In his latest report from the Hong Kong protests, Colin Sparks describes the convergence of police violence and business opposition against a tenacious and evolving mass movement.
The mass movement to force the Hong Kong government to withdraw its Extradition Bill continued over the weekend of 23rd-25th August. On Friday evening around 200,000 peaceful demonstrators linked hands in three long chains across Hong Kong to demonstrate popular support for the movement. Two new groups also emerged: On Friday 5000 accountancy staff staged a silent protest and on Sunday 400 relatives of police officers marched to Government House to call for an independent enquiry into police use of force.
Two other marches, on Saturday and Sunday, involved confrontations between demonstrators and the police. The Saturday demonstration was partly about the five demands of the main movement and partly about the installation of new security cameras in street lamps. The official line is that these are for traffic control but the local population suspects they are the start of a surveillance programme. Demonstrators tore down one of the lampposts and seized the electronic components, some of which turned out to be identical to those used in the mass surveillance of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang. The police responded with tear gas and baton charges, targeting, as is increasingly the case, not only protestors but also local residents.
The Sunday demonstration showed new levels of police violence. For weeks they have boasted of their three brand-new water cannons, and these were used for the first time to disperse protestors. Potentially more serious, a number of police officers drew their handguns and one fired a shot over the heads of the protestors. Immediately afterwards, a police officer was photographed kicking away an elderly man who was on his knees pleading with them not to open fire on the demonstrators. At the police press conference on Monday, their spokesperson said this was a “natural reaction” by the officer involved.
Another new tactic illustrates the close links between the Beijing government, their Hong Kong stooges and local businesses. The operator of the local underground, the MTR, also has lucrative contracts running metros on the mainland, in Shenzhen and Beijing for example, and has bowed to government pressure. Previously, it had tried to keep the system running as much as possible. This not only allowed people to get to and from demonstrations but also meant that the most militant protestors could live their slogan “be water” by confronting the police in one place then dispersing and taking the MTR to another spot, forcing the cops to hare around Hong Kong trying to find them. This weekend the MTR management closed stations around the demonstration routes in an attempt to minimize turnout and disrupt the protestors’ ability to move around at will.
Nowhere is the hardening of bosses’ support for the government clearer than with Cathay Pacific. It has changed its top management and fired a number of staff. Last Wednesday its subsidiary Dragonair raised the stakes by firing Rebecca Sy, the Chair of the Flight Attendants’ Association. She was asked about a number of Facebook posts allegedly related to the protests and was then immediately fired. Like so many other big Hong Kong businesses, Cathay and the MTR are so dependent upon mainland operations that they dare not offend Beijing.
They are an integral part of the way Beijing rules Hong Kong. The local pro-Beijing politicians are the junior partners in city run by a small group of oligarchs who use their positions to exploit workers both in Hong Kong and the mainland. They are aided by a privileged group of rural residents – the “indigenous inhabitants” of traditional villages — who enjoy enormous special privileges and are allegedly closely aligned with organised crime. In addition, there are the yellow unions of the Federation of Trade Unions, whose main efforts in the last few weeks have been to fend off calls for action in support of the movement. The “Communist Party” in Beijing rules Hong Kong through a clique of capitalists who have no interest in democracy or human rights.
This alliance means that not only does the government have very little room to maneuver over political concessions, but it is impossible for them to address the underlying social and economic stresses that have given the protest movement its strength and endurance. The housing shortage, and the consequence of the highest property prices in the world, are the result of this alliance between developers and indigenous rural landowners, who refuse to release land for an urgently needed programme of social housing. Everyone can see the need for such a programme, but the government is powerless to act because it has been bought and paid for by the very people it would have to confront in order to implement it. Instead, it talks of pouring untold money into environmentally disastrous and economically ruinous land reclamation schemes or encroaching on the country parks that are a vital amenity in such a desperately over-crowded city.
To be fair, some sections of the alliance are feeling the pressure from the movement. The Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, called a meeting of 19 influential local political and business officials to seek their advice about the government’s next steps. According to reports, the majority advised her to make at least some concessions – to finally withdraw the bill and announce a public enquiry into policing. So far, there is no sign that she or any other member of the government is willing to listen to this advice and, in truth, the movement has probably gone too far to be stopped easily by such minor concessions. Every day, the five demands mutate a little further: now the issue of genuine democratisation is near the top of the agenda.
Today the movement remains strong and united. Every time the cops fire tear gas into a working class housing estate, arrest innocent passers-by for spurious reasons, or use increasingly deadly force, the movement wins more supporters. The next weekend will see another massive demonstration and Monday 2nd September is scheduled for a second general strike. Now that the school holidays are over, the employees who stop work in protest will be joined by thousands of school and university students walking out of their own institutions. The greater the mobilisations in the coming days the more chances there are that the tiny crack that emerged in the pro-Beijing alliance last week can be forced wider and real concessions can be won.