Hong Kong: a million march against extradition bill

Today, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers marched in militant defiance of the ‘extradition bill’ that would grant China the power to take anyone in Hong Kong into custody on the mainland. Only three days earlier, Sunday 9 June, saw what may be the biggest demonstration in Hong Kong’s history. According to organisers, one million marched through the city’s humid streets, meaning one-in-seven Hong Kongers demonstrated!

The crowd was so vast that thousands were stuck in subway stations, unable to join it for hours. Later on, thousands descended to the entrance of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco), to demand the withdrawal of the bill that has sparked the protests, as well as the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.

Today, even greater numbers have occupied the entrance to the Legco, and successfully forced a delay to the passing of the bill, proving the power of mass protests. On both days, as the demonstrators attempted to storm the Legco, the police attempted to expel them by violent means, leading to many injuries. It is clear that a historic movement has begun, a movement that indicates a fundamental contradiction within Hong Kong; and between it and China.

The Extradition Bill

The immediate cause of this monster demonstration is the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, aka the extradition bill. This law will allow anyone suspected of being a ‘criminal’ to be extradited to mainland China. While technically this will not encompass political dissidents, but only criminals, given that China has taken to kidnapping Hong Kongers wherever it likes (including in Thailand, as in the case of the Causeway Book sellers), it is clear that it will find a way to ‘suspect’ political thorns in its side residing in Hong Kong of being ‘criminals’. The extradition bill will simply enable China to carry out more smoothly and with legal cover, and therefore presumably more frequently, what it is already doing.

One possible victim could be Han Dongfang, one of the leaders of the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation in the Tiananmen Square protests. He now runs China Labour Bulletin from Hong Kong, a website that documents abuses of Chinese workers, strikes and other labour activity in mainland China. There are many other Chinese socialists and revolutionaries taking refuge in Hong Kong; this law threatens their existence.

It threatens not only all critics of China’s regime, but also the agreed ‘one country, two systems’ principle, supposedly in place until 2047, since Hong Kong judges who do not pass such extradition requests will themselves face deportation to China. There is no doubt that China is pushing to destroy Hong Kong’s semi-independence. This is testified by other recent moves, such as the building of a new train station in Hong Kong in which, for the first time, mainland Chinese police officers are stationed, and by a proposed new bill to outlaw showing ‘disrespect’ to the Chinese national anthem, punishable by up to three years in jail.

These moves are part of Xi Jinping’s wider push towards a much stronger totalitarian regime. It is part of the same thinking that has led to enormous increases in both internal security and military spending. Under Xi’s dominant watch, the Chinese state is strengthening itself, internally and externally, in the expectation of enormous struggles in the coming period. It rightly expects a financial and economic crisis will soon come, and with it a big increase in class struggles, which it fears like the plague. Such events would be inseparable from greater international turmoil, partly because of the likelihood of another global capitalist crisis, partly because of the intensifying struggle between the US and China. Overall, the Chinese regime knows that it cannot expect the relative peace and prosperity of the past 30 years to continue for long, and it knows that Hong Kong is a point of vulnerability. It is trying to shore up its control of this territory before such events take place.

But China cannot force the square peg of Hong Kong into the round hole of China. Few Hong Kongers identify with Beijing, and with each passing year (and with each authoritarian act by Beijing), even less do. The University of Hong Kong’s (UHK) annual survey showed that around 38 percent are proud to be Chinese citizens, down from 47 percent in 1997. The younger the person, the more negative they are likely to feel about mainland China. In May last year, UHK found that a record high of 54 percent of respondents lacked confidence in ‘one country, two systems’. “At the time of the handover, fewer than one-in-five had misgivings about the idea. Over the same period, those who expressed distrust in the central government rose from fewer than a third to nearly half of those surveyed. A poll last month conducted by the same university found that Hong Kongers would sooner call themselves “global citizens” than “Chinese”.” (The Economist, 19 January 2019)

Radicalisation of youth

The protestors feel incredibly strongly about the new bill because they are genuinely frightened for their future. They are faced with the prospect of, in effect, losing the right to protest and organise against the Beijing regime. They are terrified at the prospect that they could soon be sent to jail or deported to an alien land, simply for booing the national anthem or publishing a facebook post. They feel as if they are being invaded by a foreign power and subjected to a draconian regime. That is why these protests are so huge and militant.

