From the September-October 2019 issue of News & Letters
by Bob McGuire
The mass movement that began in June to block a proposed extradition bill, which could send residents of Hong Kong to face pre-determined injustice before Beijing courts, has only broadened in the face of government intransigence and police brutality. Instead of protest fatigue, police and government attacks have fueled ongoing marches that three times have brought more than a million people into the streets.
A demonstration proportional to the population in Washington, D.C., would be 40 to 80 million U.S. residents thronging past the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.
REMEMBERING THE PAST, MARCHING FOR THE FUTURE
On the 11th straight weekend defending against the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, 1.7 million demonstrators overfilled Victoria Park on Aug. 18, then defied police by pouring into adjoining streets to march without a permit. For once the ever-present umbrellas that marchers have been carrying helped to ward off a pouring rain, as well as serving as a rudimentary protection against tear gas canisters and as a tribute to the 79-day Occupy Central movement for democratic rights (or Umbrella Revolution) in 2014.
A million protesters filled the streets on June 9 to denounce the intention of the Legislative Council, dominated by unelected members beholden to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rule, to pass that extradition bill three days later. This would have ignored the autonomous status of Hong Kong under “one country, two systems,” an agreement meant to last for 50 years—from the end of British colonial rule in 1997 until 2047.
When Chief Executive Carrie Lam turned a deaf ear to the voices of protest, they called for a general strike on June 12, the day scheduled for the vote. The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions endorsed the general strike, with airline workers prominent, and more than 100 companies shut down. Labor support was so widespread in Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific that the workforce forced management to allow workers to take part in demonstrations. With both students and workers involved, police officials declared participants were “rioters,” invoking a colonial British law to threaten strikers with years of jail.
Four days later, Carrie Lam agreed only to suspend the Extradition Bill. Her refusal to withdraw the bill altogether, along with police confronting peaceful protesters with the wholesale use of pepper spray and other so-called “non-lethal” means, drew as many as two million marchers pouring out that day, gridlocking transportation.
The movement that began around blocking the extradition bill now agreed on five demands: the complete withdrawal, not merely suspension, of the extradition bill; the government to take back its judgment of protests as riots, along with all the consequences that the British colonial law would mandate; unconditional release of arrested protesters and dropping charges against them; an outside, independent inquiry into police behavior; and implementation of long-promised universal suffrage for the Legislative Council.
POLICE ATTACK PEACEFUL PROTESTERS
The call for a second general strike on Aug. 5 was answered by 350,000 workers walking off the job. Workers at Cathay Pacific were so pivotal, along with activists blocking trains to the airport, that canceled flights were a key result.
Police brutality pushed the movement to a new defiance. Police, week after week, fired bean bag projectiles, rubber bullets and by now 1,800 tear gas canisters at protesters. After one of the bean bags hit a protester and cost her the sight in her right eye, thousands of protesters, many with their right eye covered, occupied the airport, leading to the cancelation of all flights on Aug. 11 and 12. Cathay Pacific management, which had bowed to the will of its employees and promised they could take part in protests without penalty, later bowed to China and vowed to fire activist workers. Their CEO was forced out. Then they fired the union leader.
This movement has maintained and expanded itself even as each new demonstration takes place, in spite of the lengthening shadow of intervention by the Chinese army (PLA) crossing the border from the neighboring city of Shenzhen into Hong Kong. China made a show of military exercises practicing quelling an urban rebellion as an unsubtle threat to the people of Hong Kong.
Communist Party of China officials even gloated that all they had to do was open the border at Hong Kong Bay Port and outraged citizens acting for the government would quickly put an end to demonstrators and their protests. And in this cyber age, they employed weapons of war to twist the news that Chinese on the mainland have received on the web. Twitter belatedly disabled over 900 accounts that Beijing had directed to derail dialogue within Hong Kong.
The authorities in Hong Kong had already deployed their own thugs suspected of ties to the local Triads, wearing white shirts to contrast with the many protesters clad in black. On July 12 they beat up protesters with pipes and bamboo sticks, injuring dozens. Demonstrators had also found police spies and provocateurs among their ranks.
