Mass Demonstrations in Hong Kong - The choice before the pro-democracy movement

In less than two weeks Hong Kong has been shaken to the foundations by three mass rallies demanding democratic change. Over 500,000 protested against the passage of "anti-subversion" laws; over 50,000 demonstrated outside of the Legislative Council halls July 9 to appeal for democratic reforms, and on Sunday, over 20,000 participated in a rally for universal suffrage.

In less than two weeks Hong Kong has been shaken to the foundations by three mass rallies demanding democratic change. Over 500,000 protested against the passage of "anti-subversion" laws that would have sharply restricted civic freedoms; over 50,000 demonstrated outside of the Legislative Council halls July 9 to appeal for democratic reforms, and on Sunday, over 20,000 participated in a rally for universal suffrage.

Six years ago the former British colony was incorporated into the People's Republic of China as a "special administrative region". The government in Beijing insisted that the territory would retain its traditional freedoms under the "one country, two systems" doctrine. But the results have disappointed the hopes of the people. The people of Hong Kong were marginalized by Beijing during the process of "reunification." Now they are finally finding their own voices and have already begun to take control over their own destiny.

Earlier this year Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, and Beijing's puppet, tried to railroad through a repressive "anti-subversion" law. This was answered by an unprecedented mass protest movement. The response to the pro-democracy campaign was overwhelming. Over half a million people demonstrated on July 1 and tens of thousands in two other rallies. This magnificent movement is a complete answer to all the cowards and sceptics who claimed "nothing can be done". Everything can be done, once the masses lose their fear and stand up for their rights. The protesters' success in forcing Tung to stage a tactical retreat has sparked the biggest political crisis in Hong Kong since its reversion to China, and has serious implications for the rest of China.

The Economist comments: "But even more important than the law itself, or Mr Tung's future, is what the crisis means for democracy in Hong Kong. Under the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the chief executive and ruling Legislative Council could be chosen in open elections from 2007 and 2008 respectively. So far, Mr Tung has avoided any discussion of fuller democracy, but after their resounding success in recent days, Hong Kong's democrats may be tempted to push their luck. And this has the mandarins in Beijing very worried indeed. The Chinese government has sent a delegation, including representatives from the security and intelligence agencies, the foreign ministry and the Hong Kong and Macao Office, to assess the situation in Hong Kong and to help it work out its response to the crisis. On Monday July 14th Long Yongtu, a senior Chinese official who negotiated China's entry into the World Trade Organisation, said while visiting the territory: 'Hong Kong is a place with a lot of freedom of speech, and it [protests] is one of the ways for Hong Kong people to express their opinions and thoughts.' "

These apparently conciliatory remarks are an indication that the ruling bureaucracy in Beijing does not feel confident enough to crush the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong - yet. This reflects the profound divisions in the bureaucracy itself and the deepening crisis that is caused by the movement towards capitalism disguised as "socialism with Chinese features". The Chinese Communist Party-ruled government of China is afraid of provoking the masses too far and causing a social explosion that would not be confined to Hong Kong. The ruling clique in Beijing is itself deeply divided, with one section of the bureaucracy in favour of a rapid movement in the direction of capitalism and another wing trying to put the brakes on, for fear of provoking a movement from below that they will not be able to control.

In the last period China's adoption of so-called "market socialism" has caused a tremendous increase in contradictions at all levels of society. There has been a colossal increase in social inequality - with some people making fabulous fortunes and the great majority experiencing hardship, unemployment and growing privation. There are at least 150 million unemployed Chinese, drifting around China in search of work. The conditions of those "fortunate" enough to find a job in one of the privately owned factories are subjected to the most savage exploitation at the hands of the (usually foreign) employers.

Things are even worse in the villages, where most of China's people live. There has been an enormous increase in the difference between rich and poor in the countryside. The position of the masses is made even more intolerable by the corruption of local Party officials. Mass discontent has boiled over in local uprisings of the peasants and mass strikes of the urban workers.

The sudden emergence of a massive "people's power" democratic movement in Hong Kong has provoked deep concern in the authorities in Beijing. Therefore, for the time being, Beijing's response to the demonstrations has been contradictory. On the one hand, the PRC government implied that it was ready to compromise, sending a high-powered team to discuss the reasons for the unrest with Hong Kong government officials and local civic leaders (even though reports of meetings with representatives of the Hong Kong Democratic Party were disavowed).

