Eyewitness Hong Kong: The 'Umbrella Revolution' unfurls

By Sean Starrs

October 1, 2014 -- The Bullet (Socialist Project, Canada), posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The largest student demonstrations and occupations in Hong Kong's history are unfurling in what is increasingly being called the “Umbrella Revolution”, in reference to the sea of umbrellas being used as cover against both pepper-spraying riot police and the rays of the sun.

It began as a Hong Kong-wide class boycott on September 22, with around 10,000 university and college students congregating on the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus for speeches and lectures on civil disobedience. Moving across town to a sit-in on September 24 in front of the main Hong Kong government buildings in the district of Admiralty, by the night of September 29 it had morphed into an unprecedented occupation of four major districts in Hong Kong involving at least 80,000 people, predominantly students.

Three major arteries running through Admiralty, Central and parts of Wan Chai (a roughly 2.5-kilometre by 500-metre area) – constituting the core business and government skyscrapers in Hong Kong, and encompassing the 6000-strong Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) – in addition to the largest intersection in Causeway Bay (Hong Kong's busiest shopping neighbourhood) and the main thoroughfare in Mong Kok and Jordan (Nathan Road) across the harbour in Kowloon (one of the most densely populated districts in the world), are in complete lock-down, with multiple barricades and throngs of students blocking all traffic.

Students, umbrellas and occupiers

This stunning accomplishment has shocked everyone (including the students themselves) . It follows violent police repression on September 27 and 28 of an intensity not seen on the streets of Hong Kong since 1967, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to spread the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) to the then-British colony.

The main organiser of the week-long boycott of classes, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), had planned on ending the strike and sit-in in front of the government buildings on September 26 evening, but late that night some 200 or so students stormed a police line and fence to occupy a square within the government complex. The police reacted violently with batons and pepper spray, making over 70 arrests, including one of the most high profile student leaders, 17 year-old Joshua Wong, co-founder of the mostly high-school student group Scholarism.

As news of the violent police repression swiftly spread, masses of students and other supporters poured into the whole area, eventually blocking major roads (on September 29 afternoon there were still abandoned BMWs and public buses in the middle of the road surrounded by throngs of students).

On September 27, the three co-founders of the group Occupy Central with Love and Peace announced the commencement of Occupy Central, moved forward from its initial start-date of October 1 (a public holiday in China, including Hong Kong, commemorating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic). Two professors and a clergyman initiated plans in January 2013 to occupy what is now a comparatively tiny section of Central, the downtown core of Hong Kong. Some students accused the co-founders of Occupy Central of opportunism and hijacking the student-initiated mass sit-in, but others welcomed the extra support. By September 29 the three co-founders moved out of the main government building area, with at least one moving to the occupation in Kowloon across the harbour – hence the epicentre of Admiralty remains almost entirely student-driven.

On September 29 scores of businesses could not open due to being in the occupied zones, and more than 200 public transportation lines were either cancelled or heavily diverted, the former including the iconic double-decker trams. According to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (the territory's de facto central bank), “23 banks including HSBC and Standard Chartered had closed a total of 44 branches, offices and cash machines”. Both the Hong Kong dollar and the Hang Seng stock index fell on September 29 morning. Hong Kong's air and noise pollution plummeted from the absence of traffic, with eerie scenes of major thoroughfares several blocks from the epicentre being virtually empty on that afternoon (before being filled again with students and supporters by evening). City Hall was forced to shut down for the first time since Typhoon Wanda in 1962.

'Screw us and we multiply'

In the aftermath of September 27-28's violent police repression of peaceful and unarmed students (many of them teenagers) – according to the police themselves firing tear gas 87 times in nine separate areas – support has been broadening and deepening, with thousands more on the streets from the after-work crowd on September 29-30.

The Confederation of Trade Unions and the Professional Teachers Union both called on its members to strike in support of the students. At least 1000 social workers, high-school and university teachers joined the strike, as well as pupils from at least 31 schools. The HKFS extended the student class boycott indefinitely.

The chairperson of Swire Beverages Employees General Union, distributor of Coca-Cola in Hong Kong, announced to cheering students in Admiralty that more than 200 workers joined the strike, while 100 more reduced their hours. There were also reports of some taxi drivers striking. Even certain chief executives supported the strike, with for example CEO Spencer Wong of the McCann advertising firm informing employees: “It's up to you whether you come to work or not. The company will not punish anyone who supports something more important than work.” This is a sharp turnaround from July when the Big Four global accounting firms published a joint warning against Occupy Central of impending chaos if they had their way. A number of legislators, especially from the Civic and Democratic parties, have also expressed support, with some even being arrested on September 27 and 28.

