Arrests fail to slow the movement

In his latest update, Colin Sparks reports on the escalating resistance in Hong Kong in the face of unrelenting police brutality.

An empty carriage of the Hong Kong metro, filled with a thick fog of pepper spray.
On 31st August, Hong Kong police raided Prince Edward metro station, beating passengers and firing pepper spray directly into train carriages.


Hong Kong has seen another week of rallies, marches, clashes with the police and a strike by students and some groups of workers.  At the end of last week, the government arrested seven leading opposition politicians, including elected officials, and banned protest marches in a move described here as ‘White Terror.’  At the same time, masked men with baseball bats attacked one of the organisers of the biggest marches and injured his companion. The government and the shadowy organisers of the unofficial thugs believed that the mass movement could be stopped in its tracks if only they arrested or hospitalized the people they believe are the ‘ring leaders.’  

They failed miserably.  On Saturday thousands turned out in the pouring rain to show their outrage at the arrests and the attempt to muzzle the right to protest.  The movement has no leaders and the size of the demonstration, which grew spontaneously from online discussions, demonstrated that hostility to the government and the police remains at boiling point.  At several places on Hong Kong island – the Legislative Council complex, the main government offices, the official residence of the chief executive, and up and down the main roads in the city centre – battles broke out with the riot police, who deployed their water cannon and again fired shots in the air to disperse crowds. 

On Sunday demonstrators gathered at the airport in an attempt to disrupt flights. They closed down the main transport links to the airport and some flights were cancelled before they were forced to retreat on foot, first to a nearby urban area and then back to the city.  Again there was fighting with the police, and the local MTR (Underground) station was vandalized in anger at the growing collaboration between the management, who are closing stations and delaying trains, and the police who now invade stations and trains to arrest and beat people they think might have been involved in protest actions.

A movement which started in opposition to an extradition bill that would have allowed people to be shipped off to China to face mainland ‘justice’ has now broadened its scope.  Last week 5,000 people demonstrated against police use of sexual violence against women protesters. In some working-class districts, there are more or less nightly run-ins between local residents and the riot police.  On Sunday night rumours of the arrest of a local councillor brought hundreds of residents in Shatin, a town in the New Territories, out onto the streets to confront the police. On Monday night, demonstrators and residents blocked Nathan Road, the main highway in Kowloon, protesting at police actions.  The movement has gone far beyond its initial demands. The call for the resumption of democratization, halted by Beijing in 2014, becomes stronger and stronger every day.

The movement retains that mixture of militant anger and popular support that has always been one of its strongest features.  Demonstrators continue to receive food, water and other suppliers organised by supporters not able to participate in front-line action.  On Sunday when protestors were marching back from the airport having halted most public transport, individual supporters drove out to meet them and offered lifts to help them get home.  A number of football supporters clubs that follow international teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Juventus and Parma, have banned police personnel from joining and asked those who are already members to leave.

That is not to say that the movement has unanimous support: perhaps a quarter to a third of the population are believed to support the government more or less enthusiastically.  There have been some angry confrontations between black-clad demonstrators and groups who vociferously oppose them. The extensive disruptions to the MTR not only inconveniences people, some of whom express strong opposition, but also threatens the safety of railway staff. The main, pro-Beijing, company union has rightly highlighted the danger to staff, but they have not criticised either the management or the police for escalating the issue by closing some stations and invading others.  Keeping the cops out of the system and making sure it is not interrupted for political reasons are the keys to staff safety.

Beijing and the local government have hardened their stance over the last week.  They have kept up the pressure on big business to crack down on employees’ support for the movement.  Cathay Pacific is once again only too eager to oblige, having instructed their staff to tell tales on anyone they suspect of democratic inclinations.  The mainland media continue to weave propaganda fantasies about foreign agents and colour revolutions on the one hand and issue crude threats of military intervention on the other. The continuing wave of arrests and physical attacks targeting leading democratic politicians and activists has failed as an attempt to derail the movement, but it remains a weapon of intimidation that could be used much more widely.  The government is allegedly considering adopting the Emergency Regulations it inherited from the British colonial state and which were last used in 1967.  These have draconian provisions. The Chief Executive can censor the media, including the internet, detain people without trial, deem any form of behaviour criminal and impose sentences up to life imprisonment as punishment.  Already they have arrested more than 1,000 demonstrators and there are calls for the police to exercise even less restraint.

Armed with these powers, supported by an increasingly brutal police force, and with the PLA and the People’s Armed Police in reserve, the government clearly has no intention of compromising.  It has no room to compromise. The extent of its subordination to Beijing was clearly revealed in a leaked tape of a meeting between Chief Executive Carrie Lam and a group of local business people.  She told them ‘If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.’  She can’t quit because Beijing won’t let her. According to her the ‘political room for manoeuvring is very, very, very limited.’ But for its part, Beijing can see the political and economic cost of direct military intervention.  It is by no means clear that the national leadership are willing to act on their threats. The leadership are no longer intensely worried about the virus of rebellion spreading. Official propaganda has worked and there are, unfortunately, no serious echoes of popular support for the Hong Kong struggle on the mainland. They hope that, if their local puppets can stand firm long enough, then the movement will peter out in the same way as the 2014 Occupy Central movement did.  Failing that, there is at least a possibility that they might order their local servants to make some minimal concessions.

The mass actions on Monday and Tuesday of this week are a big boost for the movement, involving thousands of people taking action on their own initiative.  They contain the seeds of a strategy that can force the government to negotiate. So far, the reality is that the action in Hong Kong is far from a genuine general strike.  The independent Confederation of Trade Unions, which supports the strikes, claimed that 40,000 attended its late-afternoon rally in Tamar Park and that there were actions by workers in 29 different sectors.  But, as on the last occasion, there have been relatively few organised stoppages of work and most of the participants have found individual ways to express their support – taking time off work, calling in sick, or relying on a sympathetic manager to turn a blind eye. The students are another matter.  An estimated 10,000 from nearly 200 schools participated in class boycotts, assemblies and demonstrations on Monday and 30,000 university students demonstrated on the campus of the Chinese University to mark the start of a lecture strike planned to last two weeks.  Tuesday is the first day of the semester in universities, and despite the arrest of three leading student union organisers, there is widespread support for the strike. The greater the mass pressure, the greater the chances are that Beijing will not risk the likely bloody consequences of direct intervention and will instruct its local stooges to offer some kind of face-saving compromise.



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