On the other hand, Beijing's state-run English-language paper, China Daily, has published a crude smear, claiming in an opinion piece that the demonstrations had become "a vehicle for subverting the political system" in the HKSAR. This could well preface a campaign to crack down on the "subversives" - that is, activists in the HKDP and civic groups promoting the campaign against the anti-subversion laws and for democratic change.

The hard-liners would probably like to see a repetition of the Tienanminh Square events, but under present conditions such a response can easily backfire on the Beijing regime. Given the widespread discontent in China, it could be the spark that ignites the powder keg. Even in the best scenario from the standpoint of the bureaucracy, repression might give the authorities a brief respite. However, a crackdown could also spark even bigger protests, which would upset the extremely fragile social and political equilibrium in Hong Kong and the whole of China. It would certainly shatter foreign and local investor confidence, and put an end to the rapid economic growth of recent years. This would prepare the way for even bigger social explosions.

Some of the leaders of the Hong Kong democratic movement are even more afraid of this than the authorities in Beijing. They are trying to limit the scope and demands of the movement to what they imagine will be acceptable to the central government. They have not challenged Hong Kong's status as an SAR and are emphasizing the aim to ensure the commitments in the Basic Law for eventual universal suffrage - for the direct election of the Legislative Council by 2008 and of the chief executive by perhaps 2012, although they respectfully request that the timing of the two direct polls be accelerated to 2007.

So far, they have apparently not even called for the removal of HKSAR Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa - an elementary step that any democrat should support. This is consistent with the position of the opposition Democratic Party over the past few years. The present movement is simply the culmination of growing resentment among the people of Hong Kong at being ruled by the local big business clique around Tung and behind them the Beijing bureaucracy. In spite of this the Democratic Party in the last election campaign was never prepared to openly call for the resignation of Tung. This was because they feared provoking a movement from below. They preferred a "gradual reform" of the electoral system. This means they want power to be handed to them without involving the masses.

But the people of Hong Kong cannot accept any hand-picked representative of the overlords in Beijing. The people must have the right to freely elect their representatives at all levels! Anything less than this is unacceptable to consistent democrats.

Demand the immediate sacking of Tung Chee-hwa. No more imposed puppets from Beijing! Free elections now! Let the people decide who should represent them!

It would be very foolish to imagine that because the authorities are apparently ready to make concessions, that they are willing to concede the movement's demands. It would be even more foolish to think that by moderating these demands, the attitude of the authorities will soften. On the contrary! The only reason why the government has been hesitating so far is that it has been alarmed at the scale of the movement. If the leaders begin to show weakness, this will be a signal for a stepping up repression. Weakness invites aggression!

The Hong Kong democratic movement has had the honour of raising the banner of democracy, but it must be under no illusions. The struggle for democracy will not be easy. It requires the conscious and dedicated participation of the masses. But in order to arouse the masses, clear slogans are required that are in line with their aspirations, needs and interests. Unfortunately, the slogans advanced by the leaders of the democracy movement in Hong Kong are not at all clear.

The slogan of "Launch Democratic Reform, Rebuild Hong Kong Society" is fine in principle but it is too abstract. What reforms are intended? How is the rebuilding of Hong Kong society to be understood? If the idea is to establish a capitalist democracy in Hong Kong, that is a mistaken conception. Capitalism signifies the rule of a handful of wealthy capitalists and bankers. To demand this is to deceive the people and to advocate the substitution of one kind of tyranny for another.

On the other hand, the idea that the present bureaucratic regime can be changed by minor democratic reforms is an even bigger mistake. The bureaucracy in Beijing cannot give genuine democracy to the people of Hong Kong without undermining its own power and privileges. If genuinely democratic elections were held in China the first question the workers and peasants would ask would be: "If this is socialism, as you tell us, how can you justify the enormous privileges of the ruling elite? How come that inequality is constantly increasing instead of decreasing, as Marx and Lenin predicted?"

We demand free elections to the HKSAR and an end to the impositions from Beijing! For an end to censorship and full freedom of the press, radio and television! For the freedom of assembly and association, the right to form free unions, to strike and demonstrate! For the right of self-determination for the people of Hong Kong! Let the people determine their own affairs!

The Marxists will fight for every democratic right, but at the same time we do not consider democracy to be an end in itself. All too often the word "democracy" has been used by the capitalists and imperialists for the hypocritical purpose of promoting their own interests and installing a veiled dictatorship of the banks and big monopolies over the masses. We do not support a bourgeois democracy that is just another way of saying the dictatorship of big capital and imperialism.

