Hong Kong – what is going on?
Developments in Hong Kong call for close and careful analysis.
What are the contradictions that have prompted the ten-week disturbance? Where does responsibility lie?
One of the primary considerations is the special status of Hong Kong. Seized by the British as a colony in the First Opium War of 1842 (a prime example of imperialist free trade – in drugs!), the colony reverted to Chinese rule after a handover in 1997. Wisely or not, the Chinese proposed a policy of “one country, two systems” to ease the transition. The policy guaranteed Chinese sovereignty on the one hand, and Hong Kong’s separate economic, political and judicial existence on the other. The policy was guaranteed for 50 years. Two years later, in 1999, the same “one country, two systems” approach was extended to the Portuguese colony of Macau and suggestions were made that it could solve the “Taiwan problem”.
Two decades of state-sponsored capitalism had seen Hong Kong eclipsed economically by China’s Special Economic Zones and cities such as Shenzhen. The introduction of the “one country, two systems” policy placed Hong Kong on life support rather than assisting its reincarnation as a sister to nearby Shenzhen. We have already commented on the class divisions in Hong Kong. It has the largest concentration of High Net-Worth Individuals (HNI) in the world, one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, alongside severe social inequality. In 2016, the richest 10 per cent of households – with a median monthly income of HK$112,450 – earned 44 times more than the poorest 10 per cent making an average of HK$2,560. (1) In the same year, the Gini coefficient – an index from 0 to 1 that measures the wealth gap, with 1 as the widest – for households rose to a record high of 0.539 last year. That was the highest figure since the city began keeping records on income equality 46 years ago. (2) By contrast, China’s Gini coefficient reached an all-time high of 0.491 in 2008 and was reported at 0.467 in Dec 2017 – lower, and therefore less of a gap than Hong Kong’s. (3)
Hong Kong’s trade unions
The contradictions inherent in Hong Kong’s social inequality are mediated by two main trade unions groups, neither of which has a commitment to introducing revolutionary socialist politics into the economic struggles of Hong Kong’s working classes. Both are mired in the bourgeois ideology of trade unionism. Both are represented in the HK Legislative Council.
The oldest, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (410,000 members), established in 1948, has always been politically aligned with the Communist Party of China, struggled against British colonialism during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and organised counter-demonstrations to the “democracy” movement’s Umbrella Revolution of 2014. The HKFTU has urged members not to support the so-called “pro-democracy” strikes initiated by the rival HKCTU in 2019. (4)
The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) was established in 1999 to ensure a post-handover, pro-imperialist perspective that would split the working class from within. It is affiliated to international right-wing union associations such as the AFL-CIO sponsored Solidarity Centre. It has received funding and support directly from the imperialist-oriented AFL-CIO in the United States. It has 160,000 members and is “pro-democracy”. The general strike it called in early June this year was described as “fairly small”. (5)
The social contradictions within the working class are embedded in and reflective of a broader set of political contradictions. The financial elite grew alongside, and remains tied to, US and British finance capital. They are major investors world-wide in financial institutions, in energy infrastructure, shipping and transport. At the same time, they have been wooed by Chinese social-imperialism (“socialism in words, imperialism in deeds”) and offered “win-win” opportunities for participation in China’s domestic and external growth. The contending ideologies of Western and Chinese capitalisms are propagated by different strands within the Hong Kong media. Whether to seek greater economic and political freedom from Beijing, or whether to try and gain through greater cooperation with and absorption by Beijing motivates different groups within the Hong Kong bourgeoisie.
Three major disturbances
The current disturbances in Hong Kong are the third major series of attempted destablisiations since handover in 1997. They seek to exploit the contradictions between closeness to, or independence from, Beijing. Adherence to, or departure from, the Hong Kong Basic law, agreed between the British and China, provokes much of the disturbance.
On the eve of the handover, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten made some changes to the electoral law which the Chinese believed were in violation of the Basic Law. Patten intended to “democratise” an electoral system that had never been democratic under the British in order to subvert the basis of the “one country, two systems” policy of the Chinese.
In 2003, the Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa began drafting legislation to give effect to Article 23 of the Basic Law, which reads: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.”
A number of “democratic” organisations, including the US-backed HKCTU, organised mass rallies to oppose the legislation. After 6 months of unrest with a focus on “freedom of speech”, the Chief Executive announced that the Article 23 legislation would be withdrawn. This defeat emboldened US and British reactionaries to believe that a “pro-democracy” movement could be a means to weaken China’s legitimate right to ensure that provisions of the Basic Law would be enacted, and to subvert the basis of “one country, two systems” by exploiting the contradictions inherent in the two aspects of the policy.
The next major test of the policy came in 2014. Articles 25 and 68 of the Basic Law set the election of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council by universal suffrage as a goal to be achieved within the 50-year interregnum of the Special Administrative Region (SAR). If Article 23 represented Chinese influence on the Basic Law, these Articles represented continuing British colonial influence designed to frustrate the former colony’s incorporation into China. While not ruling out an extension of universal suffrage, China argued that the Chief Executive had to be someone who loved both China and Hong Kong. In June 2014, the State Council issued a white paper called The Practice of the 'One Country, Two Systems' Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region claiming "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the territory. "The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralised power," it said. "It is the power to run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership."
