The Catalan Question



Dear people,

Spain got another taste of elections this week as Catalonia went to vote. The big issue was independence, and the result was a stalemate. Now, I know that most people don’t really care about national politics, even less about politics in other countries, so I can imagine that local politics in other countries doesn’t really arouse enthusiasm abroad. But Catalan independence is a big issue in Spain at the moment, so I’ll briefly bring you up to date on what’s happening before trying to analyse what this all means with respect to the democratic revolutionary movement in Spain.

Catalans have been periodically regurgitating their will to break away from Spain over the last few centuries, most recently in the late 19th century, then during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and lately these past few years. The reasons for the current outbreak are to be found in the rejection of parts of the region’s Autonomy Statute as ‘unconstitutional’ by the Spanish High Court in 2010. Most symbolically, the judges cancelled a reference to Catalonia being a ‘nation’, which sparked a lasting outcry all over the region. The economic crisis did the rest.

When you listen to Catalans speaking about the question you can clearly hear the echoes of years of televised propaganda, which revolves around two core issues: 1. ‘Madrid steals from us’, and 2. ‘We are different from Spaniards’, meaning: superior to them. No need to add that the rest of Spain doesn’t feel a particular sympathy for Catalonia as a result of this, which has in itself become a third reason for many Catalans to want to break away.

Politically, the independence issue was relatively marginal until the leader of the biggest centre-right party decided to ride the wave of popular indignation and switch from moderate regionalism to full support for independence, a few years ago. This guy was called Artur Mas. He has his picture in the dictionary under the voice ‘mediocrity’, right next to the picture of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy. Mas has gambled his political career on the ephemeral prospect of going down in history as the father of Catalan independence. He won’t be the first to fail at that, and he definitely won’t be the last.
At the moment, support for independence hovers around fifty percent of the population. The Spanish prime minister has reiterated that Catalan independence, and any binding referendum on the subject, is out of the question. But aside from that he has wisely kept a low profile. Catalan nationalists easily take offense at anything said by a Spaniard with whatever intent, so in order not to rouse the spirits of independence more than necessary the Spanish government mainly keeps its silence.

From his side, Artur Mas has been trying to create goodwill for an independent Catalonia among European political leaders and businessmen, but has been rebuffed practically everywhere. The EU simply doesn’t want the hassle. Spain can make a lot trouble with its veto right in the European institutions, it’s a democratic western country so no-one abroad really understands why some of its citizens want to break away, and in general the EU is built to deal with international integration, not with national disintegration. Because there is no scenario for this eventuality, an independent Catalonia would automatically be expelled from the EU and the euro. Business leaders are afraid of the ensuing instability and have threatened to leave the region in case it really becomes independent.

Still, Artur Mas bravely pushes on. Because the Spanish high court has prohibited any binding referendum he has sought to transform the current elections into a plebiscite on independence. To do so he made a very uneasy alliance with left wing republicans under the name ‘Together for Yes’. They did not get a majority of seats. And the only way for them to govern is to reach a deal with an ultra left wing independence party. Not a good recipe for political stability, especially if you take into account that while independence parties gained a small majority of seats, they did not win a majority of the popular vote.
Indeed, it does look like the current independence drive has reached its peak and is now slowly losing momentum. If there had been a more charismatic leader than Artur Mas, it might have persisted, but even then it would have been unlikely that Catalans would have gained their independence. Realistically, there are two prerequisites for them to do so. One is an unequivocable majority of popular support, so not fifty or fifty-two percent, but more something like sixty or seventy percent. Two is the ok from Washington. Because let’s face it, in these matters the US still holds the keys. If the State Department decides that Catalonia should become an independent state, then the EU will find a way to deal with the hassle and Spain will be forced to accept the outcome. But that’s very unlikely. The US has no problem to carve up states around the world if it suits their interests, but Spain has been a loyal ally ever since the days of Franco, and the Obama administration has reiterated that they highly value a strong relationship with a united Spanish state.

Last but definitely not least, in case of independence the FC Barcelona would no longer play Real Madrid twice a year, but would instead be relegated to a provincial league of semi-amateur clubs with no interest at all for football fans the world over. And this is probably the only reason why people outside of Spain would care for the Catalan question.

