47 arrested oppositionist political figures in Hong Kong appeared in court in recent days on charges of “subverting state power.” These arrests came after a slew of measures taken by the Hong Kong government to implement the new National Security Laws, imposed upon the autonomous city by the Chinese Communist Party regime last summer. This is part of repressing the Hong Kong masses since they rose up to fight for democratic rights in 2019. Only a class analysis can help us understand what is going on and what is to be done.
Mass arrest of politicians
The 47 were arrested on 6 January of this year for participating in a primary election organised by a coalition of Pan-Democratic political parties in July last year. This coalition consists of a hodgepodge of political tendencies that generally supported the Anti-Extradition Law Movement that erupted two years ago, which saw over two million people coming out to demonstrate for more democratic rights at its height. While not the organisers of the mass movement themselves, the Pan-Democratic coalition parties hoped to organise an internal primary election to produce a united slate of candidates against the pro-Beijing politicians in the Legislative Council (LegCo) election set to take place in September that year.
At the time, the proponents of this primary election believed that this tactic could potentially allow anti-Beijing politicians to win a majority in the LegCo, thereby putting pressure on the Hong Kong SAR government and Beijing to concede to the demands of the movement from within the system. To be sure, this prospect is not at all unlikely. In the District Council election of November 2019, Pan-Democratic politicians won a historic landslide victory against the pro-Beijing camp despite the movement in the street having been waning for some time. With a united slate rather than splitting the vote among several small parties, the Pan-Democratic camp had a real chance at controlling the LegCo, which holds real key legislative powers such as the power to approve the budget and impeach the Chief Executive.
Avery Ng of the League of Social Democrats told reporters after the hearing that the Justice Dept's decision to appeal against the extension of bail for 15 democrats was "disappointing" and "inhumane." https://t.co/1VMP75pM0M @HKFP @holongsze pic.twitter.com/pxBt9jRpZa— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@hkfp) March 4, 2021
Approaching this Primary, the CCP regime through its Hong Kong Liaison Office instantly cried foul. They claimed that the primary would “damage the fairness of the election” and accused the oppositionists of conspiring to “control the LegCo (in order to) reject the budget, ground the SAR government to a halt, completely drag Hong Kong down and subvert state power.” The final charge was made a serious criminal offence by the National Security Law. While the primary went ahead in July, the Hong Kong Government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared it unlawful and all of its participants liable for breaking the National Security Law. The LegCo election was subsequently delayed for a year in September by the government. Mass arrests of all candidates that participated in the then followed in January and they are now standing trial for the first time.
The charges that the prosecution made against the defendants are almost a verbatim repetition of how the Liaison office denounced the primary, namely that the primary election was a conspiracy to produce a majority of the LegCo that would proceed to subvert state power once elected. The simple fact that Hong Kong’s Basic Law and bourgeois-democratic principles, in general, hold that elected parliamentarians have a right to put a check on the executive branch is conveniently ignored. The message is clear: the LegCo’s only role in society is to rubber-stamp whatever orders are dictated from the top.
More scandalously, the prosecution requested the hearing be adjourned until 31 May as the police needed more time to investigate the charges, but requested the court deny the defendants bail. This is blatantly declaring that it is acceptable for the state to arrest and detain someone for months without sufficiently investigating the matter beforehand.
Dictatorship of Capital
These arrests are part of the CCP’s effort to take away the already minimal democratic rights that the people of Hong Kong enjoy. Wider crackdowns on freedom of speech and assembly for the general population have been raging since the implementation of the National Security Law. Protest slogans associated with the Anti-Extradition Movement have been outlawed outright, but even people who raised a blank placard in protest of censorship were arrested.
1/ A long queue formed outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts again at around 9 am on Thursday - an hour before 47 pro-democracy figures charged under the national security law are brought to court for the 4th consecutive day. pic.twitter.com/zlTxJwZlUD— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@hkfp) March 4, 2021
Beijing’s growing intolerance of dissent within Hong Kong reflects its fears of the effects that a movement in Hong Kong could have on the working class in mainland China itself. Despite Xi Jinping’s increasing centralisation of power and the relatively good recovery of the country’s economy from the COVID-19 pandemic, the contradictions of capitalism are still there and class contradictions are steadily on the rise. On the one hand, the state is attempting to rein in the mounting debt problem and the increased risks of individual capitalists destabilising the entire system. On the other hand, widespread outcries of discontent against the state and the capitalist system online still erupt through various incidents, and cases of high-profile repression against worker activists struggling against their employers remain frequent. The most recent one at the time of writing is the arrest of a leader of a Food Delivery Driver mutual aid network. In this context, Beijing cannot allow Hong Kongers to keep their rights of free speech and assembly to produce another mass movement such as that of two years ago and create the possibility to spread the movement into mainland China.
Another factor is the changing relationship between Hong Kong capitalism and that of China. In decades past, Hong Kong’s bourgeoisie used to play a pivotal role in facilitating the entrance of foreign (especially Western) capital into China, which eventually culminated in the restoration of capitalism throughout China generally. In this capacity, the Hong Kong bourgeoisie was given wide-ranging autonomy within the city under the premise of “One Country, Two Systems.” This was a measure to secure investments into China by the Hong Kong bourgeoisie and western imperialists by giving the latter two a significant say in the city’s affairs.
