The political crisis in Hong Kong needs to be seen in the context of global politics, argues Paul Demarty.
Despite escalating repression, mass protests continue in Hong Kong.
‘Mass’ is really the right word - participants number in the hundreds of thousands, with the total population of the ‘special administrative region’ a little over seven million. Clearly the insurrectionary mood reaches far into the popular classes, making the situation very difficult both for the local authorities and the Chinese government in Beijing. The police response is ‘robust’ by contemporary British standards, with tear gas widely deployed, along with rubber bullets. More ominously, there are numerous reports of extra-state violence, including two hit-and-run attacks on August 5 - which may very well be indirectly state-backed Triad gangs, or provocations by less pleasant elements of the anti-Beijing milieu. Either way, these are certainly not individuals acting spontaneously.
Repeated invasions of the Legislative Council chamber, and the disappearance of chief executive office Carrie Lam from public life in the last couple of weeks, gave the impression that the region is becoming ungovernable. Lam reappeared on Monday to declare that the city was on the brink of a “dangerous situation”, as a general strike added to her woes.
That said, there are possible escalations that may yet happen - most particularly the deployment of the army and even Tiananmen Square-style massacres. Certainly, Xi Jinping and his government seem inclined to tough it out for now; but we cannot imagine that Xi, who has brought a rougher, nationalist edge to the Chinese Communist Party leadership, cannot be provoked into a more savage approach to the problem.
The immediate trigger for the current wave of protests was an amendment to the law which would allow extraditions to the mainland (and to Taiwan, but that presumably is not the issue). Lam presented it to the legislative council for approval and permitted no amendments except (surprise!) one that excluded financial crimes from the list, in order to reassure the ‘business community’. This is only one of many drip-drip attempts to harmonise the Hong Kong regime with the rest of China, in the two decades or so since its handover from Britain to the People’s Republic.
This brings us, inevitably, to the complicated back-story to all this excitement. Hong Kong was lost to Britain by the Qing dynasty as a result of the opium wars - if not the bloodiest exploit of British imperialism, surely notable for being nakedly discreditable in motive (irritated by strong state control of trade in China, the British made a point of flooding the country with cheap opium, causing a social crisis that provoked a war the Chinese could not possibly have won).
With a few additions in the area, Hong Kong remained in British hands - except for a short period of Japanese rule during World War II - until 1997, when a 99-year lease on much of its territory in the region was due to expire. It was agreed in the 1980s to make the handover, as China began its integration into the global capitalist economy, with a series of compromises that would guarantee the city’s political autonomy and liberal economic regime for at least 50 years.
Having agreed all this, the British set about poisoning the chalice. Hong Kong had never been democratically governed. It was a British colony. It was administered by officials appointed in London. Outbreaks of dissent were quelled in the usual manner. Now, a series of commitments to more democratic functioning were lined up - conveniently timed so that they would have to be implemented by the new Chinese rulers. Thus, beyond the quite inevitable tensions raised by Beijing’s takeover - of a city with a not insubstantial population of refugees from the mainland - further ones were built into the system from the get-go. The result is the bizarre, ‘neither fish nor fowl’ constitutional arrangements currently in place, which are supposed to be ‘tidied up’ in future - the old British governor is replaced with a CEO appointed by the central government. Meanwhile, the legislative council is only partly elected by suffrage: the rest consists of various sectional representatives of capital, plus a desultory brace of representatives for the labour movement.
When a protestor in the region demands democracy, then, there is little enough to object to prima facie. Hong Kong has been traded like a Pokémon card, and the natural human aspiration to self-government denied by both the old colonial masters and the Stalinist regime in Beijing, in accordance with the basic character of both. Our very own Socialist Worker - never a paper to look a gift horse in the mouth - took much the same attitude, when its correspondent, Sadie Robinson, having provided much the same reminder of the imperial history as we have above, declared that “protestors should look to their own power to win real democracy in Hong Kong”.1
To invoke the protestors’ “own power” is to pose the question of the concrete politics of the movement, so far as it can be surmised. That is no easy task in such a case as this, with a great heterogeneity of forces swept up in it. There are western-friendly liberals, as demonstrated by the American, British and EU flags on display. There are, oddly enough, separatists: there has never been anything like a nation in Hong Kong, but clearly some see one coming into being. There are far-leftists and far-rightists; there are well-meaning priests; all human life is here, so far as it has a difference of opinion with the Chinese government.
