Hong Kong’s mass movement against the Chinese state’s attempt to control the territory has been spurred forward by the whip of counterrevolution. On Sunday 21 July, as protestors returned home from demonstrating, around 50 thugs dressed in all-white burst onto a subway train and indiscriminately attacked passengers with poles and other blunt objects. Although the attackers were anonymous and the assault appeared arbitrary, the message was received loud and clear – as was the intention: do not dare challenge the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing.
But, in another sign that the masses of Hong Kong have lost their fear of the authorities, this brutal act only drove them forwards and emboldened them. On Saturday, an estimated 300,000 protestors travelled to the Yuen Long district on the outskirts of Hong Kong, where the attack had taken place, in an act of bold defiance. This protest, which was the eighth consecutive weekly demonstration, was the first in this movement to be banned by the government; thus holding it successfully demonstrates defiance against, not only the physical threat of armed gangs, but also of the state and its legality.
What does the subway assault last week tell us? Why did it happen? We can be sure that it was organised by the government, with the backing of Beijing, because photographs and videos have appeared of pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho meeting with the gang beforehand, shaking their hands and thanking them. He has also publicly defended their violence. Footage has also appeared of a high-ranking police officer talking to them, saying they have “nothing to worry about”. The thugs even posted this picture of themselves getting ready for the assault in a local restaurant.
Hong Kong protests grow violent as masked assailants attack demonstrators, passengers at subway station— Natasha Fatah (@NatashaFatah) July 23, 2019
Warning: Images may be disturbing pic.twitter.com/VUUabjGhRA
Given the attack has massively backfired, many may ask why the government made such a rash move? This can be explained by the likelihood that the attack was ordered by Beijing, which has a record of using the tactic of “qunzhong dou qunzhong” – “the masses fighting the masses”, i.e. of ‘outsourcing’ state repression to triad gangs in order to sow fear and confusion and to distance themselves from blame. They commonly use this against peasants protesting against land seizures for property development. Furthermore, they have a record of using it in Hong Kong as well, as similar incidents occurred in the Umbrella Movement of 2014. What is different this time is that the masses of Hong Kong are angrier, and the anger is far more widespread. The move smacks of desperation by the government, since all the normal methods of repression have done nothing to stop the movement.
The response shows that the masses have lost their fear. Going to an illegal protest, as was Saturday’s, carries a possible sentence of five years in jail, as well as the threat of receiving a rubber bullet to the face. Now that everyone can see that the masses are prepared to challenge the state in this way, the movement will gain even more confidence.
Alongside the attacks of the triad thugs, we have the violence of the official thugs: the police. In all of the protests, the police launch attacks against protesters, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and ‘sponge grenades’ indiscriminately, injuring many. Following Saturday’s 300,000-strong protest, tens of thousands participated in various protests throughout the city the next day, once again defying the police ban. “They streamed west and east, occupying main roads, setting up barricades, and chanting: “Reclaim Hong Kong!” Protestors marched to Beijing’s representative office, blocked by riot police.” (Guardian, 29.7.19).
The protestors changed the route of the march, elongating it in order to stretch police lines. Despite this, the police fired round after round of teargas into the demo, creating scenes of thousands of choking and collapsing protestors. In the face of this police brutality, the protestors have improvised methods to defend themselves – tens of thousands of Hong Kongers are now familiar with how to build barricades, which are springing up very quickly. Others have found novel ways to contain teargas, as you can see:
Truly awesome the way Hong Kongers deal with tear gas.#antiELAB #HongKongProtests#BeWater pic.twitter.com/ptWL4nKHn4— Alex Hofford (@alexhofford) July 28, 2019
At one point an elderly woman took it upon herself to protect protestors, standing between them and police and daring them to charge her:
Elderly citizen standing in front of the police line to defense #YuenLong demonstrators. She cried and asked riot police not to fire bullet towards youngsters. https://t.co/CoVW5lJUb2 pic.twitter.com/5qtp04dncv— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 (@joshuawongcf) July 28, 2019
Protestors have taken to using street signs as shields:
“At one location, a 450-metre chain was formed by protesters to pass helmets, umbrellas, cling wrap and other items. Some protesters served as runners to take urgently needed supplies to the frontline.” (South China Morning Post, 28.7.19)
It is clear that the Hong Kong government has completely lost control. Despite the shelving of the extradition law that sparked it, the movement is going from strength to strength. Spurred on by hamfisted repression, it has become an all-embracing movement against both the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing. The recent decision to organise protests outside the Beijing Liaison Office (the official representation of the Chinese government in Hong Kong) and the West Kowloon train station (the closest point to China proper) shows that. The Hong Kong government is like a rabbit frozen in the headlights. Unable to give ground to the protestors, thanks to Beijing’s orders, but also unable to admit that it is merely a local department of that regime, it says little or nothing. It is thought that the chief executive, Carrie Lam, wants to quit, but is not allowed to by Xi Jinping.
