Hong Kong’s protests in perspective

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Millions took to the streets in June

John Smith puts the Hong Kong protests of recent weeks into the broader contexts of Hong Kong’s development over the past few decades, its growing connections with the hugely important Pearl River Delta area and the growth of an increasingly aware, organised and militant Chinese working class.

The 2 million-strong demonstration in Hong Kong on 17 June and the proliferation of smaller demonstrations led by students and student-worker alliances, have been truly exciting.

The protests were triggered by the threat that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council would pass a Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, giving China’s National People’s Congress more rights to extradite individuals and play a more prominent role in Hong Kong law enforcement generally. The Legislative Council comprises representatives from Hong Kong’s “professional sectors”, including the industrial, commercial and financial sectors. This group elected the head of government, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in 2017. She is the first woman to hold the post and, for most Hong Kong commentators, a lame duck leader following her now disgraced attempts to railroad the new extradition law through, tying Hong Kong closer to the mainland.

The Legislative Council is split politically, with pro-establishment groups broadly supporting closer collaboration with China, and a pan-Democratic grouping that calls for more incremental democratic reform. The pan-Democrats were heavily involved in the so-called “umbrella movement” of 2014, a first round of massive public demonstrations that spawned many of today’s movement leaders.

More prominent now have been an abundance of smaller, mostly student-based groups, at times supported by trade unionists. For example, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (which, unlike the Federation of Hong Kong Trade Unions, is not tied to Beijing), sent out a call for all of its members to:

“Strike for Freedom! We saw the children of Hong Kong were brave enough to take to the streets but were brutally dealt with by the police. We can no longer close our eyes to the situation. Hong Kong belongs to all of us and cannot be controlled and destroyed by the hands of a few. Thus, regardless of class, profession, and occupation, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions calls on all workers to respond to the workers strike action and participate in the assembly against the amendment of the Extradition Bill on June 17.”

To the fore during this year’s demonstrations have been new, student-based groups such as Youngspiration, Demosisto and Hong Kong Indigenous, which draw on Hong Kong’s huge student population of around 100,000 attending five universities and polytechnics. Demosisto stands for, “democratic self-determination in Hong Kong. Through direct action, popular referenda, and non-violent means, we push for the city’s political and economic autonomy from the oppression of the Communist Party of China and capitalist hegemony”. Hong Kong Indigenous is less happy with the “gentle approach” of non-violence, and calls for a more “militant” tack, using “bravery and force”.

Though triggered by the extradition legislation, the breadth and depth of the demonstrations are rooted in the daily lives of all but the richest Hongkongers, days that are long and increasingly hard. In 2018 Hong Kong’s economy grew at the slowest rate for over a decade. Weak consumer demand and “cooling” property prices meant growth rates fell to 1.2 percent in the last quarter of 2018, with a fall in total exports of 4.2 percent. This is worrying for a city that bases much of its income on import/export (nearly 30 percent of Hong Kong’s 4 million workers are employed in some way in the industry, more if you include the informally employed “hawkers” who make a living on the city’s night markets from goods redirected from the import/export industry).


Wealth inequalities in the city are some of the largest in the world. Hong Kong raises revenues from the sale and taxation of land and through attracting international businesses to provide capital for its public finance due to its low tax policy. According to Healy Consultants, Hong Kong has the most attractive business environment within East Asia, in terms of luring foreign direct investment (FDI) — largely thanks to its low wage, overworked population.

Recent figures show that 1.37 million people are living below the poverty line and struggling to survive on HK$4,000 ($510 USD) per month for a one-person household. The poverty rate in Hong Kong hit a high of 20.1 percent over the past decade, falling slightly recently as a result of temporary cash handouts which do nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty.

Housing shortages are acute in the city, partly as a result of the government policy of leasing land for a profit, at times holding land back to maintain a profitable shortage of land. Over the past decade, while earnings have remained stationary, housing costs have risen by 242 percent. Living space in flats is generally tiny, with the vast majority of Hongkongers living in one of the many high rise estates. Some have taken to using “coffin homes” — units so small they can only accommodate a bed and a container for belongings. Created by dividing an apartment into yet smaller sections, tenants share the kitchen and bathroom. Some 200,000 people live this way.

