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Will the establishment absorb the opposition in Hong Kong?

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
Vincent Sung looks at the contradictions in Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement and some of the challenges it faces in the future
Issue 2444
Protesters in Hong Kong last year
Protesters in Hong Kong last year (Pic: Pasu Au Yeung on Flickr)

What are the prospects for a revived opposition movement in Hong Kong? We will see what impact last year’s Umbrella movement has on November’s district council elections and the 2016 legislative council elections.

Some of the tens of thousands of people who participated in the occupations are now concentrating on the elections. 

But the authorities can use elections to normalise and absorb oppositional forces. Half a million took to the streets in 2003. But that movement was largely absorbed once they joined parties and took part in elections.

Others from the movement are trying to organise alternatives in workplaces and communities. During the occupation many more left wing elements organised among working class people. 

They are now debating what happened after the suppression of South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju uprising. Most students who took part in that went into the factories. Some are saying we should do that.

I can’t see many youth being interested in trade union organising, but perhaps their experience during those 75 days has changed their attitudes.

They became more altruistic and abandoned “central” values—that is the selfish and calculating values of Hong Kong’s central financial district.

It was a mass youth movement that was hostile to politicians, even ones known for their support of democracy. The characteristic of the movement was spontaneity, decentralisation and autonomy. 

But we can still find some dynamic organising forces with roots in the movement.

The first group included the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), the student union of the eight local universities, and the secondary school action group Scholarism. They were basically liberal. They talked about democracy, stressing non-violence. 

Another group saw a racial conflict between Hong Kongers and people in mainland China. These “nativists”, such as Civic Passion, were the populist right wing of the movement. They strongly attacked left wing groups, HKFS and Scholarism. 


But they were militant and it seemed to be a point of principle to fight the police.

A third came from new social movement groups, including left wingers, environmentalists and some anarchists. They stressed social inequality and environmental damage. They also took direct action and fought the police but for them this was tactical, not a matter of principle.

This was not a working class movement, though often workers supported it. But there was an underlying class antagonism.

A recent survey showed that 70 percent of the occupiers were aged 18 to 29. Students made up 30 percent, while 

60 percent were professionals or managers. 

But most said they came from lower class or lower middle class families. 

Generally speaking, most university graduates over the past 20 years could get a good job, a car and a mortgage. 

They could climb into an upper social layer. But that is not true any more. Crucial to this is the integration of Hong Kong and China. This has squeezed some layers out to the margins of society. 

Since 2008 the polarisation of the rich and poor in Hong Kong has worsened.

This is an edited version of a talk former Hong Kong trade union organiser Vincent Sung gave at the International Socialism China dayschool on 28 February


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