But the vast majority of the initiative, leadership and involvement remains with the students, many of them protesting for the first time. There is a constant stream of supplies pouring into the occupied zones, from water bottles, sodium chloride (first-aid against tear gas) and surgical masks, to food and sleeping mats. Support and donations arrive from people of all walks of life and ages, from a pre-teen helping with clean-up to a 92-year-old woman chanting on the frontlines.

There is no centralised chain of command, with the occupations now far beyond the control of either the leadership of the HKFS or Occupy Central with Peace and Love, with many spontaneous actions sprouting across the occupied zones (such as small groups bringing large objects from afar to construct more and increasingly elaborate barricades along the streets).

Perhaps most significant, even more students poured onto the streets after the leadership of HKFS and Occupy Central on the night of September 28 urged students to return home, as rumours swirled of the impending use of rubber bullets by riot police and increasing fears of a Tiananmen Square-like crack-down (at least 2600 students were massacred in 1989). Many riot police brandished military-style rifles before being taken off the streets on September 29 afternoon, thankfully none were used.

The core demand is for universal suffrage to decide who is Hong Kong's chief executive officer (essentially its mayor), rather than the changes proposed by Beijing on August 29 that would render it impossible for any anti-CCP candidate to run for office. From September 29 morning, another demand being increasingly shouted is for the current chief executive C.Y. Leung to step down and initiate a new reform proposal committee.

What is clear is that the ramped-up police repression failed spectacularly, echoing a sign popular in Madison, Wisconsin in spring 2011: “Screw us and we multiply.” There was widespread outrage over the violent police tactics on unarmed, overwhelmingly peaceful and non-aggressive students, many of them simply quietly sitting around. Yet, as mentioned above, the police fired tear gas 87 times in nine separate areas, according to their own estimate. Incidentally, the stockpile and use of tear gas is banned by the 1993 UN Chemical Weapons Convention, of which China is a signatory. Apart from using tear gas against South Korean farmers during the 2005 WTO protests, the streets of Hong Kong have not seen this chemical weapon since 1967.

The riot police were formally taken off the streets by noon September 29, officially because the “illegal protesters” have “mostly calmed down.” In reality, the riot police were the ones that calmed down once they realised they could not defeat the students.

During the climax of repression on the night of September 28, I was in one area that was tear-gassed around 4-5 times (each barrage with multiple canisters) in only two hours. The police formed two lines and fired tear gas in order to advance toward the epicenter in Admiralty, after which most of the crowd would flee and then quickly regroup, surrounding the police on both sides with hands in the air to show non-violent intent.

On another note, while unprecedented for Hong Kong, the violent police repression was still relatively tame compared to the demeanor, equipment and tactics now often employed by the heavily militarised police in North America, from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests to Ferguson, Missouri last month.

By the afternoon of September 29, there was only a heavy police presence around the government buildings, the PLA HQ and the police HQ (all within a few blocks of each other). Vast areas had no police presence at all, of which many students took ample advantage, extending the barricades several hundred metres to the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the west, into the heart of the poshest shopping district (a significant advancement of occupied territory from September 28).

The expanding 'Umbrella Revolution" is no doubt a momentous conjuncture for Hong Kong, and possibly for China itself. All local news outlets are of course doing live and ongoing coverage, but this has also received much international attention. The New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and others have their Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, and all have given this their front page. There also happen to be a number of veteran China reporters who have been deported from the Mainland in the past year or two (especially from Bloomberg and the New York Times), and most have relocated to Hong Kong – from where they are all too happy to write less than enthusiastically on the CCP and the heavy-handed and disproportionate repression of the Hong Kong police. A common chant heard on the streets is “the world is watching.”

Nothing short of the future of Hong Kong is at stake. Officially, Deng Xiaoping's promise of “one country, two systems” is supposed to last until 2047 (half a century after the 1997 handover), but many in Hong Kong fear that Beijing is gradually moving toward “one country” much sooner. The CCP's attempt to change the security law in 2003 and standardise the education system to emphasise “love of China” in 2012 were both defeated due to hundreds of thousands taking to the streets. The latter incident is the context in which Joshua Wong, then 14 years old, co-founded Scholarism to protest Beijing's attempted interference in Hong Kong's school curriculum.

