Hong Kong: a mass movement which will not easily be demobilised
July 1st in Hong Kong is Handover Day, the anniversary of the handing back of Hong Kong by the British to China in 1997. It is a public holiday, marked by official celebrations, but also by a demonstration. In some years this simply brings together a rather motley collection of people with many different causes, but in other years it has been a massive display of public feeling on a particular issue; for example in 2003, when around 500,000 people marched against the introduction of national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law which governs Hong Kong’s relationship with the central Chinese government in Beijing. The law was shelved and has still to be introduced.
This year there has also been a massive mobilisation on July 1st – though the police estimated only 98,000, the march took seven hours to reach its destination and photographs from above show huge crowds. It seems likely that the turnout was similar to 2003, around the half million mark, and certainly the largest since that year. Very large sums of money were collected on the march by the organisers, Occupy Central (HK$1.39 million – £105,000) and by the radical League of Social Democrats (HK$930,000 – £70,000) whose most famous member of the Legislative Council, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, is currently in jail as a result of a previous protest.
There were rumours of some supporting actions in mainland China, including just across the border in Shenzhen, where some journalists from Hong Kong who were looking to report on an action which had been referred to on social media, were detained by the police for several hours. Certainly pictures of the Hong Kong march were posted on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social media platform, before being removed by censors. According to the media monitoring project at Hong Kong University Weibo was censored more heavily on July 1st this year even than on the anniversary of Tiananmen.
The march was followed by an all-night sit-in in the road near the government headquarters. Over five hundred arrests were made and those arrested were taken to a temporary detention centre where they were deprived of food and drink, and access to toilet facilities and lawyers for hours. Most were released with warnings – it is not clear if these are intended to prevent them taking part in other protests. The protesters remained calm and practised classic passive resistance techniques, requiring up to five police officers to remove each person from the road, so it was a slow process. The police did not use pepper spray or tear gas in this instance, but earlier they had penned many people into the park and not allowed them to join the march or to leave and also separated people into smaller groups, tactics which are familiar to people in the UK. Protesters monitored police behaviour, shouting out their badge numbers as they arrested people. In one instance, a pro-Beijing counter-demonstrator slapped a protester in the face and was then surrounded by the crowd until the police rescued him. A group of protesters then chased the police, denouncing them for sympathising with him.
There have been chaotic scenes in the Legislative Council today as pan-democrats (broadly all the parties which are not pro-Beijing) staged a protest during the Chief Executive’s Question and Answer session, holding up placards, shouting and throwing things in his direction before walking out.
The main issue driving people onto the demonstration was the question of universal suffrage, which has long been promised to Hong Kong. At present, the Legislative Council is partly directly elected, but a built-in majority for pro-Beijing parties is assured by various bits of gerrymandering, including ‘functional constituencies’ which have a handful of electors in many cases, including corporate entities such as banks and property companies. The Chief Executive is ‘elected’ by a small committee and is essentially appointed by Beijing. People may have wondered if they have seen pictures of the demonstration why people are carrying placards with ‘689’ on them – this is the number of votes received by the current Chief Executive, C Y Leung. The Hong Kong government has this year been engaged in a farcical public consultation about how universal suffrage will be introduced for the next CE election in 2017. Beijing has made it clear that it will not allow nomination of candidates by political parties or by the public, only by a narrow nominating committee, and that candidates must be ‘patriotic’ – so what it is essentially saying is, you can vote, but we will decide the candidates you can vote for.
A movement to push for real universal suffrage, Occupy Central, was founded last year and is the main force behind the march this year. The plan is to occupy the central business district in Hong Kong Island and block the roads if the government fails to offer a plan for real democracy meeting international standards. Occupy Central organised an unofficial referendum on plans for genuine democracy which took place late last month, using online voting and physical polling stations. Despite a huge denial of service attack on the voting system – at one point three billion requests were bombarding the servers in the space of a few hours – the voting went ahead and 780,000 people registered their votes, using their ID numbers and mobile SIM cards. This was dismissed as illegal and irrelevant by Beijing and the HK government – which has also made no move to investigate the cyber-attack, even though it was extended to the whole .hk domain at one stage, which could have affected the emergency services.
