Hong Kong trade unions call for strike

Can workers turn opposition to Beijing’s ‘National Security Law’ into action in Hong Kong? Colin Sparks writes on the latest developments in the pro-democracy movement, responses to Black Lives Matter, and the duty of internationalists in the UK to demand full citizenship for all the residents of the former British colony.

Pro-democracy activists defied the ban on actions to commemorate the Tiananmen square anniversary on 4 June 2020. Photo: David Yan, 4 June 2009, Victoria Park, Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy unions in Hong Kong are calling for strike action to stop Beijing imposing its ‘National Security Law’ on the city. As a first step, 23 unions are calling for a vote on whether to strike. They say that if 60,000 people cast votes in a referendum they will organize on 14 June, and if 60 % are in favour striking, they will continue to organize the action. The Hong Secondary School Students Action Platform plans a similar vote in schools.

This initiative comes from some of the new unions set up in the wake of the mass actions last year. They are supported by the leadership of the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) and hope for a big and positive turnout, but they can expect bitter opposition and sabotage from the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), one of whose leaders last week joined the government as Under-Secretary for Labour and Welfare.

There is no doubt about the widespread popular opposition to the proposed new law. The police banned the annual 4 June commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, allegedly on health grounds, but the ruling was widely ignored. Despite the mobilization of more than 3,000 police, a huge crowd, observing social distancing, gathered as usual in Victoria Park on Hong Kong island and there were other demonstrations in Mong Kok, Tai Po and elsewhere in the New Territories.

The government has been attempting to sell the idea to Hong Kongers. Chief Executive Carrie Lam managed to force the law outlawing disrespect for the national anthem through the Legislative Council and sent a personal letter to all residents claiming that the national security law will: ‘only target an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts and activities.’  She has been joined by leading figures making reassuring noises about how nothing major will change.  The way that ‘national security’ is used as a weapon against any dissenters on the mainland makes such claims incredible. Lam claims that the majority of Hong Kongers support the proposed law and the pro-Beijing ‘United Front Supporting National Security Legislation’ organised a petition in support of the law, which they claim got 2.9 million signatures. Some Hong Kongers undoubtedly support the proposed law, but many of the signatories were people ‘encouraged’ to sign by their bosses and others were elderly people allegedly given gifts once they signed.

The capitalist class, both local and international have been expressing support of the proposed law.  Property tycoon Li Ka-Shing, who hesitated to back the government last year over the extradition bill, has joined other prominent local businessmen like Michael Kadoorie in giving Beijing full backing.  International companies, including British based HSBC, Standard Chartered, Jardine Matheson and Swire, have been equally supportive. According to Swire, the new law will ‘be beneficial for the long-term future of Hong Kong as a world-leading business and financial centre’. HSBC, which was attacked for not coming out in support of the law quickly enough, took the same line arguing that ‘we respect and support laws and regulations that will enable Hong Kong to recover and rebuild the economy.’  Its Chief Executive for Asia-Pacific, Peter Wong, even publicly signed the pro-Beijing petition.

The move towards strike action is an important development in resistance to Beijing’s plans.  There were some ‘general strikes’ during the struggle last year, but the honest truth is that many participants participated as individuals and there were no major walk-outs in important workplaces. The unions that emerged out of that struggle are the driving force for the attempt to build for a new and more powerful strike, but they are relatively young and untested organizations. In the circumstances, they are correct to proceed very carefully in order to build wider support for action.

Echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA are as visible in Hong Kong as elsewhere around the world, but there are some important local differences. Some of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement pin their faith in the US government as an ally in the fight against the mainland. That has put them in a dilemma, and they have been reluctant to join in criticisms of Trump. Socialists have argued strongly against this line and for linking the struggle against oppression in Hong Kong with the struggle in the USA. They point out that some of the same politicians who have said they support Hong Kongers’ fight for democracy have called for the use of troops to crush the demonstrations in the USA and that US companies have been among the major suppliers of weaponry to the Hong Kong police force.

Here in the UK, the government is havering over its promise to provide refuge to Hong Kongers. They are divided over whether to appease China by withdrawing their offer to grant holders of British National (Overseas) passports the right to stay in the UK for more than six months or whether, in the interests of a trade deal with Trump, they should stand firm. The passport holders are in limbo because of a combination of Chinese pressure and British racism back in the days before the handover denied them full UK citizenship; it is still not clear exactly what is on offer or to whom. What is not on the table is the only just and honest offer: a full UK passport, the right to come to the UK, and to be granted UK citizenship should they so wish. Even on their most generous interpretation, only those born before the handover in 1997 are eligible for any rights under the current provision and that will leave the young people who have formed the backbone of the movement to the tender mercies of the mainland security apparatus.

We should be realistic about this. We hope that the democrats will win in Hong Kong and we expect that few, if any, will want to leave their homes for a chilly island thousands of kilometres away. However, if Beijing is able to force its will on the city then many will feel they have to leave. Not everyone will want to come to the UK. Some will welcome mainland encroachments and see no reason to leave. Others who will want out will see Canada and Australia as much more attractive options. Others are, bravely, determined to stay and fight whatever transpires. But for us in the UK the only internationalist position is to argue that any Hong Konger who feels endangered by mainland encroachments and who wishes to come here should be welcomed immediately and not subject to the protracted, costly and uncertain business of gaining the full rights of a citizen.

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