Special interview on the Protest Movement in Hong Kong

Every revolution means a sharp turn in the lives of a vast number of people. Unless the time is ripe for such a turn, no real revolution can take place. And just as any turn in the life of an individual teaches him a great deal and brings rich experience and great emotional stress, so a revolution teaches an entire people very rich and valuable lessons in a short space of time.

During a revolution, millions and tens of millions of people learn in a week more than they do in a year of ordinary, somnolent life. For at the time of a sharp turn in the life of an entire people it becomes particularly clear what aims the various classes of the people are pursuing, what strength they possess, and what methods they use.”  – V. I. Lenin, Lessons of the Revolution (1917)

We have been witnessing a wave of massive protests in Hong Kong in recent months, sparked by a proposed extradition bill by Hong Kong government, followed by unprecedented police violence. The situation has grown into a people’s rebellion with different forms of struggles, ranging from peaceful protests, Lennon Walls and boycotts to more radical approaches like police station blockades, disruption of transport services and black bloc tactics.

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lan Cheng Yuet-gor, announced the full withdrawal of the controversial bill on 4 September 2019, yet the protests continue as the Hong Kong government has yet failed to addressed the other four major demands of the current movement, namely: the setting up of an independent inquiry on police brutality, the release of arrested protesters, a complete retraction of the official characterisation of the protests as “riots”, and most importantly, the implementation of universal suffrage of the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive.

Think Left interviewed D, an activist in Hong Kong, on the current political crisis and rebellions there.

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Think Left: What are the impacts of the current protest movement on the political scenario in Hong Kong?

D: I believe this movement is the turning point of Hong Kong politics in several aspects:

  1. An unprecedented scale of mobilisation of social resources, where people of different ages and professions are contributing whatever they have in order to win the struggle. Such a trend of politicizing within the general public is very empowering for all kinds of communities, which may found the basis of further action and organisation in the future.
  2. A complete reshuffle of the political landscape, where no existing political parties or organisations could take the lead in the movement, and no existing ideology leads the movement (leftism is not heard of at all, while xenophobia and complete separation from China is not a major narrative as well).
  3. Representative, negotiable, peaceful approaches are completely abandoned, partly because the government shows itself unwilling to negotiate at all, and partly because we were betrayed by the leading opposition party (the Democratic Party) in 2010 on the issue of universal suffrage. It is also because of the lessons from the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, where the student organisations and the organizers of Occupy Central clearly proved themselves incapable of leading such a massive movement. Therefore, why not decentralize the decision-making process?
  4. The real establishment of Hong Kong nationalism. During our fight against the cops, many people developed a sense of defending our home against invaders. Such a sentiment is growing deeper as people in specific neighbourhoods are proud of living and growing up there successfully ejecting police from their communities.
  5. The fear of June Fourth no longer affects the younger generation, as it becomes quite clear that the CCP will have to face huge consequences if it sends another army to Hong Kong and commits mass murder.

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Think Left: How is its impact on the lives of ordinary people and civil society in Hong Kong?

D: There are massive impacts on the daily lives of a lot of people:

  • A lot of disruption of public transportation because of sudden clashes in every region.
  • No drive for work or shopping and entertainment; some people quit work to free themselves for the struggle.
  • Changes in habits: daily maintenance of Lennon Wall (using walls in public spaces to write opinions and display posters for mobilization); daily slogan time – shouting slogans at 10pm in the streets or from their windows; weekly demonstrations; skipping MTR charges etc.
  • Relationship with friends and families worsen because of disagreements over political issues

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Think Left: Can you tell us about the composition of class forces within the participants of the current massive movement against the government in Hong Kong which evolved from the opposition against the extradition bill? Besides students, what is the level of participation of working class people?

D: Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey of the Chinese University of Hong Kong published their onsite survey findings in August 2019. They conducted random surveys during weekend marches from 9 June until 4 August. The survey discovered that the ratio of male to female participants was 3:2 to 1:1; 70-90% of the participants had received tertiary education; half of them were between 10 to 30 years old; and half of them self-identified as “middle-class”. 

I think this data is interesting, as it shows that main force participating in the struggles are highly educated young workers. This survey only investigated the basic demographic data of the participants, and did not ask about their methods of participation (peaceful and non-violent / militant / donations / first-aid / spreading information / communication / strike etc) or the frequency of their participations, and hence was not able to provide a more holistic view on them. My personal observation is that, while there are different types of people in every position, students and young workers – especially the unemployed, casual workers and small business persons – are the main actors. This is because they are most flexible and adaptable to the changes of the situation in order to adjust their participation. For instance, they have the most time to participate in online discussions, the most time to conduct street propaganda, the most time to participate in sudden actions, etc.

