Hong Kong revolt: no end in sight

The formal withdrawal of the extradition bill and half-measures to solve the housing crisis will not be enough to satisfy the pro-democracy movement, writes Colin Sparks.

Photo: Steve Eason

The bitter political struggle in Hong Kong is now in its twentieth week, and it still shows few signs of resolution.  Each weekend there are marches and gatherings, usually banned by the police and nevertheless attended by thousands of people.  Every weekend, these marches end in clashes with the police, attacks on the MTR (the underground) and on pro-Beijing businesses.  The only response so far by the local government has been to dig its heels in and back the escalation of repression.  Alongside the batons, rubber bullets, live rounds, water cannons and the face-mask ban, there is now an unofficial curfew.  In a city heavily dependent upon public transport, and notorious for late working hours, the MTR now closes at 11 pm, leaving many people with no option but to rush home as quickly as possible.

Last week Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive, had an opportunity to address some of the problems in her annual policy address to the Legislative Council (LegCo).  In fact, she was unable to deliver it live due to barracking by the democratic members of LegCo and was forced to issue a pre-recorded video of her speech.  She made no attempt to provide any solution to the ongoing political crisis.

The closest she got was to address the housing situation, which she did in a half-hearted manner that will please only her oligarchical backers.  Faced with an acute shortage of housing, with a five-and-a-half year waiting list for social housing, and the highest residential property prices in the world, she proposed to build just 10,000 new flats. Her focus, however, was on selling off some social housing and raising the limit on mortgages. Without any serious effort to boost supply, making it possible for people to borrow more can only mean further price rises, which will more than compensate her developer friends for any negative effects her limited building plans might cause them.

Carrie Lam’s performance has been ridiculed by her opponents and even the pro-Beijing parties expressed disappointment.  Indeed, so lame has she been that Beijing is reportedly planning to ditch her and replace her with another oligarch-friendly figurehead.  Despite the belief in Beijing and in the local Executive Council that ‘livelihood issues’ like housing and lack of proper job prospects are at the root of the crisis, none of them are willing or able to break with the grip the developers, landlords and employers exercise over the life of Hong Kong to address these issues.

Still, the attempts to kill off the protest movement through a mixture of minor concessions and increasing repression continue. Yesterday (Wednesday 23 October) the extradition bill that sparked the struggle in the first place was formally withdrawn.  Meanwhile, the level of repression and intimidation is ramped up.  More than 2500 people have now been arrested, and 232 of them face the very serious charge of ‘rioting’. There was a knife attack last weekend by a pro-Beijinger at a ‘Lennon Wall’ and Civil Human Rights Front convenor Jimmy Shan was attached for the second time. There have, to date, been at least eight attacks on prominent pro-democracy figures, and nine young people have taken their own lives in circumstances that suggest their despair at the political situation was part of their motivation.  Despite these attacks and tragedies, the protesters continue to turn out in their thousands and support for the front-line fighters remains strong.

That is not to say that everyone in the movement is committed to the full spectrum of democracy.  After the attack on Jimmy Shan there were online calls for reprisals against members of the South Asian community due to false claims the attackers were of that ethnicity.  Nonetheless, these calls were drowned out and have led to nothing, and when the police sprayed the Kowloon mosque with blue dye from their water cannon, it was groups of protesters who were the first to help with the clean-up.  The police first claimed that the spraying was an attempt to clear protesters, then that it was an ‘accident’ and, finally, both the cops and Carrie Lam issued unconvincing apologies.

Attacks on commercial properties have certainly not been indiscriminate. The shops and banks that have been targeted are either owned by people very vocally supportive of the police or by mainland companies.  The political motivation for breaking windows, wrecking interiors and painting slogans was made quite clear when protesters caught a man looting a Xiaomi shop of mobile phones. They stopped him looting and tied him to some railings, where he was later arrested by the cops.

Today, Hong Kong is one of a chain of flashpoints around the world, from Chile to Catalonia to the Lebanon, where mass movements are challenging unresponsive governments.  The issues and slogans differ from place to place, but there are common threads of determination to continue and defiance of repression that make them a chain of inspiration for socialists everywhere.

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