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Hong Kong: a widespread but interclassist movement
The protest movement in Hong Kong has been going for more than two months now; it does not seem about to decline despite the local government’s declarations on the suspension of a draft bill that had sparked the protests, the media campaign against the protesters’ violence, the Chinese government’s threats and the police’s repression. The movement has even escalated with a “general strike” on August 5, the first movement of its kind since the 1967 strikes and riots.
Everything started with the announcement of a government’s bill aimed at allowing extraditions towards continental China.
The 1997 agreement regarding the British government’s handover of Hong Kong to China, known as “one country, two systems”, left in place the former colony’s legal and regulatory system – the framework within which Hong Kong had become a leading economic and financial power. The territory enjoyed an administrative and judicial autonomy statute, with a local parliament and government, designated by indirect suffrage. There the so-called “pro-Beijing”, majority faction represents the big capitalists’ interests; the so-called “pan-democratic” parties, playing the opposition’s part, are bourgeois as well, and some of them get subsides from the US. The 2016 elections have seen a breakthrough of so-called “localist” (independentist), far-right parties that build on a part of the population’s hostility towards Chinese and ethnic minorities, blamed for the rise in some prices, like housing, and accused of trying to take advantage of social benefits and of being a cause of criminality.
Hong Kong has long been the main link of Chinese economy with the rest of the world, something that gave its commercial and financial activities an irreplaceable stature from Beijing’s point of view. This is why China granted it this peculiar statute that allowed for a smooth continuity in business. Besides the industrialization process that it had undeniably experienced for a long time before, Hong Kong developed flourishing industrial activities as soon as the 1960s, notably thanks to immigrant Chinese workers, underpaid because “illegals”. By the end of the 1970s, there were about 900,000 workers in more than 20,000 factories; that is to say that beside the big factories, there were plenty of small companies, mostly in the textile and clothes sector. Electronics, pharmaceutical, clocks, toys-making firms appeared or settled in that period as well. Hong Kong was then, with Singapore, South Korea and Formosa, one of the “Asian dragons”, these South-East Asia countries experiencing a rapid industrialization.
However, in the face of China’s economic opening with a low-cost workforce in the beginning of the 1980s, Hong Kong’s industrialists started massively outsourcing their factories, mostly in the neighbouring Guangzhou region. To the extent that the companies from Honk Kong, a 7.5M inhabitants territory, are today employing an estimated 10M workers in mainland China! The industrial sector’s decline accelerated in the wake of the 2008 crisis, as the capitalists increasingly rely on the financial sector to make profits. The last available statistics to date show that the manufacturing sector now employs no more than 90,000 people, against more than 700,000 in trade and logistics, 550,000 in “professional services”, 250,000 in the financial sector and 250,000 in tourism.
Even though the metropolis’s stature in China has declined with the establishing of direct links between the mainland and the global market, Hong Kong is still a high-profile international financial centre for Chinese companies (its stock market is the world’s 6th and the biggest Chinese firms are listed there), a trade and international exchange hub (its port is the world’s 5th in terms of containers traffic, its airport is the world 8th in terms of passengers), etc. Meaning that the troubles it is currently experiencing can have consequences reaching far beyond its borders.
The current protest movement has spread much wider than the October 2014 “umbrella revolution”, when dozens of thousands of youngsters, mostly students, protested and performed sit-ins in Hong Kong against a draft bill that would have allowed only Beijing-approved “patriots” to run for chief executive (the bill was eventually rejected) and to demand universal suffrage.
Today’s protesters see in the draft bill a first step, obviously dictated by Beijing, towards the end of Hong Kong’s special statute. The inhabitants’ fears are substantiated by the authoritarian, repressive turn taken by the Chinese government. Moreover, there has already been the precedent of a Hong Kong bookstore’s employees and boss abducted by Chinese agents in 2015 because of their publication of books critical of president Xi Jinping.
The outrage of many inhabitants in the face of police brutality against young pacific protesters increased the number of protesters. On June 9, a million people walked the streets; on June 16, although the government had already announced the “suspension” of its bill, almost two million people, of all ages and conditions, protested, demanding the chief executive’s resignation in addition to the definitive scrapping of the bill.
Although not with that many people, the protests have gone on after that, in spite of the government’s announcements and threats, the police’s repression or the resort to the Mob (attacks on protesters by Triad members). Again on August 12, all flights from and to Hong Kong were cancelled, after thousands of protesters had invested the airport. Many protesters wore an eyepatch as a demonstration of solidarity with one of them who had been blinded by a police shot.