In terms of back-up support, there is no doubt that the middle class has thrown in enormous material support. The June 12 Foundation, meant to support the legal fees and the medical and living allowances for protesters has managed to collect HKD 80 million (about RM 43 million). Netizens initiated fundraising for advertisements via global press and managed to raise millions of Hong Kong dollars within 12 hours. Along with protective equipment needed for each action, medical supplies, food and cars to send off protesters, as well as free accommodation, all of it involved a huge amount of resources. 

I have to talk about the strike! On 28 September 2014, when Occupy Admiralty started, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) called for a triple strike (a workers’ strike, students’ strike and business strike), but it did not materialize. This time around, after a million people marched on 9 June 2019, netizens called for triple strike on Wednesday, 12 June, the same day the extradition bill was set for deliberation in Legislative Council, with people rushing to the Admiralty to surround the Legislative Council building and block the passage of the bill. Although there were no official numbers, many workers applied for leave or went with the acquiescence of their companies (before that, many banks and accounting firms issued internal memos allowing their workers to “work at home” due to “traffic, chaos or danger that might happen on the day”). The statistics for business strikes are clearer, as over a thousand companies declared a business strike, but a vast majority of them were small businesses employing less than 10 workers.

The general triple strike on 5 August was better planned and publicized. During working hours in the morning, protesters strategically blocked four MTR stations, almost completely paralyzing the whole subway line; there were public assemblies at 7 locations throughout Hong Kong in the afternoon, directly turning into an all-Hong Kong action day, where road closures and sieges of police stations took place in 6 of these locations. Just like on 12 June, many people applied for leave and did not directly declare being on strike.

In terms of the results, the HKCTU announced that 350,000 workers were on strike. I think the number was too conservative. I estimate that workers who were on strike and “forced to strike” due to paralyzed traffic should have reached a million altogether. Among the most successful stoppages took place at the airport. One third of the staff at the control tower took leave, while others resorted to work-to-rule, leaving the two-runway airport with only one functional runway and over a hundred flights cancelled. Worker News conducted interviews on that day in 7 districts, which is a preliminary source to understand the strike.

I have written a separate article (in Chinese) to explain the August 5th Strike.  https://www.facebook.com/rublev.andrei.7/videos/2406019329635452/

About a month after August 5th strike, another triple strike took place on 2 and 3 September. This time around, there was no organised action or traffic blockade, and not much impact on the economy, but there were still tens of thousands people participating in rallies. However, the hurdles for workers participating in the strike were much bigger. Due to the airport being the most affected by August 5th strike, the aviation industry immediately faced harsh retaliation: the Civil Aviation Administration of China used the airspace ban to force Cathay Pacific to hand over a list of its workers who participated in “illegal activities”. Cathay Pacific then terminated a number of people, including one of the trade union leaders, and encouraged its workers to report on each other. The effects of white terror were severe. There were also similar repercussions in the MTR Company.

Political strikes have finally taken place again in Hong Kong after the 1922 Seamen’s Strike, the 1925-26 Canton-Hong Kong Strike and the 1967 riots. The recent political strikes are very different from those in the past, as most of the striking workers are not related to any organisation, and workers themselves do not view the day of strike very differently from other protests at the weekends.

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Think Left: What are the major differences of this unprecedented movement with previous democratic movements in Hong Kong?

D: As I’ve mentioned in parts b and c of Question 1 above, a significant number of protesters abandoned the peaceful, negotiable, representative models of political protest. The slogan “you are the one who taught us that peaceful march is futile”( 是你教我們和平遊行是沒用的) clearly illustrated such a turn. After the failure of the Umbrella Revolution and elected legislators being disqualified, along with the arrogant attitude of the Hong Kong government towards the opposition on the China Extradition Bill (e.g. directly refusing to withdraw the bill at the night of 9 June, when the 1 million people march had not yet ended), more and more people are realizing that it is impossible to make any change within existing political rules. Such an understanding forms the basis of sympathy towards vandalism and violence towards cops, and also a deep hatred against law enforcement. During the Umbrella Revolution, very few people actually hated the police, but this time it is not the case. I believe it is because the original assumption of political protest, i.e. to recognize the existing social order and negotiate between different ‘opinions’ to balance the interests of different parties, is no longer valid. Instead, the logic of riots emerged, though protesters do not realize that the kind of targeted vandalism and violence is exactly what’s happening in the ‘riots’ in the west.

Writings on the pillar: “You are the one who taught us that peaceful march is futile.”

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Think Left: We have seen in the display of some quite right-wing symbolism, like some protesters carrying colonial flags, UK flags and US flags during protests, and some even calling for the US intervention in Hong Kong. We also can see the appearance of Pepe the frog, a symbol appropriated by the far-right in the US as an icon for white nationalism. The symbols are highly visible in the eyes of the media and outside observers. Maybe some people use them out of ignorance or think symbolism does not matter, but certainly these symbols reflect certain ideologies embedded in one’s mind. How do you view this? Can we say that there is a trend among protesters leaning to the far right? If there is, how much influence do these forces have and what is their strength? How are the left or the progressives dealing with it?

