Mass protest can lead to change, but the direction of change is uncertain, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
Over the last month, Hong Kong has witnessed major mass protests verging on civil unrest. Yesterday’s storming of the Legislative Council (LegCo) building by a section of the crowd marked the latest twist in a dramatic story.
It all started with the ‘Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill’, proposed by the Hong Kong government in February this earlier this year.
The legislation aims to make legal extradition of persons suspected of breaking the law to mainland China and other jurisdictions easier. The immediate reason for this law related to the case of a man who could not be extradited to face trial on accusations that he had murdered his wife in Taiwan.
But concerns emerged in Hong Kong society that the law could be used to extradite political dissidents to mainland China.
Hong Kong’s special status
Many in Hong Kong jealously guard the comparative freedoms that exist on the island, under the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement. This was reached in 1997, when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule after a century of rule by Britain.
Britain’s handover was of course not a selfless exercise in democratic self-determination. Hong Kong had not been a democracy under British rule.
It was certainly not going to become one under Beijing. China is a one-party, authoritarian state that cracks down violently on all forms of non-sanctioned protest.
What Britain and China agreed was that Hong Kong would retain a level of autonomy from China after the handover, for a period of 50 years.
This guaranteed certain business freedoms, which secured British and other Western interests, but it did also protect to a degree certain basic civil freedoms like speech and assembly.
History of protest
Thus, people in Hong Kong turned to the streets in previous decades to defend these freedoms from progressive attempts by mainland China to incorporate Hong Kong.
This occurred successfully against a national security proposal in 2003 and against changes to school curricula in 2012, but unsuccessfully when protesters demanded free elections for the chief executive of Hong Kong in 2014.
There were also protests last year, related among other issues to the proposed project of creating artificial islands between Hong Kong and Lantau, which is criticised on a variety of grounds, including cost and damage to the environment, but also fearmongering related to an influx of workers from mainland China.
The fire this time
The stakes are therefore high this time round. The immediate background relates to relative economic slowdown in China under pressure from the US-initiated trade war. Chinese authorities are fearful that protest could spread like wildfire across the mainland, and want to shut down dissent.
Indeed, incredibly, Chinese state media have not covered the mass protests of the last month until yesterday. This is despite their size. Two massive demonstrations earlier in June brought a million and then two million to the streets, out of a population of 7.5 million.
There were concessions, like the indefinite suspension of the discussion of the bill. Nonetheless, there was widespread suspicion that the Hong Kong government had only performed a tactical retreat.
That is why hundreds of thousands once again turned out on 1 July, and a section of the crowd stormed the LegCo building. The escalation came despite relatively muted support from the Western powers, with the EU calling for restraint and dialogue, and officials in the US abstractly emphasising the need for China to respect international obligations.
Dangers for the movement: turning West?
The West is cautious in its support for pro-democracy demonstrations because China is an important economic partner as well as a major adversary.
Destabilising China could lead to a vindictive policy in Beijing or outright chaos across the massive country. This probably helps explain why there was little quibble in London about handing over Hong Kong to China in the first place.
It is very likely, though, that the West will try to influence the protest movement. And, indeed, it is also very likely that many protesters will ideologically look to the West. It is no coincidence that the latest march coincided with a yearly commemoration of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, 1 July.
That can be a dangerous dynamic. We have seen democratic upheavals become channelled by right-wing pro-Western forces and become an instrument in geopolitical games between the Great Powers, as in the Ukraine, where the country divided on an East-West axis.
The likelihood of such an outcome is directly related to the extent to which protestors have other alternative ideological frameworks on offer. In that sense, things do not always go the way the West would like with mass movements.
As we saw in the Arab Spring, the West much preferred a return to military dictatorship in Egypt than the potential for the democratic election of a more hostile Islamist regime. As we also saw in the Arab Spring, even Western military intervention may not secure the desired regime, as is obvious from Libya, where the country has descended into a state of semi-permanent civil war.
The West’s role in the world at the moment as well as its history in Hong Kong should warn the protest movement against placing its trust in Washington, London and Brussels.
Opportunities for the movement: turning left?
The protest movement could instead seek to ally with the movement in mainland China. Strikes are ever more frequent in China. China Labour Bulletin, based in Hong Kong, stated that there were 1,700 disputes in 2018, significantly up on the 1,200 the preceding year.
More strikes followed earlier this year. They are routinely repressed and the economy continues to stall. Moreover, there has been a recent strike led by the Taoyuan Flight Attendants’ Union in Taiwan this June, which suggests that there is a wider audience yet for left politics.
Mass movements in times of economic and political crisis, and at geopolitical crossroads, can spread to ever larger groups of people. That in turn increases the likelihood that working class demands can get an airing and even begin to take an organisational shape and presence.
This is what could happen with the mass movement in Hong Kong. Small groups of socialists can gain a mass audience at such times, and pose different routes out of the crisis. Liberal middle class leaderships, as now, will more likely prefer peaceful protest and international pressures to direct confrontation and escalation of protests.
There are now opportunities for the left in Hong Kong, but these can only be grasped if the left is prepared to be bold and to resist both the repression coming from Beijing and the cynical manipulation that comes from the Western powers.
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