So how about the no front in recent elections? Both the big national parties have very limited support in Catalonia, and with Artur Mas swinging to independence, the middle class vote against it has been reaped by a relatively new party called ‘Citizens’. Economically conservative and socially progressive, Citizens has made Spanish unity and reconciliation between the inflamed spirits on both sides their issue. Their pronunciation against independence and the fact that they haven’t yet had the time and opportunity to stain themselves with political vices is what made them gain support. On the same side, the indignado party Podemos has been crushed in Catalonia, mostly because Pablo Iglesias has pronounced his party against independence.

Earlier this year, Ada Colau and her ‘Barcelona in Common’ platform were able to win the elections precisely because she was smart enough not to touch the independence issue. In fact, the indignado community in Catalonia is divided, so supporting one side means alienating the other. Now, Podemos has made the national choice of unity, with which they continue to distance themselves from the people that gave life to the indignado movement four years ago. In Catalonia they presented themselves under the worn-out slogan of ‘Yes We Can’, which was also confusing because ‘Yes’ generally indicates the side that supports independence. They didn’t even win ten percent of the vote.

The defeat of the post-indignado party in Catalonia and the absence of a serious grass roots alternative doesn’t spell good news for the general elections later this year. Podemos seems to be turning into just another political party that doesn’t represent the people they are supposed to represent, and many of its potential voters are actually growing fed up with Pablo Iglesias’ face. It’s also unlikely that a national platform like ‘Ahora en Común’ will be able to organize itself and stand a chance while being true to its local heterogeneous roots. And maybe that’s not even something people will want to strive for. Democratic regeneration is already taking place on a local level, in the neighbourhoods and in the cities, where people only represent themselves in order to make a tangible change in their lives. Catalan nationalism is a digression from the core issue. Independent or not, it would be the same mess. Truly revolutionary would be a place where there are no ‘states’ and ‘nations’, but only local communities, each one independent from the other, and all of them linked by nothing but human solidarity.


Note from the Democratic Revolution

Dear people,

A little catch-up in short. During the last two elections, the political establishment of Spain has been rocked by candidates that have their roots in the indignado movement. First the European elections in 2014, where Pablo Iglesias and Podemos Party took eight percent of the vote, and lately in the municipal elections where local citizen’s platforms won the town hall in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities.

Next up is the general election in November. In the streets, for years now, a heterogeneous mass has shouted “Yes we can”, and the latest electoral results have given them reason enough to believe that it will indeed be possible to enter parliament, peacefully, and bring democracy back to the people.

At the next elections, those people have Podemos and Pablo Iglesias to vote for. Many people will, some of them will do so for lack of better, and many will not, because Pablo Iglesias doesn’t represent them any more or less than the established parties do.

The indignado movement has a very strong grass-roots anti-authoritarian vein. Now, within Podemos, many people have voiced criticism about the lack of internal democracy, and the way candidates are elected. That is, on closed lists, to be approved or rejected as a whole. In practice, the lists that get supported by the party elite are the ones who usually get elected.

It has also become evident in the latest election that Podemos is incapable of winning on its own. It won where it adhered to citizens’ platforms that went into the neighbourhoods to gather proposals and ideas from the people.

Last Tuesday, to emulate this succesful formula, a statewide initiative was launched in view of the general election: ‘Ahora en Comùn’, “Now in Common”. Within three days the platform gathered the support of over 20.000 people, many of whom members of various social, political and grass-roots organisations, among which Podemos itself.
Ahora en Comùn seeks to give space to all the different forces who long for social change and present a candidate of popular unity at the upcoming elections.

From their manifest: “We believe that it’s both possible and essential to put that which unites us ahead of our differences in order to reach an agreement on a number of common sense issues that reflect the social consensus of our time: the need to recover our sovereignty, to regenerate and enhance democracy, to reclaim the integrity and transparency of our political representatives, to defend the universality of human rights (education, healthcare, food, housing and employment) and to establish dignity, equality, participation and justice as basic principles of the new way of doing politics that 21st century challenges and opportunities demand.”

There have already been calls for Podemos to unite themselves with this platform, but Pablo Iglesias was quick to freeze some people’s hopes. He desccribed the new platform as maneuvred by the old left, and didn’t want to be associate with them. “We are not going to place ourselves where the enemy wants us to be placed”.