We will fight for democracy as a means of extending the scope of our revolutionary struggle against capitalism. We understand that such a struggle can never be victorious if it is isolated to Hong Kong. But the six million inhabitants of Hong Kong can begin the struggle that can only be victorious when it spreads to the mass of workers and peasants on the mainland. We advocate the most far-reaching and consistent programme of democracy, and above all we stress the need for democratic rights for the working class and the peasantry.

Not one step back! For the full programme of democratic demands! Mobilise the masses for struggle! Our slogan is: For an autonomous democratic socialist Hong Kong in a democratic socialist China!

These objectives cannot be realised except through revolutionary struggle around the main demands of the workers and peasants in the whole of China. If the movement is confined to the narrow limits of Hong Kong, it will be doomed to defeat. The concessions made by the authorities will only be temporary. They will try to entangle the leaders of the pro-democracy movement in lengthy and complicated negotiations, and then when the masses become weary of the endless delays and bargaining, they will strike at the movement, especially its most militant sections.

The huge demonstrations in Hong Kong have forced Tung Chee-hwa, to delay implementation of a controversial anti-subversion law. But delay does not mean abolition. The result is only an uneasy truce, which has solved nothing fundamental and cannot last. The demonstrations in July were an important start but only a start. In order to succeed, the movement must break out of the narrow confines of Hong Kong and reach the workers and peasants of the mainland. Above all, the demonstrations must be continued and stepped up.

Those leaders who constantly speak of "the massive power of the PRC" have no real confidence in the masses and no real perspective for carrying the movement forward. In the end they will throw themselves on the mercy of Beijing in the hope of getting a few crumbs of concessions. They hope that if they show themselves to be "responsible" and "moderate" the CCP leadership realizes the futility of repression and give them some of what they ask for. In practice they will not even get this. They imagine they are great "realists", but this is not realism - only a recipe for defeat and demoralisation.

It is true that the bureaucracy has at its disposal a powerful state apparatus. But the potential power of the Chinese workers and peasants is a thousand times stronger. The mass movement still has enormous reserves. To begin with, there is colossal dissatisfaction among the masses in Hong Kong. The size of these demonstrations was the most eloquent proof of this. And for every one that participated actively in the demonstrations, there are a hundred and a thousand who sympathised with them. It is necessary to extend the movement, deepen it and prepare for a serious struggle. That is the only way to stay the hand of reaction and paralyse the state.

The decisive question is the effect that the movement will have on the mainland. The success or failure of the movement depends on this. But on a bourgeois basis the movement in Hong Kong can never appeal to the masses in the rest of China. Only by transcending the limitations of a purely bourgeois-democratic protest movement can it get an echo among the workers and peasants of the mainland. On a capitalist basis there is no future for the people of Hong Kong in the long run. Even now the general crisis of capitalism has produced an economic slowdown and deteriorating living standards for the people of Hong Kong, whose economic and political destiny is now entirely bound up with that of the rest of China. To think otherwise would be to be blind to reality.

Marxists are not indifferent to the fight for democracy. What distinguishes us is that, on the one hand, we do not see democracy as an end in itself but as a means to an end - the struggle for socialism. On the other hand, we will fight for democracy by revolutionary means, not cowardly liberal reformism that, under the pretence of "realism" and "moderation", is striving to sell out the interests of the masses and arrive at a treacherous deal with the regime.

What is needed is a "bottom-up" movement for democratisation that takes its starting point in the factories and the workers districts, the schools and offices, and derives its strength from the people. It is necessary to form pro-democracy committees of action in every area and workplace, with the widest possible representation, based on free election and right of recall. The masses must control their leaders and hold them to account, so that they will carry out only policies in the interests of the masses.

Let the committees give form, organisation and discipline to the movement of struggle. Let the committees link up on a local, district and all Hong Kong basis, to organise the agitation and resistance. Above all, they must seek to establish links with the workers and peasants of the rest of China, and appeal to them to follow the lead given by Hong Kong.

Only by organising in this way can the people of Hong Kong win. By their actions they have thrown down the gauntlet to Beijing. They now have only two alternatives before them: either continue to fight for democratic rights by revolutionary means, while appealing for support to the workers and peasants of the rest of China, or else wait until the movement is crushed, in which case the people of Hong Kong will be worse off than before. There can be no turning back now! Either the greatest of victories or the worst of defeats - those are the two choices before the pro-democracy movement.