An Umbrella Revolution?

"Hong Kong Add Oil" Image courtesy of
"Su Li Zhen Pays a Visit" Image courtesy of
By Lynn Koh
Oct 15, 2014

Thoughts on Hong Kong.  (I wish to thank Timmy Lu and Lucia Lin for their ideas and analysis)

Few actions could have been more brazen than the government's cancellation of talks last week with representatives of the Hong Kong Student Federation, one of the leaders of the weeks-long democracy movement.  The movement, which has been calling for the resignation of the city's current Chief Executive and free elections for the next one in 2017, had agreed to remove its street blockades last Monday as a condition for the talks.  As soon as 'business as usual' was largely restored in the city's economic districts -- with the thousands of occupiers dwindling to hundreds -- the administration declared that it, too, was returning to business as usual, under the pretext that organizers announced that their protests would continue.

Hong Kong's democracy movement now faces determined police repression, which will try to forcibly remove the protestors, as well as groups of violent counter-protestors, likely organized by the government.  We don't know how things will turn out, but as my partner remarked, this is a historical moment a generation in the making.  Marie Choi has done a great interview with a young HK activist here.  Along with other Chinese American organizers, I visited Hong Kong in 2012 to meet with organizers as part of the China Exposure and Education Project (CEEP). Here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to understand the events there.

1) HK Inequality -- off the hook. 

It's no coincidence that one of the key groups in the movement has called itself 'Occupy Central', a reference to the movement for economic equality that exploded in 2011.  Hong Kong is a hugely unequal city -- possibly the most unequal large city -- in terms of wealth and income, a kind of ground zero for neoliberalism in East Asia.  Until recently, Hong Kong had no minimum wage, and collective bargaining is still not a governmentally protected right.  Migrant domestic workers -- from the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, and mainland China -- are carved out from benefit guarantees that the rest of the workforce enjoys.  Just before our trip, the government had just cracked down on 'cage' housing -- which is, terribly, just what it sounds like.

2) Democracy and Social Justice -- Distinct but related. 

A simple left-right spectrum does not typically help in understanding political positions in the context of China; rather, it's a little better to think in terms of two axes:  a pro or anti-democracy axis, and a pro or anti-social justice axis.  One can be a neoliberal democrat, or an anti-capitalist that is not directly oppositional to the CCP regime.

Demands for labor rights, migrant rights, and social justice have not been at the forefront of this movement.  In fact, pro-democracy sentiment coexists alongside other, not-so-progressive ideas, including crude equations of anti-capitalism with authoritarianism.

But when the current of history bursts through the dam, who would swim against it?  Grassroots organizers in Hong Kong -- whether in the union movement, housing rights movement, or in anti-gentrification or anti-land-grab struggles -- have all thrown themselves into the thick of the movement.  They all see representative democracy as strategically central to their movements.  The Chinese government's strategy has, broadly speaking, been to maintain a section of the wealthy business elite as the city's ruling class.  Representative democracy would, theoretically, reduce their grip over the life of the citizens.

Beyond that, actions like the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union's call for a mass strike -- answered by thousands -- has been crucial in making sure that economic justice is still in the mix of visions clamoring to define just what full democracy might mean.

3) Prospects

Occupy Central is facing a government well-versed in the theory and practice of repression.  And it may be that a popular victory will remain elusive so long as movements in the city and those on the mainland remain separate.  But protesters can count on a widespread conviction among Hong Kong citizens in the justice of their key demands.  Moreover, Hong Kong is central to China's economic strategy.  As the financial community has reminded us here, it is the economic bridge between China and the world:  hub of four-fifths of all trade denominated in yuan, and of the largest international reserves of yuan.  If China aims to challenge the dollar as the international currency, it would be hard-pressed to do it without some kind of political stability in Hong Kong.  Whether that stability is won for the regime by pepper spray, tear gas, and violence, or by rapprochement with the Hong Kong people, remains to be seen.

Reflections on my trip with the CEEP crew are here and here.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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