Hong Kong: the fight for genuine universal suffrage

Three years after the Occupy Wall Street Movement spread out from Manhattan to several major cities all over the world, the Occupy Central movement has begun, earlier than planned on 26th September, after a couple of years of discussions and demonstrations, with the declaration of an “era of civil disobedience”. Prior to this, students from 25 universities and various schools joined a one-week strike called by the Hong Kong Federation of Students on 22nd September, which served as the ‘final warning to the regime’.

Occupy Central, the students’ strike

Both movements call for genuine universal suffrage for the elections of the chief executive and the Legislative Council (LegCo), which was refused recently by the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Instead of the proposal of public nomination for the chief executive elections from 2017 onwards put forward by various groups, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced that all candidates must first be approved by a nomination committee of political and economic elites, most of whom will be directly selected by Beijing.

In reaction to this, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the activist group which previously had threatened to organise thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyse Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments did not agree to implement universal suffrage to “international standards”, now has to take action. Despite the disagreement between organisers on whether they have failed and what the next step should be, Occupy Central organised marches on 31st August and 14th September, in order “to tell the world how the Hong Kong people have been betrayed”. And it was planning to organise the occupation on 1st October.

Impatient with the wavering of the Occupy Central movement, students decided to take a bolder step forward. The student union present at the Chinese University of Hong Kong announced a strike. And on 4th September – the date of a students’ rally – the University of Hong Kong’s student union issued the “Declaration of Students’ Strike”, calling for the public to be allowed to nominate candidates in 2017 and for all LegCo members to be directly elected in 2016 (even four years earlier than Occupy Central’s proposal). Later, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) called for a one-week strike starting on 22nd September, which 25 universities have decided to join, and followed by a number of schools.

The government has refused to negotiate with the students, and is currently meeting their demands with brutal repression from the police. As we have so often seen elsewhere, such brutality has served only to gain the students wide support from all layers of society, especially from the working class. Not only have almost 120,000 people come onto the streets to support the students, despite the danger of tear gas and rubber bullets, but crucially the HK Confederation of Trade Unions and HK Professional Teachers’ Union called for a strike on 29th to support the students’ fight for universal suffrage!

2017 election

In the Hong Kong Basic Law, which has served as the mini-constitution for Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, Article 45 and Article 68 respectively indicate the ultimate aim of the selection of the Chief Executive and all the members of the LegCo by universal suffrage. Currently, Hong Kong’s chief executive is elected by a 1200 member election committee, the majority of which are considered as pro-Beijing. And for the LegCo, 40 members out of 70 are elected by popular vote, but 30 are elected by 28 constituencies made up of professionals, businesspeople and corporations.

Pro-democratic groups have been fighting for genuine universal suffrage for both chief executive and LegCo elections. The original target was to achieve it in 2007-8, which was then moved to 2012 as the previous target failed. In 2007, the National People’s Congress again refused the demand to implement universal suffrage in 2012, but raised the hope that the Chief Executive will be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, and then followed by the LegCo election later. However, on August 31st, the target was missed again, as the National People’s Congress Standing Committee put forward the plan of “universal suffrage” with screening of candidates by a nomination committee.

It might surprise many people that Hong Kong, the global financial centre, has never had full democracy. Ironically, Britain, the mother of parliamentary democracy, gave Hong Kong almost no democracy for most of its 155 years of rule. It was not until 1982, when Britain and China had started negotiations on Hong Kong’s sovereignty, that the colonial government decided to start the process of democratisation. In 1982, there was major reform in the Urban Council election to increase elected seats and to fully extend the electoral base, as well as the first ever local election. In 1985, the first ever indirect election of the LegCo was held, but in a very limited manner[1].

After the issue of the Sino-Britain Joint Declaration, the colonial government sped up the democratic process in order to retreat gracefully. In 1991, directly elected seats were introduced to the LegCo Election. In 1992, the newly appointed governor Chris Patten put forward a reform proposal for the 1995 LegCo election. The 1995 LegCo was supposed to work until 1998, i.e. after 1997’s return. In the proposal, he extended the definition of functional constituencies, which were previously selected mostly by powerful business elites, and thus made the so-called indirectly elected members to be virtually directly elected. Meanwhile, he also proposed to abolish all appointed seats on the District Boards and Municipal Councils. This was welcomed by the pro-democracy camp, but opposed by the pro-business faction and the Chinese government. In the end, Beijing appointed the Provisional Legislative Council to replace the Legislative Council elected in 1995, and reversed most of Patten’s reform.

