How can workers and young people fight for democratic rights?
Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on 1 July to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the settlement between London and Beijing which marked the end of more than 150 years of British colonial rule. There was to be a 50 year period of compromise with the Chinese government labelled, “One country two systems”. The demonstrators were also expressing their anger at Beijing’s recent move to impose direct rule in Hong Kong.
The National People’s Congress of China, held in May, approved a proposal for the Beijing-based central government of China to use its own forces to impose order on Hong Kong. Within six weeks, those proposals were passed into law by China’s ‘parliament’ – the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress – and were to come into effect precisely at 11 pm on 30 June.
As the South China Morning Post explains, “The 66 article legislation, inserted into Annex lll of the city’s mini-constitution – the Basic Law – aims to stop, prevent and punish acts of “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security”. Trials could possibly be held in mainland courts and sentences could range from fines and restraints on activities to detention for life in the notorious camps or prisons on the mainland of China, for life and including the possibility of execution.
The scenes last week of demonstrators facing tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, and rubber bullets differed little from those seen for … months of last year over a proposed extradition law (which was dropped) and in pursuit of another five basic democratic demands. Well over two million of Hong Kong’s population – predominantly youth, but not only – are estimated to have been involved in street demonstrations last year and tens of thousands of them arrested. Some are still held in detention. Their determination was exemplified by the youth who went into each battle with written wills in their pockets – prepared literally to die for their cause.
As in a number of countries worldwide, the Coronavirus outbreak brought those mass protests to a halt. But the easing of the lockdown saw brave and determined demonstrators back on the streets. On 4 June they were again out in their tens of thousands, defying a police ban on demonstrations to mark the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. On 9 June they were on the streets to commemorate the anniversary of the first mass democracy protest last year.
Last Wednesday, riot police arrested more than three hundred and seventy demonstrators, including a Hong Kong parliamentarian, Ray Chan. One demonstrator was arrested for supposedly inciting independence by shouting, “Long live Liverpool!” (the English football club, Liverpool FC, had just won the premiership title). Just ten were charged under the new security law and quite rapidly released. One of them was a girl of fifteen; another was a student accused of contravening the new law by waving a flag with the words “Hong Kong Independence” in large letters, preceded by, “no to” in very small writing!
This seems to have been a testing of the water for both sides. Immediately afterward the social media channels that usually broadcast plans for the coming days went silent. Pro-democracy “Lennon walls” were dismantled. Voicing the popular slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!” has become a punishable offence.
Yet the bravery of last weeks’ demonstrators is an inspiration. One man told a reporter: “I’m scared of going to jail, but for justice I have to come out today. I have to stand up.” A young woman told a Guardian (London) reporter, “I think people will continue to protest, and if possible, I will try too…” She was determined to stay in Hong Kong and see how the movement evolved.
In the years before the 1997 handover, the British colonial authorities gave more rights, but not universal suffrage, to the Hong Kong residents. Thus, for some years, Hong Kong residents have enjoyed relatively more freedom of expression and protest than in the rest of China – a situation that appears to be coming rapidly to an end. If all five of the protesters’ demands of last year are not yet achieved, the new ‘direct rule’ from Beijing is aimed to ensure they never are.
Chinese state forces are already based in Hong Kong but can now be supplemented by additional forces from the mainland. Beijing has appointed Luo Huining as an ‘adviser’ to Carrie Lam – head of Hong Kong’s legislature and already a puppet of Beijing. His task is to oversee the implementation of the new security law, backed up by a new security agency headed by Guangdong official Zheng Yanxiong. Zheng is notorious for his central role in the vicious putting down of mass protest in Wukan in 2011 and elsewhere.
Hong Kong’s lawyers, who have, over the years, taken strike action and appeared on marches in their black court attire, have objected to the imposition of Beijing-selected judges to operate in Hong Kong’s courts. Legco, the indirectly elected government body, has angered Hong Kong citizens with its slavish obedience to Beijing and its representative as local governor, Carrie Lam.
The rapidity with which the new law has been imposed on Hong Kong could have a number of explanations. One is the approach of elections to Legco in September. During that month, at the height of the protest movement, pro-democracy opposition candidates won 90% of all the seats in the District Council elections. The Legco is a complex and undemocratic structure. But it could well see, against all the odds, a sweeping defeat of Beijing-approved mouthpieces by opposition candidates at least in 35 popularly elected seats in the 70-member Legco.