Accompanying this, rates of stress and mental health problems have soared. At least a third of young people in Hong Kong suffer from stress, anxiety or depression. A survey conducted by HK Playground Association showed, “Young people’s lives in HK are not easy. They do not have comfortable lives in this affluent society, and they each bear their own pressure.” Heavy study workloads prevent time for exercise, rest and recreation. The proportion suffering from severe to extremely severe stress, anxiety and depression was larger in the 19-24 age group, undoubtedly fuelling the growth of the student groups discussed above. Generally, Hong Kong is regarded as the fifth most stressed population globally, with as many as 92 percent facing stress in their daily lives, way above the — already disgraceful — global average of 86 percent. Ramsy Yeung of Cigna HK, an insurance group that carried out research into stress levels, said, “A lot of stress faced by HK millennials is work-related, as they work very long hours for a relatively low salary level… High property prices have also contributed to the pressure.”

While unrest, political protest and uncertainty grows in Hong Kong itself, the city is becoming increasingly networked into the Pearl River Delta developments, and in particular the Greater Bay Area strategy pursued by mainland China. This astonishing project has turned the fertile and primarily agricultural land to the north and west of Hong Kong into a megacity, the largest contiguous urban region in the world, in little over 30 years. In the 1970s, Shenzhen, a city to the north of Hong Kong, had a population of around 30,000 and one functioning taxi. Today, following the Special Economic Zone initiatives of former China boss Deng Xiaoping, Shenzhen has a population of 13 million.

The Greater Bay Area now has a combined population of 69 million and a GDP of 1.53 trillion US dollars — the same size as Russia’s and bigger than Australia’s. It is ranked 12th in the world. It is predicted that it will double in size over the next decade to become the 5th biggest world economy, bigger than the UK. As Ayesha Lau of KPMG says, “The GBA initiative is all about synergy. Taking advantage of economies of scale, proper division of labour and specialisation, cities clustered together can grow much faster. The closer economic integration of the GBA is equivalent to a mini version of economic globalisation.”

The key draws of the area for capital have been a huge and inexpensive labour pool, cheap and abundant land, and very little by way of legislative regulation of industry, with dire consequences for the region’s labour. Hong Kong’s financial sector and world-class seaport provide the goods import/export and finance entrepôt.

New climates

Parts of the GBA are adapting to new climates, with the growth of a more highly skilled labour force in many areas. Many industries are “reinventing themselves” such that the region is moving from being the “factory floor of the world” to the “Silicon Delta”. Huawei and ZTE, which make telecoms equipment and employ tens of thousands, are headquartered in Shenzhen. Lenova, TCL, BYD, Apple, IBM, Philips, BGI, Lucent and Olympus have manufacturing bases and research and design capabilities in the region. The economy of Guangdong, the district in which the Pearl River Delta lies, has swelled and is now larger than Indonesia’s. “Shenzhen and the entire delta region has evolved into an advanced manufacturing ecosystem with clusters of factories working symbiotically to turn the area into a one stop shop for many hi-tech and innovation projects,” as the South China Morning Post has put it.

With the movement of populations into urban areas, and with processes of de- and re-skilling come huge wealth inequalities. In 2007 then Guangdong party chief Wang Yang said he was “ashamed to find a poor Guangdong hiding behind a rich façade”. Official statistics show that per capita GDP in northern, eastern and western Guangdong in 2009 was 17,000 yuan to 18,000 yuan — just over a quarter of the Pearl River Delta’s average of 67,000 yuan.

The delta region faces formidable challenges in public health — a massive influx of migrants, many with associated social problems; harsh working conditions and associated industrial accidents; a high incidence of infectious diseases (including AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria), rising chronic disease, a high prevalence of mental health problems and maternal and children’s health issues; inequalities in income and access to healthcare; pollution, dangerous food additives; and possible long-run effects of climate change on the coastal region.