The Democratic Movement in Hong Kong

Since the 1980s, the democratic movement has been the dominant movement in Hong Kong. At first glance, it seems that this all started because the British were about to leave, and the Hong Kong people were for the first time able to take charge of Hong Kong. The aforementioned democratic reform from the British, and the promise of democracy from the Chinese government, appeared to open up the best opportunity for the democratic movement.

However, if we take a closer look, Hong Kong’s democratic movement took off only after the working class and the left movements declined. In 1967, as the Cultural Revolution was taking place in mainland China, the accumulated anger in Hong Kong also found an expression in strikes, conflicts, later general strikes and demonstrations led by the Hong Kong communists, which greatly threatened the British ruling class. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong communists mistakenly went down the path of terrorist tactics, and the movement was eventually crushed. Although the British ruling class was forced to make a series of concessions and reforms in labour, local administration, education, healthcare and housing, etc., the left forces were largely destroyed, and the nightmare of violence pushed the majority of the Hong Kong people away from left ideas.

In the 1970s, after the workers’ movement declined, the student movement took off. Involved in the defence of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and inspired by the Cultural Revolution, the majority of radicalised Hong Kong youth took a pro-mainland China position. Although it made some class demands, it was mainly limited to a nationalist point of view. There was a small opposition who oriented themselves towards more direct social issues in Hong Kong. But they were very loose and consisted of different groups, the majority of which took a one-sided anti-Communist Party and anti-China position. The bitter end of the Cultural Revolution and the turn towards capitalism completely disappointed the radicalised youth, and the student movement went into a low ebb.

After the global economic crisis in the 1980s, Hong Kong experienced a boom. The expansion of the public sector, and the opportunities created by the transfer of power, gave Hong Kong very high social mobility. In the meantime, the fear of Communist rule also triggered another wave of mass emigration in the 1980s. Under such circumstances, there were few class-based movements, and therefore the democratic movement became very visible.

Right from the beginning, the pan-democracy camp consisted of various groups with different political views and class backgrounds. But it is and was dominated by liberals, middle-class professionals, mainly lawyers, and some social workers and social activists. They first participated in the District Board, Urban Council, Regional Council elections in the early 1980s, and the LegCo elections in the mid-1980s. And they took the position of “democracy after the handover” (民主回归), i.e. welcomed the handover as the first step to fight for universal suffrage.

The pan-democrats did not gain massive support from the masses until the outbreak of the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989. During the movement, a 12-hour-long fund-raising concert was organised in Hong Kong, and around 1.5 million people (1/4 of the total population) came on to the streets in support of the students. After the crushing of the movement, anti-Beijing and anti-CCP politics became one of the main elements of the democratic movement.

Despite the participation of some trade unions and left groups such as the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the pan-democratic camp in general limits itself to the question of electoral democracy, and rarely touches upon the monopoly of power and the economic system behind the Beijing government and the CCP, let alone providing solutions to the economic problems people are facing every day.

This is particularly clear in the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign for universal suffrage. In April, Tai Yiu Ting, who initiated the campaign, published an article in a newspaper titled “What kind of capitalism does Hong Kong want?”, in which he appealed to the Hong Kong capitalists, saying that “universal suffrage is the way out for the local capitalists”. When the People’s Congress put forward the plan, Tai quickly announced the failure of the whole campaign, a statement which was criticised by other organisers. As they are now forced to carry out the movement of occupation (having threatened it if universal suffrage was not granted), Tai reassured the capitalists that “Occupy Central will choose a date to minimise possible economic damage to the city”.

The firm alliance of the CCP and the Hong Kong capitalists

However, what Tai and his followers chose not to see is the fact that even in the early 1990s before the handover, the Hong Kong capitalists were standing firmly with the CCP against Chris Patten’s electoral reform, and joined the Provisional Legislative Council organised by the CCP to replace the elected Legislative Council where the pan-democratic camp dominated. That is to say, from the very beginning, the Hong Kong capitalists have been one of the major forces against democratic reform.

Capitalists are not always supporters of democracy. As shown in many colonial countries, they would not hesitate to adopt authoritarian political systems insofar as this enhanced their freedom to exploit and therefore to make profits. Hong Kong is just one more example of this. What the local capitalists are interested in is to make sure their interests will not be affected by the handover process. And since the early 1990s, this firm alliance has guaranteed them not only pro-capitalist policies in Hong Kong such as low taxation, anti-labour laws and a protected electoral system, but also access to the vast market and the cheap labour of Mainland China. On the other hand, capital from the Mainland is also able to enter Hong Kong in cooperation with local capital.

