Popular struggle protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy


Lam Chi Leung

Thanasis Antoniou from OKDE-Spartacus (Greek section of the Fourth International) interview Lam Chi Leung at early November about current situation of the mass struggle in Hong Kong . Lam Chi Leung is a revolutionary socialist based in Hong Kong and editor of the Marxist Internet Archive Chinese.

-What is the current situation of the movement in Hong Kong? What was the impact of the extradition bill withdrawal in September?

It’s astonishing to think that the popular struggle against the extradition bill has sustained itself for a whole five months from its eruption in June until now. Whether in terms of its durability or the scale of mass participation, this is something much more substantial than the Umbrella Movement calling for universal suffrage five years ago. Moreover, the most recent opinion poll from a mid-september shows that 69% of city residents consider the police to have used “excessive force”; 59% “express understanding” towards the radical tactics of the protestors, and as many as 80% of residents believe that universal suffrage should be implemented in the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections. Public opinion has not shown any reversal in light of the ongoing movement and the intensifying conflict between the two sides.

Having said that, given that the government consistently prohibits peaceful protests, some who insist on peaceful protesting have been unwilling to participate in radical actions like destroying pro-government shops or subway installations, and the number of people protesting in the last two months has slightly decreased. Protest activities increasingly take the form of urban guerrilla actions.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s announcement in September that she was withdrawing the extradition bill did nothing to placate the popular outrage. The fact is that as early as June she had expressed willingness to stop the bill, it was simply that she was not yet ready to formally announce its withdrawal. More significant is the fact that she is yet to respond to a single one of the four remaining demands raised by the protestors, i.e. for an independent commission to investigate police violence, the withdrawal of the “riot” designation, the release of arrested protestors, and genuine universal suffrage. Meanwhile, police violence is increasing in its

severity. To this point they have arrested some 3400 individuals, 467 of whom remain detained. People feel that the government has entirely failed to act as an honest broker.

-How have the protests affected political life? Has the struggle been oriented only against the ELAB counter-reform or have broader question been brought about? What would be an actual victory for the movement?

This current popular movement has seen the largest number of participants since the 1989 movement in support of democracy in China. Until now there have been three demonstrations with more than a million people, the largest of them involving 2 million (meaning that 1 in 4 Hong Kong residents took part). The participation of young protestors and high school students has been particularly remarkable. On August 5 a relatively successful political strike took place: air-traffic controllers, airport engineers, flight attendants, teachers, social workers, independent professionals, and students all joined it to varying degrees. Last month’s opinion poll showed that almost 60% of city residents opposed the government, while those supporting the authorities made up only 6%. As already mentioned, apart from calling for the scrapping of the bill, protestors are demanding the establishment of an independent investigatory commission and a system of universal suffrage. With the increasing police violence, there have even been people calling for the abolition of the police force.

However, to this point protestors have yet to include demands relating to working conditions and welfare issues. Some previously raised online the idea of boycotting local business groups (who mostly support the government’s position), but not many have taken this up. It’s obvious that the people believe the struggle is yet to achieve victory. All along their slogan has been “Five demands, not one less.”

-What has been particular about this movement, in comparison to the movements of the past years? What forms of organization have been used and why? Does the movement have a leadership of its own or spontaneous factors have been prevalent?

This is an organization-less, leaderless and center-less movement. Although several mass demonstrations were organized by a coalition called Civil Human Rights Front, citizens have been participating in the movement as a response to the Extradition Bill, rather than any special capacity to mobilize on the Front’s part. Additionally, the storming of the Legislative Council on July 1st, the protests surrounding the police headquarters, the vandalism of particular shops and subway stations are all actions that were initiated and planned by young protestors via online platforms. They use apps like Telegram to spread the news about protest

activities, and have developed a sense of mutual trust and a convention of hand gestures for coordination at the protest sites.

In this sense, the movement initiates from each participant—no one can become its leader, and no one has tried to claim leadership.

The greatest weakness of this movement is that it has been unable to establish a democratically created platform that would be accountable to the participants of the movement, and as a result, participants from different backgrounds and with different positions have been unable to coordinate well; instead, each act as they will. Questions about competing strategies and different visions for the movement are discussed at a relatively superficial level on online platforms, instead of being subjected to deeper and more comprehensive deliberation in person before decisions are made collectively.

