Hong Kong: 'No progress without real system change'

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Some 1.7 million people marched on 18 August

We asked local activist Lam Chi Leung about the character of the protesters and how their demands are developing.

Given the escalation of strikes as part of the protests, what is the class composition of the Hong Kong protests?

The current anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (anti-ELAB) movement has drawn on the participation of an enormous number of Hong Kong residents. The largest of the mass rallies took place on 16 June, with some two million participants. Given that the total population of Hong Kong is 7.48 million, this means that one out of every four Hong Kong residents took part in this demonstration. This is twice the number of participants in the Umbrella Movement of five years ago. Broadly speaking, those taking part in the successive peaceful marches have mainly been salaried employees, while most of those engaged in direct action such as occupying streets and besieging government buildings have been students and young workers. They are participating in this mass movement as citizens, and not as organised workers.

Yet the difference between today’s anti-ELAB movement and the Umbrella Movement lies not only in the increasing number of participants, but also in the fact that the question of political strikes has been put firmly on the movement’s agenda, and genuine efforts have been made in this direction.

The last instance of a political strike was in 1967, which was mobilised by the pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU). After this movement was defeated, and following the CCP’s adoption of its bureaucratic capitalist “reform and opening up” policy, the HKFTU evolved into a conservative union body that openly sided with the capitalists and the government.

In the 1980s a union movement that was independent from both CCP and Guomindang forces began to emerge, concentrated mainly in the education, aviation, public transport and social service sectors, and in 1990 these independent unions founded the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU).

The current anti-ELAB movement has mobilised for two political strikes, on 17 June and 5 August, both initiated by unions belonging to the HKCTU. The first strike was essentially a failure, while the second strike saw around 350,000 workers participate. It’s said that a third of all air-traffic control employees took part in the strike, and a section of Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines cabin crew also joined in, leading to the cancellation of over 200 flights. That morning, subway lines also suspended service for half a day. Strictly speaking, though, this didn’t qualify as a full-blown strike; in order to avoid retribution from their employers, some workers (eg teachers and social workers) used their annual leave entitlements to participate in the action. Some employers simply let their employees take leave for the day.

Are links being forged between the Hong Kong protests and the worker unrest in China?

Since the start of the movement, some have raised the idea of solidarising with the struggle of residents in the Chinese city of Wuhan against the construction of high-polluting waste incinerators and power plants, as a way of eliciting sympathy from mainland Chinese for the people of Hong Kong, but this entirely sensible orientation has not won majority support. Nonetheless, there are sections of the anti-ELAB movement that have sought to gain the support of mainlanders.

The most obvious example of this was during the district march in Kowloon on 7 July. Despite the fact that the organisers hailed from the far-right nativist faction, participants in the march took the initiative to distribute leaflets to Chinese tourists in simplified Chinese characters, and even sang the Internationale!

Although on the one hand a sense of differentiation from the Chinese mainland has increased among Hong Kong residents, most notably among the rising generation of young people, at the same time they still maintain an open mind towards the question of winning the support of the workers’ and rights-defence movements on the mainland. They are willing to consider any methods that can advance the movement.

How does the fact of “the left” being, in part at least, identified with “Red capitalism” in the People’s Republic impact on the protesters? What strategic challenges does this pose for Hong Kong anti-capitalists?

As an activist and advocate of revolutionary socialism, I have consistently argued for three things since the outbreak of the anti-ELAB movement: 1) to take decisions on action for which we are mutually accountable by organising democratic debate among the demonstrators, and not to make a virtue out of the movement’s lack of organisation and decentralised state; 2) to persist in mass rallies and blockades, but to the extent possible avoid attacking government buildings, so as not to give the government any excuse to increase the level of violent repression or dispatch the Chinese army; 3) to unite with the workers’ movement and social movements and use political strikes and classroom boycotts as our weapons of struggle, and in so doing establish organs of working people’s authority which are independent from the ruling class.

To this end, we should put forward socio-economic demands that oppose capitalist exploitation, so as to encourage more workers to participate. And likewise, we should at the same time support workers’ struggles on the Chinese mainland and the struggles of citizens to defend their rights, so as to cultivate popular forces within mainland China capable of opposing the bureaucratic capitalism of the Chinese Communist Party.

As a city on China’s southern frontier, Hong Kong has for many years sustained an anti-Communist political atmosphere, and has been influenced by the enormous shadow of an authoritarian ruling clique which touts its Communist credentials. To persuade its citizens to sympathise with and support the socialist left is without doubt an extremely difficult task, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

There have been isolated examples of protesters hoisting the UK and US flags, and an online petition calling for US intervention, suggesting that at least some of the protesters look to the West. How significant is this politically? And how great is the danger that the protests may strengthen an assortment of Hong Kong “nativists” (who claim that they are Hong Kongers and not Chinese), anti-People’s Republic neoliberals, and other West-facing reactionaries, thereby strengthening the West?

The far-right nativists who espouse Hong Kong chauvinism were somewhat influential during the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the two years following it. In today’s anti-ELAB movement, by contrast, they have become weaker both in terms of organisation and the capacity to mobilise, although at the intellectual level they still exercise a certain influence on some young people. They valorise the movement’s disorganised form, all the better to irresponsibly engage in their radical tactics of attacking government buildings and so forth, while evading any criticism or discipline from the mass movement.

They malign people from the Chinese mainland with xenophobic terms such as “Shinajin” (an imperial Japanese term for Chinese that is now the preserve of anti-Chinese racists), and even raise the British colonial flag of Hong Kong or the American flag.

