The entry of the working class on the scene in Hong Kong could prove infectious on the mainland, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
Protests have been ongoing for two months in Hong Kong. As we reported in July, they were initially motivated by mass opposition to proposed extradition legislation that could have allowed suspects to be sent for trial to mainland China, since many feared the law would be misused to crush political dissent.
Authorities met the protests with a mix of concessions and repression in the hope of nipping them in the bud. But offers from the authorities that the legislation be indefinitely delayed showed protest could work. Moreover, repression did not prove adequate against the scale of protests and only served to make existing activist circles more intransigent.
Indeed, protests in Hong Kong have begun to draw comparisons with the gilets jaunes in France because of their longevity – they are held on a weekly basis on a Saturday or Sunday – and the similarities in terms of official attempts at repressing them - 592 people have been arrested since 9 June.
This last week has seen an escalation of protest. Traditional working class methods like the organised strike took place in the travel, civil service, engineering, construction and financial sectors of the economy on Monday 5th August. Forms of protest included mass direct action on the same day: people occupied public spaces and building, and blocked traffic.
The protests were met with gang violence which has become frequent in the last two months. A group of men with wooden sticks attacked demonstrators and cars rammed barricades on the streets. No wonder one of the demands that has emerged in the protests is for the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
The former British colony faced more days of protest ahead, including a non-violent mass sit-in at Hong Kong airport. As the protests continue, and pressure mounts from below on the unelected leadership of Hong Kong for more democratic reforms, cracks will likely emerge and intensify in ruling circles about whether to clamp down or not.
There are fears that China may use the military garrison stationed in Hong Kong to put down protests if Beijing concludes that the autonomous government cannot bring the situation under control. The situation is dangerous for the Communist Party on the mainland, since some demonstrators in Hong Kong have started calling for solidarity and support from below in China.
Big business in Hong Kong itself appears divided over the protests. Some would like more freedoms from Beijing, and better relations with the West. Yet they also dislike the chaos of popular movements from below. Their attempts at controlling the situation include trying to appeal to hatred of the mainland and promoting parochialism in Hong Kong.
But this shows that the regime in Beijing and the potentates in Hong Kong both fear the same thing: a movement from below that demands not just political freedom but also social justice. With the Chinese economy recording the lowest quarterly growth since 1992 amid the US-China trade and potentially currency war, and Hong Kong receiving fewer and fewer tourists, the situation is likely to become more rather than less explosive.
Indeed, the world economy as a whole appears to be slowing down, threatening major social dislocation, intensifying inter-state competition, and opening up possibilities for rupture with the status quo across the globe. Mass democratic protests and worker uprisings can spread like wildfire in such circumstances. What is happening in Hong Kong is just an early sign of things to come.
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