Beijing gambles on Hong Kong’s future

Beijing’s attempt to impose the ‘National Security Law’ on Hong Kong is being met with fierce resistance. The ultimate success of the democratic movement will depend on whether they can make common cause with working class people on the Chinese mainland, but international solidarity will also be important, writes Colin Sparks.

Names of political prisoners in mainland China plastered on a wall in Hong Kong during the anti-mask demonstrations of late 2019. Photo: Etan Liam via flickr

Beijing has launched a major attack on the democratic freedoms of Hong Kongers. They have enjoyed the rights to freedom of speech and the press, to assemble and to join trade unions, ever since the handover to China in 1997. Hong Kong is not, and never has been, a democracy, but the Basic Law enshrines these rights and Hong Kongers have exercised them vigorously. Now Beijing is riding rough-shod over the Basic Law. They propose to pass a ‘National Security Law’ themselves and simply insert it into the Basic Law, without anyone in Hong Kong debating or voting on the procedure. The best they will be offered, according to Tam Yiu-chung, a prominent member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), is that: ‘Hongkongers concerned about the law could submit their views to the NPC via an online platform.’

For the last few years, Beijing and its local representatives have been chipping away at the ‘high degree of autonomy’ that Hong Kong was promised under the ‘One Country. Two Systems’ principle. The last few weeks has seen an increasing level of intervention in the everyday life of Hong Kongers. The arrest of 15 leading democrats for their alleged role in last year’s demonstrations is one such case. Another is a row over a question set in the local equivalent of the A-level history exam. The question provided students with extracts from selected historical documents and asked:

‘Japan did more good than harm to China in the period 1900-45.’ Do you agree? Explain your answer with reference to [the two readings] and using your own knowledge.

The intention, admittedly rather clumsy, was obviously to provoke students to discuss both sides of a contentious topic. However, it enraged local politicians and provoked a savage attack from Beijing. The city’s Education Bureaux retrospectively voided the question. History will now be studied on the whims of Beijing.

The proposed law is a major stepping up of the pressure.  A law on Beijing’s terms will be used to criminalize any dissent, in exactly the same way as the existing mainland version is used. What is more, in another violation of the Basic Law, they propose that the mainland security forces will be allowed to operate freely in Hong Kong. None of the basic freedoms exist on the mainland and this law will inevitably lead to them being erased in Hong Kong as well.

Why now?

Beijing has two motives for this sudden move. The local government has been unable to pass its own national security law even though it has a constitutional obligation to do so. The chances of them being able to pass one before the September Legislative Council (LegCo) elections are very slim indeed. The mass movement last year was strong enough to force the local government to drop another piece of repressive legislation and there are currently physical fights taking place in Legco over a proposed law to make disrespecting the Chinese national anthem a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in jail. The democrats propose to fight the LegCo election on a ‘35+’ ticket, meaning they aim to win all the democratically elected seats and at least one of the gerrymandered functional constituencies. That would give them a majority and such repressive legislation would have no chance of passing. Beijing can clearly see these realities and has concluded that it can’t rely on its local stooges but must act itself.

The second motive for Beijing, literally, taking the law into their own hands is that it provides a nationalist diversion from the real problems facing the Communist Party. There are many embarrassing facts about their early response to the coronavirus pandemic that they would rather the Chinese people did not explore too closely, including the persecution of medical whistle-blowers and the likelihood that cover-ups of the crisis involve at least the Wuhan city government, perhaps the Hubei provincial government, and maybe even the central national government. At the same time, they face an uncertain economic future and, for the first time in decades, have been forced to abandon any target for growth. These problems spill over into the trade conflict with the USA. They hope that nationalist drumbeating will be enough to deflect popular anger away from them and on to foreign enemies.