As for Beijing’s central government, after having at first ignored the movement, it now repeatedly threatens the protesters, accused of being “terrorists”; it insinuated that its troops stationed in the territory could lend a hand to Honk Kong’s police. It required from Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s air company, to hand over the names of the workers who had been on strike, and forbade it to fly over the mainland…
Beijing fears the unrest spreading in mainland China, and thus puts pressure on the territory’s government so that it only concedes the minimum: more would set a too dangerous example, in this thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen protests. In its domestic propaganda, Beijing denounces an anti-Chinese action secretly stirred up by Washington. Yet the American imperialism has been careful not to express any support for what Trump called “riots”.
The social extent and duration of this movement show that its causes are much deeper than the mere opposition to a bill: they are social causes.
Despite the territory’s apparent prosperity, as portrayed in its flamboyant skyscrapers or its stock market records, things are not so good for its inhabitants. Admittedly, the standard of living of the population in general, and even of the proletarians themselves, is not was it was 50 years ago; but inequalities have reached a peak unwitnessed for 45 years (when the statistics on that matter started). The official poverty level is about 20%, against 11% in 1991. This poverty mainly hits the elderly, women, ethnic minorities and low-wage workers. One should note that the minimum wage has dropped in real terms for the last 8 years. The fact that the unions’ 4,000 people demonstration on May Day demanded primarily a 44-hours-a-week cap on labour-time and a raise of wages and pensions is significant.
However, even the high-end wageworkers experience growing difficulties because of a rising cost of living, and in particular of rising housing prices. The housing crisis is becoming so acute that dozens of thousands of poor people live packed up in 2-meter long “cages”, or in apartments that “slumlords” divide with plywood in order to squeeze in tenants. Petty bourgeois are being hit too: rents take a slice out of their income as they hardly manage to buy a home.
One must not be deceived by the August 5 “general strike”; some have likened it to the big 1925 general strike when, in that time’s revolutionary period, dozens of thousands of proletarians controlled de facto the city, leading the oppressed masses and extending the movement to Guangzhou. Nothing could be further from the truth! Today, despite being much larger than it was then, the proletariat passively follows the lead of inchoate masses, and it is called for in order to serve as an auxiliary force for a movement that disregards its interests and demands. Initiated mainly by democrats, this movement quickly extended to students and some petty bourgeois strata (practices, etc.) worried about a threat to their way of life, and then became widespread in the face of the authorities’ attitude.
Unlike the umbrella movement, within which there was a lead organization (the student union), the current movement rejects any kind of continuous structure, expecting social networks to provide the means of organize the mobilizations on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, it also rejects anything that could refer to division along class lines, and presents itself as a movement of all Hong Kongers. To such an extent that, according to some witnesses, ethnic minorities’members are afraid to take part in the protests.
The pervasive demand for democracy does not come with any condemnation or criticism, even modest, of the capitalist social and economic system; on the contrary, one can hear a defence of this system, glorified as specifically Honkongese, against the perceived threat from Beijing’s government. Although the hopes or even the calls for the US or the UK to support Honk Kong against Beijing are marginal for now, they fit naturally in the framework set by the movement’s bourgeois nationalist-like orientations.
Just like similar movements in other countries, Hong Kong’s movement is not the signal for the proletarian class struggle yet; yet just like these movements, it reveals a social status quo that, tomorrow, will allow for the proletariat to start struggling for its own interests – not only its short-term interests, but also to throw itself in the anti-capitalist revolutionary struggle. For this, it will imperatively have to free itself from the popular or national coalitions of which it is prisoner, break with its subordination to bourgeois and petty bourgeois orientations, and find its class weapons again by unifying its struggles across the borders. It is the only way for it to lead, in the fight against capitalism, the petty bourgeois strata driven to revolt by the deterioration of their condition.
Then “the revolution of our time” prospect will not to “liberate Hong Kong” (an independentist rallying-cry widely used in the protests, sparking the local chief executive’s outrage), but to liberate the proletarians and all the oppressed by taking capitalism down in all of China and the world: it will be the international communist revolution!
(1) For instance some Localists demand that people who don’t speak Cantonese ( the Chinese dialect of the Canton- Hong Kong region) or…English (!) could not be accepted as citizens of Hong Kong – while not a few Hong Kongers speak only Hakka or Chaozhou dialects.
(2) Hong Kong Monthly Digest of Statistiscs, July 2019
(3) South China Morning Post, 9/27/2018
International Communist Party
August, 14th 2019
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