When China’s National People’s Congress decided on a process whereby nominations for the Chief Executive had to come through a 1200 member Election Committee comprising business, community and government leaders in Hong Kong, and that the Chinese State Council should appoint the Chief Executive, the “pro-democracy” activists unleashed the Umbrella Revolution, also know as the Occupy Central movement – a massive campaign of civil disobedience quite openly supported by US and British imperialisms.
The situation was inflamed when three former U.S. consuls-general in Hong Kong published an open letter criticizing the nomination committee system for the Chief Executive. The US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a so-called “non-government organisation" which has taken over the CIA’s role in financing pro-US forces in countries around the world (6) has not hidden its role in encouraging the leaders of the Occupy Central movement. Louisa Greve, a director of the NED met with the key people from "Occupy Central" several months before the civil disobedience campaign began. Louisa Greve is the vice president of NED who is responsible for its Asia, Middle East and North Africa programs. For many years, her name has frequently appeared on reports about "Tibetan independence", "eastern Turkistan", "democracy movement" and other forces destabilizing Chinese affairs and interfering with the Chinese government. She also hosted or participated in conferences about the "Arab spring" and the "Color Revolutions" of other regions.
Despite the Umbrella Revolution causing major disturbances in Hong Kong for over a month, the Hong Kong government persisted with its legislation and this time did not back down.
The 2019 reemergence of the “pro-democracy” movement coincided with plans to enact an extradition treaty between Hong Kong and Taiwan, Macau and China. (Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with the US.) The extradition bill came about when a man from Hong Kong killed his pregnant girlfriend while in holiday in Taiwan. He fled back to Hong Kong. Taiwan asked for him to be extradited, but Hong Kong did not have an extradition treaty with Taiwan, so the administration in Hong Kong proposed a bill that would allow Taiwan, the PRC, and Macau to request extradition, subject to approval by the judiciary in Hong Kong. There were 49 crimes that were to be included in the bill that would allow extradition requests.
Reasons for opposition to the extradition bill have emerged from fears that Hong Kong residents might be extradited to China for voicing political ideas contrary to those of Beijing. This seems to be contrary to the facts. Documents attached to the bill make clear that suspects can be extradited only in cases meeting two requirements: that the charge is a crime according to the legal systems of both Hong Kong and the state in question, and the sentence would be at least seven years in prison. Moreover, suspects are not to be extradited in cases of political or religious charges, or charges for which the suspect “would face the death penalty.” A primary target of the bill, then, consists of mainland Chinese capitalists fleeing to Hong Kong with vast sums of wealth under pressure from the trade war. The addition of the power to freeze assets of mainlanders seems to make clear who this bill is aimed at. (7)
Fears and misconceptions about the bill have been exploited by the US. Trickle-down economics don’t work, but trickle-out funding can be very effective. US funds made available to select NGOs are used to help finance “pro-democracy” activism. In 2018, NED made the following grants: $155,000 to the Hong Kong branch of the US-based Solidarity Centre; $200,000 to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI); and $90,000 to the Hong Kong Justice Centre.
The extent of direct US involvement in the “pro-democracy” disturbances of 2019 became a little clearer on 6 July when a Hong Kong resident took a mobile phone photo of a woman who “looks to be very American” meeting with Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Nathan Law Kwun-chung, leaders of the “pro-democracy” movement. The witness posted the photo online, adding they were having a meeting with a foreign woman in the lobby of JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong yesterday (August 6) at around 5:30 pm and appeared to be very respectful, as if they were meeting with their “boss”.
As indeed they were. Joshua Wong had been one of those meeting with NED’s Louisa Greve in 2014. A few days after the photo went online, the woman he and others had met in the Marriott was identified as Julie Eadeh, the political unit chief for the US Consulate General in Hong Kong.
There is no question that US imperialism has directed and influenced some of the key players in the current disturbances. However, that does not completely explain why such a movement can be sustained at this level of intensity over ten weeks, to date.
In addition to right-wing activists, there is a small group of left-wing activists who worry that extradition could be used against some of the young Maoists who have involved themselves in labour disputes in China. Extradition could close Hong Kong to them as an escape route from persecution by the Chinese authorities.
This is a situation in which complex motives and an overlay of contradictions between different groups and on different levels have all contributed.
Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong cannot be challenged. US interference in Hong Kong must be.
The inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China, exemplified by the ongoing trade war, threatens to reduce whatever genuine desires and aspiration for democratic change the Hong Kong people may have to the play thing of the US imperialists. But that does not mean we should support the repression of genuine protestors by the Hong Kong police, or support the Chinese government. We don't pick sides between imperialists.
As communists, our sympathies and support are for the working people, the proletarians of Hong Kong whose real interests lie neither with the fake "democracy" of the US imperialists, or the revisionism of the Chinese social-imperialists. They lie arm-in-arm with the working class of the Chinese mainland in the revolutionary struggle for a genuinely socialist China, something no imperialist could stand to see.