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Hong Kong: two weeks into mass protests

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Another week begins in Hong Kong with people still blockading the streets in several areas of the city on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon. There are talks about talks, but the protesters say they are not giving up their positions without something much more substantial than what the government is offering.

The first thing to note is that the term ‘Occupy Central’  being used as shorthand for the protests is not accurate. In the first place, the protests are not actually in ‘Central’ – the business district on Hong Kong Island. But more substantially, the organisation called Occupy Central didn’t initiate this round of protests, and is certainly not in control of it. Occupy Central was set up a year ago by a group of academics and others to plan a campaign around the government’s consultation on introducing universal suffrage for the 2017 Chief Executive election. It was to culminate – if the proposals from Beijing in response to the Hong Kong government’s report on the consultation were unsatisfactory – with a peaceful sit-in to block the roads in Central by a controlled number of volunteers who were trained in civil disobedience and agreed they were prepared to go to jail.

In the event, nothing like this took place. The Federation of Students called a week long class boycott, and Scholarism, the school students’ movement forged in the protests against ‘national education’ in 2012, called for school students to join in on the final day. Thousands of students held teach-ins close to the government’s headquarters in Admiralty and some decided to scale the high fences enclosing Civic Square, setting off a chain of events leading to Occupy declaring that the long-planned protest had started. After the police blocked access to the main site of protest, thousands of people who had come to support the students on Sunday 29th September spontaneously occupied the roads around Admiralty and began to besiege the besieging police. The police responded with pepper spray and 87 canisters of tear gas and displayed signs saying they would ‘fire’ if protesters didn’t disperse. It was unclear if they were talking about rubber bullets, and they later said they had not meant to display the sign at all, but altogether this violent response had the opposite effect to that intended. Thousands more supporters poured into Admiralty, having watched the scenes at dinner time on the TV (it happened about 6pm), including many non-students. A separate protest site sprang up across the harbour in Mong Kok in Kowloon, blocking Nathan Road, one of the main shopping streets and bus routes in the city, stranding seven double decker buses. The government recognised they had made a mistake, and the riot police were withdrawn. The police have kept a pretty low profile since, though there have been incidents of violence against protesters and some arrests, and there is, rightly, constant vigilance on the protests for signs of a police offensive.

On the Monday, teachers belonging to one teachers’ union, social workers and a group of distribution workers at the Coca-Cola plant in Sha Tin all declared they were on strike and it looked for a while as if industrial action might spread. But the groundwork for such action had not been done and so only a few groups of workers who are strongly connected with the anti-Beijing union federation, the HKCTU (which also organised the dockers who struck for 40 days last year), responded to its call to strike.

A week of street protests has ensued. As Wednesday and Thursday were public holidays, people could come out to join in and at various times there was a carnival atmosphere. Meetings went on all the time, with people taking turns with the microphones to express their thoughts. There was lots of singing, and at night people used the flashlight functions on their smartphones to create light shows. Volunteers distributed donated food and water and cleared rubbish, being careful to recycle.

Self-organisation has been impressive and this came to the fore on Friday, when bands of thugs started to try to break up the protests. This has been most common in Mong Kok, which is known for the presence of triad gangs but a group of masked men also attacked the outlying protest site in Causeway Bay.  The police made some arrests after being pressured to do so by protesters, and have revealed that some of those arrested do indeed have triad links. Other evidence that people were paid to take part has come to light, for example, some young men in a poor area came forward to say they received text messages offering them HK$800 (£65) for a day to harass and attack the protests and video footage shows a man boasting about getting money to do so. The attacks have been violent and deliberately provocative with people shouting things like “Your daughter should be raped!” and targeting women and girls with sexual assaults and harassment, adding to the evidence that these are not simply ordinary workers and small business owners angered by the impact of the protests on their livelihood. Protesters defended the encampments and rebuilt barricades, regrouping each time after the attacks.

The fact that the protests are self-organised and that the leadership of Occupy and even the students have little hold over them has been made clear as the leaders have repeatedly called for the Mong Kok and Causeway Bay sites to be abandoned and people to concentrate in Admiralty. Some people left but others took their place, arguing that to leave would embolden those who were trying to break up the protests. People are not waiting for someone to tell them what to do.  In Admiralty, too, debates are continuous about how to respond to police requests to bring food and medical supplies into the government HQ or facilitate police shift changes, or clear some roads. Sometimes roads are temporarily cleared, sometimes the requests are refused.

Clearly, however, the movement needs to be organised more systematically, or sooner or later it will be overcome by police and other violence, splits, fatigue and the repeated calls for talks to replace action, lest the movement lose public support. It also needs to spread from the streets into workplaces, through groups being set up which can debate what should be done next, and build to link the struggle for universal suffrage more directly with the economic and social issues which underlie the anger being expressed: low wages, absurdly high rents and scarce, cramped housing, long hours, abysmal social welfare and so on.  The task is very difficult; the genuine trade unions are weak, as is the left.

These protests have been fuelled above all by the absolutely correct perception that the Hong Kong government does not care in the least about what people here think or want. It is run by the rich, in their interests and on behalf of Beijing. Ultimately, the movement will have to be a cross-border one, of course. However, the talk on some sections of the international ‘left’ about the HK protests being funded by the US State Department or that they are destabilising China on behalf of US imperialism, or that Hong Kong people are just hostile to mainland Chinese and have an inflated sense of entitlement, is basically reactionary nonsense. Many people on the mainland are anxiously watching the Hong Kong protests, in spite of massive censorship. Many mainlanders in Hong Kong support the demands of the students and wish they had the relative freedom Hong Kong enjoys and people in Hong Kong have shown many times that they support movements for greater rights on the mainland. Though the feeling on both sides of the border may well be that Beijing will not budge, anyone who wants to see change in China should not be tempted to dismiss the Hong Kong protests as just a bunch of middle class liberals, or as a CIA plot, but see them as one element in the diverse battles being waged in the whole country.