The conflict in Hong Kong has further escalated and has reached a critical point as I write on 19 November.
The escalation began last week with the first casualty of the protest, a university student falling fatally from a multi-story car park in a conflict zone. Since then, policeman have fired live rounds seriously injuring a number of protesters, a man was doused in petrol and set alight by protesters, a pro-Beijing legislator was stabbed, a pro-democracy legislator had his ear bitten off, and there have been many other individual violent acts.
A woman has launched a legal case after being gang-raped and made pregnant by police in a police station. The overall level of police brutality has kept increasing and tear gas canister use has reached the 10,000 mark.
Right now, the Polytechnic University campus has been under siege for three days. Police have blocked all exits and planning to wear down the protesters and make mass arrests. There are an estimated 100 secondary school students inside who, as I write, are only now being allowed to leave without being arrested, after intervention by a former chair of Legco and several legislators, and only if escorted by their school principal.
The Poly U campus has a pedestrian bridge over the main cross-harbour tunnel’s entrance and protesters have been able to block traffic flow between Kowloon peninsula and Hong Kong island by throwing objects onto the road below. With the under-16s removed, the police are likely to storm the campus tomorrow.
Earlier in the week, the police also succeeded in driving protesters out of the campus of the Chinese University, which also has a bridge over Tolo Highway, the main road connecting the border with China proper in the north to Kowloon in the south. The highway has been closed for days by protesters throwing obstacles onto the highway. There have been horrific clashes between riot police and the protest crowds, which consisted of university students reinforced by street militants.
Protesters decided to retreat, and melted away under cover of night leaving an empty and wrecked campus.
Road blockages and damage to railway lines and stations have been part of a strategy to bring Hong Kong to a halt. Traffic was brought to a standstill and schools were closed, but the call on the working population to go on strike did not resonate at all.
I’ve discussed recently with a couple of veteran leftists here, YC and KH. Both indicated that Hong Kong’s very weak trade union movement, with two federations split along political lines, has not had much of a track record of successful strike action. The last successful mass strikes occurred in the 1920s.
Both also indicated that the protest movement, whilst massive with two million in support, and steadfastly refusing for months to break ranks with its militant minority, has been a spontaneous movement not rooted in anything more substantial other than five basic demands which are all reforms within the Basic Law framework, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
The partial victory of the wharf workers in 2013 over long working hours and access to toilet and meal breaks was a rare exception to the picture of trade-union weakness, and that occurred before the 2014 umbrella movement. The spontaneous “call in sick” day of the air traffic controllers last June was another exceptional small example. This weakness of militancy and low class consciousness is very hard to overcome and has limited the expectations and tactical options of the current protest movement.
The pro-Beijing union federation was quite active in the days before the 1997 handover, but at the level of negotiating wage increases, without the capacity to cause the colonial administration much trouble other than the 1967 riots inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Since 1997, its inactivity and loyalty to Beijing has given scope for the rival anti-Beijing union federation to gain some membership, especially in the service sector – health, education, lower-grade civil servants. This rival federation has broadly aligned with the pan-democratic camp, and its members have taken part in the large mass rallies at the early stages of this protest movement, but no strikes have called either in the 2014 umbrella movement nor this time round.
In KH’s view, the protesters have responded by narrowing down to a single tactic – create more and more stoppage of traffic and interruption to city life through destruction of facilities and street protests until the West steps in and moves against China. YC added that protesters may have little illusions in the West, but yet feel this is all they have in terms of leverage.
Given the recent decline of the organised trade union movement in the west, KH takes the view that the movement here had precious little tradition of working class militancy to draw upon. One aspect of its protest, against the most recent Putonghua-speaking migrants from China, he considers reactionary, comparing it with rightwing Brexiters.
Hong Kong’s population of over seven million includes around a million such migrants who came into Hong Kong since 1997, and the protest movement’s “restoring the glory of Hong Kong” for many means returning to the few years after the British departure in 1997 but before the arrival of mainlander Chinese in large numbers, especially after 2003.
As the level of complaints about police brutality continues to rise, the international panel of experts called into Hong Kong to support the work of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) had issued a report last week after five months’ work, stating that the Council does not have sufficient powers to gather evidence or summon witnesses to conduct the work it has been asked to do. They have called for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry.
This is one of the five key demands of the protest movement, who stated months ago that the IPCC is essentially the police investigating itself and lacks credibility and accountability, as well as being narrowly confined to police operational abuses without being able to investigate the wider background factors which ignited the protests in the first place.
Meanwhile, President Xi has met and endorsed HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam last week, following the Financial Times article claiming that she is about to be replace this coming March.
It is a real concern that the ultra-confrontational tactics of the street activists have begun to alienate a section of the millions of largely peaceful protestors. Communal violence endangering the lives of unarmed people holding opposing views is testing the patience of the mass protest movement to the limit.
In the absence of an authoritative leadership voice within the mass movement these vengeful retaliations continue unchecked and could eventually undermine the solidarity and effectiveness of the whole protest movement. Utterly alienating workers on the Mass Transit Rail system by smashing up stations is a clear case in point.
On the contrary, had the MTR workers been won over in the early days of the protest, their strike action would truly have brought the city to a halt without damaging what many Hong Kongers consider as a world-class transport infrastructure.
The paradox is that there are no key differences in political demands between the thousands of ultra-militant street activists and the millions of people protesting against the government. The five key demands, now with a sixth demand to disband and reconstitute the police force, do not essentially aim to challenge Beijing’s overall control of Hong Kong, merely to strive for a genuinely high degree of local autonomy as “guaranteed” under the fifty year One Country Two Systems arrangement agreed between Britain and China in 1984.
The fear and hatred of the totalitarian one-party regime in Beijing is deep rooted, but otherwise most of the 35+ population see themselves as ethnically, linguistically and culturally Chinese, not the pioneer citizens of a new country called Hong Kong. A million people in the city are either practising Catholics or Protestants, and this stems from the fact that the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist Churches run virtually all the top schools, and the religious voluntary sector runs three quarters of the schools. Many consider that the Vatican has sold the underground Catholic Church down the river.
The UK legacy of Common Law, a largely free press, and freedoms of religious belief and free speech, plus an increasingly visible LGBT community, make Hong Kong quite difficult to integrate into the People’s Republic. Yet numerous social surveys conducted so far indicate little support for self-determination or independence, compared to Catalonia and Scotland. Class consciousness is quite under-developed: little of the anger and militancy being directed at the handful of mega-rich family dynasties that has such a stranglehold over Hong Kong’s economy, and there is tacit acceptance of neo-liberal Government policy.
The Hong Kong Government may well be set to succeed for now in terms of defeating the protest movement by sheer brutal policing. However it has totally lost credibility and will meet passive resistance at every turn. There is now a whole generation of radicalised youth who, even if they are about to be defeated, are not bowed, and at a future time will be open to working class socialist politics.
There are District Council elections next Sunday, 24th, and the protest movement aims to convert its momentum into winning a very large number of seats. Nearly 200 seats out of the 1200 that make up the electoral college to elect the Chief Executive goes to District Councillors, so Beijing must realise that Hong Kong will become harder to govern in the coming years while it has to ponder what to do to replace the One Country Two Systems in less than 30 years’ time in 2047.