We need a game plan
Protest politics always reach their limits and eventually fizzle out, argues Paul Demarty.
Protests in Hong Kong have lost none of their force in the last week; the international press is full of images both of innumerable bodies crammed into streets and invaded buildings, and of the increasingly violent police response.
The police have now hit on the technique of going undercover within the teeming crowds and snatching people at the last moment. Add to this clear cooperation with organised criminals, grotesque tear-gas attacks and much else besides, and it is no surprise that tensions are increasing across the board. The language of official statements gets more threatening every day. Yet still they hold back, and the Chinese ‘nuclear option’ of deploying the army remains for the moment just a possibility.
The protestors’ tactics have so far been successful in causing an almighty ruckus. It amounts to a decentralised wave of flash-mob protests, which disorient the police and leave them often with no obvious ringleader to arrest (some have pointed out the contrast with the previous Occupy Central movement, whose most prominent figures were quickly rounded up). On August 12 and 13, another great success was chalked up for this approach, with the shutdown of the city’s airport - no small matter for the capitalist jet-setters, who govern so much of the region’s economy. This is on top of a short general strike last week.
If the general character of the protests remains the same, the most relevant model in recent years would appear to be the gilets jaunes in France; like the Hong Kong protestors, the French movement was politically heterogeneous, displayed considerable courage in facing down the state response, and brought into action substantial sections of the popular classes.
The result, ultimately, was that the movement fizzled out. You cannot just protest forever, as has been shown by countless movements (the anti-war upsurge in this country against the invasion of Iraq is another example): eventually, the numbers shrink, and the mood passes.
This may in the end be the best explanation for the relative non-interference of the Chinese state so far in the crisis of this semi-detached city-region. Though the government has made an ominous show of moving troop carriers to nearby Shenzhen, Beijing’s tactic to date has been to offer discreet material support and diplomatic protection for the local regime of chief executive Carrie Lam, as the Hong Kong police try to retain some tenuous level of control. So long as the movement remains contained within the region, and so long as the police maintain their discipline, there is little reason to send in the People’s Liberation Army, to make yet another ironic contrast with its name.
So long as those basic conditions hold, moreover, the capitalist elite will be able to proceed with its business, and the political class can afford to wait things out. Those who remain in the movement are ever more faced with unpleasant political choices, and the most obvious option is to simply demobilise, in a state of disillusionment. If that is not taken, then the law of diminishing returns must be countered somehow. Either that means picking up on the ‘next big thing’ and trying to turn that into a mass movement too (this is the method of the far left in most countries), or moving from the particular to the general, and programmatically addressing a wider variety of issues as an interlinked whole.
Regular readers of this paper will not be surprised to discover that we favour the third - but it is worth pointing out that the three options are in ascending order of difficulty. It is always easy, in all but the most paranoid state regimes, to slide back into ordinary life, to go home and dig one’s garden. It is a tough job to get the momentum up again on some other single issue. But it is far harder to step out of the framework of ‘mass protest for its own sake’; for to address politics in general is inherently divisive.
Up until now, the Hong Kong demonstrators have not had to confront the profound contradictions within their movement. Comrade Lam Chi Leung, writing in Socialist Worker last week, actually illustrates this very nicely, in relation to the key question of mainland China:
Some demonstrators have realised that they need to unite with the masses on the Chinese mainland. They distribute leaflets to tourists from mainland China to explain the purpose and significance of the mass movement. However, there are also weaknesses in the mass movement, [including] a far-right threat.
Individual demonstrators sprayed “Chink” outside the Liaison Office government building. Since mid-July, the slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong - revolution of our times”, became popular among the demonstrators. The slogan was derived from the far-right political group, Hong Kong Indigenous [who promote] a form of ‘ethnic discrimination’ against mainland Chinese residents and new immigrants from China. But, at present, it is unclear how the majority of young people who embrace this slogan interpret its meaning.1
This is just one of the hairline cracks in the Hong Kong protests; others could rapidly be found, dividing separatists from colonial-nostalgists, far-leftists from religious reactionaries, and so on. The particular form the movement has taken, however, makes this turn even more difficult; for the refusal to centralise - to adopt leadership and normalise political structures - prevents the movement from taking a healthy course of explicit political differentiation; the problem is deferred and, the longer it is deferred, the more likely the movement is to shatter into incoherent fragments, rather than divide into meaningful political blocs.
For Marxists, as Lam implies above, the first important limitation of the movement as it stands is its constrained geographical horizon. The denial of democracy in Hong Kong is not a phenomenon in itself, but rather part of the wider phenomenon of Stalinist-capitalist dictatorship in China as a whole. A principled stance on this immediately implies a taking of distance from the sort of narrow-minded chauvinism of Hong Kong Indigenous and the like. It also, however, implies a political break with those forces who have faith in the hegemonic imperialist bloc of the United States and its allies, who are perfectly happy to break apart ‘problematic’ regimes by tactically supporting separatist groups and other methods.
The other problem is to restore the association of democracy with socialism - no small difficulty in Hong Kong or mainland China, for obvious reasons. In the defunct Stalinist countries of the eastern bloc, the political hegemony of ‘communist’ parties was enough to make this impossible and guarantee that popular rebellion would take a reactionary, pro-capitalist form; however, there are signs - from periodic waves of labour unrest to the revival of ultra-Maoist ideology among students - that China has travelled far enough along the road to capitalism for things to turn out differently. Perhaps a healthier Marxist politics could emerge; and perhaps Hong Kong, with its generally greater level of political liberty, could serve as an unlikely ‘red base’ for such a politics.
But without a programme for China, the left wing of the Hong Kong movement is unlikely to prevail - either over its competitors for influence in the city streets, or over the party bosses in Beijing.