Hong Kong: Tactics are up for debate

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Pic: Flickr/studiokanu

Last month we spoke to Hong Kong revolutionary socialist Lam Chi Leung about the mass movement. Following events in the past month, as well as reponses from readers, we caught up with him again.

How is the mood in Hong Kong since Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill on 4 September?

Lam’s announcement was largely a case of striking a pose. As early as mid-June she had halted the legislative change, but she had avoided using the word “withdrawal”. More noteworthy is the fact that she completely refused to accept the remaining four demands of the mass movement (for an independent commission to investigate police violence, the withdrawal of the “riot” designation, the release of arrested protestors, and genuine universal suffrage).

So people don’t feel as if she has made any real concessions. Indeed, the government has increased the level of police violence against the demonstrators. The mood of the popular campaign is still high, with no noticeable cooling down. However, the strike and classroom boycott that was scheduled for 2 September did not match the scale of 5 August.

The strike itself did not really happen, but the classroom boycott was quite successful, particularly the human chain that formed outside school gates, an initiative of students from more than 200 high schools. We haven’t seen such large-scale action among high school students before.

The government’s current strategy is as far as possible to ban large rallies and marches, and at the same time indiscriminately beat and arrest those demonstrators who do try to assemble, in the hope of suppressing the movement as quickly as it can. Right now the mass movement stands at a critical juncture, and there is a certain hesitation as to the next step, though there’s likely to be a large march on China’s National Day on 1 October.

What reception have socialist arguments about democratic decision making, strikes and mass protests had in the HK protest movement?

Since the outbreak of the movement, the socialist left has consistently argued for the need to overcome the decentralisation and lack of organisation in the movement, but so far the response to this hasn’t been as desired.

How to explain this? To begin with, there’s a sense among the demonstrators, particularly the younger ones, that for the last 30 years the moderate democratic opposition (for example the Democratic Party) hasn’t been able to win universal suffrage, and has even sold the people out (there is some truth to this). People use this to argue that any movement led by political parties is a bad thing, instead upholding the model of a fragmented movement “without organisations or leaders”.

Secondly, members of the far right localist faction that has arisen recently also rejects democratic decision-making. They do this to allow themselves to propagate their US imperialist, anti-mainlander ideology, and engage in their risky ultra-radical tactics, without being criticised or restrained by the mass of demonstrators.

Young demonstrators think that calling for a strike simply involves making exhortations to people at the entrances to subway stations, or even blocking the subway platforms and pedestrian tunnels so as to “force other people to strike”, instead of making contact with the unions, and through patient education and persuasion bringing a strike into being.

Of course, the relatively low level of organisation of the Hong Kong workers’ movement is also an important factor. The Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airlines, and Cathay Dragon employees who took part in the 5 August strike have suffered harsh victimisation, and up to 20 people — including the chair of the union — have been fired. This will intimidate any workers who try to strike again.

Nevertheless, the need within the movement for a platform for democratic decision-making, as well as for political strike action, have become items of discussion that are prompting people to reflect.

To what extent can we speak of an authentic Marxist left in the People’s Republic, independent of the ruling party? If such a left exists, are there links between it and the HK left?

Under Xi Jinping’s bureaucratic authoritarian rule, self-organisation and open dialogue among young people and workers is extremely dangerous, almost impossible.

But space for the private exchange of ideas still exists. Moreover, in the last decade an increasing number of progressive young people have developed an interest in left wing Marxist thinking, and are looking for some alternative beyond liberalism and Maoism (Chinese-style Stalinism).

There are even some young people who identify with the Marxist left or the Trotskyist traditions. As far as I know, these self-identifying youth are still few in number, and often face disruption and repression from the authorities, but they continue to study and research in earnest, and have recently translated a series of works by Trotsky and James Cannon, as well as by contemporary theorists (for example, Chris Harman, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Paul Le Blanc).

Certain Hong Kong socialists have long made use of the fact that Hong Kong is a relatively free city in China to distribute documents from the Marxist left to young people on the Chinese mainland, and exchange views with them.

This basic task of propagating revolutionary socialist thought is the most worthwhile work that we’re able to engage in at the present time.

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