Lawrence Wong looks at the background, and prospects, for Hong Kong’s 'Umbrella Revolution'
The scale, the size, and the vitality of the ‘umbrella’ revolution took every person, including the Hong Kong people themselves, by surprise. However, this does not mean that the protests and campaigns of civil disobedience were without precedent in the territory of Hong Kong.
The previous Chief Executive Tung Chee Wah was deposed through a mass campaign in 2003.There have been strikes, a notable docker’s strike, a threat to strike by Cathay Pacific cabin crew, a successful campaign against the change in the secondary school curriculum, and the recent mock plebiscite where 800,00 Hong Kong people voted for genuine democracy.
Every year, Hong Kong people come out, sometimes in tens of thousands and sometimes in hundreds of thousands, around June 4th to commemorate and to remember the fallen when Chinese people last stormed the gates of heaven twenty five years ago. Most of these protests have been successful, and have taken place in the ‘consultative’ period, prior to decisions being made. The mobilisations of Occupy Central, the mock plebiscite, the magnificent 500,000 demonstration on June 1 which was the closest Sunday to June 4th, took place within this by and large successful experience of struggle by Hong Kong people since 1997.
Anyone who has visited Shanghai and Beijing, and catching up behind them, Shenzhen, Chongqing, and Tianjin, and behind them - Xian, Chengdu, and Harbin, will see two metropolis that rival Tokyo, New York, and London.
In the twenty five years since 1989, the distance in terms of housing, income, consumption, education, and working conditions between Hong Kong and the cities of China have significantly narrowed.
In the past seven years, there has been a similar pattern of rising struggle. There have been significant strikes, environmental protests, and village centred resistance that have been successful in China.
The common themes of these resistances from below have been against corruption and the abuse of authority, the absence of consultation, for example, over the siting of chemical plants, the non payment of wages or insurance.
The most important and celebrated strike, that won almost all its demands has been the strike that involved 20,000 settled ‘migrant’ workers at Yue Yuen. A Hong Kong NGO, Labour Action China (LAC), played a significant part in representing the Yue Yuen workers in negotiations with the Taiwanese management.
The similarities with Hong Kong are that the protests have been mostly successful. The difference is that in China, the successful protests are always against local decisions, and regional abuse of authority, sometimes with petitions to the central government. In Hong Kong the abuse of authority is seen as emanating from Beijing, who is interfering with the autonomy of Hong Kong.
Different this time: the movement begins
It was different this time because the National People’s Congress (NPC) had announced that the candidates would be chosen and approved by a selected committee of 1200 notables. After the announcement, there were protests in Hong Kong, the most radical Democratic councillors, who were at the NPC as representatives of Hong Kong, disrupted the harmony of the promulgations.
Benny Tai, one of the three founders of Occupy Central, first threatened a campaign of mass civil disobedience by the occupation and disruption of the financial centre, and then voiced his doubts about the movement’s ability to deliver. His indecision is not a personal failing or a character flaw, but it reflects the absence of organisational accountability in Occupy Central.
At the best of times, we make educated guesses about the size of a protest. Could the organisation of the mock plebiscite be translated into an organisation that challenges the decision made by Beijing?
Nevertheless, Occupy Central had to respond, and they responded by calling for the civil disobedience to start on a October 1st, China’s National Day and also a public holiday. The students broke through this.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) called for a strike to begin on 22 September. Four hundred lecturers pledged their individual support, and the small but determined beginnings of the protest can be seen in the video here.
The HKFS claimed thirteen thousand students in two hours, and they called for the secondary students to join them. The students then organised an illegal occupation of Tamar Park.
The students’ strike was different from the past and significant for three reasons. This was the first time in twenty-five years that a decision by Beijing, that affected all of Hong Kong, was being challenged.
The decision of students to strike was a decision in defiance of Beijing, which had already announced its plans for choosing the candidates.
Secondly, the student strike was a conscious political opposition to conciliatory voices inside the democratic alliances in Hong Kong that warned of another June 4th 1989, if the actions for democracy went too far. The students had to overcome the fear of the defeat at Tiananmen.
Thirdly, there was a large minority of student activists in the HKFS and Scholarism, the secondary school students’ group, who could judge the mood and determination of the wider student population. They had an organisational base in the classrooms and lectures, the canteens and the student associations, the friendships and the acquaintances that provided a dialogue and discussion for such a decision to be made.
An earlier fight, in 2012, over the curriculum had provided a test of their organisations. Beijing sought to introduce a school ‘national’ curriculum that omitted the massacre at Tiananmen but was forced to retreat.
