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.”

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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.”


Umbrella Revolution

Via adbusters.org

Via adbusters.org

Dear people,

Revolt seems to have hit the shores of Hong Kong. I’m not there, but here’s a translation of an article by a Spanish blogger on the spot, who explains what’s happening and why. (Check out the original here)

Occupy Hong Kong and the Contradictions of Neoliberalism in China.

“It’s 10 a.m. in Hong Kong, 6 hours later than Madrid. When I woke up this morning, the occupation was still there. I can almost see it clearly from my window. It’s the one in the district of Mong Kok (on the mainland, Kowloon), because there are two more occupations active on the “island”, which is Hong Kong proper. One is in Admiralty, near the government offices. Another is in Cause Way Bay, one of the congested commercial districts. The barricades cutting traffic there are still standing. They are simple barricades, made of fences and some street furniture. Some of them have been erected by police themselves about 500 meters from the zones where people use to gather. I also see the dozens of buses that have been stranded in the area since Sunday. By now they have become walls of democracy, on which people have attached all kinds of messages. The banners and signs on Nathan Road Avenue and the people sitting on the driveway for the last five days are a unique scene in the city. This is one of the busiest arteries. They are unbearable unless the masses of people and the urban ant nest generate an addictive curiosity in you, as is my case. The pollution there is usually around level 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, these days it’s down to 4 or 5. I can finally walk or cycle without having to fight with heavy traffic. The streets are ours, for now, and me, I also feel part of local issues, no matter that I’m an immigrant.

How did it all start? According to the official accounts of the tabloids, we are now on day 5 of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, because the tear gas canisters that were launched last Sunday supposedly mark the official beginning. Actually, college students have declared a “boycott” of classes on Monday September 22 when they began to manifest in Admiralty. On Friday 26 middle school students joined. On Saturday there were the first police charges that included the use of pepperspray. Hence the use of umbrellas as protection, which were subsequently elevated to symbol of the protests. That first melee conflict triggered a wave of solidarity which filled the streets on Sunday. The police charges and the use of tear gas exacerbated the protest and since then occupations have been consolidated day and night in the three aforementioned areas.

Almost no-one expected police violence of this type, let alone against students aged 15 to 25 for the most part. Only some remember a similar confrontation with the South-Corean trade-unionists who attended the 2005 anti-globalization protests. But earlier this year, at a pro-democracy rally on July 1, attended by an estimated half a million people, there had hardly been any friction with authorities. The only complaints I remember were due to us having to wait for hours without leaving the site because the police had cordoned off the protest and occasionally opened aisles for vehicles and pedestrian traffic that was unrelated to the protest. On June 4 there was another pro-democracy rally, coinciding with the annual wake in commemoration of those who died on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Furthermore, the pro-democracy protests have a long history in Hong Kong, but this time to understand recent events it’s important to highlight the organization of Occupy Central (OC) which has had a strong presence in the media and on the political agenda for over a year now. They have threatened to paralyze the financial center (Central district) if full universal suffrage “in accordance with international standards” was not guaranteed. This past summer they called a successful electronic referendum, which kept their hopes alive to influence government policy on the subject, the so-called “political reform”. But these hopes vanished when the central government in Beijing declared in August that the only universal suffrage will be the choice between 2 or 3 candidates selected by a special committee of 1,200 members, who have so far always been veered towards the interests of Beijing. OC leaders had all but conceded defeat even though they declared their steadfast intention to carry out a sit-in protest. While their plans were being overtaken by the students, OC declared the night from Saturday to Sunday to be the start of their actions and joined its voice to the call for a mobilization that was already underway and being led by the younger generation. Still it should be noted that one of the most prominent student organizations, Scholarism, is also part of the coalition that forms OC.