But this time is different. We are currently in the midst of by far Hong Kong's largest civil disobedience ever. Students have pledged to maintain the occupied zones, vastly larger than Occupy Wall Street or any of its global spawns ever were, until Beijing reneges on its August 29 proposal and grants Hong Kong universal suffrage.

Students are so far incredibly successful, unimaginably more than anyone could have predicted even on September 28. Perhaps most importantly, momentum is on the side of the students, as we begin two Chinese public holidays, October 1 and 2. Whatever the eventual outcome, at the very minimum the Umbrella Revolution will have politicised a new generation of Hong Kongers.

Of course, this doesn't mean everyone will be radicalised, as for example numerous veterans of 1989 Tiananmen Square after being exiled to the West became investment bankers or Silicon Valley capitalists. Nevertheless, others became critical scholars or full-time activists, perhaps most prominently Han Dongfang, the number-one most wanted man by the CCP in the aftermath of June 4, 1989, who gave himself up and was tortured for 22 months in a Chinese prison, and subsequently exiled to Hong Kong where in 1994 he founded China Labour Bulletin, which is still going strong today.

Students and workers stand up, fight back

Moreover, by far the largest act of civil disobedience in Hong Kong history comes at a very awkward time for the Chinese Communist Party, which at least partly explains the unprecedented and swift but spectacularly failed attempt by the Hong Kong police to violently repress the students and prevent their momentum from growing. With President Xi Jinping's “anti-corruption campaign” so far targeting only his rival factions, the CCP is currently in the midst of the one of the most serious tests to its unity in decades.

More broadly vis-à-vis the Chinese people, the CCP is increasingly using nationalism and China's “glorious” past, including reviving Confucianism, once reviled by the CCP as a product of feudal and patriarchal authoritarianism, in order to replace “communist” ideology. Indeed, the CCP announced that class struggle was officially over in China, and therefore removed the right to strike from the constitution in 1982.

Yet, since especially the Nanhai Honda strike in 2010, there have been hundreds if not thousands of increasingly daring strikes across China, the largest of which was earlier this year when 40,000 workers at a Dongguan shoe factory went on strike, less than 100 kilometres north of Hong Kong. And certainly after 1989, it is clear that the tenets of freedom of assembly and speech do not jive well with this CCP hegemonic project, yet are very dear to the hearts of many Hong Kongers.

At the time of the handover, Hong Kong's GDP accounted for almost a fifth of China's, yet today it is only 3 per cent. The central government in Beijing will likely do much in its now considerable imbalance of power to prevent any demonstration effect in Hong Kong that might spread to the Mainland. And there is certainly the basis for an Occupy Shenzhen and others across China, as many grievances range from high labour exploitation to severe air pollution, from food safety scandals to rural and urban land seizures, from widespread corruption to increasing violent crime and one of the highest inequality rates in the world.

Hence, especially over the past 10 years, burgeoning social unrest in China seems to be increasingly rattling the upper echelons of the CCP. Since 2009 China spends more on domestic security than external military defence. And the CCP has reacted to the Umbrella Revolution with record Internet censorship on the Mainland, banning many search words such as “Class boycott”, “Occupy Central”, “Hong Kong police” and “Hong Kong tear gas”, while deleting relevant posts on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social network, including all posts with the hashtag #HongKong.

Meanwhile, for the first time, China completely blocked Instagram on September 28, as pictures from Hong Kong started to go viral around the Mainland. There is already contagion internationally, as hundreds of supporters in Taiwan (a country with its own misgivings concerning Beijing's increasing encroachment, as witnessed by its “Sunflower movement” earlier this year when students occupied the Taiwanese parliament) occupied the lobby of the Hong Kong Trade Office. Solidarity demonstrations are also planned across the world over the next couple days, from Paris to Sydney, from San Francisco to Vancouver and Toronto. China, of course, has a massive diaspora abroad, much of which is still deeply connected with the Mainland (as well as Hong Kong).

But back in “Asia's world city”, Beijing is in a real damned if they do, damned if they don't situation. Granting universal suffrage to Hong Kong would be a significant setback for the authority of the CCP, with highly uncertain consequences both in Hong Kong and the Mainland concerning the CCP's paramount goal: the longevity of its power.

But at least at the time of writing, tens of thousands of students and their supporters remain  entrenched in the three main occupied zones. Seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong of Scholarism has said that most do not expect Beijing to back down, but that was last week. Similarly, many a week ago expected Occupy Central to fail in occupying only a tiny square in Central; even the co-founders did not dare to dream of maintaining a complete lock-down of vast swathes of Hong Kong spanning three of its most important neighborhoods.

