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Inside the protests rocking Hong Kong

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Hong Kong socialist Lam Chi Leung says the retreats by the government have not ended the protests sweeping the country and Sadie Robinson looks at the background to the revolt
Issue 2660
Millions have marched against the extradition bill
Millions have marched against the ‘extradition bill’

On 16 June over 2 million Hong Kong residents protested against the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders’ Ordinance—commonly known as the “extradition bill”.

This, and China’s concerns about the effects of the political crisis on the US-China trade war, as well as its negative impact on pro-Beijing candidates in the presidential election in Taiwan next year, forced the Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to suspend the proposed amendments.

Eyewitness from Hong Kong as protests force a retreat on extradition bill
Eyewitness from Hong Kong as protests force a retreat on extradition bill
  Read More

This was done with the endorsement of the Chinese government and came with an apology to Hong Kong citizens for the societal divisions brought on by this saga.

Hong Kong’s total population is estimated at around 7.5 million. So a quarter of the population has participated in the protests.

The anti-extradition demonstration was double the size of the city’s 1989 protests after the Tiananmen Massacre.

This massive mobilisation has won a partial victory. But Carrie Lam’s has refused to fully withdraw the proposed amendments. This suggests that there is a real possibility of the government pushing the bill again in the near future, with the aim of allowing Beijing to extradite its opponents to Mainland China for trial.

Throughout June, Hong Kong citizens held a succession of protests.

First there was the 1 million-strong march on 9 June. Then came the blockade of the Legislative Council on 12 June which drew around 40,000—mostly young—people, and paralysed the operations of the legislature, preventing the second reading of the proposed amendments.


The Hong Kong police force responded to the 12 June protest with violence. As well as using a huge amount of tear gas and pepper spray, they fired rubber bullets and bean bag rounds without warning. The chief of police and the chief executive declared that the protests qualified as a “riot”, and thus the use of force was justifiable.

On the evening of 15 June Marco Leung, 35, killed himself by jumping from the roof of a major shopping mall near the Legislative Council. He had hung an “anti-extradition bill” banner on the mall, and a note left behind explained that his suicide was an act of protest against the government.

Grieved and enraged, 2 million people protested on the streets the very next day.

Leung’s parents told journalists, “The government’s indifferent pursuit of wealth has forced young people to serve the rich, to become slaves of their mortgages, and the working class and ordinary folks have no say over the government’s policies.”

The workers and youth of Hong Kong did not see an improvement to their quality of life after Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997. On the contrary, collaboration between the Chinese Communist Party regime and local capitalists has meant that Hong Kong has continued to implement a system of laissez-faire capitalism, rejecting any genuine reform of labour and society.

As a result, social divisions have only worsened.

In the past 20 years, Hong Kong has seen negligible growth in real wages. Up to 1.37 million people live in poverty—one in five of the population—and the city’s inequality has surpassed that of the US and Singapore.

Discontent has manifested in two ways. On the one hand, “moderate pan-democrats”, who had for years led the opposition to the government and supported free market capitalism, has grown weaker in political power. On the other hand there has been a rise of centre-left political parties, as well as the emergence of xenophobic right-wing extremists who advocate for the secession of Hong Kong from China.

Right-wing extremism grew in political power in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Proponents of “courageous battle” with the police, right-wing activists carried out a smear campaign against the organisers of the Umbrella Movement and those who proposed strategic retreats from occupied areas.

They argued they were “left plastic”—a slur that denotes “stupid and traitorous”.


However, in the past few years the government has increased political repression of right wing leaders, and right wing groups have also experienced serious infighting, and as a result have significantly weakened in political power.

The “anti-extradition” movement is far from over, even as the government has suspended the proposed amendments. On 21 June approximately 10,000 citizens surrounded the police headquarters, demanding that the police chief rescind the designation of the 12 June assembly as a “riot” and apologise for police violence.

These numerous protests have, to an extent, overcome an important weakness of the Umbrella Movement and there is an awareness of the need to maintain broader societal support for the movement.

While “courageous battle” is no longer the favoured strategy, protesters now believe that “intelligent battle” is much more important.

Yet some have overly romanticised this form of leaderless, organisation-less social movement that relies on mobilisation on the internet.

Amid this, some activists continue to advocate the mobilisation of workers in order to instigate political strikes, and the goal of workers’ self-organisation.

Although the general strike and school boycott on 17 June were, for the most part, not a success, the potential and value of political strikes have been raised to public forums for further discussion and deliberation.

Hoping to ask for support from the international community and for key players to “increase pressure” on the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, protesters planned to hold rallies this weekend, while the G20 summit is held in Japan.

A small group of people has even called for US president Donald Trump to assist the people of Hong Kong in obtaining freedom by “liberating” the city.

These moves may easily beseenasan over-reliance on the US and the European Union. In practice itallows Western imperialist powers to use the “anti-extradition” movement as a pawn in superpower politics.

