Tensions rise in Hong Kong

Colin Sparks reports on the latest developments in Hong Kong, where the movement on the streets is showing impressive resilience as direct pressure from Beijing builds.

Protests at Hong Kong airport. Photo via twitter @HansonKuang

Hong Kong airport shut down on Monday and was severely disrupted again on Tuesday as thousands of protesters occupied the terminals. The spontaneous protest was in response to the shocking police violence in the days before.  On Sunday night a medical volunteer was rushed to hospital when a hard object, allegedly a police bean bag round, shattered her protective eye shield.  She is in danger of losing the sight of one eye.  The same evening, police fired tear gas grenades inside one MTR station and beat protesters fleeing down an escalator in another.  Cops disguised as protestors have been infiltrating demonstrations and making arbitrary arrests. Elsewhere, the indiscriminate use of tear gas in residential areas has brought locals out to join demonstrators resisting the police.  There is no doubt there has been a sharp escalation in police violence.

Hong Kong’s bosses swing behind the local government

The escalation is part of an intensified campaign to crush the mass movement against the proposed extradition law that shows no signs of abating. Last week, for the first time, a group of the largest construction companies issued a statement backing the government.  They, and other big businesses, had been conspicuously silent over the demonstrations until recently because they feared that the new law could be used against them. Almost all Hong Kong big businesses are heavily involved in the mainland. Their worry is that if they make the wrong deal with the wrong person they could find themselves whisked away to face trumped-up charges in a mainland court that boasts a 95 % conviction rate.  Some had told their staff they could take time off to demonstrate if they wished.  That has changed. What has shifted their view is that Beijing is putting more and more pressure on them to back the government.  Last week, they summoned 500 of the local elite – tycoons and local pro-Beijing politicians – to a meeting in Shenzhen where, allegedly, they were lectured on the need to put their weight behind Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong police.

A good example of the business capitulation is that Cathay Pacific airline, part owned by the British-based Swire conglomerate, on Thursday issued a statement saying that it had no interest in the private activities of its employees, many of whom have been supportive of the protests.  On Friday, the Beijing air travel regulator demanded that Cathay banned staff protesters from working on flights using Chinese airspace.  Within hours, Cathay had caved in and suspended a pilot charged with rioting and sacked two ground staff who had leaked confidential information. On Tuesday, the chief executive of the main Cathay shareholder, Merlin Bingham Swire of Swire Pacific visited Beijing and the company issued a statement that they are:

deeply concerned by the ongoing violence and disruption impacting Hong Kong. We resolutely support the Hong Kong SAR government, the chief executive and police in their efforts to restore law and order.

They are not only complying with all of the demands but dancing to Beijing’s tune in order to maintain their profitable China-based operations.

At the same time, Beijing is increasing direct pressure on the movement.  The tone of the official press is becoming much harsher, with some now speaking of the demonstrators as potential terrorists.  At least 12,000 Chinese paramilitary armed police, the government’s weapon of choice for crushing popular resistance, were shown on state TV moving to just across the Hong Kong boundary in Shenzhen.  The Chinese government may not yet be ready to intervene directly in Hong Kong but it is clearly making preparations to do so if need be. For the moment, Beijing is still hoping that the mass movement will run out of steam, the militant vanguard will become exhausted, and the local police can re-establish control unaided. They recognise that the occupation of Hong Kong, and the likely bitter resistance it would encounter, would exact a huge political and economic price.

The movement today

There are few signs so far of the scale of the movement falling off.  The airport occupations, taking place on working days, show that thousands of people are prepared to sacrifice time and money to back the campaign.  In locality after locality, the vanguard’s sieges of police stations gain support from local residents, notably in the working class area of Kowloon and the New Territories.  The daily 4 pm police press conference was broadcast live on Monday and in offices across Hong Kong people were gathered around screens in anger and disgust at the explanations for extreme police violence offered by the senior officers.

That is not to say there are not problems ahead for the movement.  At the beginning, the brave young fighters were, literally, at the head of marches of hundreds of thousands of people.  The police have responded by banning marches.  Although thousands ignore the bans and march anyway, the vanguard have changed their tactics to what amounts to urban guerrilla warfare.  Their slogan ‘Be water, my friend’ means that relatively small groups confront the police in one place and then quickly move elsewhere, forcing the cops to disperse across the city in pursuit.  These are brilliant and inventive tactics, but they are only available to the most determined fighters.  They retain mass support, but most of the time the masses are now just that:  supporters.  They no longer have the same central role in the movement.  That is why events like last week’s strikes, demonstrations by lawyers and civil servants, demonstrations by health workers against increasing police violence, and the occupations of the airport over the weekend are so important.  They are actions in which thousands of people play an active part in building the movement.

This is a movement without any clear, central, leadership.  The marches that take place in defiance of police bans are called by all sort of people:  the one in Taipo last Saturday was called by a local church leader.  Others are the result of online discussions between participants.  In the confrontations with the police intense discussions take place about tactics between the fighters and there is admirable unity in action once a decision is reached.  Individual democratic politicians have been present at many of the worst confrontations but the traditional democratic parties have been unable to provide any real leadership.  Even the young leaders thrown up by the 2014 Occupy movement have been more or less marginalized.