During two years of activism in and around Spain I have hardly ever heard the word ‘enemy’ be used, so it startled me a bit to hear it mentioned by a candidate who aims to represent the social change that has been brewing in the streets and the squares these last four years. Dismissing a wide range of people as maneuvred by old lefties could prove to be a costly mistake. It’s not as if Iglesias doesn’t want to cooperate with those people. He does, as long as it happens under the banner of Podemos. In other words: “I won’t join you, but you can join me.” To people from his own party who signed the “Ahora en Comùn” call he sends a thinly veiled threat of expulsion: “Everyone is free to change parties”.

Podemos may have peaked too early. Maybe they never were meant to be the vehicle of change they professed to be. But at the same time, the Ahora en Comùn platform has only just started to create local nodes and give life to an organization. In Barcelona or Madrid, it took only a couple of months for a newborn citizen’s initiative to beat the established parties and win the mayorship. So with or without Iglesias, there is still time enough for ‘Ahora en Comùn’ to take parliament by storm.

Real Democracy Now

Ada Colau, the new mayor of Barcelona. Photo Reuters/Telesur.

Ada Colau, the new mayor of Barcelona. Photo Reuters/Telesur.

Dear people,

It has taken four years for the 15M movement to arrive from the occupied squares to the palaces of power. Last month, grass roots political parties all over Spain have shaken up the establishment and conquered, among others, the municipalities of Madrid and Barcelona. Local platforms and nationwide party ‘Podemos’, inspired by the indignados movement, are now gearing up towards the general election next November, to replace the old regime.
In Barcelona, anti-eviction activist and sweetheart of the movement Ada Colau has been elected the first female mayor of the city. The platform for which she was a candidate, ‘Barcelona en Comú’ (Barcelona in Common), proposes  a radical democratic revolution, with continuous citizens’ participation, transparency of government, right to housing and basic sustainment for all,  and a lot more.
In Madrid, a traditional stronghold of the Conservatives, the new platform ‘Ahora Madrid’ came in a close second, wresting control of the city in collaboration with Socialists. The new mayor, Manuela Carmena, a 71-year old lawyer, describes herself as a “caring grandmother” to the generation that took the streets four years ago to usher in a new era of democratic change. What she has in common with Ada Colau is a ‘feminine way of doing politics’, based not on hierarchy, but on horizontal organization.
Manuela Carmena was a communist activist under the Franco regime, which made it easy for the leading lady of Spanish conservatism, Esperanza Aguirre, to accuse the Ahora Madrid platform of being a ‘springboard to destroy the western democratic system as we know it.’
She probably couldn’t have made better publicity for her opponents. It reminded me of one the slogans we used to sing when we filled the streets of Madrid. “Madrid será la tumba del sistema”: Madrid will be the tomb of the system.

As for me, I have retreated to private life on my Italian estate, like Cincinnatus. But obviously I cannot remain untouched when a carrier pigeon brings me revolutionary updates from Spain. So I wrote to some of my old comrades, to get a first hand idea of what is going on. This is a brief account of what they old me.

H: “What has happened in Spain is that activists are forming political platforms (Barcelona en Comú, Ahora Madrid, Marea Atlántica…etc) to try and bring down the last remaining wall of the protests, the institutional wall.
It’s typical for activists to become politicians at some point in their lives, but what is new in Spain is that there are a lot of them now and voters only seem to support them gradually. The campaigns for municipal candidates (supported by Podemos, but not a part of it) have been like a continuation of the indignados, with candidates going into the neighbourhoods to listen to people’s proposals instead of organising rallies.
No candidate has won an absolute majority. This opens a new political front in Spain where deals have to be made. We’re entering a phase where a minority will govern and each proposal will have to be approved by fragmented parliaments.”

J: “All political analysts agree that what was formed on the streets and in the squares during the 15M, has crystallised into political movements like Podemos and the integration of left wing movements. Together, we decided to give power to people who had no voice until now… But now comes the difficult part: not just protesting, but building… The adversary is enormous, and they will have to work very hard…
A lot of people said it wasn’t possible, but in the end we did it!!! I think that is the strongest message, but the traditional parties are waiting and hoping that this is just a fashion so that they can go back to their business as usual.”

