On Tuesday 9 July, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's Chief Executive (appointed by Beijing) declared that the controversial extradition bill that has sparked weeks of mass protests is "dead". Her opponents - now battle-hardened demonstrators who fear the imposition of direct Chinese rule on their territory - have said they do not believe her.
For weeks now there have been massive demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong, on June 16 reaching nearly two million – more than a quarter of the population of the territory. An energetic and fearless force has faced down an apparently all-powerful regime. What is the nature of the movement and what are the perspectives for the immediate and the long-term both for the people of Hong Kong and of its gigantic neighbour with a 1.4 billion population? An accumulation of economic, social and political contradictions is waiting to explode.
Hong Kong - a former colony of Britain - is home to some of the biggest banks and finance houses in the world and has some of the worst housing conditions and levels of poverty. Under the 1984 agreement for British rule to end - implemented in 1997 - Hong Kong became a part of China, but with a different system.
From the beginning, the legislative body – Legco - has been totally unrepresentative. Half of its members are chosen by the Chinese government and the other 35 seats are occupied predominantly by ‘representatives’ of corporate and special interest groups. Last year, six moderately left pro-democracy representatives were removed - on the orders of the Chinese regime - and any candidate seen as favouring total independence is barred from running in elections.
The attempt by Beijing to get this body to allow the extradition to the Chinese mainland of 'criminals' arrested in Hong Kong was the spark that provoked the initial demonstrations at the end of March. This change in the law could include not only political opponents of the Chinese regime and its puppet in Hong Kong, but also bankers, businessmen, millionaires and billionaires. They have found Hong Kong a very lenient environment to get rich quick and to live in great luxury on the hillsides and islands of the former British protectorate. It has been reported that some of them have already decided to pack up and leave!
What fuels the protests is the idea that China could take over direct political control of Hong Kong and even order a Tiananmen-type 'solution' to the protest movement. The current demonstrations are reminiscent of the 'Umbrella revolution’ of 2014 when central Hong Kong was occupied for two and a half months. That movement was, like the present one, also demanding genuine universal suffrage and the resignation of the Chief Executive. Some of its youthful leaders received harsh prison sentences.
In 2004 a repressive national security bill was also suspended after mass protests and today’s demonstrators want assurances that the extradition bill is totally withdrawn. They do not trust the promises of Carrie Lam. She disappeared for almost two weeks as the crisis mounted, then she returned to apologise for the unacceptable degree of violence and force used against protesters and shed crocodile tears on behalf of those injured.
July 1st had marked the twenty second anniversary of independence from British rule. Another huge demonstration had flooded the streets and congregated around the Legco building. Many of the demonstrators were equipped masks, shields, helmets and umbrellas against the tear gas. At a certain point in the evening, it seems that police and officials stood back and allowed a group with metal bars to smash a way in to the building. Protesters then flooded in with no hindrance from officials. They reached the debating chamber, turned over furniture and spray painted slogans and emblems on the walls and desks.
It is possible that the police passivity on this occasion was a deliberate ploy to get the demonstrators to discredit themselves or even a trap to identify more leaders to arrest. Either way, in its aftermath no fewer than 70 people were taken into custody, including a demonstrator as young as 14. The charges included possession of weapons, unlawful assembly, assaulting police, criminal damage, forcible entry and disorderly conduct in a public place.
Some fear the crackdown could last for years. There could be a repeat of what happened to Joshua Wong, a 22 year-old, who was key figure in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. He has been in and out of prison with his last release happening suddenly this June.
After the Independence Day crackdown, the British Foreign Minister (and candidate for Prime Minister), Jeremy Hunt, uttered a school masterly rebuke to China. It would hardly have frightened Xi Jinping regime in China, which has the biggest army in the world and is involved at present in major trade and military stand-offs with the USA. A new ‘cold war’ is being talked about, though not one between two totally different social, political and economic systems.
Within China itself, socialist phraseology is sometimes still used as a cover for a widespread process of privatisation. The ‘Communist Party of China’ defends a dictatorship in the name of the working class and poor people, but the top elite around Xi Jinping are fabulously rich and many are already dollar billionaires. A struggle is needed to end dictatorial rule and establish workers’ control and management of the still existing state-owned industry and land. A struggle is needed for nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management of the sectors that have been privatised and the establishment of real democratic socialist planning through elected committees of workers’ and poor people’s representatives. What lies ahead is a struggle both for elements of a political revolution against the massive, privileged bureaucracy and a social revolution against the capitalist relationships in the economy, finance etc.
Outside the country, China under Xi Jinping is variously seen as a “communist dictatorship”, a “special form of state capitalism” or a “fully-fledged” capitalist nation. The party leader himself is acutely aware of what happened (nearly three decades ago) after the collapse of the former Stalinist states, their ruling ‘communist’ parties and most of the general secretaries. He has gone all out to try and achieve a peaceful transition to market capitalism. Strangely enough, the chief executive of HSBC – John Flint – has upset colleagues by asserting that China operates a “deeply socialist system that’s served its people really well”. He means a system that has delivered a huge economic transformation but without any involvement in decision-making by the workers and small farmers who are the majority of the population.
But a Tory MP in Britain put it differently: “China today has a one-party capitalist system”. It does not allow even the elementary democratic rights of most capitalist countries. The 'Supreme leader' reacts to protest, not with reform, but with more repression, as has been seen in the last few days in Wuhan, southern China.