Voting in the referendum and attendance at the demonstration was undoubtedly boosted by Beijing’s issuing of a White Paper on Hong Kong last month which it said was intended to correct the ‘lopsided’ interpretation of many Hongkongers of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle. Among other things it described judges as ‘administrators’ and said they had to be ‘patriots’, which resulted in a silent march by lawyers wearing black through the centre of Hong Kong. It remains unclear these days exactly what the ‘two systems’ are, incidentally – capitalism, and er, capitalism. But Beijing is very sure it is One Country. There have also been a series of attacks – physical and otherwise – on the media, and journalists have recently voiced their concerns about increased censorship and pressures towards self-censorship.
The situation now is tense. Whereas in previous confrontations, such as over Article 23, or the planned introduction of ‘national education’ two years ago (widely seen as an attempt to brainwash Hong Kong’s children), the government simply backed down, in this case, they have no room for manoeuvre, except perhaps to deny any reforms and stick to the existing system. There have been veiled threats to use the PLA (stationed in Hong Kong) to maintain order if Occupy Central led to violence. Occupy is committed to non-violence, but we all know that the police are capable of transforming peaceful protests into scenes of violence if they choose to do so.
Occupy has weaknesses. It is dominated by the pan-democrats, some of whom have been stupid enough to consort with Paul Wolfowitz on his yacht on a recent visit to Hong Kong. The pan-democrats are very divided and it is possible that some could still reach a deal with the government. There is no sign of class mobilisation in the form of planned strikes. However, there is certainly a class dimension to the protests, in that Hong Kong is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and people are sick of living in cramped expensive apartments and working very long hours for low pay while the city is run by a handful of the very rich and their political hangers-on. These people increasingly prioritise their economic interests on the mainland over Hong Kong, and therefore are keen to curry favour there. But this time Beijing and the Hong Kong government have succeeded in producing a genuine mass movement which will not easily be demobilised.
Candles in the night: Report on 4 June vigil in Hong Kong commemorating Tiananmen Square massacre
On 4 June every year, Hong Kong remembers the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 with a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. This year was the 25th anniversary and the turnout was huge, with organisers putting the numbers at more than 180,000, and even the police estimate was 99,500 (clearly they couldn’t breach the psychologically resonant 100,000), in a city of 7 million. It certainly seemed the largest since I began going three years ago after moving to Hong Kong. As in previous years, the crowd encompassed all age groups, but was disproportionately young. There was a real feeling of solidarity, which extended to us, as people helped each other to light and relight the candles against the evening breeze. Any breeze was welcome, as the temperature was still close to 30 degrees at 8pm and incredibly humid. An elderly man gave us a big thumbs up. It was a very emotional event, and it was impossible not to be moved as everyone in the crowd held up their candles at the same time when the names of those known to have been killed were read out. Some of the exiled former leaders of the movement spoke on video, and a prominent civil rights lawyer, Teng Biao, from the mainland addressed the crowd, although he had been warned a week ago in a phone call that he would face ‘serious consequences’ if he attended the vigil. While many people on the mainland have been detained in recent weeks, showing the fear still felt by the Chinese Communist Party at the mere memory of 1989, even in Hong Kong the websites of the vigil organisers have been offline due to sustained denial of service attacks, undoubtedly directed by Beijing. A Taiwanese academic who came to Hong Kong to attend a conference on Tiananmen was also denied entry to the city. Many people from the mainland do attend the vigil, and this year it was a larger number than ever, judging by the donations on the night made in Yuan rather than Hong Kong dollars – up 60% on last year, according to the organisers.
It is the largest event commemorating Tiananmen in the world, and this is for two interconnected reasons: firstly, Hongkongers are acutely aware that their city is the only place in China (apart from Macau, where at least until this year, the population has been much more quiescent) where this is possible and that places an obligation on them to come out and show that they have not forgotten either the aspirations or the crushing of the movement. Secondly, there is a growing sense in Hong Kong that Beijing is tightening its grip on the city, in subtle and not so subtle ways, and many Hongkongers – at least those that do not own and rule the place, the property developers and businessmen only too happy to cuddle up to Beijing – feel that it is crucial to show that they don’t intend to let it happen by default.
A number of events have tended to reinforce the sense of increased threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms. In 2012 the government in Hong Kong attempted to insert ‘national education’ into Hong Kong’s school curriculum. This would have been via a fairly nakedly one-sided account of recent Chinese history. It provoked massive demonstrations, led by a new school student organisation called Scholarism, which was out in force on the vigil as well. The government backed off. Then there is the perceived threat to freedom of the press; early this year, the editor of a Chinese-language paper critical of Beijing was suddenly removed from his post and a few weeks later, he was attacked in the street by men carrying choppers and very nearly killed. Although there have been arrests, the hired attackers have not revealed who paid them. A radio talk show host who regularly criticises the government was also sacked at around the same time and there was also a violent physical attack on people who were trying to launch a new paper. Polls of journalists show that they feel that both censorship and the pressure to censor themselves are growing.