The events in Hong Kong over the last year have been reported in the mainland media as mindlessly violent riots, manipulated by foreign forces, notably the US and UK governments, and led by extremists demanding independence. Most recently, the party tabloid Global Times, published photos of a man they claim is a US agent meeting with local militants, including ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, the long-time leftist leader and former legislator. A large section of the Chinese population appears to credit these stories, to see Hong Kongers as arrogant and privileged ingrates who have profited at the expense of the mainland. They believe the movement is another imperialist plot to break up China and derail its rise to the status of a world power. Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive after the handover, who was forced to resign as a result of the failure of his own 2003 attempt to pass a national security law, faithfully echoed his master’s voice when he made a long broadcast speech warning that Hong Kong is ‘easy target for hostile foreign opportunists’. Cracking down on Hong Kong, and threatening Taiwan with forcible reunification, is the sort of nationalist programme that Beijing believes will deflect any internal criticism of recent problems.

Gambling on Hong Kong’s future

Beijing judges these problems important enough to make it take a chance on the future of Hong Kong. Their long-term plan has always been to replace Hong Kong as China’s financial centre. To that end, they have been building up Shanghai as the alternative and pushing Hong Kong into being part of the ‘Greater Bay Area’ zone. It would go from being one of the world’s major financial centres, and the site of much of the movement of capital in and out of China, to being the regional financial centre and glorified shopping mall. The problem with this strategy is that both Chinese and international capital feel more confident doing their business in Hong Kong. Judges in Hong Kong are not immune to political pressure but, in the mainland, they are openly instruments of the party. Businesses would rather not take their disputes to courts where the judge might get a phone call instructing him on the party’s preferred verdict. They are happier with a situation where they can’t be hauled arbitrarily into a court that will find them guilty of some imaginary crime because they have become politically inconvenient in some way. Simply taking over Hong Kong precipitately might make the current economic crisis that much worse.

Beijing’s local stooges have been falling over themselves to welcome the move. The government are very inventive in finding ways to explain why this blow to Hong Kong’s legal status is a fair and reasonable move, entirely in accord with the Basic Law, and in expressing their intention to work as hard as possible to ensure it goes through smoothly. They have been very vocal in attempting to reassure capitalists – mainland, local and international – that it will be business as usual. Central government representatives have been saying the same thing. According to Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, the new law: ‘will improve Hong Kong’s legal system and bring more stability, a stronger rule of law and a better business environment to Hong Kong.’ The rights of people will be drastically curtailed, but the rights of capital will be sacrosanct. The best that Chief Executive Carrie Lam can promise is that Hong Kongers will retain the right to free speech ‘for the time being’. And, of course, the local government has been letting its thugs loose on anyone who has the temerity publicly to oppose the move. For their part, the police have welcomed the new law.

Renewed resistance

The proposal, hatched in secret and revealed without warning, came as an enormous shock to many in Hong Kong. For some, the first response was to plan their escape to Canada, but others are determined to resist. Sunday saw the return of the mass street demonstration, running battles with the cops, the building of barricades, volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and large-scale arrests. Like the mall protests over the last few weeks, these demonstrations started entirely peacefully but were attacked by the police and escalated into violent clashes. A further demonstration is planned for this Wednesday and it is likely that this will also be banned, under the health regulations that forbid more than eight people gathering at any one time, and the cops will use this as an excuse to break it up. The clear political intent of this regulation, in a city where the pandemic is under reasonably tight control, was clearly revealed when the government announced its extension to cover the date of the annual commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre on 4 June.

There is no doubt that the opposition faces huge problems in the struggle against the law. Beijing has made it clear that they see the passage of the law as a major and urgent priority and the PLA has signified its preparedness to intervene if necessary. The demonstrations so far have been impressive, but they have been in the thousands and not the hundreds of thousands and millions that would give Beijing pause for thought. The new trade unions are probably too young and too weak to make the call for an effective general strike a realistic organising point in the near future. Certainly, socialists in Hong Kong should be arguing for that as the best weapon to defend workers’ rights and the city’s freedoms, but in the meantime there is an urgent need to build genuinely mass demonstrations against the proposal, in memory of Tiananmen, and against the ‘White Terror’ arrests of activists.