The social problems that accompany this scale of migration, such as high numbers of vagrants, many with severe and often contagious diseases, and abandoned children, have led provincial authorities to hire 40,000 social workers to manage family planning services, temporary housing and other social services. The most immediate public health challenge in the region arises from working conditions of migrant labourers who take on all the jobs that local citizens refuse, for example employment in mines, quarries, construction and petrochemical plants, which are the sectors with the highest rates of accidents and occupational health problems. Many companies employ migrants in the most dangerous jobs, expose them to dangerous substances and skimp on safety measures. One survey, for example, reports that 63.8 percent of migrants work seven days a week without rest, and that the average working week is 56 hours. This situation reflects the exceedingly low salary structure for migrant labour. Before a series of partially successful strikes in 2010, the basic wage was around 900 Yuan (less than $140) a month, thus forcing labourers to work overtime to earn enough to live and save a small amount. The spate of suicides at the Foxconn electronics plant in Shenzhen (the biggest factory in the world with 300,000 employees) is directly linked to these conditions.

Sitting behind the uncertainties and political and industrial unrest of Hong Kong, are, for the Chinese ruling class, the deep uncertainties of the transient, developing and redeveloping workforce of immense proportions in the Pearl River Delta. Thrown together over three short decades, millions of previously rural workers are having to come to terms with the new cultures of urban life, as the Chinese ruling class seeks to impose the new labour disciplines without awakening this behemoth. As trade wars loom and economic growth cools this task is only getting harder, as illustrated by the growth and increasing militancy of union activity in the region.

A number of important disputes have occurred over the past two to three years, with strikes and repression at the Changchun FAW-Volkswagen factories, where dispatch workers struck in pursuit of wages owed, better working conditions and parity with permanent workers. In mid-July 2018 workers founding a new labour union at Shenzhen Jasic Technology were laid off and some were beaten by security staff. Workers demanded a colleague was reinstated as well as asking for better working conditions, ranging from safer production houses and timely full payment of salaries. Students from more than 20 universities on the mainland — including from Peking and Tsinghua universities — protested in support of the workers after 29 strikers and their supporters were arrested.

Since then, the China Labour Bulletin has recorded over 1,100 disputes, with the construction industry accounting for about 41 percent of all the worker protests recorded since 1 August 2018. Factory owners have routinely ignored their legal obligations when closing, selling or relocating their business. But it is employers in the service sector who are becoming the biggest threat to workers’ interests. Jobs in the IT and service sector are increasingly precarious, workers are deprived of their legally-entitled benefits and often subject to arbitrary changes in pay and working conditions.

In one instance of this, tech workers in China started a campaign over working conditions. The code-sharing platform GitHub, owned by Microsoft, is a place for developers to save, share, and collaborate on software projects. It is accessible in China and is the dominant platform for developers to collaborate — a crucial part of Chinese tech companies’ daily operations. Chinese tech workers started a GitHub repository titled 996.ICU, a reference to the gruelling and illegal working hours of many tech companies in China — from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. The 996.ICU GitHub project description says, “By following the ‘996’ work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU” (Intensive Care Unit). The project calls for Chinese tech companies to obey the labour laws in China and the international labour convention.

Massive support

This initiative has garnered massive support within China. GitHub users have been starring the repository as a way of showing their support. In the span of a few weeks, the project has been starred over 200,000 times, making it one of the fastest growing GitHub repositories in the service’s history. Since it went viral, Chinese domestic browsers, such as those by Tencent and Alibaba, have restricted access to the 996.ICU repository on their web browsers, warning users that the repository contains illegal or malicious content. In response Microsoft workers and other techies posted:

“We, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China. We know this is a problem that crosses national borders. These same issues permeate across full time and contingent jobs at Microsoft and the industry as a whole. Another reason we must take a stand in solidarity with Chinese workers is that history tells us that multinational companies will pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as they outsource jobs and take advantage of weak labour standards in the pursuit of profit. We have to come together across national boundaries to ensure just working conditions for everyone around the globe.”

This is the context of the historic 2 million person march through Hong Kong in June. In a region with an enormous and continually growing working class, crammed together in a relatively small area, intimately connected and networked by dint of shared employment, shared employers and family and cultural ties, resentments are appearing and workers and students are organising. The new student movements are in the vanguard of this, bringing support to workers’ struggles and getting it back in return.