President XI Jinping has, like all heads of government, been locked in a battle with the coronavirus. But China may now, in spite of new outbreaks, be over the worst and looking to clamp-down on Hong Kong’s challenge to its authority while other heads of state – notably in Britain and the US are still preoccupied with overcoming the pandemic.
The heads of European governments have voiced objections, but not too strongly. They are ‘conflicted’. The European Union managed a five-sentence declaration promising to “raise the issue in our continuing dialogue with China”. Italy and Greece, in particular, have important trading relations with Beijing that they do not want to sacrifice. Germany has sizeable exports and investments. The governments in Hungary and Poland care little about human rights anywhere!
On the other hand, Boris Johnson, in Britain, whose popularity is undoubtedly flagging, has been quick to condemn Beijing’s move in relation to Hong Kong. The immediate offer of unconditional citizenship to all three million Hong Kong residents eligible for British National Overseas passports looks good to some. To others, whose family members have been deported to the West Indies in the Windrush scandal or refused entry to Britain for lack of documentation or guaranteed income levels – it is understandably seen with deep resentment. Furthermore, without urgent steps to provide adequate housing, jobs and facilities for all inhabitants of Britain, such an influx could easily provide ammunition to the far right.
The Tory Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab actually admitted that the government would not be able to “coercively force” China to allow BNO citizens to travel. Many will anyway not want to leave Asia. Britain has sizeable interests in banks and businesses in Hong Kong established over a century and a half as the colonial power. In that period, democratic rights were by no means fully accorded to Hong Kong citizens. Today’s Tory government sheds crocodile tears over the lack of democratic rights in the territory and poses as a friend of the harassed citizens of Hong Kong. But British governments have long tolerated the repression of genuine democratic rights in Hong Kong along with those in China in the interests of trade, investment, and banking that have made big profits for British enterprises.
One of the problems of Britain taking a hard line over the imposition of the Chinese security law is indicated by the early declaration of the sizable London-based bank – HSBC that it will abide by the new security law. The heads of some other foreign-based banks in Hong Kong have declared their support for the measures that should bring peace to the streets of Hong Kong where life (and business) have been ‘badly disrupted’ by the democracy protests.
Hong Kong’s stock market actually rose in the week since the law was passed indicating renewed confidence amongst investors and funds poured in from Beijing.
Calling on Britain’s partners in the’ Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance – Australia, New Zealand, Canada along with the US – to act decisively against China and promising to pull out of deals with giant Chinese firms like Huawei ‘for security reasons’, the British government is falling in with the approach taken by the crazed American president, Donald Trump.
Not long ago, Trump was calling Xi Jinping the ‘greatest leader in Chinese history”! According to his former security adviser, John Bolton, Trump considered that the reported herding of a million Uighurs in prison camps was “exactly the right thing to do”! That was when Trump was seeking a truce in the trade war between the world’s two major powers so that China would buy more US products.
Now, in his battle for the White House, Trump portrays Xi as the greatest enemy of the US, promising to pull out of all trade and investment deals with China. He has enthusiastically signed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act condemning the atrocities in Xinjiang. Trump has also pushed for a raft of sanctions against Chinese officials and businesses in Hong Kong and renewed his hate speech against China and its leader for letting the coronavirus lose on the world.
A win in the US presidential election for ‘Beijing Biden’, as Trump calls his rival, would not guarantee smoother relations with China. As a senator and vice-president to Obama, Biden spent years engaging with China. However, as the Economist has pointed out, “Both parties see China as a strategic competitor”. Foreign policy in the US under a Democratic president, probably less reckless than Trump, would still be determined by the interests of the ruling class who see China’s rise both as an economic opportunity and a looming strategic threat.
Xi Jinping is not immune to criticism at home. The economy is experiencing its slowest growth for three decades and a big rise in unemployment. Discontent is accumulating over both the state’s handling of the pandemic and the failure to eliminate mass poverty. An aggressive policy over Hong Kong can be an attempt to galvanise support at home, as are China’s naval exercises in waters around Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Paracel islands, in the South China Sea.
Hong Kong business
Since 1997, Hong Kong’s GDP has declined as a proportion of China’s much larger economy. Then it constituted 18 percent. Now it is around 3% of a massively expanded economy but as much as half of China’s Foreign Direct Investment goes through Hong Kong. Its own economy has more than doubled in size in the last two decades. While China’s long term aim may be to relocate much of its banking and investment operations presently based in Hong Kong to Shanghai, for the moment it will use Hong Kong as the major conduit for trillions of dollars’ worth of trading and investment on the world arena and is unlikely to pull up stakes.