While it is important to keep the movement united, the two dominant political currents present are becoming a hindrance to victory. On the one hand, the explicitly bourgeois democrats, from the veteran Martin Lee to the main leader of Demosisto, Joshua Wong, are looking to foreign governments, specifically the USA, to give them real support. Some of their followers even carry US flags on demonstrations. Not only does this provide ammunition to Beijing’s ‘foreign forces’ argument but it sows illusions in the willingness of the US to go beyond rhetoric. Verbally backing the Hong Kong democrats is currently a useful bargaining tool in Washington’s developing struggle with Beijing, but neither side has the interests of workers either in Hong Kong or the mainland at heart.

The other developing major tendency is the pro-independence movement whose slogans have become more and more prominent in the demonstrations. This, too, plays into the hands of Beijing and Carrie Lam. The hostility of many mainlanders to Hong Kong is fuelled by the contemptuous attitude towards them held by too many in the city. Calls for independence only strengthen those feelings. Against this, socialists must argue that the key to defending Hong Kong, and certainly to any exercise of the right to self-determination, lies in making common cause with workers inside China. The hardships imposed by the pandemic and the faltering economy, together with the repressive policies pursued by the Communist Party, mean that there is plenty of discontent on the mainland. The strongest weapon that Hong Kongers could have would be an alliance with those who suffer at least as much as they do at the hands of Beijing.

International solidarity

It is the plain duty of the international left to organise in solidarity with those struggling in Hong Kong. Yes, it can feel uncomfortable to be on the same side as the likes of Mike Pompeo and Chris Patten, but we don’t have to use the same arguments as them, or to suspend criticisms of their own crimes. Yes, the freedoms under threat are ‘bourgeois democratic’ freedoms, but they are the freedoms that allow trade unions and free speech and without them any fight for socialist demands is that much harder.

There are those on the left who hesitate to support the people of Hong Kong. Some argue that China retains a ‘socialist’ dimension while Hong Kong is unarguably entirely capitalist. It is important to be absolutely clear that nothing about mainland China is now, or ever has been, socialist. Workers and peasants held no power under Mao; no power under Deng; no power under Xi. The economic development of China has nothing to do with ‘socialist planning’ and everything to do with a combination of state direction and an unfettered market. The Communist Party is not an enemy of China’s successful capitalists. On the contrary, many, like Jack Ma, the owner of Alibaba, are members of the party. The struggle in Hong Kong is not a battle between socialism and capitalism but a battle by the mass of the population to hold on to some basic liberties.

Others argue that, because Washington takes the side of the Hong Kong people we should take the side of the Hong Kong government and Beijing. Again, it is important to reject this argument. It is true that the USA is still the major imperialist power in the world and its government is responsible for a string of horrible crimes, both internally and on a world stage. But it is also true that China is an emerging imperialist power and its government also has a string of horrible crimes to its credit, from the tens of millions of deaths in the famine of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ to the imprisonment of, literally, millions of its own Uighur citizens in Xinjiang today. It does not, yet, have the same record of international bloodshed as the USA but it is arming to play just such a role and is behaving increasingly aggressively towards its smaller neighbours. It is not the job of socialists to back one gang of imperialists against another but to stand on the side of those who are fighting to preserve their freedom to speak and to organise.

Solidarity with the people of Hong Kong means more than words. There are things we can do in the UK which will actively help both them and us. One obvious demand to put upon our own government is to grant anyone who fears persecution at the hands of Beijing, particularly the holders of ‘British National (Overseas)’ passports, full British citizenship, including the right to live in the UK, should they so desire. These unusual passports are the product of a racist scheme dreamt up in the prelude to the handover and created a group of people with British travel documents that allowed them to travel internationally but not to settle in the UK. A victory over the current government’s immigration policy on this issue would not only provide concrete assistance to many in Hong Kong who worry about the consequences if the movement is defeated but it would also be a major victory for anti-racists here at home.

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