What does the movement want?

This lack of a central leadership is a great strength of the movement and has meant that it has been able to display the amazing flexibility, innovation and resourcefulness that have kept it alive against fierce repression.  On the other hand, it is a weakness because it is not clear today exactly what its political goals are.  The original demand was for the withdrawal of the extradition bill, and that remains a central plank.  After the first confrontations new demands were added, more or less by popular acclaim: the resignation of the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam; a public enquiry into police behaviour; the dropping of all charges against protestors; and withdrawal of any attempt to call the demonstrations riots.  Subsequently, the key slogan of the most militant demonstrators has become: ‘Liberate Hong Kong: Revolution of our Time!’ What this means is not clear.  The slogan was coined in 2016 by an independence advocate, Edward Leung Tin-kei, and some of the people using it today undoubtedly want Hong Kong to break away from the PRC.  For others, though, it is a more general demand for the democratization of Hong Kong politics along the lines promised in the handover negotiations and subsequently refused by Beijing and their local stooges.  They wish to preserve the unique aspects of Hong Kong life and culture that distinguish it from the rest of China.  For some, no doubt, it is simply a concise way of putting the original demands.  Even if the government was prepared to compromise to achieve peace, it is unclear exactly what sort of concession would be sufficient to halt the movement.

So far, however, the local government has made not one single concession to any of these demands.  Having said the original bill is ‘dead’ they refuse even formally to withdraw it. It is very difficult to see how Beijing, which today calls the shots in official policy, will ever allow them a single backward step. To concede to any of the demands would be to display weaknesses that they fear would be picked up by one or more of the many other discontented groups in China. Unfortunately for the movement, there is very little sign of any support for their stand in the Chinese heartlands.

Is there support on the mainland?

The Communist Party has built its current legitimacy around delivering a strong and united China.  They have banged the nationalist drum on any and every opportunity.  One example is that the Beijing government demanded that airlines changed their schedules that suggested that Taiwan is a separate country because the suggestion that it is not an integral part of the People’s Republic, ‘hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese’.  This propaganda has been buttressed by the very real advances in Chinese economic, political and economic power, and the fact that significant sections of the population have experienced rising living standards.  The state media in the mainland have harped constantly on the violence of the demonstrators, the alleged influence of foreign agitators, and on the alleged demand to break away from China,  which they claim is what motivates the militants.

For their part, the bulk of the movement has made little effort to build support on the mainland.  There is a strong current of xenophobia against mainland Chinese amongst Hong Kongers, most of whom see themselves as members of a quite distinct society.  These feelings are sometimes expressed in terms of abuse and open hostility to mainlanders. There are a few voices calling for attempts to build links between the struggle in Hong Kong and those on the mainland.  The most famous is ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, the former Trotskyist, and one of the elected representatives banned from the Legislative Council.  He and the other militants who share his outlook have long argued that without mainland support Hong Kong will always be under pressure from Beijing, and that their demands for democratization can find an echo amongst the workers and peasants who suffer much more from Beijing’s rule than do Hong Kongers, but the people arguing for this viewpoint are few in number and their voices are not influential in the movement.

The consequence is that there seems to be very little support for the Hong Kong struggle among mainlanders, and much active hostility.  One index of this pervasive nationalist hostility to the movement is that mainland Chinese students in Australia and Canada have mobilised against students from Hong Kong and elsewhere who have expressed support for the demonstrations.  While some ethnic minorities hostile to Han Chinese domination, in Tibet or Xinjiang, might see Hong Kong as a kindred struggle, it is unlikely that any of the many discontented groups in the Han heartlands will express support. Although Beijing clearly fears the contagion of democracy spreading across China if they make any concessions to Hong Kong, there is as yet no evidence of that taking place.

The future of the movement

The outcome of the ten-week crisis is impossible to predict because it depends on too many variables.  One major variable is the endurance and resourcefulness of the movement and in particular whether it can continue to build mobilizations that allow the masses to participate fully.  The courage and stamina of the front-line fighters is admirable, but without mass support that will eventually wither.  That mass support can only be sustained if it can find expression in actions like the one-day strike, the sectoral mobilizations and the airport occupations, in which the broadest range of people can participate.

The other major variable is the Chinese government.  At the moment they are clearly hoping that their local stooges can outlast the movement but if it continues to go forward then sooner or later they will have to make a decision.  They will have to balance the costs of finding some concessions that will defuse the movement against those of what will likely be a bloody and protracted occupation of the territory.  Whichever choice they make, they will have to pay a price.  If they choose the ‘Tiananmen option’ then there will inevitably be a huge international backlash that will have serious economic and political effects.  If they choose to make concessions then they will still face a discontented city which will, if not today then tomorrow, have shown that with courage and determination, it is possible to win substantial gains against even an unashamedly authoritarian regime.


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