, lack of organization, and distrust of the existing political parties and figures have largely characterized the mass movements in Hong Kong.

Political errors within the movement

Nonetheless, we must identify two primary political errors within the Anti-Extradition movement, although these tendencies have yet to dominate the entire movement. The first is the presence of pro-Western imperialist liberals who have illusions to ask Trump to pressure China into granting more freedoms in Hong Kong. They merely oppose dictatorship in Hong Kong, but never oppose the monopoly capitalists, let alone winning workers over to the movement by proposing economic demands of the working class.

The other was the role of the aforementioned far-right localists, who prettify the leaderless form of struggle to allow for their adventurist tactics of storming government buildings without being criticized and disciplined by the entire mass movement. They brand mainland Chinese people as “chinks,” flying British colonial flags. These methods would only help the CCP to characterize the present movement as one for Hong Kong independence and in turn use nationalist demagogy to lie to the Chinese masses, exacerbating the divide between the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese masses. In reality, it is precisely the illusions and cowardice of the liberals that allowed for a minority of “valiant” protesters to pursue unwise adventures and gain increased influence over the mass movement.

Labor movement and the socialist left

Finally, I would like to discuss the role of the labor movement and the socialist left within the Anti-Extradition movement.

As we know, Hong Kong has had a history of heroic class struggle. The Seamen’s Strike of 1922 and the Canton-Hong Kong General Strike of 1925-26 both brought the British imperialists to heel, but both of them happened almost a century ago. The last attempt at a political strike was in 1967, led by the CCP-controlled Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU). After that struggle failed, and as the CCP began to pursue “Reform and Opening” to restore capitalism in China in the 1980s, the HKFTU became an openly pro-business and pro-capitalist conservative trade union. During the same time, a trade-union movement independent of the CCP and the KMT began to emerge, concentrated primarily in education, airline, public transportation, and social work sectors.

The present movement saw two attempts at political strikes on June 17 and Aug. 5 led by independent trade unions. The first attempt was largely unsuccessful; the second one involved over 350,000 workers. It is claimed that over a third of air traffic controllers went on strike, and many flight attendants of Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airline also joined the strike, causing over 200 flights being canceled. The subway also halted operation for half of the day on the morning of Aug. 5. However, this cannot be classified as a total general strike. Many workers such as teachers and social workers chose to take a personal holiday instead of going on strike to avoid management’s retaliation. Some of the bosses also permitted the workers to take the day off for them to join the protest.

Right now the independent unions are preparing for a third political strike in September, the same time that university and high school students plan on striking. If the political strike can successfully coordinate with the student actions, then they would deal a serious blow to the ruling class.

The left in Hong Kong remains small and divided, including social-democratic political organizations, broad-left organizations, and a minority of revolutionary socialist network. As a revolutionary socialist activist, I have consistently proposed three demands:

1) The protesters must organize democratic discussions that determine the tactics of the movement. “Leaderless” form of struggle must not be prettified. Instead, protesters must look towards the Yellow Vests in France who formed constituent assemblies.

2) While we should continue to press for rallies, demonstrations, and mass encirclement, we must also avoid storming government buildings, to prevent the government from using these occasions to escalate repression or even deploying Chinese troops.

3) The Anti-Extradition movement must connect with the labor and social movements, wielding political strikes and school walk-outs as weapons, thus creating a movement independent of the ruling class and controlled by the working masses. For this, they must propose anti-capitalist social demands to win over more workers’ participation. They must also support the workers’ struggle in mainland China or mass struggles for rights protection, to foster more movement against the CCP’s bureaucratic capitalist regime within mainland China.

We must also foster the solidarity of all workers around the world by calling for a “better world.” Some on the left still hold a “campist” view, believing that the CCP regime still represents a progressive force against Western imperialism or even something along the lines of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” These kinds of “leftists” do not understand that the CCP regime today is already a regime of bureaucratic capital against the workers. They also forget that the left must firmly hold a perspective from the working class. We must not only fight against US imperialism but also the various imperialist forces and capitalist exploitation across East Asia. Thank you!

August 18, 2019

Lam Chi Leung is a revolutionary socialist based in Hong Kong. Photo: Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters