Citizens and socialists in Hong Kong

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We revisit Hong Kong-based socialist Au Loong Yu to talk about the dangers and opportunities that have emerged from Occupy Central.

What is the state of the Occupy Central movement now?

Many people want to continue the movement but some of the pan-Democratic parties [those who support democratic reform] don’t know what to do practically. The biggest issue is the passing of the bill implementing Beijing’s favoured system of electing Hong Kong’s government.

The pan-Democrats are committed to vetoing the bill, but the Hong Kong government is trying hard to co-opt a few guys from the pan-Democrats to its side. The government is only short by four votes; if it can convince just four of the more moderate members of the pan-Democrats to vote with it it will get the bill passed.

Defeating the bill will be a tactical victory, but it is not a substantial victory at all. It means the elections for the chief executive in 2017 will be based on the old method, which is no better than the bill anyway. So we should take on the bill but at the same time look beyond it to the wider issues.

The movement is a great thing. I have never seen anything like this in HK in my life — I have been active since I was 14 years old;
I am now 58. A movement which was at the first stage led by students bypassed the student leadership and became, basically, spontaneous and remained so till the very end.

Largely because of the pressure of this spontaneity it was able to occupy the main street in three areas for 79 days, which is significant. I was in New York when the last week of Occupy Wall Street was unfolding and everywhere else, in Spain, etc, they occupied squares.

But we are not interested in squares. We occupied the main streets. That is significant. This was partly a spontaneous act, also because people in localities were willing to defend the occupations from the police, who at certain points attacked the occupations with tear gas. But there was no major organisational legacy from the movement and so these tens of thousands of people dispersed back into regular life.

This year we have local elections and there are many activists interested in running as independents. But we are not very optimistic. It is very difficult to win seats. The young people who want to run are fresh to politics, enthusiastic, but without experience. They have been politicised in the two months of the movement, but they lack the experience and the organisations to channel this energy into an election campaign.

Were the student groups involved in the movement able to link with community activists?

Some of the groups would like to do this, but it demands lots of energy and time. The movement politicised many young people but they are only familiar with the pan-Democrats’ practices and there is little experience of organising from below. There is no idea about how to form circles of activists, to get in touch with communities, address shared issues and organise. The local councillors from the pan-Democrats are not interested in organisation; they are only interested in their own careers.

Was the movement driven by the coming elections, or were there deeper and broader reasons such as in the UK, where austerity underlines everything?

After the Asian financial crisis of 1997 there was an erosion of the quasi-welfare state in HK, but protests by public servants and the fact that HK doesn’t have debts limited this attack.We don’t have the kinds of pensions you have [in Britain], but more than 45 percent of people still live in council housing and we still have a national health service.

The government is rich. It has huge cash reserves. So when there is opposition to cuts the government retreats. There is no pressure towards austerity. But people are dissatisfied with the pan-Democratic parties because they are a complete failure. There is a desire for an alternative. The social movements — the community clubs, women’s clubs, labour clubs and so on — over the last 20 years are in a contradictory situation.

They are dissatisfied with the mostly right wing liberal pan-Democrats but they don’t put forward their own political representatives. Whenever there is a bill that needs to be passed they will lobby the same right wing liberal parties. Now that the pan-Democrats are in crisis because of the movement, the left liberal groups don’t know what to do.

So now we have a political vacuum and there is a danger that this may be filled by the far-right. At the height of the movement we warned about this far-right localism. Many activists’ political perspective is very simple — it is a dichotomy between despotism and democracy, the Chinese Communist Party and the democratic opposition.

So when the far-right begins to rise and attack the Chinese government, most democrats consider that they are a bit crazy but they have a point. They don’t believe that they are far-right. During the umbrella movement they attacked the Chinese Communist Party using far-right rhetoric, but most of the time in the occupation area they spent attacking pan-Democrats and labour unions and other social groups.