The government has bought new anti-riot trucks from France, equipped with 15 powerful water cannons each. The government apparently plans to fill these cannons with ink, so that protestors can be easily identified for days after the protests, and rounded up and arrested.
But the protest movement is a mass movement embracing millions, so they’ll need a lot of ink and jails in order to quell it. Such a blunt instrument will only enrage protestors more, and convince them that the illusion their government represents freedom and human rights is just that, an illusion, and it must be overthrown.
Beijing is therefore thinking bigger than this. They are considering imposing a curfew. This week, the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s chief spokesperson, senior colonel Wu Qian, openly threatened that the Chinese army may have to be deployed to finally suppress the mass movement. It is likely that this will be an absolute last resort, because such a move could provoke the outbreak of a revolutionary situation in Hong Kong. It would also drag China itself, and Chinese nationals, into the struggle, guaranteeing that the majority of Hong Kongers reject entirely the territory’s incorporation into China, and it would also create the potential of Chinese troops mutineering and inspiring solidarity movements in the mainland, especially the close by, and economically vital, cities of the Pearl River Delta. However, the scope and militancy of the movement leaves Beijing few other options.
Movement faces crossroads
There are however also other serious dangers facing the movement. Whilst it is displaying remarkable boldness and organisational ability, the political question of what exactly it stands for remains contradictory. While the Hong Kong masses are entering the stage in a genuine struggle against falling living standards, authoritarianism and all the other ills of Hong Kong capitalism, the political leaders in the movement have a different outlook.
Previously, we reported that many of the leaders in the protests are liberals and are promoting a pro-western agenda for the movement, with British and colonial flags being flown, and young leaders of Demosisto like Joshua Wong calling for the US to intervene on their behalf. Another leader of Demosisto, Nathan Law, has just written an article for a Japanese bourgeois publication, the Nikkei Asian Review, pleading with Beijing to understand that using repression in Hong Kong will damage its business-friendly reputation, and is therefore against the regime’s interests.
While these liberal, pro-capitalist leaders might encourage the movement temporarily, they have no intention of truly challenging the capitalist regime. The deep-rooted social problems which persist in Hong Kong are all caused by capitalism, and therefore a pro-business, liberal position cannot solve them. It is clear that there is a big divide between the interests of the working class and those of the liberals. The result of the struggle between these two forces will decide the fate of this movement. If the working class does not take the lead in the movement, the leadership could eventually fall into reactionary hands, which could divert the movement for their own narrow ends.
It is true that in the last two weeks, there have been far fewer signs of a pro-western, pro-capitalist direction to the movement. There have been no reports of British flags being flown, nor of demonstrations outside the US embassy pleading for Trump’s help. So far the liberal Demosisto leaders are not seen as leading the movement.
In fact, the lack of real leadership is causing frustration among many activists. They are asking, ‘where is the movement going?’ Online forums are abuzz with discussions about which methods are most effective. It is increasingly felt, after the storming and prompt abandoning of the Legislative Council two weeks ago, that occupations for occupations’ sake are not the way forward.
Amidst this mass discussion, the demand for a political general strike has reappeared with greater support. Already, widespread reports online suggest that some rail operators of the MTR (Mass Transit Railway), which transports five million people each day, plan on striking on Tuesday 30 July. This is to show solidarity with victims of the triad attack that took place on the subway. While the official union of the MTR, which belongs to the pro-CCP Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) denies that such a strike will take place, if the ranks of the MTR operators (237 of which already petitioned to management in protest of MTR failing to protect the passengers during the mob attack) successfully caused a work stoppage, it would cripple the entire city of Hong Kong.