Finally, there is a deadline of 2017 to bring in universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive (the legislature is mainly directly elected but with a number of fixes which guarantee the pan-democrats, parties broadly opposed to Beijing, cannot get a majority). Beijing favours a system for the Chief Executive election where everyone can vote but the candidates can only be put forward by a narrow nominating committee. A movement called Occupy Central has been formed which has pledged mass civil disobedience – taking the form of people blocking the roads in the Central Business District – if the reforms do not guarantee a genuine choice of candidates. This is bringing forth various dark threats and warnings. Hongkongers are very aware that the People’s Liberation Army is stationed in Hong Kong in the old British barracks, and a pro-Beijing lawmaker asked the Chief Executive recently if he would ask for its help to deal with the Occupy movement if the police were unable to keep order. Needless to say, the question was not answered directly, but it is not too surprising that people in Hong Kong feel the need to come out and remember 4 June 1989.
As we were leaving the park we stopped at a stall run by Socialist Action (CWI affiliate here http://chinaworker.info/en/) where a young man told us that while lighting candles was good, it was not enough. He was perhaps a bit surprised at how readily we agreed.
You can watch a complete video (long, in Cantonese) of the event here:
Letter from Brazil: call for solidarity from CSP-Conlutas independent union federation
A call for international solidarity ahead of the World Cup from the CSP-Conlutas independent union federation in Brazil. IS Network and rs21 North London will also be hosting a joint meeting‘Kicking off in Rio: Popular Protest and the Politics of the World Cup’ on Tues 10th June, 7pm, Unity Church, 277 Upper Street, Islington, London.
On the Eve of the World Cup A Wave of Strikes Shake Brazil
It is time for strikes. After the huge mobilizations last June, primarily the youth, now it is the working class and they are shaking Brazilian cities.
In Sao Paulo, on May 15th, the city came to a halt. In the morning metalworker (engineering workers) strikes together with homeless movements (MTST and Ocupação Esperança) blocked avenues in the urban areas. In the city centre, metro (tube) workers demonstrated in the morning and municipal teachers demonstrated in the afternoon. Strikes and demos were the headlines in all media.
But the mobilizations are not limited to May 15th. Municipal teachers are holding demonstrations with thousands every week during the last 40 days. Bus drivers went on strike for two days against the mayor, the bus companies and their union, eventually bringing Sao Paulo to a halt. In Cubatão, a highly industrialized area in in Sao Paulo state, thousands of outsourced workers are on strike stopping sectors of the local Petrobras refinery. In Sao Jose dos Campos, engineering workers (General Motors) are holding stoppages. University employees, teachers and students of the University of São Paulo(USP), together with their counterparts in UNICAMP and UNESP universities, are on strike demanding more funding. On top of that, engineering workers are scheduled to go on strike next Thursday, June 5th.
In other capitals across Brazil, the situation is no different. In Rio de Janeiro teachers’ demonstrations and bus drivers stoppages combine and show the workers’ mood and strength. In others capitals, key sectors of the working class are on the offensive. Different sectors of federal public workers are going on strike. Even the police, both military and civil, are holding protests across the country.
The economic slowdown and high indebtness is changing the mood among working class families. There is a general feeling that things are not getting better. On top of that Brazilian government spent huge sums in the football world cup which is gathering general disapproval for the lack of funding for public education, healthcare and transport. The polls show that 55% of the Brazilian population believes that the world cup will be more of a burden than a benefit for working class people.
INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY TO THE STRUGGLES IN BRAZIL
Besides the current struggles – teachers, university employees, metalworkers, public workers, the police and homeless movements – the metroworkers of Sao Paulo might take action on June 5th and there will be a national day of mobilizations next June 12th when the World Cup starts.
We ask labor and youth movements across the world to express solidarity to Brazilian workers. Motions and demos will be warmly welcome. Advancing the workers struggles in Brazil will be an advancement for the working class worldwide.
Long live the workers struggles in Brazil!
Long live the International Solidarity among the working class!