Lam Chi Leung is a revolutionary socialist based in Hong Kong. He spoke to Sally Kincaid and Sally Campbell about the future of the Umbrella movement one month on.
Is the movement still going strong?
Today (28 October) marks exactly one month since the Umbrella movement broke out. The occupation of the streets continues, but the number of demonstrators has started to decrease from its peak of 200,000.
Sometimes the police try to clear the scene or the anti-occupy and pro-Beijing forces come to make trouble, which can have the effect of increasing numbers of demonstrators. On 21 October Hong Kong government representatives and a student from the movement’s leadership team met for talks, but the government insists on not budging. This is not the Hong Kong government, but Beijing’s final decision. Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping is rumoured to take the position, “Neither clear the occupiers with bloodshed nor retreat.” Faced with a tough stance from the authorities the students’ response was somewhat vague.
The masses, with courage and reason, insist upon occupation. But people know it will not be easy to obtain concessions from the authorities — or a real promise of universal suffrage.
What are the demands?
The key demands are to run the chief executive election campaign freely and oppose the nomination committee screening system; seek open and transparent elections; and oppose the Communist Party’s election trickery.
There are various parties involved in the movement with different emphases. The “localist” right wingers want to distance Hong Kong from mainland China, and emphasise “anti-communism”. Some social movements and left wing groups (such as Left21) are advocates of political democracy but also social and economic reforms. They seek to expose that the autocratic rulers’ desire to maintain the current political system is about curtailing ordinary people’s participation in political decision making. This is not only a democratic struggle; it is a class struggle, a fight for democracy, freedom and decent living standards. I believe the fight for “true universal suffrage” is just the beginning — ultimately the economy must also be run democratically.
What are the differences between the occupations at Admiralty and Mong Kok?
Admiralty is the business district and the government headquarters. It is occupied with mainly young students and young workers, also white-collar workers. Mong Kok is different: it is largely residential, which has led to some conflict with local residents. Police have tried to clear the site, and allowed gangs and pro-Beijing forces to intervene. Some right wingers have provoked the police to use more violence. While occupiers have regained Mong Kok, the next steps are unclear.
What is happening in the schools and universities?
A major feature of this campaign is the large number of young students involved. Thousands of high school students came to the Admiralty, and formed their own organisation. We hold regular lectures at the Admiralty site, and university lecturers are involved in them. There has not been such broad mobilisation of young people in Hong Kong since the 1967 riots. Whatever the final outcome, the movement will have a lasting impact on the democracy movement in China and Hong Kong.
How much support are you getting from beyond the student movement?
After the movement broke out on 28 September teachers’ unions, transport unions and social workers’ unions called a one-day strike. But only the social workers could muster more than 2,000 people at their strike rally. However, pro-democracy strikes and unions have so far been small. This movement has failed to attract the support of the organised working class.
The bigger unions are part of the pro-Beijing bloc. This must colour their relationship to your movement.
Yes. The pro-regime Federation of Trade Unions in the past had a glorious history of workers’ struggles. In 1925-26, during the Chinese national uprising, Hong Kong saw a 16-month general strike. Then the pro-Communist unions demanded elections from the colonial government. Ironically, they are now standing with the CCP, opposed to universal suffrage. They say, “We would rather have a ‘rice ticket’ than a vote.” Their leaders are key figures in the anti-occupation movement.
There was a successful dockers’ strike over pay a few years ago. Have they shown support for the occupy movement?
They did come to support us, which was very welcome, but the numbers were small and they did not launch a solidarity strike.
Are there any attempts to link up with mainland China? Particularly has any support been shown for those arrested?
Over 100 mainland Chinese activists who publicly support our fight have been arrested by the Chinese government. The leaders of the occupy movement have not actively supported them. Only the League of Social Democrats (a centre-left political party) made an official protest to the Chinese government over the arrests. This is a worrying phenomenon — the new generation of organisers do not emphasise the need for unity between the workers and students of the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong to defeat bureaucratic authoritarian capitalism. Some of them think Hong Kong can best win freedom by maintaining distance from mainland China. On the socialist left we have continued to argue for working class solidarity between China and Hong Kong in a joint struggle for democracy and social justice.
What do you feel you are achieving?
Many demonstrators feel that, as the government still has not made any concessions, if we leave the streets, then a month of occupation has been wasted. I think this view is too one-sided. In fact, the mass protest has already achieved results. Many people, especially young students, have come to the streets to participate in direct action for the first time, and have felt the strength of the masses.
They have learnt that the biggest opponent is not Hong Kong chief exec Leung Chun-ying, but the Chinese regime. They have witnessed police brutality and learnt about the nature of the repressive state apparatus. All the establishment parties have more clearly revealed their true faces. Mass street protests do not give up easily; this indomitable spirit is awe-inspiring. However, when the balance of power is still not on our side, we should not believe an occupation alone will be able to succeed.
The Students Federation and other leaders insist that we must maintain the occupations at all costs. Others argue that we should leave the streets and continue the struggle by other means. I agree with the latter strategy, and this is an argument we are patiently having within the movement. For example, I would look to the movement in Argentina in 2001, which held weekly mass rallies. We need a similar mass resistance organisation in Hong Kong to continue the fight for universal suffrage.
Lam Chi Leung is editor of the Marxists Internet Archive Chinese.
Hong Kong background
» Hong Kong was ruled by the British from 1842 until 1997, with no democratic rights for the people. In 1997 it was handed back to China.
» Since 1997 the Hong Kong administration has ruled with limited rights granted by the Chinese Communist Party, under “one country, two systems”.
» In 2007 China promised that Hong Kong could elect its chief executive by “universal suffrage” for the first time in 2017.
20-29 June 2014: Occupy Central organises an unofficial referendum on the democratic reforms and 20 percent of the population take part.
1 July: Over 500,000 demonstrate for democracy; 500 are arrested.
August: the Chinese regime rules that election candidates must be approved by a nominating committee.
22 September: University students begin a boycott of classes; 400 academics publicly support them.
26 September: School students join the boycott.
27 September: Protests converge on the Admiralty financial and government zone.
28 September: Protesters occupy the central square. When police attack them with tear gas supporters throw umbrellas over the barricades to protect them.