The mass movement in Hong Kong has just won its key demand – the withdrawal of the hated extradition bill that would allow anyone the Beijing government suspects of criminality to be extradited to the mainland. But none of the other four demands, such as for an independent investigation into police brutality, have been won.
Hong Kongers remain without universal suffrage in one of the most unequal places in the world. This movement (and the state’s uncompromising reaction to it) has transformed Hong Kong to such an extent that it is hard to imagine how the situation can be resolved and the status quo being restored. The movement must continue until the government is decisively defeated.
From the beginning of the movement, severe repression from the police has shocked and provoked Hong Kongers. In the last two weeks this has been stepped up, in an attempt to further provoke, divide and weaken the movement.
But the sustained nature of this campaign of police violence, and especially its recent escalation, has completely undermined popular illusions in the police and the state. They are now despised by millions, seen for what they really are: a gang of heavily armed men who exist to protect the property of the super-rich and maintain order on their terms.
On 14 August, hundreds of Hong Kong MTR (Mass Transit Railway) workers signed a petition against the police’s indiscriminate use of teargas within metro stations and trains. Teargas has practically become part of Hong Kong’s climate over the past three months. As a result, the pharmacists’ union has publicly called for the cessation of its use by police and for the government to distribute gas masks to residents! Professor Mónica Kräuter also stressed that indoor use of tear gas is not allowed at all, as it releases toxic chemicals that can cause cancer and can take at least a week to leave such confined spaces.
Unsurprisingly, this has not deterred the police. On the night of 31 August, the police burst into Prince Edward Metro station and, according to an eyewitness account, “got into the carriage and beat up all the people in it regardless of whether they were protesters or simply passengers.”
“They ignored the weapon guidelines and fired tear gas in the carriage which is in fact lethal. Also, they beat up innocent people causing them to be seriously wounded. Some passengers kneeled before them asking them to stop but the response they got was to be beaten ever harder and pepper sprayed.”
This incident can be seen in this shocking video:
The intense and widespread police violence has caused an influx of patients into hospitals needing treatment for severe injuries. As a result, hundreds of workers in 13 hospitals have held sit-down protests against the police.
Incidents of police brutality have become far too widespread to list. One notable development, however, is the consistent molestation of female protesters by police. Another is the deployment and use of water cannon trucks armed with blue ink that stains protesters (and any unfortunate passersby), making them easily identifiable by police for days afterwards.
The brutality is recognised and understood not simply by a layer of hardcore activists, but by the bulk of Hong Kong society – and certainly by the youth and the working class as a whole, hence the demand for an independent inquiry into police brutality, which the government still refuses to grant. The state will never allow a real inquiry into the conduct of its own pillar of existence. The government must be overthrown before the people can get justice.
Regime uses methods of class struggle
The regime is increasingly attacking protesters on a class basis, leaning on certain employers to sack them. Cathay Pacific, the ‘national’ airline of Hong Kong, was threatened with a boycott by Beijing, which also banned any of its workers caught protesting from manning flights over the mainland. At least two of its pilots have been sacked.
On 23 August, Rebecca Sy, Cathay Dragon Flight Attendant Union President, was called into a meeting and shown printouts of her Facebook profile. These included posts supportive of the 5 August general strike (she also participated in the strike alongside many of her fellow Cathay workers). She was then ‘terminated’ from her job as a flight attendant.
Universities such as the City University of Hong Kong have warned students against participating in protests and even the discussion of politics. And on 17 June:
“[The] news broke that the police could freely access the Hospital Authority’s system to check details of injured protesters. The HA denied sharing information with police, though at least five protesters were arrested whilst seeking help at hospitals.” (Hong Kong Free Press, 28 August).
On 2 September, hundreds of staff at Queen Mary hospital went on strike against the repression.
Hong Kong has a reputation for freedoms and human rights – a reputation that was always illusory given the lack of universal suffrage, not to mention the cripplingly expensive living conditions that force the majority of workers to work amongst the longest hours in the world. But these illusions have been stripped away to reveal a regime that fights tooth and nail to crush any meaningful attempt to question its authority.
The strategy of the regime is to utilise the disorganisation of the movement to divide it. It knows there is a hardcore of protesters ready to take dramatic and dangerous direct action which, in itself, is impotent, such as the smashing up of the Legco (Hong Kong’s parliament).
The authorities hope that by provoking such actions, the hardcore will isolate themselves, justifying a further intensification of repression and the movement’s exhaustion.
For these reasons, on Friday 30 August, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, high-profile protesters and leaders of the Demosisto party, along with Legco members Jeremy Tam and Au Nok-hin, were arrested in broad daylight. Another prominent protester who was arrested, Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, was physically assaulted in the process.
Unfortunately, the provocation seemed to work. Rather than using the arrests as the pretext to press ahead with the planned mass protest on the Saturday, the movement’s leaders in the Civil Human Rights Front cancelled the protest. As a result, a far smaller group of a few hundred hardcore protesters were left to themselves.
Either out of frustration or in an attempt to inject some radicalism into the now small protest, they proceeded to surround the police station in Wan Chai and throw molotov cocktails at it. The police responded by spraying them with blue ink from their new cannons, and then launched the indiscriminate attack in Prince Edward station mentioned above.
The danger of liberalism
These radical but fruitless actions are a product of the liberal and disorganised leadership of the movement. In truth, it would be far more radical – and effective – to organise the movement on a class basis. This would mean building for a powerful general strike, for which the mood is clearly present. This would also give the movement a more structured and disciplined character, because in the building of this strike workers and students should call mass meetings and elect strike committees to coordinate it and prevent reckless and impotent direct action taking place.
