Hong Kong: mass protests in the rain

In his latest dispatch from Hong Kong, Colin Sparks reflects on the significance of yesterday’s (Sunday 18 August) illegal mass demonstration.

Mass protests in Hong Kong, Sunday 18 August. Photo: Kevin Cheng via twitter.

A huge and illegal march in the middle of a thunderstorm demonstrates that the people of Hong Kong are still determined to fight to preserve their freedoms.  The organizers claim 1.7 million people turned out, but it is impossible to give an accurate figure because transport chaos meant that people joined the march at different points and many never even managed to reach it.  Unlike in previous weeks, there were no confrontations with the police, despite the fact that they had banned the march.  Faced with a tidal wave of people they made no attempt to stop or divert the marchers, who took over the roads at will.  This week, there was no teargas, no baton charges, no arrests.

The march, called in solidarity with the young woman whose right eye was very seriously injured in last week’s battles, came at the end of dramatic protests and ideological struggle.  A five-day occupation of the airport ended on Tuesday with some clashes between police and protesters.  The occupation began with a simple demonstration in the Arrivals Hall, with protestors leafletting passengers about the situation in the city, but they then moved to the Departure Hall, stopping people catching their flights.  The pro-Beijing media jumped on the chance to interview angry businessmen and tearful tourists whose travel plans had been disrupted.  On Tuesday, some militants seized two mainland men, whom they thought were spies, and ill-treated them.  It turned out that neither were spies and one was a journalist for the Global Times (a rabidly nationalist rag and Beijing’s answer to the Daily Mail).  These events gave the police an excuse to intervene and provided ammunition for the propaganda war against the movement.

At the same time Beijing has stepped up its pressure.  There has been extensive TV coverage of the mainland People’s Armed Police practicing anti-riot drills just across the boundary in Shenzhen and senior government figures frequently threaten intervention.  Pressure on Hong Kong businesses to back the government has increased.  Two senior Cathay Pacific executives ‘resigned’, allegedly because of their initial failure to condemn the movement. On 19 August, Finnair, for whom China is their second largest long-haul market, threatened its Hong Kong staff with disciplinary action if they supported the movement and de-recognized the flight attendants’ trade union.  Online retailer Amazon apologized for selling a ‘Free Hong Kong’ t-shirt even though it has no operation in China. Local oligarchs, like Li Ka-Shing, have become increasingly vocal in their support for the government. The media have been full of events at the airport and condemnation of what Beijing is now describing as ‘near terrorism’ by demonstrators.  What is more, they loudly proclaim that foreign ‘black hands’ – meaning CIA agents, or possibly James Bond – are behind the movement.

For its part, after weeks of silence and inaction, the Hong Kong government has at last done something. On Thursday they announced $HK19.1 billion (about £2 billion or $US4.27 billion) in tax cuts and subsidies. According to the Financial Secretary: ‘the measures are definitely not related to the political difficulties we are facing’ but are a response to economic problems.  People are happy to get a small handout, but hardly anyone sees these steps as anything other than a pathetic attempt to bribe people into passivity. As a leading Democratic Party politician told the Financial Secretary: ‘This is a political issue, not an economic issue, stupid.’

Beijing and their local allies have two objectives in this propaganda war.  The first is aimed at the mainland population.  They want to brand the unrest as a foreign-inspired attack on Chinese national unity, echoing the imperialist seizure of Hong Kong by the British back in 1842.  They want people to believe that the movement’s aim is independence because that will make them bitterly hostile. Nationalism is one of the main ideological props on the Communist Party and even mainlanders who agree on the need for radical democratic changes invariably baulk at the prospect of national self-determination for Tibet or Xinjiang, let alone Hong Kong.  A population that is hostile to the struggle is unlikely to see it as an inspiration and a model to be emulated in Shanghai or Beijing.