P: “The streets have given way to the institutions. (…) At the municipal level a LOT of things will change. Things like a ban on foreclosures can pass very soon, at least in some cities.
In the autonomous communities and regional governments where such basic things as health care or education are decided, there hasn’t been an electoral change due to lack of unity. In the cities, Podemos, which incorporates a part of the movement, preferred to go it alone, instead of uniting with other movements like in Madrid and Barcelona, and this didn’t played out in their favour.”

JC: “Podemos hasn’t really been clear about its own political collocation, and has preferred not to touch on subjects like nationalism, the economy etc, apart from becoming less revolutionary and more reformist. I have to say that I don’t really like the party, and above all I don’t like [its leader] Pablo Iglesias and his swollen ego, and I can’t see where this is all going. But obviously, it is the lesser evil by far.”

D: “The vertical leadership style of Podemos did not live up to the expectations, and the confluence of municipal candidatures based on a highly horizontal post-party model have changed the game.
Not even Greece has seen the level of innovation and empowerment that we are witnessing here. You can call me chauvinist, arrogant, or crazy, but I think the Spanish indignados are at the forefront of global change and of one of the greatest successes of the Occupy/Indignado movement. And I am convinced that the changes that are happening will not be happening only here. A lot of people are looking at us, and this is going to exceed the Spanish borders by far.
Here you can smell hope, you can smell revolution, you can smell social and political change.”

H: “Now it’s going to be interesting to see how the municipal platforms in Madrid, Barcelona, Coruña and Santiago are going to work. And from there, we will see if we can create momentum for the general elections. If Podemos opens up its program and succeeds in uniting with the local platforms than I have no doubt they will win the general elections in November.”

P: “The streets are empty for the moment while everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen from above. But if things don’t change, people will fill the streets again. There is a lot of expectation. Suddenly we all have friends in local councils, but it’s also very clear that if they don’t do what they should do we will confront them like we would with any other government.”

In the meantime, even though Pandora’s box has been open for a while, the reaction tries to tighten it grip on the people by approving the new citizen security law that aims at scaring people out of protesting. As from July, ridiculous fines of up to tens of thousands of euro’s can be imposed for demonstrating outside of parliament, avoiding a foreclosure, resisting arrest, blocking traffic, filming police officers etc.
Today, all over Spain, people are protesting the restriction of their civil rights. Just a few more months and they will be in front of parliament anyway, not to protest, but to celebrate.

A New Season

Podemos demo filling the Puerta del Sol. Madrid, January 31, 2015.

Podemos demo filling the Puerta del Sol. Madrid, January 31, 2015.

Dear people,

The 15M movement that exploded in May 2011 gave rise to a galaxy of different assemblies, initiatives, movements and struggles in permanent evolution. And although the indignados initially rejected all forms of representative democracy in favour of direct citizens’ participation, a year ago in Spain a political party was born which was directly inspired by the 15M movement: ‘Podemos’ (‘We can’).

Four months after its foundation the new party dashed into the European limelight by conquering five seats in the Europarliament, presenting itself as a radical alternative to the Spanish political dinosaurs of PP and PSOE (“¡La misma mierda es!“). On the eve of the election in Puerta del Sol the trademark 15M slogan “They don’t represent us!” turned into “Yes! They represent us!”

Today, Podemos showed its strength with a massive demonstration in Madrid that filled the Puerta del Sol and the boulevards of the capital all the way down to city hall at Cibeles. While an anti-austerity party closely linked to Podemos has been voted into office in Greece, the party is leading the polls in Spain, ahead of this year’s general election. It looks like we might witness the dawn of a new season in Spanish and European politics.

What started off in 2008 as an economic crisis has turned into a collective state of mind, a way of life, whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t have anything to do with the economy any more. If people started spending money and banks started giving credit the crisis would be over tomorrow, but evidently there’s something else going on. A kind of generalized pessimism with regard to the future, linked to worries over climate change, rampant radicalism, rising international tensions and consequent rearmament, all of it exemplified by the ‘Doomsday clock‘ being put ahead to three minutes to Midnight…

In reaction to this permanent crisis, Europe is divided between north and south. Traditional parties are losing ground practically everywhere. It’s just that in the north they are losing to right wing parties, while the south is turning to the left. Then again, does it still make any sense to talk about ‘left’ and ‘right’ in 21st century politics? Probably not, but for lack of better terms we are stuck with them. So what is the difference between the two?