Mostly absent from the movement is the bourgeoisie, who seem instead to be divided between those who think the protestors should be bought off and those who think they should be crushed. Britain spent as much energy as it did writing political cheques for Beijing to cash because it suited the American geopolitical apparatus to have a financial centre politically within China - to some extent, but effectively under the control of the west. Paradoxically, however, that has also worked out quite nicely for the Chinese elite, the question being whether the ease of laundering corrupt gains outweighs the political cost. Xi, who is happy to get up ‘anti-corruption’ jacqueries against his enemies, has a somewhat different view of that equation from that of his predecessors; but the status quo ante, so far as Hong Kong’s financial elite is concerned, is cosiness between the city and the mainland.
That, at least, was the status quo ante 2016; the wild card in the situation surely consists in the political situation the far side of the Pacific, with Sino-American relations deteriorating rapidly under the Trump doctrine of reversing imperial decline by upping the exploitation of friend and foe alike. Last week, the US president announced a new wave of tariffs on Chinese industrial goods; a subsequent devaluation of the yuan was seized upon on Monday by treasury secretary Tim Mnuchin as a pretext for formally accusing China of currency manipulation, as Trump has asserted for years. The response of the Chinese state is bullish, in formal terms - “a drowning man will clutch at a straw, but he should never blame the others for his own awkward situation,” declared the People’s Daily - but the outcome of this farrago is radically uncertain, and in reality out of China’s hands anyway. The US has the military might to patrol China’s coast; the US has the reserve currency; the US buys China’s industrial output.
In this context, the idea that the Hong Kong crisis can be resolved to the protestors’ advantage within Hong Kong is utterly illusory, for all the factions of the protestors (and for western cheerleaders like the Socialist Workers Party). For those left-leaning protestrs hoping to spark a wider democratic conflagration, the problem is immediately posed of political action on the mainland - not at some convenient later date. For the colonial-nostalgist supporters of the ‘liberal’ west - and, for that matter, separatists who hope to gain western sponsorship like the Syrian Kurds or some such - there is the problem that the incentives are not aligned. Firstly, Hong Kong is now an integral part of China, a China that has no problem with capitalists, but is seeking to tighten, not loosen its grip (this is reflected in the conservatism of the local bourgeoisie). Secondly, Hong Kong is far less important for China than it once was. When Hong Kong was reunited with the mainland it accounted for 18% of China’s GDP. Now the figure is around 4%. The tail definitely does not wag the dog. Thirdly, China is engaged in a strategic contest with the US. It is hardly going to allow Hong Kong to become a US outpost where it was once a British outpost. Chinese ‘volunteers’ fought the US army to a standstill in the 1950-53 Korean war. Today the People’s Liberation Army is far more powerful and better equipped.
So Hong Kong’s prospects are bound up with those of China. Hence comrade Robinson’s rather dumb case in Socialist Worker for the protestors relying on their own strength is just that, dumb. The same goes for subsequent commentary from the same paper, this time by Lam Chi Leung of the Left21 group:
The strike on Monday is only an initial attempt, and a larger and longer general strike will be launched in the future. At the same time protestors, trade unions, student unions and social movements must combine into a joint action committee to lead the struggle. Through the action committee, the power of the workers and movements will converge. And this would establish the mass self-organisation that can take on the power of the ruling class.2
Such is comrade Lam’s stirring conclusion; but he also assures us that, “unless the Hong Kong police can no longer control the situation by itself, the regime is unlikely to dispatch the army”. Very good: but if there was a “mass self-organisation that can take on the power of the ruling class”, would that not mean precisely that the police had lost control, and now presumably the protestors and strikers would be taking on the full might of the Chinese state? We would perhaps bet on the city’s heterogeneous democracy movement against Triad thugs; but the People’s Liberation Army?
As ever, the spontaneist left imputes to strike action various magic powers; it seems that the importance of the working class in political action is that it can transcend the material reality of its situation merely by not going to work. In reality, a programme for sustained struggle throughout China against the chimerical state-capitalist political regime is needed, in which Hong Kong might function as a base area, as Shanghai did for the infant Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s, but from which it can hardly separate its fate by force of will. Success in that larger endeavour is hardly impossible, but it poses tasks only for the healthier elements of the present movement: pro-capitalist liberals and far-right separatists must be left behind.