But Xi Jinping’s kept media has been forced to acknowledge the recent troubles in Hong Kong. It has shown footage was shown of police in Hong Kong clearing protesters from the streets. This alone can arouse interest. ‘Dangerous’ news can spread across the vast landmass of China. Condemning it, the ruling party’s mouthpiece – the Global Times – carried an editorial to say that anything but zero tolerance would be like “opening a Pandora’s box”. Demonstrators in Hong Kong had the right idea when they leafletted trains leaving Hong Kong with news of the protests leafletted the main stations from which trains part for Chinese towns and cities. A conscious appeal for solidarity and the idea of spreading the movement against the regime are what is needed.
It would resonate with workers in the vast factories across the country and those involved in the thousands of ‘incidents’ of protest and defiance recorded every week on social injustices, environmental issues, lack of health provision and housing as well as unofficial strikes over wages and conditions. It will resonate with the students and workers arrested and persecuted for striking or simply broadcasting news of protests against the government and against the bosses. News of repression and revolt in Hong Kong will resonate with the persecuted Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang. It will even resonate with the workers and young people of Taiwan, fighting to break from the still-powerful tentacles of the Chinese regime.
It is only a matter of time before new waves of mass struggle erupt on mainland China that will shake this regime. But the mass movement in Hong Kong cannot continue indefinitely with the same intensity.
Already despairing youth have turned to suicide as a way out. One ‘pro-democracy’ political figure, Claudia Mo, while expressing determination to continue the fight, admits that, “Many of the young people actually feel desperate; however you do it, peaceful marches, storming into the legislature, these have yielded little effect”. There can be no illusions. The movement has to go further politically in opposing the Beijing dictatorship, developing a political programme for challenging the rule of big business and its political representatives.
The protest demonstrations have ebbed and flowed in the streets and squares of Hong Kong and around the government buildings. There was a week's respite after the big clashes of July 1st. But on Sunday, 7th July, tens of thousands marched from the harbour front at Tsim Sha Tsui and others gathered and proceeded to the commercial district of Mong Kok where they were confronted by riot police. They were equipped with the now familiar goggles and masks and held yellow banners and umbrellas calling for universal suffrage; a few waved the Union Jack, possibly favouring a return to British imperialist rule. The Chinese Ambassador in London mockingly pointed out to Hunt that “In a century and a half under Britain, there was no freedom, no democracy whatsoever”, but he hypocritically glosses over the total lack of democratic rights in China!
The demonstrators do not rule out escalating their action further. “When we’re fighting against a government which doesn’t have a bottom line, we don’t have a bottom line either” one demonstrator asserted anonymously to the press.
The predominantly youthful protesters organise by social media and seem to deliberately reject the idea of organising meetings and even having elected leaders. A bit like the Gilets Jaunes in France, this is both a strength and a weakness. It means that the authorities cannot identify and pick off the leaders, but it also means that the movement lacks the cohesion of democratically elected bodies to coordinate and develop the struggle.
Stable organisations and democratic structures are not essential for organising demonstrations, avoiding state obstruction, arrests, interference etc. but they are vital for taking the movement further.
The ruling layers in Hong Kong are unnerved and not confident of how to proceed. Demonstrators can begin to appeal for the forces of the state to refuse to be used against them. A turn to the working class for support would need to be made on the basis of making a link with their own situation and the need to get rid of bosses and the political parties which defend their interests. This would involve heroic efforts to reach the mighty working class of the rest of China.
Perspective and tactics
Not only students and youth but older members of Hong Kong society have supported and participated in the demonstrations. One 80 year old is quoted as saying about the invasion of the Legco building that “Breaking all those things was wrong …but the government – they’re not listening”. Trade unionists have been involved as individuals. But no call for strike action has gone out from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
A movement of all the classes can gain some reforms. A temporary lifting of the threat of extradition can satisfy certain layers. But students who genuinely strive for a fairer society will not find it on the basis of capitalism - the over-riding ethos of the rulers of Hong Kong. Nor should anyone who sees themselves as a communist or socialist imagine that the ruling ‘Communist’ Party in China would allow the establishment of a healthy, democratic workers’ state anywhere in its vast territory.
In Hong Kong the demonstrators know very well what they are against – the rigged parliament, the lack of basic rights and the threat of military dictatorship from Beijing. Without the prospect of establishing the 'normal' democratic rights of a capitalist country, with all its limitations, the movement cannot continue indefinitely.
Marxists would link the struggle over Legco and Beijing’s extradition laws to the need to base themselves on the strength of the working class to transform the situation. Aware of the obstruction of trade union leaders who compromise with the employers and the corrupt politicians, they would see the importance of approaching workers directly to push for industrial action - in the port, on the ferries, buses and trains, in the banks and finance offices, in the government and health services, even the shops!
A party is needed that can formulate a clear socialist programme and lead the struggle. It would advocate establishing and linking up elected neighbourhood and area committees and make a call for a revolutionary constituent assembly to thrash out the next steps and form a government of working and poor people.
Such a party would inscribe on its banner the demands for basic democratic rights like freedom of the press, the right to organise, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly etc. One of its first demands would be for a democratic investigation into the repression of the mass demonstrations. No trust in the ‘judiciary’; for a tribunal with elected representatives of students and workers.
It would elaborate demands on housing, wages, jobs etc. However difficult, a fight is needed to gain support for such a programme inside the trade unions, to change the leadership where necessary, set up workers’ committees and to organise mass struggle.