Today, it would be naïve to think that the capitalists would change their position, as they have been and are still benefitting from the alliance with the CCP. Given the turbulence of world capitalism, they are even more worried about any change of the status quo. And so is the CCP. Wang Zhenmin, dean of Tsinghua University Law School and a top adviser on Hong Kong to the Beijing government, expressed with great honesty that “too much democracy would threaten the interests of economic elites as well as the capitalist system of Hong Kong—and suggested that this was to be avoided at all costs”.

On the contrary to Tai’s wishes, the local capitalists not only welcomed Beijing’s decision, but also condemned the Occupy Central movement. Yiu Kai Pang, chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, expressed the concern that Occupying Central “will not only affect Hong Kong’s social order and economic prosperity, but also undermine our position as an international business and financial hub.” HSBC also warned that Occupy could hurt the economy as it downgraded the outlook for the city’s stock market.

What is more, after the breakout of the students’ strike, a group of business tycoons were invited to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing. In the meeting, Xi reiterated the position of the central government and confirmed with them that the decision of the People’s Congress would not change.

The change of consciousness

This kind of condemnation, which has always worked in past decades, has lost its effect since the dockworkers’ strike. And HSBC had almost immediately to retract its warning as it caused such public outrage. This shows how consciousness has changed over the last few years, and this also is what particularly makes the capitalists and the Beijing government afraid of making changes to the electoral system.

There is deep anger within Hong Kong society over the current situation. The economic growth has not benefitted the majority of Hong Kong’s population. The median monthly salary only rose 15.8% from 1996 to 2011, whereas inflation has been 15.5%. Meanwhile, they are facing exorbitant housing prices in what is the world’s second-most expensive real estate market, and extremely high costs to raise a child (at an average of USD $700,000). The graduates are facing a daunting job market and harsh working conditions if they are lucky enough to find a job. Moreover, Hong Kong still does not have a universal state pension.

For the poor, the situation is even worse. The average gross household income of the poorest 10 percent of the population fell 16 percent to HK$2170 a month in 2011 compared to ten years earlier. Not until 2010 did Hong Kong have a minimum wage, which is at the low standard of HK$28 per hour (approximately USD$3.60). 20 percent of the population in this economic powerhouse now lives below the poverty line. Hong Kong’s labour law is extremely backward. And the powerful employers have made every effort to derail proposed legislation and prevented the workers gaining collective bargaining rights.

At the other end there is obscene wealth. The richest 10 percent has seen a 12 percent increase of their income in the last 10 years in real terms. In 2012, the number of millionaires in the city rose 35.7 percent to 114,000, around 1.6% of the total population. Hong Kong is home to the four richest men in Asia. The wealthiest, Li Ka-shing, is ranked the richest person in China and the eighth richest person in the world with an estimated wealth of £20billion. Hong Kong people sometimes make a joke with his name that “Hong Kong is Li’s city”. This has many elements of truth in it. In 2013, 40 monopolies dominated 69% of Hong Kong’s GDP. In many industries closely linked to people’s everyday life, such as fast food, telecommunications, transport and retail (of food, alcohol and tobacco), more than half of the revenue goes to the top ten enterprises.

As a result, Hong Kong in 2011 had a Gini coefficient of 0.537, increased from 0.525 in 2001 and reaching a record high since 1971, which makes it perhaps the most unequal developed economy in the world. Remember that the 0.4 level is used by analysts as a gauge of potential for social unrest. Hong Kong recently crushed the competition and came in first in The Economist’s “crony-capitalism index”.

In this world’s so-called “freest” economy, there is a seething anger over inequality and lack of social mobility. The anger found its expression in the large turnout for 1 July (Tiananmen) marches in 2003 and 2011-2014. More importantly, it found its expression in the massive support of the dockworkers’ strike in May 2013, after a series of anti-real estate tycoon and anti-authoritarian movements such as the protection movement of Star Ferry Pier (2006) and Queen Pier (2007), and Anti-High Speed Rail Movement (2010).

Among all the movements, the dockworkers’ strike is a huge step forward in the consciousness of the masses in Hong Kong, as it is the first time since 1967 that the labour movement has received widespread support from society. And it shows the potential of the working class in Hong Kong to lead the fight against the economic and political monopoly of big business, and to link this fight with the fight of the working class in mainland China.

