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.”