The other aim in the propaganda war is to try to separate the most militant protesters, who have battled the police over the last few weeks, from their mass of supporters who have supplied the infrastructure of assistance that has allowed the struggle to go on for so long.  Painting a movement that contains many currents of opinion as dominated by mindless thugs who want either anarchy or independence is a crude attempt to manufacture a split that will weaken and demoralize all sections of the opposition.

At the same time, this propaganda serves to unite and mobilize Beijing’s own supporters inside Hong Kong.  They do have supporters. On Saturday the ‘Safeguard Hong Kong Alliance’ held a rally outside the government offices in support of the police. Although dwarfed by Sunday’s turnout, the rally was still very large.  The crowd sang the Chinese national anthem, waved the national flag and was addressed by a succession of business leaders and pro-Beijing politicians condemning violence and supporting the police. Even more worrying, the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday that groups of men wearing white had been crossing the border into Hong Kong the day before.  According to their source: ‘I don’t rule out the possibility that they came to Hong Kong to throw their weight behind somebody.’  Given that on two previous occasions, in Yuen Long last month and in North Point a couple of weeks ago, organized groups of men in white shirts attacked demonstrators, the danger is that local reactionaries are being supplemented by mainlanders in order to expand such attacks.

It is nonsense to suggest that the movement is organized and inspired by the US or the UK.  The idea that Donald Trump (elected President by less than 50% of US voters) or Boris Johnson (elected Prime Minister by less than 1% of British voters) would lift a finger to help the people of Hong Kong is laughable.  More seriously, movements that can put hundreds of thousands of people on the streets week after week, and are able to mobilize up to a quarter of the local population for big events, are not produced by the machinations of secret agents.  They are produced by very real economic, social and political conditions that drive people to demonstrate despite the heat and the rain because they are no longer prepared to suffer in silence.  True, there is one elderly woman who is on every demonstration waving a large Union Jack.  True, there are a few people who carry US flags.  True, some of the leaders of the democratic parties are only too happy to hob-nob with reactionary US politicians.  True, and more seriously, a large student rally on Friday evening called for support from the USA and the UK governments.  But there is no evidence at all that any of these people are pawns of foreign forces or anything other than Hong Kongers who want the promise of steady progress towards democracy, made to them by both Britain and China before the handover, to be realized in their lifetimes.

Last weekend there were four demonstrations and marches in support of the movement, all of them peaceful.  At the end of the huge demonstration on Sunday there was an online debate amongst the militants as to whether to march on and besiege the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Sheung Wan, a tactic that would unquestionably have led to a bitter battle with the cops.  The overwhelming vote was against the suggestion. In the current circumstances this was unquestionably the correct decision.  The importance of the Sunday march was that it demonstrated that there is still massive popular support for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, for a public enquiry into the policing of the protests, the resignation of the chief executive, the dropping of charges against those arrested and the government ceasing to call demonstrations ‘riots.’  It was of central importance to demonstrate on a massive scale that the propaganda campaign of the last two or three weeks has not split the movement or cowed people into passivity.

There is little doubt that Hong Kongers will continue to resist, but there is mood of doubt as to whether they can win.  One commentator drew a parallel with the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Her thinking is that Hong Kongers, like Poland’s Jewish population, are trapped with no prospect of escape and that resistance, however doomed, is the only recourse in such a situation.  That is both overdramatic and over-pessimistic.  The Beijing government may be prepared to shed blood to restore order but it will not launch a war of extermination against the people of Hong Kong and there are signs that the movement can still find ways of spreading and increasing the pressure for change.  Some civil servants are calling for strike action in support of the movement.  Students are discussing a plan for a boycott of schools and universities every Monday once the term starts.  On Saturday, 20,000 teachers responded to a call by the Professional Teachers’ Union and marched in support of the demonstrators. Sunday demonstrated that the anger and determination of Hong Kongers is as widespread as ever. Over the last weeks, the innovation and resourcefulness of the mass movement has been as prominent as the courage and determination of the militant vanguard.  Those qualities can ensure that the protests take new forms that are capable of putting yet more pressure on the government to make concessions.

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