On 16 February, the trial started of seven democracy leaders in Hong Kong. Two others pleaded guilty. They are accused of organising an unauthorised assembly on 18 August 2019, when the Civil Front called a rally of 1.7 million people.
Among the accused are Hong Kong trade union leader Lee Cheuk Yan, General Secretary of the HKCTU (Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions); other left wing activists such as Leung Kwok Hung (“Long Hair”); and “pan-democratic” veterans such as the 82 year old Martin Lee.
The charges, unconnected with the new National Security Law (NSL) and relying instead on old British colonial law, carry possible sentences of five years.
The charging of Lee Cheuk Yan, an internationally respected trade unionist for over 30 years, has triggered protests from the trade union and labour movement. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) called for protests on 14 and 15 February. Labour MPs John McDonnell, Nadia Whittome and Clive Lewis have written a letter of protest, which was backed within a few days by 36 other MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn. Labour Movement Solidarity with Hong Kong (LMSWHK) has worked with the MPs to get trade union leaders and activists to sign up. When the trial started, the accused held a solidarity briefing outside the court. Lee denounced the repression and the defendants and their supporters concluded by chanting in solidarity with Myanmar workers.
The trial is expected to be over by Tuesday 2 March, but it may be a month before verdict and sentence. The judge, Amanda Woodcock, is authorised to deal with NSL cases by Carrie Lam: in other words, she is trusted by Beijing, so a “not guilty” verdict is unlikely in the District Court. Defence expert witnesses have been refused the right to give evidence and many of the defence barristers’ arguments have been ruled “out of order”. The case will go to appeal at the High Court where defence arguments about the police breaching the constitution have to be heard.
A whole wave of other trials are taking place or about to start. On 22 February, 12 students arrested at the time of the police siege of the Chinese University of Hong Kong were rearrested and charged with rioting (again, under British colonial law).
When, how, and if these trials will trigger renewed protests in Hong Kong, it is difficult to say. There is widespread fear of the implications of the NSL (and of Covid: case rates have been rising, or level, since late November).
But unions are still defiant. Winnie Yu, the chair of the health workers’ union HAEA was arrested and is being threatened with the NSL. Yet her union has challenged the government over the privacy of its Covid tracing app.
For now, China’s police-state union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions, is welcomed at some international union gatherings. In the Morning Star, HK protests for democracy have been denounced as riots, and evidence of forced labour of Uyghurs denied.
Yet, as John McDonnell said at the LSWHK rally on 30 January, the Chinese government is still sensitive to “reputational damage”, and the labour movement has the power to cause that damage.
Workers and socialists need to support the real independent workers’ and democracy movement developing in Hong Kong, China and throughout South East Asia.
And it is down to us to do that. The Tories talk about supporting democratic rights in HK, but on Sunday 21 February, the Guardian reported a roundtable on 12 February at Downing Street. In that meeting Johnson referred to himself as a “Sinophile” and said he wants to reactivate the “Economic and Financial Dialogue” and “China-UK Joint Trade and Economic Commission”, both suspended for now in response to China’s repression in the former UK colony of Hong Kong.
“Some of the businesses most active in China” were represented there, such as the Swire company, which runs many businesses in Hong Kong such as the airline Cathay Pacific. Swire was founded by the great-great-great-grandfather of Hugo Swire, a Tory minister until 2019. The current chair of the company, Barnaby Swire, is a long standing donor to the Party.
Like HSBC, Standard Chartered, and Jardine Matheson, Swire have supported the repression in Hong Kong. They have sacked trade unionists who had supported the democracy protests and publicly declared their support for the National Security Law (NSL).
Tenacity International was also there. They have just received planning permission to build another 30-floor office tower in London.
We have had months of rhetoric from the government about opposing the wave of mass arrests in Hong Kong, and the National Security Law (NSL) imposed on Hong Kong by the Beijing government in July 2020. Backtracking by Johnson, in deference to UK-HK big business, will create difficulties for the Tories, especially if the labour movement speaks out.