Protestors cry as they are dispersed by police officers outside government headquarters. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

An illegal, mass, civil disobedience movement has fought the Hong Kong government to a draw writes Lawrence Wong

On the 21st October, talks about the future of Hong Kong took place between the students, representing the Umbrella Movement, and the Hong Kong government. Today, 3rd December, it would appear that this chapter of the Umbrella Movement, with the students forming the most radical part of its leadership, is coming to a close.

There have been 190 arrests, amongst them Joshua Wong who is on hunger strike. The call by students for the Legislative Council building to be surrounded on Sunday 30th November did not bring the tens of thousands needed on to the streets to beat the police a fourth time. The Umbrella Movement has fought the Hong Kong government to an impasse. This is important because how a movement ends influences how it can begin the next time.

The talks scheduled for 6pm Hong Kong time, on 21st October, were one of the most significant achievements of the campaign of civil disobedience represented by the student movement and the Occupy Central protests. The talks marked as equivalent the hopes, the aspirations, and the created counter-tradition of dissent and rebellion represented by the five student delegates to the five delegates of government who represent police repression, the interest of big business, and the defence of an impossible to defend status quo. At 11am GMT today the students will already have made history albeit in the conditions of Hong Kong.

The students have made history because at each step of the way they have had to override the advice of the Hong Kong intelligentsia in newspapers such as the South China Morning Post (SCMP), in the universities, and even in their own pro-democracy camp who have counselled against ‘going too far’.

Last week, as the British Parliament decided that the Hong Kong police’s use of force was appropriate, just after the police had attempted to clear the centre of the occupation at Admiralty using riot police and teargas, leader columns in SCMP were all bemoaning that the occupation should have stopped a week earlier.

In a sense, the occupations of the three centres at Mong Kok, Causeway Bay, and at Admiralty are not for the activist-occupiers to decide to give up because these three centres were the creation of the mass movement of over one hundred thousand Hong Kongers who came onto the streets to protect the students and defeated the police the first time on September 28th and 29th.

The three Occupations and the barricades map the contour of the revolt so far. In the evening and in the weekend, tens and hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people have poured onto the streets, whilst in the day time, activists numbering in their thousands rotate to man the barricades and be present at the Occupations.

It was the civil disobedience of hundreds of thousands who poured onto the streets that forced the government to retreat, but these hundreds of thousands cannot remain on the streets indefinitely. The majority have to go to work, go to school, to look after their families; but the majority also looks after the minority of the occupier-activists by replenishing their supply of food and daily necessities.

The blockades minimise the disruption to the lives of the supporters of the pro-democracy movement while disrupting the control and the authority of the Hong Kong government. This has created an impasse and while this war of attrition between civil disobedience and the Hong Kong government cannot go on indefinitely, it can go on for a very long time. This explains why the Hong Kong government has tried to clear the barricades and the occupations three times, whilst the movement reoccupies each and every time.

The first time the government attempted to clear an occupation was at Mongkok around the week beginning October 6th. The police had been forced to retreat the previous week that we now know as the umbrella movement (the name movement is preferred to revolution in order to distance itself from the ‘coloured’ revolutions). Mongkok was occupied in the weekend of 28th September and is one of the most densely lived places in Hong Kong, whilst Causeway Bay and Admiralty are more made up of public squares, parks, and government buildings.

There have been videos of police in plain clothes as well as provocateurs known to be triad members who have posed as local residents physically attacking the occupying students. Even if it is completely true that the attackers were triad members, the accusation that the idealism of the students does not address the problems of the daily life of Hong Kong people hits at the underbelly of the protesters. Occupy Mongkok responded with a petition showing support for them signed by local shopkeepers, and asked people to come and eat at Mongkok. But it leaves open the question of how greater political democracy would improve the lives of Hong Kong people. Although the anti Occupy forces were repelled, there were calls from within the campaigners to retreat and to regroup in Admiralty.

The second attempt came at Admiralty with quite serious use of force by the police. Again the police were repelled and groups of construction workers came to Admiralty to erect bamboo barriers planted in concrete. There was a picture of a bamboo barricade erected outside the barracks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which I had first thought was a needless provocation. I did not know however that the barracks of the PLA was in fact in Admiralty and this set of barricades was simply completing the defences.

This was also the two evenings where Hong Kong TV filmed six plain clothes police officers carrying a protestor into a warehouse and beating him. The protester turned out to be a Civic Party member to the Nominating Committee who represented the social welfare sector. Regina Ip, an anti democracy Legislative Council (LegCo) member complained about the bamboo barricades as a health and safety hazard, it looked as though the police would pause. However, they did not.

On the Friday morning of October 17th, the police swooped in the early morning and cleared Mongkok of the few hundred remaining protesters. The police’s estimation that the activists were physically tired proved correct. There simply weren’t the numbers to resist as the police were filmed clearing the tents and dismantling the barriers. However the important question was whether the people who had created the barricades, the pro democracy movement felt defeated. C Y Leung, the Chief Executive, also offered talks to begin the following Tuesday, today October 21st, but crucially said that the dismantling of the barricades was not connected to the talks.