This is what the local capitalists and the Chinese Central Government are afraid of most. The electoral reform may give the working class struggle a new opportunity to express itself politically and thus to further unite the anger among the masses towards big business. What the Chinese Central Government is especially afraid of is that this will become an example for Mainland China, as there is a shared anger over inequality, economic monopoly and political dictatorship. This worry is to a certain extent proved by the awakening of the movement in Macau, such as the unofficial ballot of Macau’s political future and the dealers’ demonstration inspired by Hong Kong earlier, and now the solidarity movement among Chinese/Hongkongese students in Taiwan and all over the world.

Unfortunately, however, Hong Kong’s democratic movement has carefully maintained a distance from the working class struggle, and has avoided raising the real issues that concern the masses. The pan-democrats limit themselves to the fight for electoral democracy. They were almost completely absent from the dockworkers’ strike, and raised such slogans as “down with developer hegemony”, “no collusion between business and government”, “government to the people, improve people’s livelihood” merely as a way of promoting the concept of a clean, pluralist democracy.

This shows the weakness of the liberals. They only want democracy under capitalism. With this as their goal, they have illusions in the local capitalists. They cannot understand that to sustain capitalism with such inequality, the capitalists need this undemocratic political system. They even have illusions in the bureaucrats in the Central Government, thinking that their threat with “peace and love” can make them bow. On the other hand, they are more than frightened to be associated with the left. They make their best efforts not to touch upon the anger towards big business, let alone to link with the working class movement. Thus they have reached the present difficult situation, which the Chinese call “if you ride a tiger, you will find it hard to get off”. They were embarrassed and devastated by the fact that their request has been refused for the third time, and have been forced to take the direct action of which they are so afraid. Without the students who took bold action, they were afraid that not as many people as expected would turn up to their movement. Now, in awe of the social reaction to the students’ strike, they hastily came out to announce the launch of the Occupy Central four days earlier than their previous plan.

Student pioneers and the escalation of the movement

Students, as seen in many historical precedents, have jumped over the heads of the weak liberals and have taken the lead of the movement. On 22nd September, students from universities and colleges started the strike. On the same day, more than 13,000 participated in a demonstration. As CY Leung, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, did not engage with the students in dialogue within 48 hours as demanded by them, around 4,000 people participated in an unauthorised rally towards the Government House in order to “seek for” Leung. On 26th, around 1,500 school students also joined the strike, in spite of immense pressure from their schools and families.

That night, after the assembly of thousands of students, around 50 students decided to take back the Civic Square attached to the government’s quarters, which is considered as a focal point of protests in Hong Kong, but had been shuttered since July. This led to the arrest of 61 students, including Alex Chow – the secretary of HKFS, and Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old convener of Scholarism, another main student activist group who organised the strike. A further 30 students were injured. And the occupation of the Civic Square was declared illegal, and therefore threatened by police repression.

The arrest of students and the reaction from the government has added fuel to the fire. As police tried to close roads surrounding the area and urging demonstrators to go home, the number of demonstrators swelled from hundreds to thousands and to tens of thousands! Many of them came dressed in ponchos and eye protectors, which means that they are prepared to fight against the pepper spray and even tear gas of the police. The police then used teargas and rubber bullets intensively to disperse the demonstrators, and actually displayed banners saying “we will use real bullets if the demonstrators don’t leave”! But this only stirred up more anger and more determination. More than 120,000 people came out on to the streets at the peak of the protest despite the threat of tear gas and rubber bullets!

HKFS then announced that they would organize a full-scale student strike across Hong Kong if the government failed to respond to the four-point demands, and appealed to the workers and small businesses to organize a strike for today (29th September). Their four demands include: to re-open Tim Mei Road and the Civic Square; Chief Executive Leaung Chun-Ying to step down; the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to withdraw the August 31 Announcement; to include public nomination for the election.

This quickly gained support among teachers and workers. The HK Professional Teachers’ Union called for a strike to start on 29th in support of students and to condemn the HK government and police. And the HK Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), which was the main union behind the dockworkers’ strike and the recent lifeguards’ strike, also called for all workers in Hong Kong to strike on 29th, in protest at the People’s Congress decision, as well as the brutal suppression of peaceful protests by the Hong Kong government.

The student strike has not only drawn in a whole new layer of radicalised youth, but has also injected new energy into the democratic movement. Seeing the students had created the momentum of a mass movement which the liberals could not imagine, Tai announced the early launch of the Occupy Central Movement on 27th. But the students have no faith in them. A couple of quotes from a recent interview with student leaders are very telling: “now Occupy is only following the students” and “it’s been more than a year [since Occupy Central was put forward] but nothing has happened”. It is particularly encouraging to see that the students are actively turning towards the working class, and the trade unions are consciously building up solidarity with the students! 25 years after the Tiananmen Square movement, the students have learned an important lesson from their precursors.