China’s move to clamp down on the relatively laissez-faire set-up in Hong Kong may not go to the lengths of a full-scale military clampdown or ‘Tiananmen solution’. If Beijing’s move to threaten maximum use of force succeeds in eliminating opposition on the streets of Hong Kong and paralyses the struggle for even minimum basic democratic rights, the Chinese government may not need to implement all the clauses of the new security law. Just the very real threat has seen a number of respected leaders of the democracy movement shut up shop and emigrate from Hong Kong. Setting up a parliament-in-exile will not solve the day-to-day problems of working people in Hong Kong. Appealing to the reactionary US or British so-called ‘democratic’ governments will not take the movement forward.
Brave fighters pursued by the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have shown enormous resilience and tenacity in refusing to accept dictatorship in any form. There are young people quoted in the press as being absolutely determined to stay in Hong Kong and carry on the fight. But it would be a tragedy if the people who are prepared to sacrifice their lives in the struggle are not able to forge a leadership worthy of their bravery and aiming to transform the whole of society.
Of course, there are times in history when political leaders persecuted by the state have to seek refuge abroad, to live and fight another day. But Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, leaders of the pro-democracy movement, decided to disband their organisation, ‘Demosisto’, and are banking on capitalist governments in the US and Britain upholding the principles of democracy and helping them create a parliament-in-exile.
But the parliamentary democracy of the US and Britain is a cover for protecting the interests of the bosses and the very rich against the demands of the majority of the population – the working class. The fighters for democracy in Hong Kong need leaders who will build a movement based on the strength of the working class to change society.
Rather than be cowed by the draconian measures promulgated by a so-called Communist government in Beijing, the youth and workers of Hong Kong need to stand their ground. They need to meet up, clandestinely if necessary, on a workplace and neighbourhood level. They need to elect representatives who can coordinate a fight for a different – a genuinely socialist society.
Even more vital now, with the promulgation of Beijing’s new laws is endeavouring to reach workers and young people in China with an appeal to join the fight against the bosses and the Xi Jinping dictatorship.
The mighty Communist Party which, over decades, degenerated and instituted dictatorial rule, now represents oligarchical capitalism. Yet it was born of a clandestine meeting of a handful of revolutionaries in the French quarter of Shanghai one hundred years ago next July. They had the ambitious aim of building a force that could wrench the vast country of China out of the clutches of imperialism and the country’s moneyed and property-owning elite. This is a vision a million miles away from today’s reality of billionaire and millionaire bureaucrats and capitalists ruling the country.
Those who are prepared to dedicate their lives today to the fight for democracy need to learn the lessons of history and take the struggle forward on a programme for establishing the democratic rule of the majority i.e. the working people of Hong Kong and China. The aim must be to return to widespread public ownership and planning but on the basis of real democratic workers’ control and management!
Nature of the struggle
There have truly been elements of a revolutionary situation in Hong Kong in the past year. Splits have opened up at the top in Hong Kong with even some representatives of the Beijing masters favouring concession rather than repression. The forces of the state have sometimes expressed sympathy for the valiant demonstrators on the street. The middle class has widely sided with the protesters including judges and lawyers.
Demands for basic democratic rights, like freedom of the press, the right to organise, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. are essential for uniting all forces in the struggle and appealing to the working masses in China. One of the most important demands would be for a democratic investigation into the repression of the mass demonstrations. No trust in Beijing-appointed security Czars! For tribunals made up of elected representatives of students and workers.
The main engine of change – the working class – has not been mobilised. A few short strikes have taken place in the course of the battle for democracy amongst workers, including in the health service, on the docks and the transport network. But the unions have failed to make a clear call for general strike action. One of the federations toes the Beijing ‘line’ rather than mobilising workers against it. The leaders of the other federation are too timorous to challenge the bosses and the compliant local government.
The brave fighters on the streets have fought relentlessly in pursuit of democracy. How much more worthwhile if their bravery and preparedness to fight to the end were channeled by a workers’ party into a challenge against capitalism in Hong Kong, across the vast country of China, and beyond.
What the movement lacked before the clamp-down was a party and leadership wedded to the idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism. Now, amongst those who are angered by the events around Covid-19, an organisation must take shape that can defeat all the plans of the giant powers of the US and China.
Unless such a struggle is engaged, the dictatorship that is the Chinese government and the so-called democracy that is the USA, will continue to fight out their disagreements to the detriment of the well-being of all working class and poor people of the world.
- A shortened version of this article was carried in the Socialist