Last weekend, amidst a wave of protests that has raged on for over half a year following the Extradition Bill introduced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kong held its regularly scheduled district council election. This typically low-interest, low-turnout affair was turned into an effective referendum on the Hong Kong masses’ opinion towards Beijing in light of recent events. It concluded with a landslide victory for the anti-Beijing bloc of politicians, with the highest turnout since Hong Kong’s return to China. But what is needed is a clear way forward based on class struggle politics.
This election decides the representatives to the 18 district councils that make up the Hong Kong Special Administrative District (HKSAR) under the jurisdiction of the state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Compared to the Legislative Council (LegCo), the district councils hold far less political power. They serve as a consultative body to the Hong Kong government on strictly day-to-day municipal affairs, without actual legislative power, though five of its members would be able to gain membership to the LegCo. Of the 479 total seats, 27 ex-officio members are automatically elected based on their chairmanship of the rural committees in the countryside or island districts of the New Territories, the rest are directly elected.
This is distinct from the Legislative Council election, where only 40 of the 70 seats are directly elected, while the rest are elected via “functional”, i.e. professional, constituencies where committees of business leaders elect their representatives, thereby guaranteeing that almost half of the LegCo seats are under the direct control of the Hong Kong ruling class.
There is a stark difference in representation between the LegCo, which remains under the domination of pro-Beijing bourgeois parties, and the newly produced district councils that are under a myriad of conflicting, yet anti-Beijing, political forces. These contradictions within the anti-Beijing forces are class contradictions between the broadly “anti-Beijing establishment” and the masses, who are forced to live in cramped apartments and work extremely long hours.
The district councils’ formal lack of power over actual affairs is one of the predominant reasons why turnout for this election had been low until now. Since 2003, the turnout for district council elections remained well under 50 percent. This year, with 4.13 million registered voters, turnout reached over 71 percent. Even the CCP-sponsored China Daily admitted that this is “a historic high in the city’s history.”
Another particularly long queue is at Shatin’s Lek Yuen Estate, where the injured democrat Jimmy Sham faces off Wong Yue-hon.— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) November 24, 2019
Photo: May James / HKFP. #hongkong pic.twitter.com/2gOmPDBQah
With such unprecedented interest in a hitherto lacklustre electoral affair, the anti-Beijing “Pan Democratic Bloc” more than tripled its seats from 2015’s 120 to 385. The pro-Beijing camp was reduced to 59 seats, from 292 in the previous election. Note that, in the last district council election, the Pan Democratic Bloc actually suffered a setback, losing 74 seats compared to its previous electoral high of 174 seats in 2003.
Some of the flipping of districts are especially dramatic. In larger districts, such as Wong Tai Sin of Kowloon and Tai Po of New Territory, hitherto dominated by the pro-Beijing politicians, literally zero electable seats went to the pro-Beijing camp. Some of the most vociferously pro-Beijing politicians like Junius Ho (hated for his open association with the white shirt gangs that attacked protesters in July), Michael Tien (fashion tycoon and ex-chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway), and Alice Mak (known for berating Carrie Lam to tears for being too soft on the protests) were roundly defeated.
On the other hand, the first-past-the-post rule for the district council election also exaggerates the magnitude of the Pan Democrats’ success. Though winning over 80 percent of the seats, the Pan Democratic Bloc garnered 1,670,000 votes (57.2 percent of the total), while the pro-Beijing establishment politicians got 1,190,000 (40.6 percent). This does not change the fact that Beijing was overwhelmingly rejected by this election’s results, but it also shows that the pro-Beijing camp still has a significant ability to mobilise.
In the face of this crushing vote of no confidence against her administration, Carrie Lam and the CCP that backs her remain defiant. Lam issued a statement that her government would respect the results of the election and “seriously reflect” on them, but still offered no response to the Five Democratic Demands from the movement, above all the demand for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The Chinese state media Xinhua claimed on 23 November, one day ahead of the election, that the election would not be a fair one as it would take place amidst widespread violence. On the day of the election, Xinhua merely reported that the election had concluded and that “patriotic Hong Kongers” were harassed by protesters during the election, without actually reporting the results.
