On 21 May, China’s National People’s Congress passed a National Security Law for Hong Kong, bypassing the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and imposing a number of anti-democratic legislations from the central government. This move was immediately seized upon by Donald Trump, desperate to distract attention from his crisis-ridden regime. The US ruling class is in no position to lecture anyone about democratic rights as it witnesses a nationwide uprising against police murder, racism and inequality. In truth, the real reason Trump wants to bash China is to strengthen himself by promoting US nationalism, the very same political and social base that stands against the mass movement in America.
Western imperialist forces, especially the US, have pretended to defend the rights of Hong Kongers as part of their imperialist competition with China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the US government no longer considers Hong Kong an autonomous region of China, thus reserving the right to re-draft all the trade agreements that the US signed separately with Hong Kong. All of this is designed to strike economic blows against China and has nothing to do with support for the movement of the Hong Kong masses. It is a part of the US’ endeavour to halt the development of Chinese capitalism and subjugate it under its own narrow interests.
US imperialism has nothing to offer the workers and youth anywhere in the world. It is imperative that the workers of Hong Kong reject the liberal democratic strategy that up until now has dominated their movement, draw a clear line against western imperialist forces, and use class struggle methods and demands to push forward the movement, and spread it into the mainland.
The anti-extradition law movement stuck at the crossroads
The new law passed in China lists four categories of “crimes” that the Hong Kong government must suppress, including “subverting state power,” “dividing the country/separatism,””terrorist activities,” and “foreign interventions.” As these charges have been used by the Chinese regime against political dissidents within mainland China, many believe that this unilateral act by Beijing is a move to suppress the Hong Kong people’s democratic rights, thereby severely undermining the spirit of the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement.
When the National Security Law for Hong Kong was formally proposed by the National People’s Congress on 21 May, it instantly reignited the anti-extradition law movement. Thousands of primarily young protesters immediately took to the streets, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although the demonstrations for the most part were peaceful, initial small clashes led to violent conflicts. In the end, the police arrested over 180 protesters.
Unfortunately, the present struggles of Hong Kong remain unorganised, and there is no attempt to escalate the demands of the movement from abstract democratic ones to social, working class demands, or any tendency to actively connect with the Chinese working class to unite in the struggle. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), which still has visibility and could turn the direction of the struggle into one of class struggle, still tail-ends the liberal democratic slogans. On 25 May, they hastily and ambiguously called on Hong Kongers to “Strike, Work Stoppage, or Take a Day Off” only two days later, repeating the same passive strategy that was proven faulty in practice last year. This lack of leadership led the young protesters, who have no experience of class struggle methods, into even more desperate measures, such as confronting the police, as a substitute for clear demands.
Yet, in this process, the amount of people protesting has dwindled as the stalemate and the pandemic remains. As we have repeatedly explained: the movement in Hong Kong should set as its goal to threaten the existence of the Beijing regime itself. This would require mobilising the Hong Kong working class and making an energetic appeal to the oppressed workers in mainland China. Instead, the movement has gone in the opposite direction of vague slogans, which do not appeal to the workers, as well as flirting with western imperialism. At one point, some protesters occupying the Hong Kong legislature even raised the Union Jack and the old Colonial-era flag of Hong Kong! All of this allowed the CCP regime to portray the Hong Kong movement as a mob of anti-Chinese and pro-imperialist reactionaries to the Chinese people, and mobilise support to crush the movement.
Why was “One Country, Two Systems” imposed and why has it collapsed?
Another trend in the movement has been to claim that the CCP has destroyed the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement by directly legislating for Hong Kong from the centre. By this, of course, what they are objecting to is the restriction of democratic rights. We fully support the struggle for democratic rights: the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement is not for a “democratic” Hong Kong, separated from a “dictatorial” mainland China. Rather, it is a deal that gives the Hong Kong bourgeoisie, which is also connected to western powers, a dictatorship over the city while the CCP government rules over the rest of the country.
The hue and cry in the west at the new measures is partially a reflection of its diminishing influence over Hong Kong, which for the west has been a gateway into the Chinese economy. It is also a reflection of the diminishing power of US imperialism in Asia in general. The fact that the Chinese ruling class is tightening its grip, therefore, is also partially a reflection of the changed balance of powers internationally, with China going from being a country on a low level of economic development to being the second-biggest economy in the world. This does not mean that China is a world imperialist power on the level of US imperialism, but it is no longer a weak power either. In Asia in particular, it is now a stronger power than the US. The US ruling class is trying to reverse this and thereby re-establish its position as the main power in the region. That is what is behind the uproar in western capitals. It has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, human rights or the interests of the people of Hong Kong.
When looking at the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement, we mustn’t be fooled by the dots and commas of the Sino-British Joint Declaration: the deal between China and Britain that codified this arrangement. We must look at how China was transforming during and after the signature of the Declaration. Before Hong Kong was returned to China, the CCP under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership instituted “Reform and Opening Up”, which paved the way for capitalist restoration. His successor, Jiang Zemin later put forward the slogan “Workers Retire, Enterprises Liberalise”. In the 1990s, capitalism was restored under the CCP’s watch, despite what the Joint Declaration says about two systems of capitalism and ‘socialism’. However, at the time, Chinese capitalism still largely depended on investment from the Hong Kong bourgeoisie, and therefore the “Two Systems” was arranged whereby the CCP gave the Hong Kong bourgeoisie near-complete freedom in running the city’s affairs. At the same time, this arrangement maintained Hong Kong’s international standing as a global financial hub.