Social movements without organization are also vulnerable to the ultra-right wing nativists who can exercise disproportionate influence over the movement with radical tactics. They are also more susceptible to infiltration by the police, who can then create chaos and have the protestors shoulder the blame.

Young protestors tend to think that mainstream democrats have been very weak (an accusation that is not unfounded), and that the past 30 years were missed opportunities for fighting for democracy. On top of that, young protestors have gotten used to adopting radical strategies in recent years. Therefore, this leads them to conclude that “small group discussions”, “searching for a consensus”, etc, will only constrain the freedom to engage in protest activities, and ultimately undermine the movement. I do not agree with this conclusion. This question needs serious engagement and clarification.

-Which parts of Hong Kong society have been actively involved and why? What has the movement meant for the working class, for the youth, the feminist and LGBT activists in the country? What is the status of political organizations of the left in Hong-Kong? Did they participate actively or support the movement?

Hong Kong’s democratic unions, its youth, feminists, and LGBT social activists are all participating in this campaign to various degrees. Most noteworthy has been the involvement of young workers and students. They have always been relatively radical, and the liberalisation policies of the last two decades (resulting in a high cost of living, uncertain job prospects, and astronomical prices for private apartments) have created a deep sense of being exploited. Add to this the Chinese government’s increasing interference in Hong Kong

politics, and young people feel like they have no future. The Hong Kong left has always been very weak: there are small centre-left parties (like the Labour Party), broad-left platforms, and very small-scale revolutionary socialist and anarchist networks. They all support the movement, and participate to varying degree.

-There has been a debate about a possible nationalist/pro-capitalist part of the movement. How important is it? Has foreign involvement (USA, Britain) played any actual role in the movement?

From the China-Hong Kong establishment to orthodox post-Stalinists, there have been accusations that popular movements like this one is controlled and backed by Western forces, and that the movement is ultimately a Hong Kong independence movement. This is false. The movement was initiated by citizens themselves, and its primary driving force has been young protestors—foreign governments have no power to intervene. Some pan-democratic members of parliament, as well as activists such as Joshua Wong (many of them have favorable views of the West, and still have some faith in the US government); They have appeared in the media quite often, but this is only because they are relatively better known public figures—they also have no power to lead the movement (and they have also been very conscious to disclaim leadership).

Although ultra-right wing forces have been rather weak in organizational capacity in recent years, they still have a level of influence over the movement, especially at a ideology level. They see Chinese immigrants and Chinese citizens in general as enemies, and instead have paraded the British colonial flag and the US flag throughout the movement. They want the US to sanction China, and have even adopted the slogan of “President Trump please liberate Hong Kong”. On September 8th a few thousand people marched to the US embassy to ask the US for help. However, not all of these marches were organized by right wing nativists—in fact I think many of them were organized by scholars and lawyers.

Some protesters at once imitate the reactionary so-called Color Revolution of Ukraine, while also rallying to support Catalonian independence on October 23 (though some have objected to this out of fear of offending the EU and the US.) All these illustrate the political confusions, contradictions, and pragmatic attitudes within the present mass movement.

Like the Chinese establishment, ultra-right wing nativists have framed the anti-extradition movement as a struggle between the people of Hong Kong and the people of China, and a fight between the“value”between US and China. Only, while the Chinese establishment adopts this framework to smear the movement, ultra-right wing nativists takes this as the

reason the movement should be celebrated. The socialist left emphasizes that class unity amongst different places and regions is crucial for a genuine victory, and that fighting only for a “shared identity”, regardless of whether it is a Hong Kong or a Chinese identity, will lead to a dead end.

-Western media showed huge demonstration and riots, but also extreme police violence. What has been the extent of repression? How did the movement tackle the problem? What tactics were used? What questions arose when the government showed that a cruel face?

The police has been increasingly brutal in handling protests: on the National day of China (Oct 1), the police opened fire with real ammunition against a high school student. The police have also attacked random citizens in a subway station in a completely arbitrary manner. This attack was hardly any different from the one carried out by a so-called “patriotic” mob in July. Moreover, there have been protestors who suddenly “committed suicide”, leading to suspicions that they were actually murdered by the police.

