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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