All this only makes it easier for the CCP authorities to misrepresent the anti-ELAB movement as something orchestrated by foreign forces, and deceive the Chinese people with nationalism so as to achieve their objective of dividing the peoples of China and Hong Kong. The nativists even call on US President Trump and other world leaders to “give Hong Kong its freedom.” Such a position can easily devolve into one that relies on America and the European Union to pressure China. From an objective viewpoint, an anti-ELAB movement which is utilised by Western imperialist countries as a pawn of power politics will most likely end up sacrificed on the negotiating table between the powers.

Nonetheless, so far the anti-ELAB movement has not fallen under the leadership of the far-right nativists. I believe that the involvement of organised workers, the women’s, LGBT, and other progressive movements, as well as the socialist left, will be crucial to the direction of the mass movement.

Is there support for HK independence among the protesters? And if so, what attitude should socialists take to this?

The socialist left supports the right of Hong Kong residents to self-determination, in the same way as we support the right to self-determination in Xinjiang and Tibet, but we do not advocate Hong Kong independence. In the concrete circumstances prevailing today, campaigning for Hong Kong independence is misguided. We advocate for the united struggle of the people of Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland to achieve a democratic and socially just China, and in this way bring about a genuinely democratic and self-governed Hong Kong.

How important is the constructed national identity of Hong Kong as a successful capitalist society built by those fleeing persecution by the Communist state? Is there any sign of the protest movements affecting this identity?

This is a very complicated phenomenon, so I’ll limit myself to a few preliminary observations. Hong Kong identity first emerged around the 1970s. In the wake of Hong Kong’s economic take-off, a sense of local Hong Kong identity arose among a new generation of Hong Kong natives, something that stood in contrast to my mother and father’s generation, many of whom came to Hong Kong in order to escape “Communist China” and were preparing to emigrate abroad if necessary. For the most part, this kind of Hong Kong identity reflected pride in economic achievements, and expectations of a comfortable life (ie one not impacted by war and political turmoil).

At the same time, this didn’t entail a rejection of being Chinese, and indeed sentiments towards native place in China remained very strong. This was due to the fact that most Hong Kong Chinese families were immigrants from the Chinese mainland, with their ancestral homes on the mainland. In supporting the 1989 democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, as well as providing relief aid for the 1991 floods in eastern China and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the people of Hong Kong were driven by a national feeling that “we are all Chinese,” and gave their full support on this basis.

This sentiment survived beyond the end of British colonial rule in Hong Kong in 1997. Opinion polls from the period immediately after the return to Chinese sovereignty show that, for a time, the Hong Kong population’s approval of the central government in Beijing was higher than it was towards the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

However, pressure applied to Hong Kong by the CCP authorities, the Hong Kong populace’s realisation that the CCP government had no intention of implementing true universal suffrage, and along with this the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping’s rule and troubling signs of social decay (from poisoned milk powder to the repression of dissidents), have all caused a sense of differentiation among Hong Kong residents to grow rapidly in the last decade.

The new generation of Hong Kongers tend to identify more as Hong Kongers than as “Hong Kong Chinese.” This is key to the emergence of Hong Kong independence as an intellectual current.

In recent years, moreover, this kind of self-identity as a Hong Konger has become mixed up with right wing tendencies that are hostile to new immigrants from China, and this has had a greater or lesser influence on the Umbrella Movement and the anti-ELAB movement.

Socialists need to remain sensitive to this phenomenon and draw a distinction between the legitimate rights of Hong Kong residents and a xenophobic outlook. They should emphasise that Hong Kongers and Chinese mainlanders share a common interest in resisting the oppression of the CCP’s bureaucratic capitalism, and need to unite in struggle.

Carrie Lam claims the extradition bill is dead, but this is clearly not enough to quell the protests. The question of universal suffrage, raised during the Umbrella Movement, has become quite central — this was promised in the past and hasn’t yet been delivered — what progress has there been, if any?

Something worth noting has been the gradual realisation among people that without any change to the political system, and even if Carrie Lam were to step down, it wouldn’t constitute genuine progress. Following this line of thinking, the anti-ELAB movement eventually came to settle on its five demands: the retraction of the characterisation of the movement as a “riot,” the release of arrested demonstrators, the withdrawal of the extradition bill, accountability for police brutality and the formation of an independent investigatory commission into the violence, and universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections.

However, obtaining universal suffrage will be extremely difficult, since according to the Hong Kong Basic Law established by the CCP regime, Hong Kong cannot be permitted to hold democratic elections. The CCP regime hopes to see Hong Kong maintain its authoritarian style of laissesz-faire capitalism, allowing the capitalist class to enjoy its political privileges in perpetuity. Only a forceful workers’ movement can win the implementation of universal suffrage, not to mention various other economic reforms. But the CCP regime most fears the strength of the workers’ movement, just as it fears the power of workers on the mainland.

Beyond Lam’s resignation, what do you think protesters will accept as a “victory”?

A section of moderate democrats believe that if Carrie Lam would only acquiesce in withdrawing the extradition bill and establishing an independent investigation into the violence, then they could consider it a “victory.” But the mass of people don’t agree with this. They are clearly calling for more political and social reforms. Currently the most important task of the mass movement is to establish an organisation that can cohere a united struggle and attract the sympathy and support of people on the Chinese mainland.

Lam Chi Leung is a revolutionary socialist based in Hong Kong and editor of the Marxists Internet Archive Chinese