Migrant workers need to be included in the struggle
A cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong is home to over 385,000 migrant workers, most of whom hail from the Philippines and Indonesia and work as domestic helpers. While contributing to over 3.9 percent of Hong Kong’s GDP, these workers are nevertheless extremely oppressed by their employees, facing bullying and sexual harassment, and live in abject conditions. According to Hong Kong Free Press, only 18 percent of migrant workers have a bank account and 85 percent are in high levels of debt.
The purely liberal democratic demands of the present movement are unable to address the capitalist social contradictions from which the recent explosion arose, let alone the needs of oppressed migrant workers. However, the pressure of events is also pushing the migrant workers to take a stance. On 28 August, the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union in Hong Kong announced that many employers have been trying to take advantage of the unrest and pressure migrant workers to forgo their already minuscule rest days. The Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union also explained that many workers found it hard to adjust to the new schedules demanded of them from the employers.
This is an important section of the working class in Hong Kong that, with a consistent socialist leadership, can be won over to the present struggle with a fighting programme that applies to them as well. Including this section of the working class also opens the way to spread the class struggle into Southeast Asia and could deal an extra blow to Chinese imperialism’s interests and enhance the appeal of the entire movement. For example, as right-wing Filipino president visited China seeking to lean on Chinese capital to enhance the rule of the bourgeoisie in the Philippines, a Filipino trade union declared their solidarity with the Anti-Extradition movement on their fourth Congress in late August.
The movement must clearly include the demands of migrant workers as part of a fighting socialist programme that benefits all workers equally. If such demands are energetically put forward and thus attract the support of migrant workers, then the class nature of this movement would be greatly enhanced, and in turn show the workers on mainland that this is a class struggle worth joining. This would also explode the one-sided coverage by the pro-CCP media that seeks to divide the Hong Kong and mainland working class. Including the migrant workers’ struggle also means the entire movement must break with their bourgeois or petit-bourgeois employers, who may at present insert themselves into the struggle against the extradition bill.
Between a militant rank and file and a timid labour leadership
Unfortunately, the current labour leadership in Hong Kong that participates in the anti-extradition struggle does not have the programme to unleash the movement’s full potential. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, while not seriously considered by many rank-and-file workers as their leadership, nevertheless plays a dampening rather than inspiring role. While being dragged by the rank-and-file workers into calling for strikes, the HKCTU leadership nevertheless contents itself to confine any labour struggle within the remit of the law, while tail ending the liberal democratic demands, instead of elevating the struggle into one that fights for social demands, directed against capitalism.
To date, the HKCTU continues to advise the workers to “strike” by means of taking a holiday with the permission of their employers. While small strike committees appear to have been forming from the rank and file, as exemplified by a press conference of anonymous worker representatives from 21 industries held on 29 August, the HKCTU has merely been cheerleading rather than actively organising workers’ participation. This repeatedly resulted in actual the number striking workers being far below the million-strong marches that we’ve witnessed in the past period, even well below the HKCTU’s own stated membership. In the latest strike on 2-3 September, over 40,000 workers valiantly went on strike, but the HKCTU could have mobilised even more people had it seriously tried to prepare a general strike. It also doesn’t seem to be playing a role in connecting the labour movement with the concurrent mass school walk-outs on campuses around Hong Kong.
While the CCP-controlled Hong Kong Federation of Trade Union (HKFTU) continues to hold leadership over the majority of the organised workers in Hong Kong, owing to the militant role it played under British colonialism, it has long become a reliable organ for the Hong Kong bourgeoisie to control the working class. The extent of HKFTU’s subservience to the bourgeoisie is exemplified by the fact that some of its leaders went on to become founding members of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in 1992, now the premier pro-Beijing bourgeois party there. The HKCTU, founded in 1990 in the context of the clear degeneration of the HKFTU, was purportedly formed to offer the working class a militant alternative.
If the HKCTU has a militant socialist leadership, it could have easily taken advantage of the vacuum and inspired the most advanced ranks of the HKFTU to join them and transform it into the undisputed leadership of the Hong Kong working class. Nevertheless, the timid, reformist outlook of the HKCTU leaders consistently halted the union from being able to do so.
Honest, class-conscious workers and youth affiliated with the HKCTU must now launch an inspiring programme within the union that seriously challenges the cowardly outlook of the existing leadership by organising for strike committees and strike votes among all sectors of the working class, to rally them to a renewed banner of a fighting HKCTU. They must also clearly put forward a class-independent outlook, explaining that strikes do not need the consent of the bosses, and that a mass party of the working class is a necessary political tool for all Hong Kong workers to challenge the bourgeois dictatorship in Hong Kong as sponsored by the CCP, and explicitly aim to include the demands of mainland Chinese and migrant workers into their programme against capitalism.
Bolder programme and organisation needed
For the movement to press forward, it requires a socialist programme to broaden its appeal and solve the underlying problems in Hong Kong society, which are the problems of capitalism – not just of authoritarianism.
Unbearable living conditions, housing costs, wages and working hours characterise the daily, grinding oppression faced by the Hong Kong working class. They need democratic rights so that they can fight to change society in their interests, which means having a socialist programme. Behind the Hong Kong government stands the regime in Beijing, who will not give in unless threatened closer to home. The problems of the Hong Kong working class are the same as those faced by their brothers and sisters in the mainland. Armed with a socialist programme, they could spark a mass movement within mainland China that would threaten the Beijing regime and Chinese capitalism itself. Ultimately that is the only salvation for Hong Kong.