In the 1990s, Italian folk singer Giorgio Gaber tried to answer the question with a song, saying things like ‘the bath tub is right wing, the shower is left wing; Swiss chocolate is right wing, Nutella is left wing; sneakers are right wing, wearing them without laces is left wing; luck is right wing, bad luck is always left wing,’ etc. etc. All of it to show that a real difference between the two didn’t exist anymore.

But there still is, I think. North European right wing parties and movements like Pegida, Front National, UKIP and their counterparts in Holland, Belgium and Austria all represent a kind of irrational longing to the past, when things were local, small scale, understandable, and national culture was predominant without too much influence from the outside. Of course, those days of isolation are over. Those parties don’t have the future. On the other hand, left wing movements like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain embrace globalism in its true sense. They look toward a future of mixed races and peoples and cultures, living together in mutual respect. This is another difference between between right and left, the most significant one: the right is based on fear, the left is based on hope.



Forms of Violence in the ‘Umbrella Movement’ of Hong Kong

Umbrella Revolution, Iwo Jima style. Foto by Raymond Kam.

Umbrella Revolution, Iwo Jima style. Foto by Raymond Kam.

Dear people,

This is the translation of another article recently published by Miguel Ángel Martínez, on his blog ‘Orquídeas en Hong Kong‘. For continuous updates on the situation on Hong Kong, check my RebelMouse page, here.

“Let’s talk about violence. Political violence, to be exact. The most noteworthy episode of violence in the history of Hong Kong dates back to 1967. Between May and December there were strikes, armed clashes, domestic bombings and a Chinese military incursion leaving 45 people dead and resulting in hundreds of arrests. Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841-2 and was ruled with an iron fist. However, the city’s industrialization attracted a wave of labour immigrants from China, some of whom also rejected the model of triumphant communism after 1949. The revolt of 1967 was inspired by the Cultural Revolution and was explicitly supported by the Chinese authorities. In that context it could be interpreted as anti-capitalist and anti-colonial.

The next trauma was decades later: Tiananmen, 1989. The protests of students occupying the main square in Beijing lasted for about seven weeks. This time, the Chinese authorities decided to dissolve it with heavy artillery. There are no official figures about the number of young people killed and arrested, but estimates speak of several thousands. Hong Kong and Taiwan were the preferred destinations of those who could escape the crackdown. Since then, every June 4 a massive memorial vigil is held in Hong Kong. Today, China still bans the mention of the Tiananmen massacre. The “June 4th movement” merely intended to open up a window of democracy and human rights parallel to state socialism which had embraced capitalist reforms (privatization and openness to foreign capital), initiated in 1978 by the “one-party” (the Chinese Communist Party, CCP).

The agreement between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and United Kingdom (UK) to transfer sovereignty of Hong Kong was signed in 1984. It included the confirmation that the Chinese military would have a base in Hong Kong. The colonial government was already busy trying to purge its police forces of endemic corruption. With shady maneuvers a certain social peace was negotiated with the local mafias (“triads”). Everything was ready for the start of the new regime on July 1, 1997, under the model “one country, two systems”, based on a mini-constitution (Basic Law) in effect for 50 years. This way Hong Kong became a “Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China”. More capitalism and limited democracy where the “economic sector” fills half the seats of Parliament. Still, for now Hong Kong can count on more press freedom and judicial independence than the rest of China. Add to this two anomalies: crime rates among the lowest in the world, and economic inequality rates among the highest.

September 2014. Globalized world media display the occupations of public spaces featured by the “umbrella movement”. Their first demand is to achieve universal suffrage with “civic nomination” of candidates for president and not the pre-selection of candidates from Beijing by a nominating committee composed of 1,200 members. The idea was to create the possibility to have a government that doesn’t take orders from Beijing. For this, people are prepared to risk their lives in the streets. It’s now or never. The deepest political crisis since 1997. In my opinion, the pro-democracy movement seeks greater autonomy for Hong Kong and to defend the local “system” from being overrun by the Chinese regime. The Tiananmen memorials, the demonstrations in 2003 against a law of “national security” and in 2012 against an education reform to include the “patriotic” subject of “brainwashing” are solid precedents. Then spontaneity came only to some extent.

