The ban on face-masks on public demonstrations has been met with defiance. Colin Sparks argues that a moment of choice now faces the authorities in Beijing, but that there are also important challenges for the movement itself to confront.
Hong Kong has been paralysed by four days of mass protests against the government’s order banning the wearing of masks on public demonstrations. As soon as the measure was announced on Friday (4 October 2019), students began walking out of schools and colleges and office workers staged an impromptu, and illegal, march in the Central financial district. Every day since then has been marked by demonstrations across the territory, often leading to confrontations with the police.
The Hong Kong government, backed by Beijing, issued the order banning masks under the ‘Emergency Regulations Ordinance’ it inherited from the previous British colonial administration. The ordinance was passed in February 1922 in an attempt to break a two-month strike over wages by Chinese seamen, which was quickly escalating towards a general strike. The Ordinance gave the colonial government extremely wide powers. The Chief Executive can, for example, invent wholly new offences, like wearing a surgical mask in public, without any discussion or debate even in the gerrymandered Legislative Council (LegCo). According to former Hong Kong University law professor Michael Davis, the law is ‘a nuclear option’ under which the government ‘can literally run a dictatorship and suspend most rights.’
Democratic struggle and colonial legacies
These sweeping powers, typical of the British government’s ruthless administration of colonial territories, remained available to successive governors, but they have seldom been used in practice. They proved ineffective in 1922. when the seaman won a 20% pay rise. They were used during the crisis of 1967, when workers fought the police in what began as a strike over wages and escalated into a struggle against British rule. Ironically, some of the most reactionary pro-government forces in Hong Kong today, like the yellow Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and politicians of the pro-Beijing ‘Democratic Alliance for the Progress and Betterment of Hong Kong’ (the DAB), were prominent leaders of the anti-imperialist struggle. Although the colonial government were able to ride out that storm, they were forced to make major concessions to the movement, notably beginning the large-scale construction of public housing.
In the struggle against British rule, the FTU was able to establish a strong base amongst some groups of workers, like dockers and transport workers, which they consolidated with a substantial bureaucracy closely linked to the pro-Beijing political parties. This entrenched position has meant that the pro-democratic Confederation of Trade Unions (CFTU) although having some base amongst educational and social workers, has been very much a minority in key workplaces. The FTU has used its bureaucratic structures to head off any hint of united working class action and have frequently sabotaged industrial action. A key instance was in the 2013 strike by CFTU dockers, who make up about 40% of the workforce. Their strike for better wages and conditions went on for 40 days and was widely supported both in Hong Kong and internationally, with solidarity from other dockers around the world, notably Australia. The FTU refused to call its own members out in support and did everything it could to confuse the negotiations, ensuring that the biggest and longest strike for many years ended in a messy compromise.
The FTU is not alone in its transformation from a force ready to fight for national liberation into a bastion of reaction. As has so often been the case around the world, almost all the former anti-imperialists who won their battle and took over the reins of power from the British have been only too happy to retain much of the repressive legislation they inherited. They were determined opponents of the racist dictatorship that ran Hong Kong in the interests of capital, but their aim was to secure their own exclusive rights to rule in place of the British. The instruments that were used to keep the masses under the control of the British are equally useful now that power is in new hands. The alliance of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the Hong Kong oligarchs, and the senior public servants of the colonial administration, which has run the territory since the handover in 1997, had no interest in dismantling the repressive and undemocratic apparatus through which their British predecessors had maintained their grip on power.
On the contrary, they were keen to prevent the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, from reducing business representation in LegCo to give it a slightly more democratic composition. They have retained the rigged electoral system, but made the gerrymander even worse. Patten had created a ‘functional constituency’ with around 30,000 voters, including workers in the agricultural and fisheries industries, who returned a democratic politician in the 1995 LegCo elections. The new rulers replaced it with the ‘Agricultural and Fisheries Functional Constituency’, which gives its 152 electors, who are the representatives of businesses rather than individuals, and are certainly not workers, exactly the same weight as the 88,185 individual electors in the ‘Education Functional Constituency’ or 109,887 individual voters in the ‘New Territories East Geographical Constituency’. Needless to say, these 152 ‘electors’ regularly return a DAB politician. Neither the British colonial administration nor their successors ever had the slightest interest in handing political power over to the people of Hong Kong. One of the key demands of the democratic movement is, for obvious reasons, the abolition of these functional constituencies and the establishment of genuine universal suffrage.