What are the demands of the “Umbrella Revolution”? The most obvious is the right to direct universal suffrage. The transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was performed in accordance with a mini-constitution, or Basic Law, in which a special status was guaranteed to the region together with numerous freedoms and powers that do not exist in other parts of China. But in the political organization of the region there are many holes left to be filled. One of them is the promise to move towards universal suffrage. As the central government has the power of veto in the election of the president of Hong Kong, it has decided that it also has the authority to interpret the Basic Law in accordance with their own interests and therefore seeks to impose its model of universal suffrage among candidates sympathetic to Beijing. This masquerade is the eye of the current storm. But it is also a symptom of more profound grievances. Since the Basic Law is valid for 50 years, many people suspect that the central government is preparing the ground for a general convergence of the Hong Kong regime with the rest of China. In other words, every time more freedoms, rights and democratic institutions could be suppressed. And some recent policies seem to point in this direction, like the attacks on press freedom, academic freedom, and the manipulation of the history curriculum in schools for example.

On the other hand, as we are observing a large and complex social movement, we have to wonder how many underlying motives are actually playing their part in this. This is a tricky question because it requires us to take into account the entire discourse (and in my case I only have access to what is pronounced in- or translated into English) and understand the overall context. According to everything I read in the streets, in the press and on social networks, I think people want to bring about a Western-style liberal democracy to serve as a containing wall against the authoritarianism of mainland China. Hardly anyone speaks about changing the dominant capitalist economic system and even less its logistic, commercial and financial base that has been giving such good returns to this global city ever since its deindustrialization. It is a paradoxical situation because under colonial rule the city did not enjoy full democracy either. But the brutal repression in Tiananmen reinforced the overwhelming opposition to capitalist authoritarianism by the Communist Party and helped forge the unique ‘identity’ of Hong Kong which embraces colonial legacies such as ‘the rule of law’ and administrative efficiency. Corruption, censorship and repression in mainland China are considered some of the ills which Hong Kong seems to be able to keep at bay.

Finally, it is no coincidence that it’s mostly young people out on the streets. Not only do they have more resources and opportunities to do so, but they will also live more years of their existence under the post-2047 regime than other generations. And they are not only concerned about their freedoms, but also about their welfare. Although the unemployment rate is around 3%, the prospects do not look very promising, because over a third of society is living below the official poverty line. It’s an extreme neoliberal regime based on “workfare” where there are lots of jobs available, but many are so poorly paid and have so few rights that you need to be very optimistic and do a lot of somersaults in order to stay afloat. Getting into college is a privilege for less than a quarter of those who aspire to go to university, and the tuition fees are not cheap (about 4,000 euros per year in the eight publicly funded universities). The housing prices are the second most expensive in the world, behind New York, and waiting lists for access to social housing are saturated for decades, which makes for numerous cases of overcrowding and substandard housing. Some of the principal grievances are concerned with property speculation by foreign capital, especially from China, which invests in local real estate as if it were a casino, causing prices to rise through the roof. Money laundering of proceeds from corruption, among other sources of illegal income, like is also happening in nearby Macau, often in collusion with the big banks, has repeatedly proven to be at the root of this fast-paced economic activity. In the absence of unemployment benefits or public pensions the system forces anyone to indebt themselves or to invest. In fact, the uncontrollable private pension funds that every employed worker needs to subscribe to, have been nurtured by legislation that is increasingly questioned. And if that were not enough, the city-state of Hong Kong enjoys an extraordinary financial surplus even though its successive governments continue to recommen austerity and prudence, together with cuts in social benefits. We might add that the city hosts many of the greatest fortunes of the world, which makes the gap and the social polarization even more unbearable, even though everyday life seems oddly sunk in motley peaceful coexistence. There are also 300,000 domestic workers (mostly Indonesians and Filipinos) subject to draconian conditions of exploitation, abuse and legal hindrance.

Under the carpet of luxury, consumerism, waste and growth without limits, there is a divided society that struggles for dignity and self-determination of their future. In line with a rich experience of struggle and previous actions, including two surprising victories (in 2003 when people opposed the “national security” legislation, and in 2012 when students and the entire education sector, managed to paralyze a plan to implement the “patriotic education”) we can say that there’s a long road ahead. Not only on the streets but also in the institutions, despite the oppressive model that currently prevails.”