Protest American flags being flown on protests in Hong Kong, 8th September. Photo: Flickr/Studio Incendo

Looking to the West for help is counterproductive for the protests, argues Dragan Plavšić

Tuesday marked the anniversary of 70 years of Chinese Communist Party rule, but it was also the most violent day so far in the Hong Kong protests. 

As Chinese soldiers paraded with all the pomp and circumstance of a ruling class increasingly confident of its powers, Hong Kong police were demonstrating what those powers really mean when they shot an 18-year-old protestor in the chest (he survived but is in a critical condition) and arrested 269 others aged between 12 and 70.

Often glossed over in western reports is the fact that the conflict between the protestors and the immediate authorities in Hong Kong is essentially one for more democracy. Indeed, one of the protestors’ key demands is for universal suffrage for the governing Legislative Council and Executive elections. But it is also of course a proxy conflict for the one between the protestors and Beijing. This conflict began in March when protestors took to the streets to oppose a bill for the extradition of criminal fugitives to mainland China. Their entirely reasonable suspicion was that this was but the thin end of the wedge, merely a prelude to their loss of autonomy and Hongkongers falling under Beijing’s untrammelled jurisdiction.

Although the bill was eventually withdrawn, the ongoing problem for the authorities is the deep mistrust in which they are now held. Their every move has become suspect. The protestors do not believe they can rely on the authorities to protect them against Beijing and there is little doubt that they are right to make that assessment. 

However, Hongkongers are divided, as people inevitably are in these situations. Beijing has its supporters. They seek a swift end to the protests and some would certainly welcome Red Army intervention (which may have become more likely now the 70th anniversary is over).

There is a profound struggle for hearts and minds going on then, and it is not difficult to see why in response to the potential threat from Beijing many protestors look westwards to London (the former colonial power of course) but especially Washington. This is a serious mistake, however. 

First, it is unlikely that London or Washington will help except verbally (anything else risks more than just a local catastrophe of course). 

But second, and more important, such appeals will be counterproductive. They will only harden the resolve of pro-Beijing Hongkongers to oppose the protests and thus any foreign meddling in domestic affairs. They will do nothing to win them over to the struggle. They will also reduce the possibility of the protests spreading to the mainland. And they will more and more belittle the role of the protestors in their own minds as they look to an external saviour instead of building on their own strengths.

Winning the argument in Hong Kong itself is the most important task of all at present because the stronger the home front the more likely it is Beijing will hesitate over intervening. The more divided the home front, the greater the likelihood of intervention. Crucial to winning this argument is the clear and unambiguous independence of the protestors, which means above all independence from western associations and links.

For the radical left, the protests are an opportunity to put these arguments to the movement, to persuade some protestors and to prise open some space for activity. This is not by any means to underestimate the great difficulties involved in a situation where most Hongkongers believe the only viable political alternatives are the devil of western imperialism or the deep China Sea of Xi Jinping Thought. But those who can point to a better strategy and better tactics in the present are the ones who will plant some valuable seeds for the future.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).