Hong Kong: the democratic movement re-emerges

The health impacts of the coronavirus are now better controlled in Hong Kong than in the UK, but the struggle for democracy faces challenges of its own, writes Colin Sparks.

Photo: Etan Liam. September 2019. ‘Last year the cops tried to arrest you if you wore a mask. This year they try to avoid you if you don’t.’

The movement for democracy in Hong Kong is back in action. Three months of restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus stopped most public protests but in recent weeks they have re-emerged on a growing scale. There were spontaneous illegal gatherings on 1 May, on Mothers’ Day (10 May), and to ‘celebrate’ Hong Kong chief Executive Carrie Lam’s birthday on 13 May. The demonstrations have not been huge, but they have taken place in shopping malls right across the city.

All of the demonstrations have been met by a massive police presence, the liberal use of batons and pepper sprays and mass arrests. The government policy in response to the virus has been to ban public gatherings of more than eight people, and this has been the excuse the police have used to break up entirely peaceful crowds. In doing so, they have used violence indiscriminately, attacking journalists and members of the Legislative Council (LegCo) and arresting 12-year old boy working as a reporter for a student-run newspaper.

Coronavirus and workers’ resistance

The Hong Kong government’s initial response to the virus was as ham-fisted as that of the UK or the US. The government was able to provide the police with ample masks because they are manufactured by forced labour in Hong Kong’s women’s prisons. They dragged their feet over closing the boundary with China, fearful that this would be represented as a concession to separatism. The high-speed line which runs from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, and from there on to Wuhan and Beijing, remained open for days. Eventually, their hand was forced by a three-day strike by medical workers, starting on 3 February. The strike was not big enough to force a complete closure, but it did win significant reductions in cross-boundary travel.

The strike’s greatest significance, however, is that it was the first sign of the strength of the new trade unions that have been formed in many sectors by the generation of activists mobilised by the great struggles of 2019. Many have been disgusted with the pro-Beijing stance of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, and its inability to do anything about the legion of problems facing Hong Kong workers. New unions have been set up and some more radical unions affiliated with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions have grown in size.

Many of the activists who spent most of last year organising demonstrations began 2020 trying to consolidate these new bodies. Hong Kong never instituted the kind of extensive lockdown that we saw in the UK, but the health impact of the virus was much better controlled. This was largely because the local population had the living memory of the SARS virus less than 20 years ago and knew that social distancing, wearing masks in public, and careful hygiene are necessary parts of a successful containment strategy. The government that last year banned wearing masks in public places this year found itself promoting their use and has recently started issuing free re-usable masks to everyone for free. One activist made the bitter joke that, ‘Last year the cops tried to arrest you if you wore a mask. This year they try to avoid you if you don’t.’ Because of this popular understanding of how best to fight the virus, a lot of work and social contacts that are impossible elsewhere continued in Hong Kong, and activists have used that time to strengthen their organizations.

Repression and the National Security Law

For its part, the government has used the absence of mass protests to launch a ‘White Terror’ against the movement. There has been a continuous flow of court cases against some of the more than 8,000 people arrested in 2019. On 18 of April, they arrested 15 prominent leaders of the opposition. These included Martin Lee, the 81-year old barrister and founder of the Democratic Party, Jimmy Lai, millionaire and owner of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, and ‘Long Hair’ Leung, the most famous socialist militant, previously expelled from his long-held seat in LegCo for allegedly failing to take the oath of loyalty to the Basic Law properly. The police accuse them of being the organising spirits behind illegal demonstrations, even though the movement was notable for not having formal and official leaders and its practical organisers were all very much younger than veterans like Lee. At the same time as the police were conducting their ‘investigation’ into the opposition, they were dropping the investigation into an alleged gang rape of a young woman activist in Tsuen Wan police station. In a shocking turn of events, they now claim she was lying and are seeking to arrest her. Last week, to add insult to injury the Independent Police Complaints Council released a 999-page report that whitewashes police tactics in smashing up demonstrations, saying that the force was a victim of propaganda campaign by protestors

The government was responding to new instructions from Beijing, which has appointed hardliners to key posts in the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and in their local Liaison Office. Beijing is pushing for the passage of a law criminalising abuse of the national anthem as a prelude to the passage of a national security law. The latter has a long and contentious history. Article 23 of the Basic Law states that LegCo must pass such a law but so far the government has been unable to force it through. The last time they tried, in 2003, a huge demonstration forced them to back down. The national anthem bill has already led to fights between legislators inside LegCo. Beijing now claims that their Liaison Office is allowed to intervene in Hong Kong affairs directly, despite the fact that Article 22 of the Basic Law prohibits the Beijing government’s departments interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong. After a very brief initial assertion of the status quo the Hong Kong government backed down on the grounds that the Office is not a ‘department’ of the central government and can therefore do what it likes in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam sacked the person responsible for the initial response and replaced him with someone whose first public act was to emphasise the need to adopt both the national anthem and national security laws. There is no doubt that both the central government and their local lapdogs intend to try to force these bills through LegCo.

LegCo elections

One of the reasons for their determination is that elections for LegCo are scheduled for September. They are worried that there will be a repeat of the democratic landslide in the District Council elections last November. If that outcome were repeated, democrats would win every one of the 35 directly-elected seats. The outrageous gerrymander that allocates seats would still mean they did not have a majority, but they could also expect to win some of the ‘functional constituency’ seats, for example the education, social services and health sectors. That would give them a majority. They could then block anti-democratic legislation and, if they refused to pass the budget, force fresh elections, which could result in the forced resignation of the Chief Executive.

The Hong Kong government will do everything it can to prevent such an outcome. Forcing the two bills through before the election would be the first step. Disqualifying democratic candidates on spurious grounds would be the second. If they cannot manage enough disqualifications, they could try to suspend the elections, perhaps on the excuse of the lingering pandemic. Certainly, they will raise the spectre of Beijing intervening to cancel the elections and end Hong Kong’s special status to try to frighten voters away from the democratic candidates.

Tasks for the movement

The movement that is now re-emerging faces three difficult tasks.

The first is to rebuild its mass character. The struggle against the extradition bill showed that if enough Hong Kongers are mobilized and enough determination is demonstrated, the government can be forced to back down on a key bill. So far, the demonstrations have been brave and noisy, but they have not mobilized the hundreds of thousands that are needed to face down police brutality and force the government to retreat.

The second task is to demonstrate that the fledgling unions are well-enough organised to win real concessions from the bosses, defend members victimised for participating in protest actions, and resist the inevitable sabotage from the leaders of the Federation. So far, none of the unions have really been tested in a serious struggle and their new leaders lack much experience of workplace organization. One side effect of the pandemic is that the best-organised group of workers in Hong Kong, the Cathay Pacific flight attendants, have been weakened by mass layoffs because of the collapse of air travel.

The third task is to sustain the unity that permitted a unified democratic slate in the District Council elections. There are big differences between the frankly bourgeois politicians of the traditional democratic parties and many of the young people radicalised in the last few years.  Beijing will try ruthlessly to divide the opposition, stressing foreign influences and the dangers of separatism. The Hong Kong government will make economic concessions to try to demonstrate their concern for citizens’ welfare and place a big emphasis on the dangers of the so-far marginal extremist groups who are flirting with terrorism.

The rest of the world is struggling to control the pandemic. The people of Hong Kong are coping quite well with that problem, but the next few months will also be crucial in their struggle for a democratic society.

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