Like the previous movement, it were once again the students who took the initiative. In fact they will be most affected by what can happen after 2047. They also face the most economic uncertainties in a precarious labour market with real estate speculation also unparalleled in the rest of the world. They are not only irritated by China’s social control (“where Facebook and Twitter don’t work”) or its rampant corruption and impunity, but also by its continued attempts to colonize Hong Kong both on a political level, a mediatic level, and economically, with business elites always supporting the “one-party”. Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), launched by a group of academic and other organizations (among which also the students), had been preparing for more than a year to take the streets peacefully for several days and assuming the penal consequences. After a week of student strikes, which began on September 22, they joined the civil disobedience.

It has been three weeks of occupation of three areas in the city. All through town major traffic arteries have been blocked. In recent days, police have dismantled several roadblocks, and charged protesters with batons and pepper spray. It was a return to scenes from the first night which triggered the outrage in a society that isn’t used to this kind of police violence. Dozens of young people have been arrested. Many journalists have been subject to police aggression. Some areas have been reoccupied, also as a result of electronic organization by groups who don’t feel represented, neither by the student organizations, nor by OCLP. Many barricades were reinforced with more materials than ever. Hand to hand combat (with all kinds of objects exhibited by the two parties) and mutual insults have increased, with the result that tension is skyrocketing. The blunders of the government in each official statement did not contribute to a cooling down of tensions.

On Wednesday October 15th a local television station showed footage of seven policemen kicking a young man lying on the ground after having been arrested. The tortured boy is a member of a party from the “pan-democratic” camp. He said the beatings continued in the police van. Although authorities have announced that they will investigate the case and have already suspended the police officers, the episode has been a severe blow to the social trust in institutions that until recently were widely respected. The prestige of the police had already suffered the week before when hundreds of anti-occupy militants verbally and physically attacked protesters, destroying everything in their path. They brought trucks and cranes for this purpose and dozens of taxis, summoned by a professional organisation that supported them from the rear. Other groups, almost entirely made up of women, blocked the distribution the Apple Daily newspaper for several days because of its support for the student rebellion. The police were accused of collusion with these groups because they left them untouched and didn’t make any arrests. These outbreaks of “counter-movement” continued to repeat themselves in recent days and have been linked to the secret agents of the CCP and local mafias. Dirty war and shadow politics as symptoms of what is most abhorred in China.

After the first night of police charges it seemed like the government had given instructions to tolerate several kilometers of occupations and blocked streets. To restore their damaged image in the eyes of the world authorities decided to play the card of threatening immediate eviction without effectively sending in the police. In those days and nights thousands of people of all ages came together, everywhere social and political messages proliferated on the walls, there were lectures and speeches followed with patience and attention, and you could feel an unusual festive atmosphere of enthusiasm, creativity and efficient self-organization. The pacifist strategy gained followers and positive media coverage. Although some nearby shops and taxi drivers claimed to have suffered losses, overall life continued normally in the rest of the city.

It was the emergence of anti-occupy that paved the way for stronger police intervention, two types of violence that have gone hand in hand with the editorial guidelines of the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the CCP. This paper hasn’t ceased to accuse the protesters of being subversive, disobedient, infiltrated by foreign interests and destructive of economic prosperity. The official version forgot to mention that the Chinese authorities have canceled organized tours to Hong Kong, censored the diffusion of news about the protests and arrested dozens of people for its dissemination. Neither did it mention that US organizations like NDI (National Democratic Institute) have funded the Hong Kong Federation of Women of which the wife of the current “chief executive” C.Y. Leung is the honorary chairman and which has expressly opposed OCLP in a recent newspaper ad. The cyber-attacks on critical news media in Hong Kong have continued and intensified in recent weeks.

Because of all these forms of violence, is likely that unarmed struggle in the face of the storm has its time running out. But there is no doubt that political life has taken a ‘big leap forward’ by extending public debate and rescueing it from the stranglehold of professional politics and a regime of very limited and threatened democracy.”

About Hong Kong

Foto via Tumblr

Foto via Tumblr

Dear people,

Protest in Hong Kong flare up after a week which saw violence by agents provocateur and talks with the government breaking down. I translated another piece about the context of the protest by Miguel Ángel Martínez. Original here.