The way forward

The escalation of the movement over the weekend has transformed the democratic movement into a mass movement. As HKCTU has called for a general strike in support of the students, workers have now seized the baton from the students. Previously, the workers were not attracted by the democratic movement because of the limitation of its democratic demands. Now the workers have come out, mainly as a reaction to the violent police repression and in support of the students.

There is enormous potential to bring the movement onto a higher level. In the process of organising the general strike, the Hong Kong working class will put the strength and experiences they gained from the previous struggles into use, achieve higher levels of organisation and unity, and increase their consciousness through discussions and struggles against repression. If the general strike successfully takes place, it would be the first political strike in decades, which would not only enable the working class to see the power they have in their hands, but also to pose the question of power to the capitalists and bureaucrats both in Hong Kong and in Mainland China.

To make this potential possible, it is important that this fight should be directly linked to the fight for better pay, better working conditions, better labour laws, etc. As we have explained above, what the capitalists and governments in Hong Kong and Mainland China are afraid of is not the students or liberals, but rather the immense working class, in Hong Kong and in Mainland China. What they are refusing is not just the democratic rights, but rather any possible opportunity for the working class struggle to find a political expression and further unite the anger among the masses towards them. That is why the working class must lead this fight.

And for Hong Kong workers, this fight for genuine universal suffrage, which they have taken over from the students, is just the very beginning. As shown in Taiwan, the US and many other examples of so-called democratic regimes in the world, electoral democracy cannot solve the problems they are angry about, i.e. inequality, expensive housing, lack of jobs and the inability of ordinary people to have a voice in politics. Without the power to make decisions in the economy, it is not possible for the masses to truly control society. Therefore, the only way to guarantee they can have their voice in economics and politics is through socialism – a planned and democratically controlled economy.

Another urgent task for the workers is to overcome the weakness of the current movement in linking to the working class and youth in Mainland China. While the movement is seeking solidarity all over the world, it has neglected building unity with people in Mainland China, which in fact should be at the top of their agenda. This is partly due to the difficulty in the objective conditions, as all the reports about the Hong Kong movement are censored and distorted, and for a period even the mobile connections with Hong Kong was cut off.

But this also reflects the nationalistic element within the movement. The recent decision of the People’s Congress has been seen by many Hong Kong people as the final bankruptcy of the idea of “democracy after the handover” and the total betrayal of the central government of the promise of universal suffrage in the Basic Law. This gives room to the recent upsurge of nationalism in Hong Kong, especially among the youth. The most extreme case is the Hong Kong independence movement, which promotes the false and reactionary idea that Hong Kong would be better off under British colonial rule.

Nationalism can also be seen in the confused use of “anti-colonisation” as one of the main slogans in the statement of HKFS calling for a student strike. What they mean by “colonisation” is the system in which there is strong collusion between business and government and high inequality, and in which the masses are excluded from politics. This is not ‘colonisation’, but rather the particular form of capitalism in China.

In Mainland China, people are suffering from the same collusion between business and government, the same high levels of inequality, the same exclusion of the masses from politics as those in Hong Kong; indeed they have even less freedom and rights! The working class and the youth across the border are equally, if not more, disgusted with the same system and are prepared to fight. And when they rise up, the capitalists and the CCP will tremble in fear. Only then will it be possible to make a change to this system in Mainland China and Hong Kong.

The movement in Hong Kong now may serve as a spark to light up the movements in the Mainland. That is why the media there are exploiting the nationalist elements in the Hong Kong movement in order to alienate it from the people in Mainland China. Therefore, the working class and youth in Hong Kong needs to consciously and constantly fight against nationalism in the movement, to appeal to the workers and students across the strait to join the fight against the same capitalists and this oppressive capitalist system.

The “era of civil disobedience” in Hong Kong has come with the heroic actions taken by the students. The Hong Kong working class has now entered the stage, and is about to play the leading role. The fight for universal suffrage is only the beginning of the fight against this system and for a genuine workers’ democracy.

  • In solidarity with Hong Kong students and workers!
  • For genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong! Full democratic rights in Mainland China!
  • For the unity of the youth and the working class in Hong Kong and in Mainland China on the basis of a socialist programme!
  • For a genuine workers’ democracy! For Socialism!


[1] 12 members elected by the Electoral Colleges which consists of all members of the District Boards, the Urban Council and the new Regional Council; 12 by the Functional Constituencies which are mostly selected by the powerful elite groups; 4 official members and 22 appointed by the Governor.