In his latest update, Colin Sparks reflects on the continuing protest movement in Hong Kong following the withdrawal of the extradition bill that initially sparked the resistance.
Mass demonstrations and violent confrontations with the police continued in Hong Kong over the weekend. The tiny concessions last week have failed to convince protesters that they have won all they can get from the government. The students’ strikes have been very successful. Intermittent battles occur regularly around MTR stations and police stations in working-class areas. Although another attempt to bring the airport to a halt on Saturday was thwarted by police action, on Sunday a demonstration to the US consulate attracted thousands of people and ended with running battles on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon. The scale of the protests was smaller this week but there is no sign of a collapse either of militancy or mass support.
The movement today is pressing for a public enquiry into the police handling of demonstrations and an amnesty for those arrested. More and more, however, the demand for political reforms leading to genuinely democratic elections is coming to the fore. There is no falling off in popular opposition to Carrie Lam, her government, Beijing or the cops, but there is no clear sense of agreement on what the next steps should be.
The strength of the movement has always been that it is leaderless and that decisions are reached by voting and consensus amongst participants. These features are what has allowed it to display such energy and inventiveness and enabled it to survive the arrest of prominent figures. This lack of a central leadership has always meant that it contains a wide variety of opinions as to strategy and tactics. So far, people with different views have been prepared to accept those with whom they don’t agree as fellow participants in the overall movement. Now that the movement has had some small success some of these differences are becoming more significant. We can see the ways in which different political perspectives can come into conflict in two of the key events of the last week.
The march to the US consulate on Sunday was well supported but it was not on the scale of previous turnouts. Some thousands of people carrying US flags and singing the US national anthem marched to demand that the US Congress passes a bill making Hong Kong’s economic privileges dependent upon the maintenance of human rights and progress towards democracy. This march does not mean that thousands of Hong Kongers have morphed into Trump supporters. Very few actually believe that the US will provide significant material assistance to the movement. The commonly-expressed view is that the US might use Hong Kong to put pressure on Beijing as part of the current trade war. This is not impossible: imperialist states are certainly capable of following the line of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ After all, Winston Churchill armed Communist Partisans in the Balkans as part of the struggle against the Nazis. The problem is that this strategy turns Hong Kong into a pawn in someone else’s game of chess, and pawns are frequently sacrificed to protect more important pieces. Following the victory, Churchill had no compunction in crushing the very same Partisans just as ruthlessly as had the Nazis. Similarly, Trump or his successors will not hesitate to surrender Hong Kong in order to advance US interests.
The battles around MTR stations are also problematic. It is very easy to understand why thousands of young militants launch such attacks and they are often supported by local residents disgusted at the level of police violence. This violence has been very severe, and unsubstantiated rumours of the murder of demonstrators and of the rape of female protestors in jails circulate widely alongside verified cases of atrocities. Over the last few weeks, the MTR has been closing stations to stop people attending rallies, delaying trains and calling the riot police into stations, where they have beaten people mercilessly. Invading stations and smashing ticket gates in the MTR are angry responses to this. To the extent that they are seen to be provoked by outrageous police violence, they still command widespread support, but a war on the MTR opens the militants to renewed charges of mindless vandalism and wanton destruction. Demonstrators defending themselves against the police charging into stations, firing tear gas in enclosed spaces, and storming onto trains to beat and arrest anyone they think might be a protestor is one thing. What looks like a campaign against the MTR is another. So far, the government’s repeated use of these charges has not managed to isolate the militants from the mass of the movement’s supporters but there are worrying signs that some of the less committed are beginning to express doubts.
Another difficulty is that the MTR bosses who give these orders are not there when the stations are attacked. The people who are there are the ordinary MTR employees and some of them have been injured and others terrified. This has allowed the yellow union, the Federation of Railway Trade Unions, to launch an appeal to the government for more police in the stations and on trains. The Vice-Chairman, Kam Kin-chiu, said ‘We urge the government and the MTR Corp to get tougher on the protesters to safeguard staff safety, including deploying more police at every station.’ He does not speak for all MTR workers. An anonymous driver, one of 700 staff who submitted a petition demanding the management condemn police violence, told the South China Morning Post that the MTR was siding with the police and was to blame for exposing front-line staff to danger. Inevitably, frontline staff will suffer and that will make the job of those workers who argue that the best way to stay safe is to keep the cops out of the system that much more difficult.
None of these problems means that the movement is facing a decline or defeat. On Monday thousands of students formed human chains outside schools across Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s football team is playing Iran in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday and this is likely to provide another popular mobilization focusing on booing the Chinese national anthem. Friday is the traditional Chinese Mid-autumn Festival and activists are calling ‘celebrations,’ including on top of the iconic Lion Rock. The next weekend will almost certainly see another mass rally and march. The strength of the movement is in its ability to mobilize thousands, and sometimes millions, of ordinary Hong Kongers against what is ever more clearly an alliance of the local government, Hong Kong’s oligarchs, and Xi Jinping. Holding the resistance together is getting more difficult but is not impossible: re-emphasising that the movement’s demands, and its essential character as a mobilization open to all Hong Kongers is the key to the future. Last week, that movement won a small symbolic victory when the government agreed formally to withdraw the Extradition Bill that provoked the struggle in the first place. There is every possibility that mass mobilizations can win further concessions.