The movement may ultimately be sacrificed for under-the-table deals between superpowers.

Additionally, these moves may also make it easier for the Chinese government to smear Hong Kong’s popular protests, thereby continuing to orchestrate hostility betweenMainland Chinese and Hong Kong citizens.

Genuine transnational solidarity lies in obtaining the support of the US, European, and even the Mainland Chinese working classes and social movements.

The 2013 dockworkers’ strike, for example, called for and obtained the transnational support of labour unions across the US and other countries in putting pressure on the government and corporations of Hong Kong.

Only then can civic freedoms be effectively safeguarded, and the political independence of popular movementssecurelymaintained.

A country run by China as a subsidiary company

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under a “One Country, Two Systems” policy. This deal expires in 2047.

It means Hong Kong has its own judiciary and its own currency, while rights such as freedom of speech are protected.

Hong Kong is officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. China retains control over its foreign affairs and defence policy. It also has a big influence over Hong Kong’s government.

It is headed by a chief executive, who is chosen by a pro-China committee and appointed by the Chinese government. The current chief executive is Carrie Lam.

China had promised to bring in direct elections for the chief executive by 2017. But it reneged on this in 2014—sparking huge pro-democracy protests.

Hong Kong is the world’s eighth largest exporter of goods and has the world’s fourth biggest stock market.

Hong Kong was one of the “Asian Tiger” economies that grew massively in the 1950s and 1960s.

Its population had quadrupled between 1948 and 1952 as some people fled the revolution of 1949 led by Mao Zedong. These included many rich capitalists who went on to exploit workers in Hong Kong.

By the early 1960s Hong Kong was a major producer of cheap textiles, electronics and plastic goods. But in 1961 over half the population lived in “acute poverty”.

By the 1970s the flow of refugees had dried up and the economy had vastly expanded. Hong Kong faced a labour shortage. Bosses began to shift manufacturing operations to Guangdong province in China to take advantage of cheap labour.

China’s opening up to the world market transformed Hong Kong into a trading and financial centre servicing China. China’s rich launder their money through Hong Kong then “reinvest” it in China to get tax breaks.

Hong Kong is also important for China as it can attract wider layers of foreign capitalists. The Economist magazine described it as a “fragile bridge between a one-party state and the freedoms of global commerce”.

Across that bridge goes huge amounts of capital and goods.

“For many global firms, Hong Kong is a gateway to the Chinese market,” said The Economist.

Bullets, gases and truncheons used to quell previous protests

The protests sweeping Hong Kong are the biggest since 2014. Then tens of thousands of protesters, led by students, paralysed parts of the city for two months.

Demonstrations and sit-ins called for democratic reforms, including the right to elect Hong Kong’s leader. The movement was known as the Umbrella Movement after people used umbrellas to protect themselves against police tear gas and pepper spray.

The protests failed to win concessions, and many of those leading it were jailed. But other protests have scored victories.

Pro-democracy protests spread across Hong Kong as unions threaten strikes
Pro-democracy protests spread across Hong Kong as unions threaten strikes
  Read More

Two years earlier, tens of thousands of protesters—many of them school children—surrounded the city government’s complex for ten days.

The action was against a government order for schools to teach “moral and national education classes” that would be pro-China. The curriculum was eventually abandoned.

In 2003 around half a million people protested against a new national security law that threatened freedom of speech. The law was dropped and then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa resigned.

There were revolts, protests and strikes under British rule too.

In 1989 over one million people, one in six of Hong Kong’s population, protested to support students demonstrating in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—despite a typhoon.

Riots broke out in 1956 after cops fired on pro-Taiwan demonstrators, killing 59. More rioting erupted in 1966 and 1967, inspired by China’s Cultural Revolution.

The 1967 riots forced the government to change direction—in the years that followed public spending, living standards and wages went up.

Rotten legacy of British imperialism

The British state ran Hong Kong as a dictatorship for 150 years. Most public protest was illegal and ordinary people lived in poverty.

A governor appointed by Britain ran Hong Kong, and they chose an executive and legislative council. This continued until the 1990s, and Britain “handed over” Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Britain’s rule of Hong Kong came out of imperialist battles for wealth and power. Britain built up a trading relationship with China throughout the 18th century.

The British East India Company bought tea and silk from China to sell in England. It meant big profits, but China’s rulers put limits on trade.

Britain’s solution was drugs. It turned over swathes of land in newly-conquered India to cultivating opium—and its trade with China exploded.

At the turn of the 18th century 4,000 chests of opium were shipped to China every year. By 1838 the figure was 40,000. When Chinese officials tried to stop opium, Britain went to war.

The first Opium War, which began in 1839, ended with Britain grabbing Hong Kong. In 1898 Britain took control of the “New Territories” that make up 90 percent of today’s Hong Kong. It took them on a 99-year lease to try to discourage other Western powers from taking over parts of China.

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