As protests in Hong Kong have passed their 100th day, Colin Sparks explains more about how the movement is organised, and the role of socialists, workers and migrants within it.
Three months of mass protests in Hong Kong were marked with another big illegal march and clashes with the police. Although the size of the demonstrations has not been as huge as the one and two million strong marches in the past, thousands of Hong Kongers have shown their determination to express their opinions and their contempt for police bans by taking to the streets for the fifteenth week in succession.
As ever, the movement has shown originality and ingenuity in adopting new tactics. The most recent are renditions of the new anthem Glory to Hong Kong. Large crowds have gathered in the shopping malls that proliferate in Hong Kong to stage spontaneous rallies, sing the song and chant political slogans. Provocatively, many are referring to this as a ‘national anthem’ in defiance of governmental insistence, both locally and in Beijing, that Hong Kong is not a ‘nation’ and that the only permitted national anthem is the PRC’s March of the Volunteers. Glory to Hong Kong may not quite be a new Marseillaise but it has exactly the same function of expressing the hopes of the masses as that song originally had in 1792. At the start of a World Cup qualifying football match between Hong Kong and Iran last week, supporters booed the official national anthem and countered with their own version.
Decision-making in the movement
The story of this song exemplifies the nature of decision-making in the movement. It was written by a local musician who wants to be known only as ‘Thomas’ and the performance and video of the masked orchestra and choir were organised by the ‘Black Borchestra.’ Like all the other songs that have become popular with the movement, it owes its prominence to informal channels, with words and music spread electronically. The pattern of decision-making is that websites like the Facebook page and Twitter account of groups like BeWater HK provide news and commentary and forums like LIHKG provide spaces for discussion and voting on what to do next. There are prominent individuals and organisations that play a role in calling events and interpreting their meaning, but their decisions are often ignored by the movement.
For example, the ‘Civil Human Rights Front’ originally called for a demonstrations on 15 October but this was banned by the police and an appeal against the decision was refused. The Front then cancelled the rally. Thousands of people turned up and demonstrated anyway. This extremely democratic, not to say anarchic, form of organisation has allowed the movement so far to evade official bans and arrests and continually evolve new tactics. The key demands of the movement have similarly evolved through a process of popular discussion in response to the evolving situation. The key, underlying, demand for a resumption of the process of democratisation has long been a popular view and has been expressed in various ways over the months, but it is not the property of any particular organisation.
Worryingly, the impromptu concerts have provided a focus for demonstrations by groups opposed to the movement who try to counter Glory to Hong Kong with renditions of The March of the Volunteers. These musical contests have mostly been peaceful but they are symptoms of a broader mobilisation of reactionary forces. Last Saturday saw attacks on the ‘Lennon Walls’ supporting the movement and on Sunday the re-emergence of gangs of white-shirted thugs attacking demonstrators. It is tempting to believe that the government rests solely upon the police, the local oligarchs, triad gangsters and support from Beijing, but pro-Beijing political organisations and the yellow unions do have a base, albeit a minority base, amongst Hong Kong residents. No doubt some of these are indeed gangsters, some are recent immigrants from the mainland, and others are people who benefit from the government’s largesse, but the fact that they are beginning to be mobilised is a real problem that the movement will have to confront.
Socialist organisation and worker participation
Only a minority of the movement has any real sense of how they might break up this potentially dangerous reactionary bloc. There are socialist organisations in Hong Kong – for example, the League of Social Democrats, whose best-known figure ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok Hung has been repeatedly elected to the Legislative Council and who consistently links the fight for democratic change in Hong Kong and China with the need to address social problems like housing and employment . Further to the left are the young militants of Socialist Action, who have a small base amongst youth and migrant workers, and who have had some successes in building support around local issues on working class estates. These groups have been gaining support in the movement, but are still very small and face a hard fight to win their arguments.