Defiance from both Lam and Beijing is inevitable. The dictatorship of the CCP over the Chinese masses would never voluntarily offer democratic reforms to the Hong Kong masses as this would lead the Chinese working class to ask for the same rights, especially at a time when the crisis of capitalism is looming over China, as it does around the whole world. Secondly, the state apparatus of Hong Kong, its laws and its elections, are still arranged in a way that gives Beijing the final say over the situation. Merely electing people into these bodies would not pose a fundamental threat to Beijing that can make it change its attitude or bring fundamental changes. Only by expanding the struggle beyond Hong Kong and linking up with the Chinese working class to take the fight straight to the CCP, would it be possible for people across Hong Kong and China to win a genuinely democratic society: a workers' democracy.
Unfortunately, this is not the direction that the Hong Kong movement is taking at the moment.
Can the “Pan Democrats” solve the problem?
Much of this election’s results have been crudely analysed by commentators as being between “pro-Beijing” and “anti-Beijing” camps, ignoring the fact that the “anti-Beijing” camp consists of an array of heterogeneous, contradictory, and at times reactionary tendencies from the standpoint of the working class.
Let it be clear that Marxists stand firmly against the Chinese Communist Party regime that oversaw the restoration of capitalism in China and the exploitation of millions of workers within its dominion, including those in Hong Kong. The “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement represents a historic blank cheque that the Beijing regime wrote to the Hong Kong bourgeoisie in exchange for their political loyalty and the facilitation of western capital’s entrance into China. This is the fundamental cause of the extraordinary level of social inequality that was allowed to be exacerbated in Hong Kong under the CCP’s watch. It is also with a consistent class standpoint, one that has the interest of the workers and oppressed in Hong Kong, that we advance our recommendations to the present movement.
We recognise the Hong Kong masses’ rejection of the Beijing regime via this electoral result, but a simple rejection does not amount to a positive way forward. The victory of the Pan Democratic Bloc in this election also buoyed a number of cynical elements’ positions.
Take for example, the Democratic Party of Hong Kong who emerged as the biggest Pan Democratic party, and therefore the biggest party in the district councils with 91 seats. This supposedly pro-democracy party refused to support the implementation of a minimum wage in Hong Kong in 1999. It also failed to fight for the cancellation of the highly rigged “functional constituency” of the LegCo electoral rules in 2010, instead proposing to slightly modify the functional constituency. The fact that they are considered to be on the sidelines of the Anti-Extradition Movement is not accidental: many radical protesters have viewed them as a part of Hong Kong’s problems. Therefore, the ascension of the Democratic Party in this election does not represent a genuine enthusiasm towards them, but is due to a lack of any alternative within the broadly anti-Beijing milieu.
In the same way, similar petit-bourgeois liberal parties such as the Civic Party, the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood (ADPL), and the Neo Democrats were able to gain seats. Together, they form the dominant bloc within the Pan Democratic camp.
To the left of these elements, there are also the Labour Party and the League of Social Democrats, yet the reformism and illusions in parliamentarianism of these parties lead them to tail rather than head the movement. The Labour Party of Hong Kong, for instance, was founded in 2010 by a minority of leaders of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), with some social activists. Unlike its famous British counterpart, it is not a mass organisation of the working class that provides a way for rank-and-file members to regularly engage and discuss politics, but is an electoral apparatus for activists around the anti-Beijing trade unions. It believes in using the solidarity of workers and legislation to “balance the (unbalanced) labour-management relations.” This limited political vision and apparatus rendered the Labour Party a rump at the margins of the Pan Democrat bloc. In the present movement in Hong Kong, they also played a minimal role, and never advanced class-based solutions. Therefore, even if they benefited electorally from this year’s district council election, they still only have seven seats.
On the other hand, the League of Social Democrats, while also not a party with a mass base, has a significantly larger platform compared to the Labour Party, due to a few high-profile figures from its ranks. This includes Jimmy Sham, who is probably the most prominent member of the LSD due his leading role in the Civil Human Rights Front that led some of the million-strong demonstrations back in June. However, rather than using this platform to advance genuine class-based demands, Sham subordinated himself to the Five Democratic Demands insisted upon by the bourgeois liberal elements of the CHRF. He never proposed expanding these demands into social demands in the interests of the working class in Hong Kong and throughout mainland China. The political stalemate that resulted from this hesitating leadership, along with the Hong Kong government’s increased repressions, meant that the size of CHRF’s demonstrations dwindled over time.