The march to repression
The new measure of banning the wearing of masks on demonstrations provoked a huge response, not because it is particularly savage in itself, but because it means that the government has crossed another threshold in the march to repression. In fact, most of the people arrested since Friday for wearing masks have also been charged with other, traditional, offences like participating in an unlawful assembly. The upsurge of anger is because Hong Kongers understand very clearly that, like official sanction for the use of live ammunition against demonstrators, this ban is the precursor of tougher measures. The government has introduced a power that allows it to detain individuals without charge or trial, to impose a curfew, and ban newspapers. It is within the government’s power to shut down the popular pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily or, more damagingly, close down online resources like LIHKG that demonstrators use to organise their actions.
The government’s tactics are to try to split the mass of its opponents away from the front-line militants who confront the police. They think a ban on face masks will deter the less committed demonstrators. More importantly, the closing the entire rail network on Saturday and most of Sunday and reducing services on Monday (a public holiday), together with the closure of many supermarkets and food stores, makes everyday life more difficult for ordinary Hong Kongers. As the SCMP’s pro-Beijing columnist Alex Lo (a Canadian passport holder) put it:
The MTR did shut down the whole system temporarily at the weekend. It should do it for much longer. If shutting down the MTR means shutting down the whole city, well, let people know the price they are all paying for allowing the unrest to fester for so long.
Lo and his like hope that, as these inconveniences mount up, so support for the militants will drop off and they will be able to handle the hard-core residue in pure public order terms.
Decision time for the authorities
So far, they have failed. There is realistic talk of putting three million people on the streets next weekend. Such a march would likely be ruled illegal but the police are in no position to try to prevent it. All the indications are that they are already near the limit of their resources. They are not able to prevent much smaller marchers and gatherings. At best, they respond to crises, fire teargas and make some arrests, then withdraw. Even armed with draconian new powers, like a curfew, they lack the resources to crush resistance on the current scale. Each ratcheting up of the government’s arsenal has, so far, done little but increase the scale and bitterness of the resistance.
The logic of this is that things are near a turning point: sooner, rather than later, the powers that be will face a choice. The old strategy of waiting for the protests to die down has failed. Now, either they opt for massive repression, to implement which they will probably need mainland police and perhaps the PLA, or they make at least some significant concessions. The real choice lies in Beijing. Xi Jinping and his henchmen need to weigh the costs of the two strategies. Using force to crush the resistance, particularly putting mainland police and soldiers on the streets to supplement the HK police, risks a new Tiananmen massacre in the centre of what is still a key element in China’s economy, with all its international consequences for trade and politics. Making concessions means sacking the local leadership and finding new, more flexible, replacements. There are plenty of candidates for that role in Hong Kong, but the move would also make a huge dent in Xi Jinping’s image as a strong and determined leader. Faced with growing domestic economic difficulties, an escalating trade war, not to mention continuing mass opposition in Xinjiang and Tibet, there are as yet no signs that he is prepared to take such a step. For him, backing down on Hong Kong sends completely the wrong signal of weakness to other existing and potential opponents.
Nationalism and internationalism
For its part, the weakness of the movement lies not in the courage of the front-line fighters or the solidarity supplied by their mass of supporters. It looks as though, on their own, the people of Hong Kong are strong enough and determined enough to face down their local government and its cops and to force some concessions. But even if they were to win a short-term local victory, in the longer run the weight of the mainland will continue to bear down on Hong Kong, limit what can be achieved, provide a base for rolling back any democratic gains, and persecuting anyone who has fought for democracy. Beijing will help Carrie Lam and her cohorts to exact revenge on their opponents. Winning a lasting victory needs strong links with a movement on the mainland that is fighting for similar goals, but the politics of most of those fighting back in Hong Kong make that difficult to achieve because they don’t distinguish between workers and peasants of the mainland and the bosses and politicians who benefit from Beijing’s repression and corruption.
Many of the best militants describe their identity as ‘Hong Kongers’ and firmly reject the suggestion that they are ‘Chinese’. While that might echo with the 8% of the population of mainland China who are from ethnic minorities, it cuts them off from any chance of winning allies amongst the Han Chinese majority. Indeed, there are reports that Mandarin speakers in Hong Kong are suffering abuse by local Cantonese speakers and that mainland students at HK universities are increasingly worried about their security. It is not that the movement is consciously targeting mainlanders, but the underlying issue can, and does, flare up in the tense political situation prevailing here.
There are people in Hong Kong, notably local socialist activists, who understand the need for an outgoing strategy very well, but they are few in number and they have limited resources. The fact that they are internationalists gives them the outlook which means they see the need to link up with oppositional groups on the mainland, but Hong Kong ‘nationalism’ is a strong and growing current in the movement, so they face a hard struggle to win their arguments. For all its courage, its mass character and its refusal to back down, in the long run the movement needs allies across the Shenzhen river, and to win them the arguments of the socialists need to win a wider audience.