Various Layers of Social Movement in Perspective: About Hong Kong

“It’s Monday and we have to return to class. It has been two weeks of demonstrations. A student strike and one by the ‘umbrella movement’. To call it a ‘revolution’ seems a bit exaggerated. On Sunday negotiations resumed between the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and the government of the ‘Special Administrative Region’ (SAR). They were frozen since Friday as anti-occupy groups had entered the scene attacking protesters and trying to dismantle occupations with the passive complicity of the police. So yesterday, while I was walking around several of the key points of the movement, I thought about all the actors involved in this social movement and the necessary contextualization needed to understand all this beyond the ethnographical point of view, which is my favourite.

The most simplistic version would be to focus on two actors: generally, an organization that leads the movement and the authority of the state (local, regional or national, depending on the situation). The latest news about the negotiations in Hong Kong seem to highlight this polarity. But then the next question is, what about Scholarism (the other strong organization in secondary education) and OCLP (Occupy Central with Love and Peace) which have been preparing the ground for ‘civil disobedience’ and democracy for over a year? In particular, OCLP announced on the last day of the student strike that they were starting their campaign that Sunday, which irritated many people as it was seen as a sign of rivalry for protagonism. In fact, four zones have been occupied in the city (although the Canton Road has been ephemeral) and none of them was in Central. At the moment there are not many differences between these groups as far as the immediate goals of the protest are concerned (universal suffrage with ‘public nomination’ of candidates), but neither is there a unified front, nor can their conflict about who represents the whole movement and the general public be settled by a single blow. Something similar happened after the success of the mobilization in 2003 that paralyzed the attempt of the local government to implement Article 23 of the mini-constitution (Basic Law) relating to crimes of disorderly conduct and ‘national security.’ After their success the coalition quickly disintegrated. True, two ministers went down with them, plus prime minister Tung Chee Hwa, who resigned after months without admitting up to what point his resignation was due to the movement.

And what is the position of the current government headed by C.Y. Leung? Obviously, very weak, but they are not alone. Behind it, there’s the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), although it’s not sure if the Party is simply supporting Leung, telling him what to do, or preparing his downfall. C. Y. Leung was elected with 689 votes of the 1,200 members that make up the nominating committee which still elects the SAR head of government. This is why we have seen the number 689 so often on the streets, together with the demand that Yeung should find another job. Since being elected he has not lost the label of being an undercover CCP member since the Party does not exist in Hong Kong and, strangely, the Basic Law doesn’t allow the president to be affiliated with any political party. The big question is: how autonomous is the government and the SAR itself? The CCP does not want to lose its privilege to endorse the Hong Kong presidency, which ultimately comes down to a veto right. And its spokesmen have made it clear on many occasions that the president needs to be someone ‘who loves Hong Kong and who loves China.’ With this same cryptic language they also use in the rest of their propaganda (think about the usual rhetoric on the pursuit of a ‘harmonious society’ when everyone knows that society is permeated by rampant corruption) they are simply threatening: they will not accept a president who opposes the policies and instructions that come from the CCP. Autonomy is okay, but within limits.

Is the umbrella movement opposed to the CCP? No doubt, but it only targets the person it believes to be Beijing’s fool in Hong Kong: C.Y. Leung. This means that what is at stake is not civic nomination of candidates and universal suffrage for permanent residents (little is said of non-permanent residents living in Hong Kong for less than seven years, or foreign domestic workers who do not even have the right to reside in a different home from that of their employers). It aims to strengthen the autonomy of the SAR, develop it and, above all, establish it as a defensive wall against the usual interference by the CCP. This is why many people these days have criticised the silence of the UK, whose PM Margaret Thatcher signed the Joint Statement in 1984 for the transfer of sovereignty of the colony to China in 1997 under the model ‘one country, two systems’. The agreement was deposited with the United Nations and it is assumed that both parties are still responsible for its observation and monitoring. But China today has grown a lot and continues to warn the United Kingdom and the rest of the international community it will not allow any interference in its ‘internal affairs’.