HK extradition bill 2 Image fair useThe masses are terrified at the prospect of having their right to protest stripped away and being shipped to the mainland with impunity, which explains the size of these protests and the courage of its participants / Image: fair use

The attempt to storm the Legco is proof of the level of radicalisation amongst layers of Hong Kongers, especially the youth and students. Storming the centre of political power in Hong Kong is extremely difficult and dangerous. In their attempt to do so, thousands of protestors ripped up metal barriers and fought with police, who on Sunday attacked them with pepper spray and water cannons, and today have upped the ante with rubber bullets and baton charges, as you can see in this video. At least 22 have been rushed to hospital today, one of whom is unconscious after being hit in the head with a rubber bullet. Another protestor may be blind in one eye after a rubber bullet became lodged in his eye socket.

The call to go to the Legco on Sunday was made by Demosistō, a three-year-old party that was founded and is led by the main student leaders of 2014’s Umbrella Movement, including Nathan Law, the youngest ever person elected to the Legco – and then disqualified from it for refusing to say the required oath ‘respectfully’. It primarily campaigns for the self-determination for Hong Kong through, according to them, direct action. At its founding, it also declared a struggle against “capitalist hegemony,” though earlier this year it has distanced itself from this position. However, under the pressure of the present movement, it may become radicalized to the left yet again.

I spoke to a local student activist on the ground in Hong Kong, who praised Demosistō’s determination and self-sacrifice in building the student and left-wing movement over the past few years. Whilst their call to protest outside the Legco has raised the movement to a higher level, and inspired today’s larger protest there, he explained that their organisation of this protest needed to be clearer, better communicated and more militant:

“Their plan was to organise a sit-in, in front of the legislative council after the protests, but they only made this public when the protest was actually coming to its end (at around 22:30), by which time most of the people had dispersed. Obviously it is not possible for all one million people to join the occupation, but even 5 percent of that would have had a huge effect. In the end, the sit-in had around 100-150 participants. They refrained from publicising their intent to do a sit-in because it is at odds with what the main organiser of the protests wanted, and they thus decided if they talked about doing a sit-in, it would hijack the protest and drive people away.

“I am disappointed that they didn’t try to thrash it out with the main organisers before the protests, and I feel that, even if they had not come to an agreement, there would be an understanding that a sit-in was what they wanted and people would be better prepared to respond to that. Also, before announcing the sit-in was to start, no one from Demosistō did any real, on-the-ground communication with protesters, asking whether they wanted to take part or trying to convince them, or gauging what degree of involvement they are comfortable with… this may indirectly have led to the violence later in the night: I believe if the sit-in had been better organised and attended by more people, and thus more likely to have an effect, far fewer people would have decided they had to storm into the legislative council for the protest to not go to waste.”

Demosistō is an extremely young party, both in its age and that of its leading members, who are mostly in their twenties. This party, and the young activists in Hong Kong, are learning how to organise a mass movement. They have taken enormous strides forwards in a very short space of time, and represent an important breakthrough on the left in Hong Kong. Both the party and the movement will learn a huge amount from these protests, including from their organisational mistakes.

Fundamental contradictions

In the past, anti-Chinese sentiment in Hong Kong tended to be anti-Communist if not explicitly pro-capitalist. But it is very telling that this youth group and party states on its homepage that “we push for the city’s political and economic autonomy from the oppression of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and capitalist hegemony.” This reflects the enormous changes that have taken place in both mainland China and Hong Kong in the 22 years since the handover. On the one hand, China has become a powerful, capitalist nation, and its domination of Hong Kong is based precisely on the strength of Chinese capitalism and its need for a financial hub there. On the other hand, this economic pressure from China has made Hong Kong probably the most expensive city in the world, in which property prices are almost double those of London and New York, but wages are slightly lower.

This movement does not represent a temporary crisis. It expresses a fundamental contradiction that has come to the surface. As Chinese capitalism clashes more and more with the US, it cannot tolerate a semi-independent territory within its borders in which anyone who is opposed to Beijing can find sanctuary.

The US’s response to Sunday’s protests, on the other hand, is an example of their ability to exploit Hong Kong in their efforts to undermine China. Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pompeo have both recently met with various dissident leaders based in Hong Kong. Marco Rubio has just proposed that the US retract Hong Kong’s special trading status in response to the extradition bill, which would drag the question of Hong Kong into the escalating trade war between the two countries. Beijing will continue to subordinate Hong Kong to its own draconian control to prevent it from becoming an anti-Beijing or pro-US base within China’s territory.

However, this will make more and more Hong Kongers anti-Chinese and determined to fight for independence – something the US will encourage. Here we must distinguish between the genuine concerns of the Hong Kongers and the reactionary manoeuvres of US imperialism. Hong Kongers should have the right to decide on their own future, including the right to self-determination. But genuine self-determination cannot be achieved under capitalism.