Spontaneously, a solidarity blockade of drivers on motorways is being organised online to coincide with the strike, ensuring that nothing at all moves. There is also talk that medical staff, teachers, social workers, flight attendants and school students may strike. There is even the possibility that civil servants may strike against the government they run, so discontented are they with its actions.
As always, the democratic demands of the movement mask a deeper social malaise. Hong Kong is probably the most expensive place in the world to live. House prices are far higher than in London and New York, and have tripled in the last 10 years. Despite these exorbitant prices, the minimum wage is a lowly $4.82. The median price of a home is more than 20 times the annual median household income. Homes are so small they are called ‘cages’ and ‘coffins’. To pay for these coffins, workers work the longest hours in the world.
This crisis affects the youth most badly. Stuck at home with their parents well into their 30s, their frustration is desperate. Lacking not only a realistic chance of acquiring a decent home, but also a political voice, they feel increasingly alienated in their home city. They see these protests as a final chance to rescue their city before it is subsumed into China’s totalitarian capitalism entirely.
Organise the general strike! Bring the government down!
The demand for a political general strike is gaining ground. If the MTR strike takes place and goes well, it is the logical next step. It looks like a general strike may be organised for 5 August by an online grouping called the “Three Strikes and 7 District Propaganda Group” (三罷和七區集會文宣組）. Those who have correctly put out the call for it, have also said that participants should attend mass assemblies in 7 different districts. This is an enormous step forward, and begins to place the movement on a class basis – the only basis that can guarantee success.
A political general strike, in this atmosphere of mass protests, poses the question of power. The trade unions must begin building for it immediately, organising workplace meetings to prepare disciplined, strong pickets and workers’ defence forces. Such a strike reveals that it is the working class that makes society work, because they have the power to shut everything down. That implies that they have the power to truly run society, on their own terms, not those of the tiny minority of billionaires.
Given this, the movement will need to put forward far more radical demands. At the moment, the demands of the general strike will be for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, an investigation into police brutality, and universal suffrage. But China simply cannot tolerate universal suffrage in Hong Kong, which it knows would lead to succession from China, and the formation of a government that is hostile to China and yet right on its doorstep and vital for its trade.
To achieve universal suffrage, the movement must not ask for it, but organise it itself. The planned mass assemblies are the right way forward. But it is unclear what these are for. We think they should be used to elect delegates to form a genuine government of the Hong Kong people. The anti-Beijing trade unions should mobilise all their members to build for this strike and to attend the assemblies. It is also time that they set about organising a workers’ party to fight for the socialist interests of the working class. It is capitalism, not simply the authoritarianism of Beijing, that has led to the housing crisis, low wages and endless working hours of Hong Kong. A workers’ party fighting not only for universal suffrage but for a socialist programme of social housing, nationalisation and solidarity with the mainland working class, would quickly gain mass support from the Hong Kong working class and youth.
Ultimately, the fate of the Hong Kong working class lies with their brothers and sisters on the mainland. The Chinese working class are not enemies of Hong Kong. The real enemy is the same for both – the ruling class of China. The movement in Hong Kong must issue an appeal of solidarity to the Chinese working class, especially the super-exploited workers of the Pearl River delta, right next door to Hong Kong. These workers have recently begun organising against ‘996’ culture – that is, the culture in the Chinese tech industry of working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week. Class consciousness is present throughout China.
Some organisers in Hong Kong have taken the correct step towards connecting with the masses of mainland China. For example, the rally that took place on 7 July in the working-class district of Kowloon explicitly aimed to fraternise with mainland Chinese tourists as well as showing solidarity with the mass struggle against the government in Wuhan. Several Hong Kong protesters spoke in Mandarin, even sang the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China to win mainland Chinese tourists over to their cause. This is an absolutely correct approach that should be promoted and embraced by the entire Anti-Extradition movement. The very survival of Hong Kong’s present struggle depends on its ability to connect with the biggest threat to the CCP regime, the Chinese working class. Whereas any sign of anti-Chinese localism or pro-British, pro-western imperialist sentiments will turn the mainland Chinese working class away and have a suicidal impact on the entire struggle.
If the movement in Hong Kong confines itself to liberalism and pro-Western demands, this vital, powerful alliance of the two working classes will be lost, and the movement eventually defeated. The only way forward is on a working class, socialist basis. If that path is taken, the movement in Hong Kong could even spark a revolution in China.