If we start digging into the memories from the colonial period (1841-1997) it’s important to note that Hong Kong was also a ‘refuge area’ for those who were persecuted in China and other countries of the region. With the triumph of the CCP in 1949, a considerable ammount of anti-communist of immigrants arrived in Hong Kong, also because it was a safe place for their mobile capital, and many had their property in China seized. Various religious congregations that were banned on the mainland retreated to Hong Kong and continue to manage a large part of the education sysytem in the former colony. One of the three leaders of OCLP is a prominent religious figure and at the occupations of the past week I have seen many expressions of Christian symbolism with people praying and singing. Although political and economic control remained in the hands of the British motherland and its elites, the economic reforms in China from 1980s onwards benefited the industrial development of Hong Kong which was already emerging as an ‘Asian tiger’ and a neoliberal enclave. Obviously, at that time there was no democracy in China or Hong Kong but, in their way, the elites of each side argued that they exercised their own unique model of ‘popular’ and ‘colonial’ democracy, respectively. It didn’t stop a new flow of immigration to the colony, motivated mainly by the economic difference between the two areas and the short distance with few obstacles between the first ‘special economic zone’ created by the CCP in Shenzen and the colonial free trade paradise of Hong Kong. Of Hong Kong’s over 7 million residents (and as many tourists each year), a large part of its working class comes from these contemporary migration flows. So, are we seeing another typical middle class students uprising for the basic values ​​of liberal democracy that have never disrupted daily business in Hong Kong? What type of democracy does this immense labour force aspire to, trapped as it is in low wages on both sides of the border? And do all people who have taken the streets and helped to shake the fragile government feel represented by the student organisations? Let’s not forget that the Basic Law is valid for 50 years and that the younger generation is primarily concerned with the period after 2047 when there will be ‘one country, one system’ without any of the opportunities for protest such as the current one, which is absolutely impossible in the rest of China if not at the price of enormous repression.

I must also mention Taiwan. The rise of China’s political and military power is creating new international conflicts in the region (with Japan, the Philippines, etc.) while also worsening internal strife (in Xinjiang and Tibet, especially, but also environmental and labor protests). However, Taiwan is the hardest nut that the CCP could not crack until recently. The last president elected in Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, has exasperated part of the most independentist population by trying to strengthen ties with Beijing. The ‘one country, two systems’ formula is offered by the CCP in order for Taiwan to rejoin the motherland despite the military barrier that has been raised by the nationalists between the old island of Formosa and the mainland, with the support of the United States. But there’s little trust in Taiwan where people are following very closely what’s happening in Hong Kong. This past year, students in Taiwan have also led a social movement in opposition to Ma and the CCP using the colour yellow and the sunflower as the symbol of their identity. In a bold and peaceful manner they were able to occupy the seat of parliament for 23 days and managed to get clear legislation approved that regulates the relations between Taiwan and China. Students in Hong Kong have taken up the same yellow colour in its iconography and have followed the Taiwanese example in its intention to storm the highest institutions.

Finally, both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong we have been able to note that these pro-democracy – or, as I prefer to call them, pro-autonomy – movements have been attacked by counter-movements in which the hidden hand of the CCP is recognisable as the likely instigator. In particular, at least two of the occupations in Hong Kong, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, several dozen people, some wearing blue ribbons ‘in defense of the police’ have injured dozens of protesters and smashed up everything they came across. Videos released on social networks and press statements have proven that several of them had criminal records and were paid to burst into the occupations and destroy their pacifist image. Police officers present let them do their thing and only arrested some of them afterwards. It was the perfect excuse for police to show up in large numbers (called for also by HKFS, for protection) and for some of the barricades to be lifted. The rector of my university immediately issued a statement calling for all students to demobilize to avoid greater evils. C.Y. Leung also used this pretext to demand the end of the protests. They have not succeeded, for now, although one of the flanks of the movement has been damaged. In any case, there is no movement that does not have to deal with some sort of counter-movement. In Hong Kong, in fact, for months a university professor has been championing a campaign called ‘Silent Minority’ (SM) whose sole purpose is to neutralize OCLP. In one of the demonstrations called by SM, news media ridiculed them by interviewing participants who said they didn’t know why they were there or had been taken there by tourist guides.

In conclusion, what I wanted to show is that we don’t get a very clear picture if we consider social movements as consisting only of two clashing parties. Even less so if police is the only visible face and teeth of the public authorities and the occult private interests they defend. The press, in its different facets and motivations, also marks a good portion of the battleground. Plus, a historical and class perspective, which I have summarized here briefly, can help us understand if this is about political games for changing one elite with another or if it’s about profound demands for better democracy with a higher doses of economic equality.”