They face the ideological problem that in Hong Kong ‘socialism’ and, particularly, ‘communism’ has an unequivocally negative meaning since it is identified with the Chinese Communist Party and its savage repression of workers, peasants, ethnic minorities and dissidents. They also face an organisational problem because the majority yellow unions are closely linked to the government and pro-Beijing politicians and do everything in their power to deflect real working class movements from taking independent action. These reasons go a long way towards explaining why such a deep and ongoing social movement as this has not had an echo in organised working class self-activity like big strikes. The ‘General Strikes’ that have been called have been brave attempts to spread the movement but so far honesty demands that we recognise that support has been limited.
That is not to say that support for the movement is limited or that it includes very few workers. The occupations of those arrested show that there are militant activists from both manual and white-collar workers. There have been demonstrations by teachers, social workers, lawyers, medical staff, and even financial services workers. In a largely post-industrial city, where there are few factories and service industries are by far the biggest employers, these responses are a fair reflection of the shape of the working class. To turn that support into strike action or other forms of work-place protest, however, requires a level of self-organisation that does not yet exist in Hong Kong.
Migrants and the movement
Hong Kong prides itself on being ‘Asia’s World City’ and it is true that, according to the 2016 census, around 8 % of the population is not ethnically Chinese. A glance at any photograph or video of the demonstrations will confirm that this demographic majority is also the backbone of the movement. True, there are one or two ‘gweilo’ (white) faces here and there, but this group only makes up 0.8 % of the population and the majority of them are privileged economic migrants who do not necessarily have much commitment to the future of Hong Kong.
Many other ethnic minorities do not enjoy such privileges. People from South Asia, primarily India, Nepal, and Pakistan, make up a larger group, at 1 per cent of the total. Many are much more deeply rooted in Hong Kong, with families who came here as soldiers and policemen with the British conquest in 1842. Unlike the white minority, they suffer severe racial discrimination and prejudice in education, housing and jobs. Some, however, have been active participants in defending what they think of as their home city. Despite these activists, however the main visibility of ethnic minorities, at least in the press, was when the MTR boss attracted a storm of protest about his racist assumptions in a plan to hire ‘Gurkhas’ as security guards to prevent protesters damaging stations.
The largest minorities in Hong Kong are Filipinos and Indonesians, who make up 2.5 % and 2.1 % of the overall population respectively. These are overwhelmingly domestic servants, who live and work in conditions very close to modern slavery. They have not been very visible in the protests, partly because many of the Sunday street battles on Hong Kong island have prevented their normal gatherings to enjoy their one day off a week with their friends, and partly because the protest have provided an excuse for unscrupulous employers to try to chip away at the right to a fixed day off each week. Despite these problems, there seems to be general support for the movement, at least from some of their organisations.
On the government side, there has been no dramatic move since the formal withdrawal of the Extradition Bill. Carrie Lam has set up a ‘Dialogue Office,’ predictably under the leadership of a safe former official, to organise her promised meetings with the public. More substantially, there have been moves by pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong to address affordable housing, one of the underlying drivers of discontent. They propose the government uses the ‘Lands Resumption Ordinance’ to seize land, presumably with very generous compensation, from developers and landowners who are not using it, or using it illegally, in order to launch a crash programme of house building.
Beijing, for its part, has supported these calls and suggested that mainland companies might take over HK developers in order to build more affordable housing. The only way that these policies could be implemented would be if Beijing broke its alliance with the local oligarchs and adopted a more direct role in the running of the city. While that might help address the chronic shortage of affordable housing, it would most certainly not address the central demand for more democracy in Hong Kong and would, if anything, worsen the political crisis.
There are now two weeks to go until the Chinese National Day on 1 October, which is the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Beijing wants this to be a joyous celebration, which they will mark in their usual fashion with a gigantic military parade. The only place in China where popular opinion for or against the Communist Party can be expressed freely is Hong Kong. Making sure that the regimented masses in Beijing are outnumbered by millions of self-motivated protesters in Hong Kong is the next major task of the movement.