In face of state violence and triad attacks, the people have yet to organize self-defense groups. Some protestors have said that they are prepared to die, and have been subjected to brutal violence from the police.

The concern right now is that continued and prolonged deadlock will only push radical youth to unrestrained violence.

I think we should immediately stop the systematic arson and vandalizing attacks of subway stations and police stations, because this strategy will only result in more brutal crackdowns, and will also gradually isolate the protestors, weakening the movement as a whole. The movement should learn from protestors in France and Argentina, who formed popular deliberation platforms for discussing the general direction of the movement and appropriate strategies.

– How has the economical crisis of the recent years affected the situation in Hong Kong? Is it relevant to the recent movement?

Even the ruling class of Hong Kong and Beijing understand the gulf between the rich and poor, the deep dissatisfaction of the masses (especially the youth) towards the Status Quo. The Extradition Bill is only a catalyst, while neoliberal policies, the exploitative behavior of

finance and real estate capitalists, and the service of the government towards the rich are the real deep-seated reasons for the masses’ struggle.

On the other hand, as the Chinese economy grows worse, this will lead to even stronger conflicts between classes and within society. The state will be even more fearful of instability in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, etc. The recently held fourth plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee did not mention the economic decline at all, and instead stressed the need to strengthen laws to protect national security interests in Hong Kong, as well as promote a patriotic education. From this we can see that Beijing will not loosen its political grip over Hong Kong, and instead will only tighten its control.

-Although things are still much recent, what are your thoughts and early conclusions about the movement of the last months?

This is a movement that is fundamentally about protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and basic civic and political freedoms. As the struggle drags on, the ideal outcome is that more organized workers, young people, students and women will be incorporated into the movement, and a bottom-up, autonomous organization will be established. Ideally, the goal of fighting for universal suffrage will be combined with the goal of fighting against a capitalist society, and economic and political reform will become two sides of the same coin. To achieve this, we need to critically reflect upon the strategies adopted thus far, most notably the overreliance on a minority to engage in protests as well as the useless arson and vandalizing attacks. Instead, the movement should seek support from people within Mainland China. Nothing guarantees that this is a possible path, but there is no alternative way out. In short, the fight must go on, but its ends and means must both be altered.

-Did the movement have solidarity from the PRC or link itself with mobilizations there?

The movement has only received patchy, individual support from within China, which has been quickly suppressed by the authorities. The Chinese government has been determined in maligning the popular movement as made of up violent thugs and dominated by calls for Hong Kong independence, even as a colour revolution instigated by a foreign conspiracy. Because of the censorship of information and the “Great China” nationalism that the government has long cultivated and stirred up, many residents of Chinese cities believe the official propaganda. You could say that since the Umbrella Movement, the Chinese Communist Party has erected a firewall separating the two peoples on either side, to avoid the popular struggle of people in Hong Kong ever influencing the mainland. The CCP has been very successful in doing this, but there are still things that slip through. For example, those

children of officials and wealthy families studying abroad, who drive around in BMWs and other fancy cars to demonstrate against the Hong Kong “riot,” have had their so-called patriotism questioned by mainland China netizens who link it to social inequality.

-We can only imagine how difficult it can be for unionism, not to mention radical left party building in the PRC. What does it mean to be a Marxist in country supposedly ruled by a so-called “Communist” party? Which are the perspectives for left organizations in the mainland?

Under Xi Jinping’s bureaucratic authoritarian rule, self-organisation and open dialogue among young people and workers is extremely dangerous, almost impossible. But space for the private exchange of ideas still exists. Further, there are some indications that progressive youths in mainland China are increasingly interested in the ideas of revolution and communism as they are seeking an alternative outside of Liberalism and Maoism (China-style Stalinism) .There are even some young people who identify with the Marxist Left and approves of the bestest traditions of Fourth International . As far as I know, these self-identifying youth on the Marxist left are still few in number, and often face disruption and repression from the authorities, but they continue to study and research in earnest, and have recently translated a series of works such as Trotsky, James Cannon, Ernest Mandel and Paul Le Blanc.

The revolutionary socialists in Hong Kong have always utilized the city’s relative freedom to spread revolutionary ideas towards youths in mainland China. The most valuable work we can pursue at the moment is the fundamental task of spreading the ideas of classical Marxism to mainland China .

8th Nov, 2019