The conduct of fellow LSD member, “Longhair” Leung Kwok-hung, a famous figure in his own right, also led to tremendous opportunities being missed. This one-time member of the now-defunct “Revolutionary Marxist League” (and supposed adherent to Trotskyism) chose to style himself as the radical left-wing of the movement in form instead of content. Running against Starry Lee, the chairperson of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the biggest pro-Beijing bourgeoisie party, Leung failed to turn the campaign into a class question. Instead of using his public spotlight to push the Five Democratic Demands beyond their bourgeois liberal boundaries into social demands that can also win over the mainland Chinese workers, he fully embraced them without any additions, merely proclaiming them louder than others while wearing his trademark Che Guevara shirt. In the end, amidst this massive tide of anti-Beijing sentiment, he lost against Starry Lee by just 343 votes. Had he at least provided a socialist solution to the ongoing tenant resettlement crisis in the To Kwa Wan district that he ran in, instead of restricting his campaign to being abstractly anti-Beijing, he could have won even more support. One wonders what kind of lesson he draws from this when he admits his defeat was a “dereliction of duties.” Those who have been vouching for Leung and his methods should seriously reflect on this turn of events.
A socialist programme and class struggle: the only way forward
We must admit that the general lack of a real class perspective has contributed to the loss of the mass character of the Hong Kong movement. In particular, there hasn’t been a serious consideration of how to expand the Five Democratic Demands into social ones, and no organisation has put forward any perspective of actively trying to win over the mainland Chinese working class.
Mass participation in the movement has dwindled. Gone are the days when millions of people took to the streets. We see instead a few hundred isolated students trying to use adventurist methods to make a breakthrough. Some of them (mostly headed by cynical elements such as the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement) resorted to campaigning for the US-backed “Hong Kong Human Rights Act”, which will ultimately serve Trump and Co’s political interests at the expense of the Hong Kong masses. Others, given their isolation, resort to so-called “valiant struggles” through increasingly daring skirmishes with the police, which given the current balance of forces is unfortunately unable to win the day, despite the fact that the masses still passively sympathise with these activities.
The responsibility for this state of affairs rests on the shoulders of the aforementioned “left-wing” leaders as well as the HKCTU. The latter refused to join a widespread call for a general strike on 11 November, to which it could have provided leadership, which caused desperate youth protesters to resort to damaging railways, throwing things into highways and other means to force a work stoppage in Hong Kong. These activities did not produce any work stoppages, but led to the violent police siege of student protesters in the Chinese University of Hong Kong and more recently the Polytechnic University. What is needed is an approach that can draw in the participation of the broader masses, which could easily overwhelm the police.
Police and protesters - at Hong Kong Polytechnic University pic.twitter.com/S7sfCC8I8D— Karen Lam (@Karen35429261) November 20, 2019
Instead of standing on the sidelines or tail-ending the bourgeois liberal demands, organisations such as HKCTU and the Labour Party, as well as figures such as Jimmy Sham, should organise strike meetings in workplaces throughout Hong Kong that can work towards a genuine general strike, which would not only fight for the Five Democratic Demands, but social ones such as raising of minimum wage, reducing work hours without loss in pay, and immediate expropriation of the real estates of the Hong Kong tycoons for a genuine, universal, low-cost housing programme. Universal suffrage can only be won through revolutionary means. Mass meetings should be organised throughout Hong Kong as a means to organise the masses to establish their own democratic power, rather than waiting for the LegCo under Beijing’s leadership to grant such a right from above, which they will not do. Such mass meetings in local areas and workplaces should elect delegates to a higher body that will link up all the local struggles, organise the movement and pose a democratic alternative to the regime itself.
The picture is clear: the Carrie Lam regime and the CCP that backs it can only be defeated with the overthrow of capitalism not only in Hong Kong, but in China as a whole. The power of the Hong Kong government rests entirely upon the power of Beijing. The power of Beijing is backed by the capitalists of China as a whole, because Beijing defends capitalism and represses the working class. Its defeat requires the expansion of the democratic demands restricted to Hong Kong into social ones, i.e. demands that can connect with the exploited Chinese masses that toil under the same conditions. Only by actively struggling with the mainland Chinese working classes on a socialist programme can we effectively end the woes of the Hong Kong people once and for all.