D: The majority of protesters do not know Pepe’s symbolism in the English-speaking world (though I believe they wouldn’t care even if they did). It is treated as a harmless meme in online forums.

The Hong Kong colonial flag appeared in protests around 8 years ago. There is a tiny fraction of people who want Hong Kong to be ruled by the UK again, while a larger group of people believe that the British colonial past is better than the present Hong Kong.

The American flag is something new in protests. I am not sure about different ways of thinking behind it. Some (though I believe it is a tiny fraction) really believe that the US government will conduct military intervention in Hong Kong if the situation deteriorates. A wider group of people only wants the American government to create more trouble for the Chinese government (say, using the Hong Kong issue as leverage on tariff negotiation, or sanctioning Hong Kong government officers) as a way of mutual destruction, following the slogan of ‘if we burn, you will burn with us’.

The extreme right is far from a leading force in the movement, and there has been less xenophobic rhetoric than in previous years. I believe there are two reasons behind this. First, it is a strategic decision for the right wing not to talk about it in order to avoid creating internal conflict. Second, the huge number of first-time protesters ‘dilutes’ all existing political conflicts and I’ve talked to several people who do not agree with hatred towards ordinary Chinese people.

My attitude towards the flags is that I will put more emphasis on the solidarity messages from people all over the world, not governments.

Judging from what I observed in the local leftist circle and some online discussions in the English-speaking world, I feel that there is something terribly wrong in the way some left-inclined people understand this movement. In particular, I am extremely furious to see some commentary from local activists claiming that it is another liberal movement protecting the bourgeois legal system, and therefore not in the leftist agenda. What I am furious about is not only the sloppy oversimplification, but more importantly the display of arrogance, which ignores the fact that people of all ages have mobilized, while at the same time refusing to find answers from that crowd. Therefore, I am really glad that there are a lot of friends all over the world who either ask us or come to Hong Kong themselves to find out what is really happening.

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Think Left: The Chief Executive Carrie Lam has formally announced the withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill after three month of mass protests and uprisings, but it seems that alone won’t help much in calming the situation in Hong Kong as there are other important demands put forward by the protesters that have not been met, especially the demand for universal suffrage. What do you think about the state of the movement now? How will it develop from here?

D: The situation is changing rapidly, but at this moment (7 September 2019), it is a sort of stalemate. Clashes and demonstrations are getting more frequent, with anger continuously building up, but a lot of protesters are getting tired and the number of protesters going to action is declining. I do not have any idea how things will go on.

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Think Left: What is your hope for the future of this movement?

D: I hope the protestors can build a closer relationship within the movement. While discussing immediate action and practical strategies, I hope we can have a far-reaching discussion, like the direction of the movement and how to help each other more effectively (including on supporting our livelihoods, sharing social resources, interpersonal networks etc). Only with this as a foundation, can we maintain our struggle.

*****

Think Left: Can you share your experience of participation in the movement? 

D: I am participating in two ways. First I am working with a small group called WorkerCom (勞工組). All the members are workers from different sectors and we encourage direct confrontation with bosses during labour disputes. At the very beginning of the movement, I gave our members brief training on communication security and legal rights during detention, and also setting up of a system of communication during the action to protect each other, in order to get everyone ready to participate. For further participation, since we are only a small group, we chose several aspects to work on based on our strengths. We offered help to workers who are unfairly treated by their bosses due to their political stances. Later, as the situation escalated, we held a lot of street exhibitions in different neighbourhoods, showing videos of police brutality and delivering leaflets on the struggle to grassroots people who mostly received information from mainstream pro-government media (like TVB無線電視and Oriental Daily東方日報) or directly from mainland China (through WeChat). We are also visiting rank and file workers, particularly street cleaners and shopkeepers, to talk about the health hazards of tear gas and the right to stop working in dangerous situations.

The second major type of participation is to update friends all over the world on what’s going on in Hong Kong. In the previous months, I discussed with a lot of activists on current issues. I think it is a very important work because we can share a lot of details that are not covered by non-Chinese language media, and the message can be passed to people who are really concerned about social movements. Besides, for me, there are three particular reasons that I think this kind of sharing is important:

  1. It is the first direct confrontation against Chinese imperialism from the people.
  2. The way the movement develops is very new in a lot of aspects, which in itself is worth sharing with activists around the world. More importantly, this movement is surprisingly similar to the Yellow Vest movement in France, which, to me, may reveal a trend of mass movement in the coming future, pushed by hopeless people.
  3. Personally, I have been reading about the social movement all over the world for several years, and I am really glad that is is finally our turn to share our experience of struggle with the world.

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