As of the night of September 30 Hong Kong time, the possibility of what would be an historic retreat by the Chinese Communist Party with unknown consequences is at least slightly higher than it was only a few days earlier. And very few seriously give any likelihood to a bloodbath on the scale of the Tiananmen Square massacre. There would simply be too big a risk that Hong Kong would be rendered utterly ungovernable if such a tragedy occurred. Beijing also signalled on September 28 that it would not intervene, and praised the Hong Kong police for handling the situation well.

That was, however, before the massive student success and advancements on September 29 that have continued. If the student-led occupations cannot be defeated soon, each day that goes by increases the risks for Beijing of contagion. In the immediate short term, the students have this October 1 and 2 on their side, as both are public holidays. The annual fireworks celebrating the coming to power of the CCP on October 1, 1949, have been cancelled by the Hong Kong government. An average 800,000 Mainlanders cross the border into Hong Kong every day, and this will see a sizable increase due to the national holidays.

One problem, however, is that the vast majority of students have very little political experience, let alone an awareness of the incompatibility of capitalism and democracy, not to mention the environment. Some make the connection between increasing inequality in Hong Kong, with universal suffrage as a means to counter the power of tycoons, the majority of whom are pro-Beijing and of course favour the status quo.

I have argued in an opinion piece that will be published by Hong Kong's main English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, that too few discuss whether political democracy is possible without economic democracy.

Regardless, this is certainly a giant first step in politicizing a new generation of Hong Kongers, a populace more known for shopping in gleaming malls rather than occupying vast swathes of the third-most important financial centre in the world. Also, from my own very limited one-month experience so far teaching at City University of Hong Kong, many students are extraordinarily receptive to criticism of capitalism at large, more so than my former students at York University in Toronto.

The Umbrella Revolution and the global cycle of protest

As should be clear, the Umbrella Revolution is shaped by specific local conditions in Hong Kong. With that said, it must be placed in the broader context of occupations and popular uprisings the world over that have been inspired by the Arab Spring, especially the occupation of Tahrir Square in early 2011. The occupation of Tahrir Square inspired the occupation of the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin and the indignados of Madrid, Spain – both of which inspired Occupy Wall Street in September 2011 and the subsequent blossoming of Occupies around the world, including the original Occupy Central, one of the longest-lasting camps, until September 2012.

And as the Umbrella Revolution and other recent protests around the world reveal, the conditions continue to be ripe for politicising the masses of especially young people for the first time (as well as occasionally breathing fresh air into the spirits of 1968 Paris and 1999 Seattle veterans, among others).

The ranks of those receptive to radical system change around the world continues to swell as the 21st century progresses, even if some also drop out and/or need greater encouragement. In any case, in regard to the largest civil disobedience ever in Hong Kong, anyone's crystal ball as to how this will end is as uncertain as anyone else's. What is certain, however, is that the humble umbrella will forever have a new significance in Hong Kong: to protect not only from rain and shine, but also from the instruments of state repression.

[Sean Starrs is assistant professor of international relations at the City University of Hong Kong. He received his Ph.D. in June 2014 at York University, Toronto. He thanks Jordy Cummings for encouraging him to write this.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 10/03/2014 - 12:32



Luke Cooper spoke to Benny Tai Yiu-ting, one of the founders of Occupy Central in Hong Kong, about the growth of the movement and the prospects for real democracy free from the influence of Beijing
September 2014

Occupy Central and Occupy Hong Kong camp at the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong SAR, China (2012). Photo: Remko Tanis/Flikr.

The emergence of Occupy Central has recast Hong Kong’s political landscape over the last twenty-one months. Lively public debate over the polity’s governance developed in response to widespread concerns that Beijing would only commit to universal suffrage in 2017 if elections were restricted to party-approved candidates.

Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who put the original call out for the campaign of civil disobedience, spoke to Luke Cooper in Hong Kong shortly before the Chinese government confirmed the worst fears of the public with its recent announcement.

LC: Benny, I know that you’ve played a leading role in founding the Occupy Central movement over the last period. Perhaps we could start with an explanation of what led you to make the original call for a campaign of civil disobedience.

BT: That’s a long story. I’ve been involved in the democratic movement for thirty years, since I was a student at Hong Kong University in the mid-1980s. At that time, it was just the start of the Hong Kong democratic movement. We were striving for the election of our legislature – not yet for the chief executive because we were still under colonial rule and no such position existed. The ruling governor was still just ‘sent to us’ from London. Then I graduated and started to work at the university. I played less of a front line role, becoming more of a commentator and researcher. As a legal scholar, I was interested in constitutional law, which obviously has a very close relationship with the democratic movement and constitutional development.