You could see that the wider student membership had been pulled into the fight, and that we were seeing the birth of a student movement, when one student interviewed at an illegal occupation of Tamar Square, in defiance of the police, said that he was also studying for his exams while occupying the square. Then the police began to arrest the students.
The student stand firm
Joshua Wong, 17-year old co-founder of Scholarism and veteran of the curriculum protests, was arrested on 27 September. A raid on his parents’ home, and their subsequent detention, signalled the intentions of the Hong Kong administration.
The hard line taken by C Y Leung, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, was a rational response from the Hong Kong government. All the ‘adult’ democratic opposition were protesting at the announcement by Beijing with different degrees of vigour, but none believed that this decision could be changed. The most radical democrats protested by shaving their own heads to symbolise loss.
One of the founders of Occupy Central, meanwhile, confessed that the Democratic movement had lost. The civil disobedience planned by Occupy Central for 1st October, China’s national day, was planned to take place on two consecutive public holidays. This well-established narrative of dissent on holidays was acceptable to the economic and political rulers of Hong Kong and their counterpart, the ruling class in Beijing.
The generation of wealth by the Hong Kong people for the tycoons is not disrupted, the Hong Kong government could point to Hong Kong as a bastion of political rights and dissent, and the rulers in Beijing could present it as an implementation of the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement enshrined in the Basic Law. The student’s strike sought to change this.
The students always saw themselves as the beginning and understood that they would require wider support from the public. The students stayed firm and after three days of police arrests and harassment called for help. They called for Occupy Central to bring forward their mobilisation from 1st October.
The leadership of Occupy Central vacillated because the student occupations and the strikes were illegal. They had agreed an occupation “with peace and love” with C Y Leung that demonstrated their “leadership” of the democratic movement, and also the Hong Kong government’s tolerance for political rights.
Initially, the leaders of Occupy Central, who were a handful of individuals, refused to change their schedule. They were also not sure if the people of Hong Kong would come out onto the streets in support of illegal protests, on a working day, that would in fact disrupt the stability of Hong Kong.
Winning mass support
What the leaders of Occupy Central failed to understand was that these student protesters were no longer only the activists who were being arrested. These were the children of Hong Kong citizens.
The student movement stood firm and after days of attacks by the police, people began to come out to protect the children of Hong Kong. The crowd slowly swelled, added to by the Saturday weekend. The leaders of Occupy Central had to run to catch up because they knew that on Sunday, tens and hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people would be coming out in support of the students.
This was not an automatic process. Hong Kong television showed discussions and complaints about the disruptions to peoples’ daily lives. Were the students to blame or was it C Y Leung’s intransigence that was to blame? This question was settled by numbers.
On Sunday, the riot police were used, as was teargas, and pepper spray, and even more people came out. By now the protesters had had the experience of repelling tear gas and pepper spray. Cling film, eye masks, and the umbrella were the instruments of mass rebellion. More and more people came prepared. The estimated numbers swelled to at least one hundred thousand by the Sunday 28 September.
The police continued to use the methods they had used when facing the students. After all, in the eyes of the law, these new protestors were also illegal. The riot police, tear gas and pepper spray that had failed to intimidate the students was now used on the tens of thousands of Hong Kong people.
The occupation of Central Square had become the focus for the test of power, in this phase of the revolt, between the forces of the state and the people of Hong Kong. The assembled occupiers also understood this. They had to stay in the square through the night or the movement had lost. The live feeds from Hong Kong showed this through the night. By the Monday morning of 29 September, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers came out onto the streets, too large for Central Square alone and two other centres of occupation had started. The riot police were withdrawn.
The umbrella revolution had won and Central Square was renamed Democracy Square.
Class and power in China
Can the reforms for genuine suffrage succeed? Emily Lau, one of the Hong Kong legislators believes that it can. In a television interview after the riot police had retreated, she cites Beijing changing its mind.
In order to properly assess what is required to win reforms for the territory of Hong Kong, we have to deal with the question of the nature of Hong Kong’s economy and society and its relationship with China.
The grievances and the resistance, the hopes and the fears, the development, prosperity, and challenges that Hong Kong faces can be better understood and conceptualised as the development of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
Traditionally, there have been two centres of economic and political power in China – Shanghai and Guangzhou. We can add to these Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and note that the development of Chongqing as a centre to rival the coastal regions may have been curtailed with the demise of Bo Xilai. These are rival and contesting networks of economic and political power that can be traced as ties within positions in the Chinese Communist Party, the Peoples Liberation Army, and familial history. The prize at stake is accession to Beijing, which is the centre of the state.
