Protesters defied the mask ban to take to the streets in Hong Kong reports Colin Sparks. Meanwhile, another struggle has opened up around the upcoming local elections.
Halloween has become a political issue in Hong Kong. Every year there is a huge street party in the city’s Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district and, of course, everyone is in fancy dress and wears a mask or heavy makeup. This year many Hong Kongers took the opportunity to defy the official ban on masks. In response, the police forced people to remove their masks and blocked off the district. Only those with formal party invitations were allowed in. Police in Central, Mong Kok and Prince Edward used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse crowds. Key Mass Transit Railway (MTR) stations were shut and the whole system closed at 23:00, effectively imposing a curfew. The Ocean Park theme park cancelled its own event after staff threatened to strike against attempts at political censorship.
The last ten days have seen a succession of actions, with demonstrations by medical workers and journalists protesting at police violence, and other groups marching and rallying in different parts of the city. A demonstration in support of the protests in Catalonia attracted around 1,000 people. Some of the demonstrations have ended in clashes with the police. The most unusual has been in Tuen Mun, where residents have been complaining about an unpleasant smell coming from the police station. The rumours were that it came from testing a new type of tear gas. First noticed on Monday, the smell led residents to protest over the next three nights. On Wednesday, the police broke up the demonstration and arrested sixty people in a residential building, a mall, and a restaurant. Most of those arrested were simply locals who were worried about the health implications of the stink.
Another battle has opened around an upcoming local election, scheduled for 24 November. The vote for District Councillors is not in itself that important since the councils have very limited powers, but the political implications are enormous. More than 800,000 new electors have registered in the last four months, and the government fears that many of these are young militants and that democratic candidates will sweep the board. An overwhelming vote for the democrats will represent a public demonstration of unequivocal support for the protest movement. The government seem divided on what to do about this. They have let many democratic candidates register but this week they banned Joshua Wong, who led the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and founded the Demosisto party, from standing as a candidate. There have already been demonstrations in support of Wong, and his victimization will provide another focus of anger.
Wong is one of the most famous figures of the movement but he is not in any sense ‘the leader’. He is unquestionably a convinced and determined democrat who wants to see universal suffrage in Hong Kong but, in some ways, he is the heir of the old-style pan-democratic politicians. They believe that all the city needs is political reform, and they remain silent on the huge social inequality that is right before their eyes. Most recently, Wong has been one of the loudest voices urging the US Congress to pass the ‘Hong Kong Human Rights Democracy Act’. Any international support, however tainted it might be, is welcome in Hong Kong. But if anyone was ever in any doubt about the reliability of US assistance, they need only look at recent events in Syria. Expecting the US government to do anything about Hong Kong other than use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China is not a path to victory. Demonstrations, and even voting in the elections, are strategies that mobilise the masses to act on their own behalf. Pleading with reactionary US politicians does little to build a self-confident movement in Hong Kong.
Ruling class divisions over the upcoming election are not the only rifts opening up amongst the government and its supporters. The rumours that Beijing has a plan to ditch Carrie Lam in the New Year and speculation over who they might replace her with continue to circulate despite denials. The possible candidates so far mentioned are a grisly list of rich reactionaries, so ditching Lam for one of them would be unlikely to change the political atmosphere. Another issue being discussed more and more often is the idea of a public enquiry into the events. Its most recent advocate is Abraham Shek, a pro-Beijing legislator who sits for the functional constituency representing developers. It is easy to dismiss his concentration on the political issues behind the movement. The cynical might say that the vote costs nothing but solving the housing crisis would cost the developers a great deal. Nevertheless, the fact that prominent members of the pro-Beijing camp are now talking about a public enquiry is a crack in the façade of unity.
Despite the doubts, though, there are still plenty of people in Hong Kong and Beijing who want to stick to the hardest possible line. Former Chief Executive CY Leung, who did nothing to improve their appalling conditions during his term of office, last week issued a call promising domestic workers financial rewards for denouncing their employers for owning helmets, gas masks and goggles. The Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union rejected the move. Its chair, Dolores Balladares said:
Why include domestic workers in pursing the protesters? CY Leung will put the domestic workers in a more problematic situation, by asking them to breach their contract and go against their privacy.
Leung also called for prosecutors to appeal for stiffer punishment when a 21-year-old man was sentenced to 200 hours of community services for trampling on the Chinese flag and stuffing it in a rubbish bin. People’s Daily weighed in on the same case, arguing that the government should appeal and that jail is appropriate because: ‘There is a clear political motivation behind rioters’ desecration of the flag, and it was to abuse and divide a sovereign nation.’ The mainland press have also been publishing articles, and a video, accusing ‘foreign agents’ of organising and funding the protests.
Meanwhile, there has been a magnificent response to the attempt to use racism to divide the movement. After some people blamed South Asians for an assault on a prominent democrat, there were worries that there would be revenge attacks on members of ethnic minorities. In a show of solidarity, 1000 Hong Kongers, mostly ethnic Chinese, responded to an invitation to visit Chunking Mansions, the symbolic heart of ethnic minority Hong Kong, in a show of anti-racist solidarity. The danger is that, in this wholly positive opening to Hong Kong’s minorities, there will be a hardening of attitudes towards mainlanders. Whatever concessions the movement might win in the coming days, gaining support on the mainland is vital to the long-term future of Hong Kong.