That afternoon, Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders, was reported to call for Mongkok to be reoccupied because if Mongkok was lost, so would Admiralty and Causeway Bay. People also understood that without the barricades and the occupations, the talks would be talking about the terms of surrender. That night, again tens of thousands of Hong Kong people came onto the streets to reoccupy Mongkok.

Videos of the police’s indiscriminate use of pepper spray abound on the web and so are pictures of open umbrellas used in self defence. After around three hours, Mongkok was re-occupied. Scuffles broke out again around the edges but Mongkok remains occupied today. The activists who had maintained the occupations were tired, but the movement that had created the barricades did not feel defeated.

The Hong Kong government has attacked and been repelled three times. Now it has gone to the courts to declare the occupations illegal. It would seem improbable that the occupations after facing down triads, riot police, and tear gas are going to listen to the courts. The irony that it is the police, who have already been repelled three times, who will have to enforce the court’s orders , seems to have escaped the Hong Kong government.

In these negotiations, the students have compromised by not calling for people to come out onto the streets but they won the concession for the talks to be televised, in addition to the original plans for a radio only broadcast. The talks started at 6pm and ended at 8pm – with thousands watching the two hour talks together. The students made the breakthrough to get the face-to-face talks. Their leadership has been steadfast because they are connected to the wider student body and could make, hitherto, correct judgements of what the student population is prepared to sacrifice.

They first obtained the offer of talks after they threatened to occupy government offices on October 5th; they correctly called off talks when the Occupation at Mongkok was attacked on October 6th, 7th, and 10th; they correctly called on people to come out onto the streets when the government offered to resume talks which it then called off; and they correctly called for the re-occupation of Mongkok. Their hopes and their dreams are represented in a short video.

The delegation that met the government was made up of five representatives of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.This represents their self confidence and the fact that it was the students who had brought the negotiations into being. But students alone do not represent the Hong Kong people. I would assume that in the future negotiations, another concession won from the government, which had originally offered only one round of talks, would include representatives from other sectors. The idealism of the students also reveal a weakness that requires addressing.

Today, 3 December, the SCMP reports that the three Jokers, the three ‘founders’ of the Occupy Central movement will surrender to the police. They, against the student leadership, had been talking of surrendering for over two weeks, and since the beginning did not want to ‘go to far’. This conservative element within the Umbrella Movement had to be countered, but excluding them completely from the talks on 21 October, although for completely understandable reasons, was a weakness.

The revolt in Hong Kong could only have involved the hundreds of thousands that it did because it was asking for democracy, a say in one’s own future. It was only such a generalised political demand that could bring behind it the aspirations of all the different economic bread-and-butter issues. Students have always been the best social grouping that articulates societies generalised political demands. My, in the Facebook sense, Russian friend Vladimir wrote that politics is concentrated economics.

The Financial Times ran an article on the economics that underpin the politics and observed:

‘While Hong Kong’s establishment has stressed the importance of protecting the interests of the business community, many in the street believe political change is needed to fix economic imbalances.

“We need to think if Hong Kong should stay an international financial centre and a paradise for global capitalism,” said Rebecca Lai, a 47-year-old NGO worker at a protest site in Mongkok district. “We need to think if this is still good for the citizens.”’

An investor from Hong Kong at the recent property sell-off fair MIPIM in London remarked that property prices in London is cheap compared to in Hong Kong. An elected Chief Executive, beholden to a mass movement has the power to ameliorate and to lower property prices. All land in Hong Kong belongs to the government and consequently the government is part of capitalism.

An academic poll in mid October claimed that 38% supported Occupy, 36% against, with the young overwhelmingly in support. These connections between political change and redressing economic imbalances need to be made explicitly by the leadership of the pro-democracy movement in order to draw in behind them even greater numbers.

However, earlier in the occupations, perhaps because of their social composition, students at the blockades were not able to argue or to persuade uncommitted or hostile Hong Kongers that democracy held economic benefits.

There is an anti Occupy video of a confrontation in Mongkok between residents and students. Some socialists have doubted if the residents are genuine but what is important is the quiesence of the students, their inability to counter the allegations from ordinary residents that their livelihoods are being disrupted by the occupations. One of the residents says that he has to get to work in order to look after his family of two children and parents, and that the scholarships and fees of the students are paid for by the taxes of the ordinary people of Hong Kong. I am not blaming the students because few of their university professors or the intelligentsia of the SCMP are able to make the connection between greater political democracy and the potential economic benefits to the lives of Hong Kongers.

There continued to be immense pressure on C Y Leung, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, and as a consequence of the pressure, he let slipped that genuine suffrage could not be permitted because there were many more poorer Hong Kong people compared to the oligarchs. There was uproar, and a fund manager wrote in Market watch:

‘He [CY Leung] now risks turning the democracy protest into an old-fashioned struggle of “haves vs. have not’s”, thereby galvanizing a much wider group to the cause. He has also removed the political cover for Hong Kong’s elite billionaire tycoons, who until now were only assumed to be pulling strings behind the scenes.