The strongest support for mainland rule in Hong Kong lies with big business and billionaires; their economic model and financial forecasts depend on it. They are the ones who back the pro-China Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and who oppose any moves to a genuine democracy in Hong Kong. The capitalists of Hong Kong also fear the class struggle, both in mainland China and in Hong Kong. And greater restrictions on democratic rights they see as a useful tool in holding down the workers of Hong Kong. Thus, they will oppose with all their might the disruption that a campaign for independence would cause them. Demosistō and all those fighting for independence must therefore recognise that their struggle is really one for independence from capitalism.

No anti-mainlander prejudice, for class unity!

For these reasons, the working class of mainland China are not the Hong Kongers’ enemies but their greatest allies. Demosistō must continue to combat any trace of anti-mainlander prejudice, such as the use of the term ‘locusts’ to describe mainlanders. These workers are just as much victims of Beijing’s oppressive power. Demosistō correctly states that it is opposed to nationalism and the perception that mainlanders are the enemy. They need to go further than this, however, and understand that, ultimately, to succeed they need the active support of the mighty Chinese working class, which is already under the jackboot of the Xi regime.

The movement must base itself on the working class. The Chinese state is formidably strong in its means of repression. It will not change course unless it has absolutely no choice. This means raising the prospect of all-out class struggle in Hong Kong hat consciously seeks to spread beyond the borders and begins to influence the workers in mainland China.

Calls for a general strike of workers across Hong Kong were made, especially by Demosistō after Sunday’s protest. However, as is so frequently the case all over the world, the trade union leaders are not proving up to this task. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions has passively supported the demand, but seemed not to understand what a strike actually is when it asked workers to ask their employers for the day off in order to participate in the strike! Nevertheless, some workers appear to have taken matters into their own hands. For example, school teachers have walked out with their students, and started to coordinate open-air, free classrooms in anticipation of long term occupations ahead.

However, the class differentiation within the movement remains undeveloped. The primary danger facing this movement comes from the fact that a portion of the strikes are actually called by small-and-medium-enterprise business owners who have pledged to close shop to let their workers’ protest. A strike cannot be entrusted to members of the opposing class. Workers’ organisations must remain completely independent from the bosses’ leadership, otherwise the “strike” will be brought to an end as soon as the business owners find it inconvenient for business. As we have explained, the big business owners of Hong Kong are a bastion of support for Beijing. The movement can only develop the determination and militancy it needs to win if fully independent from them.

Build for a general strike

Whilst the heroic efforts of the demonstrators have managed to delay the passing of the bill, it is still expected to be forced through by 20 June. Trade unions should start making concrete preparations for a general strike before then, under the slogan of the resignation of the Legco and Carrie Lam. At the same time, they should issue an internationalist appeal to the workers of China. Even on a capitalist basis, this is the only way of forcing the Chinese regime to back off. If the bureaucrats in Beijing feel that by insisting on this new legislation they risk a movement within mainland China itself they may be forced to think again.

It must also be stressed, however, that the Legco is not elected by universal suffrage, but through various ‘special interest’ groups and big businesses. It cannot be used to further the cause of working-class Hong Kongers. Thus the movement would have to go further, and propose a new constitution and democratic body. General assemblies of the movement should be called in order to debate such measures and elect leaders to draw up a new, genuinely democratic constitution that can lead the workers of Hong Kong in the struggle for self-determination. This movement would also have to appeal for international working-class solidarity, especially from Taiwan and mainland China, particularly the workers of Guangdong province. Such an approach could then spark a wave of strikes across China itself, which is like a tinderbox waiting to go off.

This movement was presaged and prepared for by 2014’s Umbrella Movement. In today’s protests, the demonstrators showed tremendous organisational abilities. Organisers brought along gas masks and clingfilm, which they handed out to protect protestors from pepper spray and tear gas. Makeshift barricades were set up on the spur of the moment to prevent police charges. Metal gates were tied between trees. But with the talk of a general strike in the air, we can see that this movement is already on a higher level than that of 2014. It is more class conscious, more political. It is already drawing in solidarity from trade unions in Taiwan.

What we can be sure of is that Hong Kongers will not go back to normal. They won’t tolerate the passing of this bill, and they understand the direction the bill is taking Hong Kong – towards complete subordination to the dictatorial regime in Beijing. Both Hong Kong and mainland China have stormy futures ahead. Like everywhere else in the world, capitalism increasingly means open class struggle, brutal state repression and economic and social crisis. Only the organised power of the working class can provide an answer to this anarchy.