When the Confederation of HK Trade Unions (CTU) hoisted a flag in the middle of the demonstrations several people from the far-right group attacked the unions, saying “you hoist the flag because you want to hijack the movement”. So the trade unionists took it down.

It’s very sad. I spoke to the CTU people who I’ve worked with in the past and said, “you shouldn’t lower your flag”. The far-right are getting bolder and bolder and after the movement for several weeks they organised demonstrations to chase away mainland visitors, sometimes using violence. This continues today.

What do the right hope to gain?

They are calling for independence. They know that this is impossible but they hope to gain visibility, to fill in the political vacuum and gain young people’s support. The post-1990s generation were politicised during the movement. And when they look for an alternative they don’t see one.

They don’t get it from social democratic forces; they don’t get it from the students. Where do they turn? The left? There are no real left groups here of any size or influence. We have a small group. We are still inside the movement and have some credibility for providing left wing ideas for many years, so we are able to speak to many people.

How do you distinguish yourself as a left wing group under a regime that calls itself communist?

This is very difficult. Socialism, let alone communism, as a term is deeply discredited. This is why we are always very marginal. Because we’ve been around as activists for such a long time, people know us and we play a role. In the anti-capitalist movements we collaborated with the unions and so on. But it is very difficult to launch an explicitly socialist agenda.

Is there an awareness of a Trotskyist socialist tradition among activists and in the community groups?

People are aware that I am a Trotskyist, different from the CCP. We try to introduce socialist ideas into campaigns to intervene in any big movements and adopt the most far left positions. So in this universal suffrage movement I have been part of the civil nomination coalition which includes some liberal left groups and the HK Federation of Students. We’ve been able to discredit the pan-Democrats from the left.

How do you think the left can build?

We should see the situation in political terms rather than organisational terms. We have connected with young people in the movement by talking about our political ideas. What is socialism? It is just a deepening of democracy from the political arena to the economy and society. By talking in this way we can rejuvenate the ideas of socialism.

This is just one dimension. It is important to understand the generational differences in HK. My father’s generation were refugees. They fled from China. They are apolitical; they just want to be left alone and have a stable life, even if it’s harsh. My generation, the post-1960s generation, are a little bit better than our fathers; the refugee mentality is a little bit weaker.

But it developed into a migrants’ mentality — we think if things turn bad we’ll just emigrate to England, America or Australia. Hundreds of thousands of my generation emigrated. So we don’t fight hard for democracy, don’t be silly! The post-1980s, and especially the post-1990s, generations are different, because they have no right to emigrate. Would we go to England now? Not unless you are a real professional, rich or upper middle class.

So this generation faces the problem of having nowhere to go and also their ideas of human rights and democracy are much more deeply rooted than in our generation. When my generation grew up the first thing we had to overcome was fear of the police because it was illegal even to distribute leaflets in the streets.

But because of the political liberalisation in the late 1970s and after, the next generation grew up in a freer political environment and are more likely to speak up. This gives the younger generation a much keener sense of the right to be heard, the right to be a citizen, the right to have a vote. So in the medium term I am very optimistic, even though things will be very twisted and complex.

Is that the key question, how you convert the energy expressed in the occupy movement into some kind of organisational form?

I think this is also one of the weaknesses of Hong Kong’s political culture. We are so immersed in this free trade, “laissez faire” mentality, day in and day out. This gives rise to a very strong mentality which we could call “anarcho-capitalist” — against organisation, against working in big groups — from the pan-Democrats down to the social groups.

So, for example, the pan-Democrat MPs account for one third of the seats in the legislature. But they are split into ten different parties! In total between the ten parties there are not more than 3,000 members, so no roots at all in local communities.

The unions are also problematic. The CTU called for a general strike during the Occupy movement. How many unions supported the strike? Two! They claim to have 50 or 60 affiliated unions. It reflects the deep weakness of the labour unions. This is why the threat of the far-right localists is so dangerous.

Au Loong Yu is the editor of China Labor Net and author of China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility (Merlin, 2013). He reported on the Occupy movement for November’s SR.