To date, the three-week-old protest campaign had focused on democracy and demanding civic nominations for the chief executive in 2017. While the students had also made the resignation of Leung a key demand, they had conspicuously refrained from championing other social issues.

Now, however, Leung has put class struggle at the heart of the debate and inevitably turned attention to Hong Kong’s divisive economy. Thanks CY Leung.’

If we believe the polls to be valid and reliable, the 38% pro democrats has still to persuade and convince the other 62%. The leadership of Occupy and the students could not go beyond the impasse of the barricades and the occupations. This is not a criticism because calls for a solidarity general strike on 28 August by the smaller Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) was poorly supported.

Last week the students tried to go beyond the three occupation sites to hold dialogue with the community. I can only wonder why were they left to go alone, and not with social workers, construction workers, residents, clerics, and so on. Joshua Wong was physically manhandled. While students can speak for the aspirations of the many, they do not represent all sectors of the Hong Kong population.

There is also a general Hong Kong unique identity-ism that identifies Beijing as the source of Hong Kong’s problems or Hong Kong’s salvation. Instead of identifying the banking, housing, and finance sectors and the oligarchs who represent them as the local allies of Beijing and consequently susceptible to political pressure in influencing Beijing, they are seen as powerless and outside the equation.

Throughout the two months of civil disobedience, the banking and finance sectors have remained unaffected. There was a, now disabused, notion that the Hong Kong police would never attack Hong Kong people.

Ironically, C Y Leung, current now despised Chief Executive, won his position against the Beijing-Hong Kong establishment’s favourite Sir Henry Tsang. C Y Leung had won popularity as representing the interest of Hong Kong mothers when he stopped Chinese Mainland women from coming to Hong Kong to give birth and their children obtaining Hong Kong residence permits.

Au Loong Yu, Lam Chi Leung and Vincent Sung are revolutionary socialists from Hong Kong who have written of obstacles that have to be addressed, amongst which are not acknowledging solidarity from the Chinese Mainland activists who suffered imprisonment and confronting racism towards mainland Chinese. I do not wish to exaggerate this but we should be clear that the material basis of racism today is competition for resources, not cultural, economic, or political imperialism. I have heard Shenzhen residents complain that crime and social problems are caused by migrants from other part of China to Shenzhen. There is a border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and another border between Shenzhen and the rest of China.

There is a small, but larger than in 1989, group amongst the pan Democrats who favour independence. Socialist should oppose any call for Hong Kong independence HK has 7 million population, 3.5 million eligible voters with a million children make up 4.5 million. Of these, most have come from China. Hong Kong’s economy and prosperity is intimately connected to China through trade, industry, finance. Opposition to the Chinese Communist Party is not the same as calling for separation from Chinese in, say, Guangzhou.

A demand for separation/independence is not a demand for greater equality, or an ending of national oppression, or a demand that offers social justice, or one that challenges the current world order. Such a demand entrenches localist superiority, it is a deliberate decision to separate itself from 1/5 of the world’s population, their work, sacrifices, and achievements (I do not think that China’s development is because of the CCP, but rather despite the CCP), and separation from China reinforces the current hierarchy of nations.

I would compare the creation of an independent Hong Kong to the creation of an independent Singapore (which was a disaster for all the races in that region) or a weak version of Israel.

There is some kerfuffle over China preventing British Parliamentarians investigating the situation in Hong Kong. I asked in The Guardian:

‘Why does the British Parliament need to go to Hong Kong to stop selling teargas and pepper spray to the Hong Kong government? British Parliament has already declared that the use of force against the students was proportionate. There is another former colony which should welcome an investigation, Ferguson in the USA.’

The British Parliament had over 130 years to introduce democracy to Hong Kong. In the 1950s, the British toyed with the idea of introducing voting into Hong Kong as part of the same strategy for countering Communist insurgency in Malaya. Britain pulled back when Zhou Enlai objected then. The socialist attitude is simple: Britain out of Hong Kong, and stay out.

The achievements of these nine weeks are considerable. Even some of the best well-wishers of democracy were worried about a Tiananmen solution if the CCP was antagonised. Now, no one in the BBC, SCMP, or the university intelligentsia speak of a possible Tiananmen any more. Thousands upon thousands have participated in a democratic process that is closer to the participatory democracy represented by Scotland than the democracy represented by the US, and more specifically Ferguson.

How a revolt ends influences how it can begin the next time round. An illegal, mass, civil disobedience movement has fought the Hong Kong government to a draw. In a football match, any fan knows it is 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 point for a lose. Arresting scores of protesters or imprisoning Joshua Wong and Lester Shum will not alter the memory of the Umbrella revolt – the score is 1:1. The next time the Hong Kong people will try and do better.

Lawrence Wong

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.