From this, we can see that the central government’s encroachment on Hong Kong is largely the political expression of the shifting role of Hong Kong within the Chinese economy. When Hong Kong was returned, its GDP was over one fifth of the entire economy of China, and it was the third-most-important global financial hub. Today, Hong Kong’s GDP is only 3 percent of that of China, and most of the financial capital within Hong Kong comes from China. It no longer holds leverage over Beijing the way it used to.
Xi Jinping is not having a good 2020. It began with the COVID-19 pandemic, the crushing electoral defeat of his comprador in Taiwan, the ongoing anti-Beijing ferment in Hong Kong, and an economic reality so embarrassing that Li Keqiang did not report on GDP growth during the NPC, but had to admit that there are still over 600 million Chinese whose monthly income is at 1000 RMB (about $140 USD). In order to preserve his position, Xi manoeuvres just as Trump does, by drawing the attention of the workers away from domestic problems to international ones via the National Security Law for Hong Kong. At the same time, the Law also serves as an extension of the Great Bay Project to integrate Hong Kong with Macau and the Pearl River Delta, thereby reconfiguring the economic relations between the mainland and Hong Kong. Therefore, the National Security Law is merely a step in an ongoing process. Greater control over Hong Kong by Beijing expresses an underlying necessity that was developing since the return of Hong Kong in 1997 - the increasing economic domination of mainland Chinese capitalism over Hong Kong. It is even possible to use the text of the Joint Declaration to show that what China has done does not violate the Declaration itself: the agreement was that capitalism, not democratic rule, would exist in Hong Kong for 50 years.
Thus, the struggle for democratic rights is not solved by defending “One Country, Two Systems”. What is needed is to connect this struggle with the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism as a whole, in Hong Kong as well as mainland China.
The real role of imperialist forces
Some on the Left accuse the Hong Kong movement of being a “colour revolution”; that is, of being directed by US imperialism. Socialists of course staunchly oppose US imperialism, which is no friend of democracy or the Hong Kong working class. But we must be clear on the facts: this movement erupted against the social background of Chinese capitalists driving up real estate prices, declining living standards, and a political establishment that remains in the pocket of the CCP, all of which are results of Hong Kong’s role in Chinese capitalism. The Hong Kong masses do not need any imperialist forces to engineer a plot for them to be mobilising as strongly as have been.
This doesn’t preclude western imperialists from taking advantage of the situation. Since the eruption of the movement, the Trump regime in the US has repeatedly condemned Beijing’s “brutality.” They are helped in this by the lamentable role played by the liberal, pro-capitalist, self-appointed leaders of the movement in Hong Kong, such as Nathan Law and Joshua Wong. They have even gone so far as to insert US flag emojis into their Twitter handles, toured the US begging the likes of Marco Rubio for his glorious assistance, and staged protests requesting that the US invade the island.
Whilst we recognise that these leaders are self-appointed and do not represent the movement as a whole, much less the interests of Hong Kong workers, we must say clearly that the movement as it stands has a reactionary leadership that is pro-US imperialism. This is a dead end for all those sincerely fighting the repression of the Chinese state. Beijing’s real power lies in the exploitation of the mainland working class. Appeals to US imperialism and nationalist attacks on China will not win support from mainland workers. This is exactly what the Chinese ruling class is interested in in order to prop up its position on the mainland and defeat the movement in Hong Kong.
With such a reactionary and counter-productive strategy, it is inevitable the movement will die down as exhausted protesters see no way forward. Indeed, the movement in Hong Kong has been on the decline since the latter half of 2019, and the outbreak of COVID-19 further prevented people from taking to the streets. This is why the CCP opportunistically assigned the hawkish Xia Baolong to take charge of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in February, which paved the way for mass arrest of Pan-Democratic politicians, as well as the imposition of the new National Security Law for Hong Kong. They understand that, at present, no one within the Hong Kong movement can muster up the mass mobilisation seen in May and June 2019.
Then again, those who claim the movement is invented and directed by the US are just as delirious as those who sincerely hope that Trump will come and save Hong Kong’s people! Subscribers to the former view fail to see the CCP’s role in consolidating and underwriting Hong Kong’s capitalism, pretending instead that the CCP is somehow struggling against capitalism in Hong Kong.
Until recently, the Trump government announced that it will no longer consider Hong Kong as an autonomous administrative region, and signed a joint statement with the UK, Canada, Australia to condemn China. Yet the concrete result of Trump’s gesture is to reserve a power to force China to renegotiate trade deals by also having to represent Hong Kong. In other words, the Hong Kong issue is but a pawn in Trump’s trade war with China.
How can the struggle move forward?
From a Marxist point of view, the social disaster in Hong Kong is ultimately rooted in its waning status under global capitalism, which in turn in exposing the sham that is “One Country, Two Systems.” The dictatorship of the Hong Kong bourgeoisie, underwritten by the CCP, is ruling over an economic system that is increasingly exposing its contradictions. Today, the crisis of Chinese capitalism in general is also forcing the CCP to hurriedly incorporate Hong Kong into its economy in the hopes of boosting its imperialist ambitions, especially by helping the Chinese currency to begin challenging the dollar as a reserve currency.
The Hong Kong workers hold tremendous potential power in their hands, as their position still allows them to be a catalyst that would lead to a revolutionary wave throughout China. The only way forward for this working class is to organise itself into an effective force to capitalism in general: that goes for western capitalism as well as “red” Chinese capitalism. They can do this by linking democratic demands such as free elections, freedom of expression and organisation with demands for social housing, living wages, and with the methods of genuine strike action, and in the process calling upon the workers and youth of China and around the world to follow their lead. This is the only route for the toiling masses of Hong Kong towards a free and democratic world without oppression: a socialist world of workers’ democracy.