Today, the general situation is drastically different. US and western imperialist powers’ influence in Asia has been superseded by China. Hong Kong went from a source of capital for China into a supplicant for Chinese capital. Hong Kong is now a popular destination for Chinese IPO listings and stock trading for Chinese investors. According to South China Morning Post, Mainland Chinese enterprises accounted for 52 percent of the 2,545 listed companies in the city at the end of January 2021, 81 percent of the market capitalisation, and 90 percent of the trading volume. Chinese stock traders, who are keen to evade regulation at home, also rushed to open up accounts in Hong Kong stock brokerage firms and spent billions on buying stock from Hong Kong in recent months. To supply this enormous demand for Hong Kong financial services from Chinese clients, the number of Chinese investment bankers operating in Hong Kong is on track to overtake international ones.
Lenin once explained that politics is the concentrated expression of economics. Change in the economic balance of forces led to changes in the political one. The interests of the West in Hong Kong and the various Hong Konger bourgeoisie can no longer supersede the CCP’s bid to stabilize their own regime. The 2019 mass movement accelerated this process. The CCP could no longer trust the traditional bourgeois forces inside Hong Kong to control the masses. The CCP needs a more direct approach to maintain its rule throughout its domain.
This is why they do not mind tearing the “democratic” mask off the Hong Kong SAR, which has never provided the working masses the fullest extent of democratic rights. In place of this charade, Director of the CCP’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) declared a need for a principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” in a speech delivered on 22 February this year. This “principle” stipulates that only Chinese patriots should be given the right to participate in the governing of Hong Kong. Xia was very concrete about how such patriotism works in practice:
“The patriot necessarily respects and maintains the nation’s fundamental system and the SAR’s constitutional order. The nation is not abstract, nor is patriotism. To be a patriot is to love the People’s Republic of China. The (PRC) Constitution is the nation’s fundamental law, it is also the source of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The first clause of the (PRC) Constitution declares: ‘the socialist system is the fundamental system of the People’s Republic of China. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the most essential characteristic of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.’”
Aside from the bald-faced lies about “socialism” existing in China, the message from the CCP is clear: only those loyal to the CCP rule are allowed to participate in politics in Hong Kong moving forward. To put this into practice, the HKMAO hosted two meetings in Shenzhen in late February to work out the specifics of changing Hong Kong’s electoral laws altogether. It is possible that these proposals would then be ratified by this month’s upcoming National People’s Congress, which would in turn impose them upon Hong Kong.
Lessons that need to be learned
The crackdown on dissent and democratic rights will continue as long as the CCP regime and Chinese capitalism remain in place. Marxists defend the democratic rights of all workers and youths. But the only way to gain democracy is by revolutionary means.
The magnificent Anti-Extradition Bill Movement that inspired literally millions into the street certainly held tremendous potential. Indeed, a portion of the rank-and-file participants called for political general strikes as they realised that peaceful protesting alone would not compel the government to concede, and some attempts at them were made. However, because a general strike did not materialise, and the struggle did not advance, the movement entered into a stalemate and declined over time. At the peak of the events, when the masses were mobilised and on the streets, it was not possible for the CCP and Carrie Lam to crack down on the movement. They were powerless faced with the strength of the masses. It was only when the protests in the streets started to dwindle, along with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that the regime could repress dissidents.
But the prospect of mobilising the working class was not put forward by the leaders of the movement. Instead they limited their demands to mere liberal democratic matters rather than social and economic ones, which could have attracted even more workers and youth into the movement to fight against the system that is making them live in deplorable and declining conditions. Secondly, in order to maintain their control over the movement, they refused to organise it with democratic rank-and-file committees for large collective undertakings such as a general strike to be effectively organised. Instead, they maintained an amorphous, leaderless structure dominated by unelected prominent liberals.
Finally, they maintained a narrow Hong Kong-centric outlook and refused to appeal to the workers and youths of mainland China, who are also suffering similar conditions governed by the very same dictators. On this basis, the movement could have connected and spread into China dealing a decisive blow to Beijing.
Instead, the high-profile liberal figures who dominated the movement looked to US imperialism for a helping hand. The irony of asking Donald Trump to “defend democracy” notwithstanding, the most immediate result of this behaviour was to drive a deep wedge between the Chinese masses with those in Hong Kong and thereby isolating the latter.
What should have been done was for the labour and leftist leaders in the movement to clearly distinguish themselves from the liberals that were advocating reactionary strategies on behalf of the whole movement, and put forward a political alternative for the workers and youths in order to bring the fight to the finish. Among the many arrested in January’s raid were Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions’ chairperson Carol Ng and Leftist legislator “Long hair” Leung Kwok-hung. We fully defend these people against the regime’s repression and demand for their immediate release and their democratic rights restored. However, we must frankly note that had someone in their position and stature pursued the above measures, the reality today would've been very different.
Despite the outcome of the battles in the past period, the war is not over, and the Hong Kong masses are not cowed by the recent developments. Deep resentment towards the establishment and the CCP regime is still present throughout Hong Kong, and the most advanced layer of the protesters have been drawing important conclusions. Many have thrown themselves into unionisation drives, in order to prepare for the next stages of the struggle against the regime. They are beginning to see the limitations of purely abstract democratic demands.
These important first steps in the right direction. What we are witnessing is a process of class differentiation taking place within the movement. Through bitter experiences of the past years, the masses are gradually waking up to the huge gap between their own interests and those of the bourgeois liberals at the top of the movement. What is needed is to link these developments to the idea of building a workers’ party with a revolutionary socialist leadership that can connect the workers and youth of Hong Kong with their class brothers and sisters in mainland China. Such a movement would truly threaten Chinese capitalism and the CCP regime.