The state in Beijing acts as the executive committee of the class of capitalists in China today. The economic rulers of Hong Kong are different insofar as they do not directly contest for economic and political power within this network. However, they share the same purpose and priorities, which is to accumulate wealth and power by exploiting Chinese (and increasingly peoples of other nations), as do the regional rulers centred in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and in Beijing.
Sixty of Hong Kong’s economic rulers met with Xi Jinping as the unrest was starting, and advised the Hong Kong people to accept the ruling by Beijing. Consequently, it is mistaken to see all of Hong Kong’s problems as emanating from the executive committee of China’s ruling class in Beijing.
As a matter of fact China’s ruling class - of which Hong Kong is a constituent part -discuss, disagree, compete, attempt to outmanoever each other, sometimes takes over each other, raise and resolve problems – make decisions in a very democratic manner, amongst themselves. It is mistaken to see decisions as emanating from Beijing without consultation with local and regional centres of power.
Every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping today has had to cement the centre’s authority with the regions by making a southern tour. Hong Kong’s tycoons exert political influence indirectly through their economic power, whilst the elite of Guangzhou and Shanghai combine their economic and political power more directly.
In this sense, Hong Kong’s economic and political rulers are able to portray social problems as the exclusive creation of Beijing. They do not reveal, for example, that the Hong Kong tycoon’s lobbied successfully against Beijing’s proposed reforms to improve the rights and welfare of Chinese workers. Hong Kong oligarchs have huge investments in China.
This matters not because every struggle for reforms in Hong Kong is in fact a revolutionary challenge to Beijing. The two months that lead to the massacre at Tiananmen was a real revolutionary challenge to the ruling class of China. The intensity and depth of the uprising split the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders, and the people of Beijing stopped the People Liberation Army at least once on 30 May.
Deng Xiaoping had to secretly mobilise a division outside Beijing to crush the revolution because the Beijing Division could not be relied on to follow his orders. The revolt in Hong Kong, by comparison, is far from being a political or social revolution, despite the label of an ‘umbrella’ revolution. Consequently, even well intentioned harkings to Tiananmen has the actual effect of stifling dissent, resistance, and revolt.
Well-intentioned analysis has asked how could Hong Kong’s seven million people enjoy formal democracy whilst the rest of China’s 1.3 billion enjoy formal dictatorship? They have pointed to what appears a contradiction. The argument, shared also by George Galloway, goes that Beijing will never permit this because formal Western style democracy, if granted to Hong Kong, will spread like wildfire throughout China, threatening the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
The problem with the first good intention is that it does not answer the question, “how can any change begin in any of China’s cities if it does not engulf the whole of China?” It is a crippling burden to say to seven million Hong Kongers that after liberating yourself, you have to think about liberating another one thousand three hundred million other fellow Chinese.
Political reform, through civil nomination, since every Hong Kong citizen will be able to vote for the first time in its history, will be an anomaly. The executive committee in Beijing, formally known as the Standing Committee of the Politburo, will not want to grant this but it does not follow that it cannot be pressured into conceding it through mass protests. After all, the proposal for the universal voting of selected candidates in Hong Kong has not given rise to demands for similar rights within the eighty million members of the Chinese Communist Party.
A genuine, freely-elected Chief Executive who represents the Hong Kong people will have to operate within greater restrictions of power and diplomacy than those that restrict Cameron or Obama. Beijing can accommodate this potential anomaly more than can the oligarchs, especially if it is a mass movement that brings such a popular Chief Executive to power.
Hong Kong remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, with some of the most industrious, hardworking, and enterprising people. This means that Hong Kong people are also one of the most exploited.
The anomaly of a Chief Executive who is freely elected and who represents the interests of the Hong Kongers will place immense demands for change to the economic life of Hong Kong. Wages, housing, education, pensions will enter into the electoral arena of reforms posing a more immediate threat to the tycoons of Hong Kong than to the rulers of Beijing, even more so when if an elected Chief Executive is connected and beholden to a mass movement.
Today is Monday 6 October. The crowds have thinned. There are talks, not yet formal negotiations, between the students and the Hong Kong government. The situation remains open, and I write this as a contribution to the discussion.
Lawrence Wong is a socialist active in the trade unions and in the anti-racist movement. He has been a lay officer for the National Union of Teachers and is a mathematics teacher.