PROTESTERS: AVOWEDLY ‘LEADERFUL’
One defense against legal retaliation was to be well-organized but decentralized and avowedly leaderless. This was a lesson learned from the aftermath of Occupy Central. Increasing pressure from Beijing forced Hong Kong authorities to charge and convict identified leaders of that blockade of streets fully four and five years afterwards. One Hong Kong protester called the movement not leaderless, but leaderful, relying on the initiative of many leaders coordinating with their own comrades and with sympathetic groups.
Rulers rely on rulers, even those who are supposedly trade opponents. When Donald Trump spoke with Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit, Trump got no concessions on the tariff war he had started with China, but he did promise Xi that he would not speak in support of the opposition in Hong Kong. Trump even echoed the official line of officials in China and Hong Kong when he called protesters on the streets and at the airport “rioters.” When he adds that they are terrorists, we will know that he was listening closely to Xi.
Xi has been even more effective at gathering support for China’s concentration camps in Xinjiang and harsh occupation in Tibet. China has been suppressing Uyghur language and criminalizing Muslim religious practices. That has not prevented Egypt from expelling Uyghur refugees back to China, and Saudi Arabia from fully endorsing China’s action against “Islamic terrorists.”
Xi’s outrages are a legacy of the imperial ambitions of Mao Zedong after taking power in 1949. Literally imperial ambitions. Mao ignored the example set for Marxists after the 1917 Russian Revolution when Lenin recognized the self-determination of Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Instead Mao was intent on using the PLA to recreate the farthest reaches of emperors. Military invasion added “autonomous” provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, and suppressed Tibet’s revolt in 1959.
XI CONTINUES MAO’S EXPANSIONISM
Xi has doubled down on Mao’s adventurist expansion, and the increasing pressure on Hong Kong is just one example. Before 1997, Hong Kong capitalists were the greatest source of capital for export production. To preserve that pipeline of capital, China agreed to conditions for decolonization, restoring the British colony of Hong Kong under “One Country, Two Systems.”
There is little nostalgia for British rule within the population, despite Beijing publicly seizing upon a few demonstrators waving a British flag. British colonial rulers in 1967 used tactics against picketers at an artificial flower factory strike that would be familiar under today’s Legislative Council, including police brutality and the use of tear gas—and the Riot Act.
Any expression of sentiment in Hong Kong for independence from China has arisen from the increasingly blatant control of the institutions of power by Beijing, 28 years before full reunification.
For decades Taiwan could shrug off threats of forced reunification, at first by the 7th Fleet as the U.S. protected the forces of the Nationalist Party after the victorious Chinese Revolution in 1949 had driven them to refuge on Taiwan. Later, from 1992 when China began using foreign capital to extract the surplus value from two generations of Chinese workers, investment from Taiwanese capitalists was second only to that of Hong Kong. Any threats to Taiwan from Beijing were just bluster when it depended on that capital.
Most threats were directed at political movements for Taiwan independence. Nearly two-thirds identify exclusively as Taiwanese and most of the rest as both Taiwanese and Chinese on an island annexed by the Chinese Empire just two centuries before Japan ruled it for 50 years. Taiwanese solidarity demonstrations with Hong Kong protesters come as Xi expands into wide swaths of the South China Sea. Chinese-constructed islands make future threats to the integrity of Taiwan real indeed.
TIANANMEN SQUARE—NEVER AGAIN
On June 4, the people of Hong Kong, as they had done for 30 years, marched to memorialize the 1989 massacre of students and worker activists occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in a movement for freedom and democracy. Activists also opened a June 4 Museum in time for the 30th anniversary. The 180,000 who marched were representing, once again, all the people in China who could not demonstrate without being beaten and jailed.
That responsibility is far from focused on 30 years ago. The Chinese courts under the control of the Communist Party of China—what the people of Hong Kong began marching to avoid—have swept up factory workers and avowedly Marxist student-workers along with anyone that Xi’s government deems a dissident.
To be a worker or a Marxist under rulers who oversee the second largest private capitalist economy in the world—but who still find it useful to underpin the authority of the Party by giving lip service to workers and Karl Marx—is to be a target.
By contrast, Trump expressed his praise for leader Deng Xiaoping for acting with strength to crush the occupation of Tiananmen Square. The contrast could not be greater between the solidarity among freedom movements and the collusion among leaders of the ruling class.