After twenty years teaching and playing a less frontline role in the democratic movement, in 2013 we reached a point in Hong Kong where we needed to think about a way to achieve true universal suffrage in 2017 for our chief executive election. China has promised that we can have universal suffrage, but what do they mean by this? They tend to play with the concept. The kind of universal suffrage they say Hong Kong could have is just the right to vote, but who can you vote for? That will be something controlled by the nominating committee. And the nominating committee composition will follow the structure of the existing election committee – who are responsible for deciding the Chief Executive now – and represents a small circle of the elite with only a very narrow base in society.

This kind of universal suffrage, I like to call it “Chinese characteristics of universal suffrage”, will not be able to stand alongside what we believe to be the internationally accepted standards of universal suffrage. If that is the position of Beijing in the internal politics of Hong Kong, then we currently have no way to match their power. We must find some ways to raise and increase our bargaining power in the coming negotiation. We have used big rallies in the past. Sometimes these have been successful. Sometimes they have failed in achieving our goals.

But this time, because we are touching on something very important to Beijing, I suggested we have to find some other methods to achieve our goals. So that is why I proposed the idea of using civil disobedience. The idea of Occupy Central (‘Central’ is Hong Kong’s financial district) is borrowed from Occupy Wall Street, but with a different goal: not anti-capitalism but a democratic movement. We will have 10,000 people there with our plan clearly stated. The hope is that we can build and develop sufficient pressure for Beijing to modify the stance it has sadly taken.

LC: Could you describe how Occupy Central has developed since you put out the call?

BT: I wrote a public article suggesting the campaign in January of that year and two months later I, along with Professor Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, put out a public call to form the Occupy Central campaign, inviting people to sign it if they agree with our goals. The three of us – coming from civil society or the academic sphere, though Reverend Chu has more links with civil society groups – wanted this action to be the property of civil society and not just the Hong Kong political parties.

We wanted to organise a movement for democracy in a democratic way. So the first thing that we did was to organise a deliberative meeting, open to all, but specifically inviting a number of civil society groups and political parties.

We had 700 people there in a half-day meeting back on 9th June 2013. We discussed and set the agenda on the day so that everyone who attended was involved.

Then we organised a series of other deliberative meetings with specific civil society groups, which each have their own networks and people to link with. So we have meetings with the churches, the social workers, the students, a number of other groups, each discussing it with their members. These took place in October to February last year. And then in May this year, we had the third deliberative meeting, which considered all the proposals put forward, with 2,500 people participating.

The last meeting chose three different proposals, which were to be put to a civil referendum. This was not an ‘official’ referendum but was organised by civil society; this allowed everyone in Hong Kong to participate and choose their favoured proposal of the three that came out of the meeting.

800,000 people voted in the referendum and we had one proposal that had the highest number of votes – which is now the proposal of the whole movement.

LC: What was common to the three proposals that came out of the meeting?

BT: In March this year, we had a group of international experts on human rights law, election law and constitutional law, who came to Hong Kong and met with local legal experts and researchers in political system design. They came up with a set of principles for international standards in the application of universal suffrage. We used this set of principles and applied it to a number of proposals and came up with 15 different options that were taken to the deliberative meeting of 2,500 people.

All three proposals included an arrangement for public nomination meaning that individual voters could jointly nominate a candidate with others – they would require simply one per cent of the total electorate, around 35,000 people. This proposal was common to the three proposals that came out of the meeting, although they had different arrangements on the composition of the nominating committee.

LC: You’ve talked about how the movement has organised itself through deliberative assemblies. The relationship between political parties and civil society has been something that is frequently discussed in the global justice movement. Could you outline the nature of the connection between the Occupy Central movement and political parties, such as the Pan-Democrats?

BT: The political parties participate in the movement not as an organisation but rather as individual members. Their members join in the deliberative meetings. When votes occur people cast their own personal vote and not the vote of a political party. This is not a coalition of the parties, and not a coalition of parties and organisations, but the decisions are instead made by individuals within the movement. We do however work together with the members of the political parties and also the civil society groups to organise the meetings, especially the second stage which saw a series of meetings with different parts of Hong Kong society. The political parties organised some of these deliberative meetings with their members, as one constituent group in society. These second stage meetings were primarily discussion. No decisions were actually made, which was the role of the larger deliberative meetings for the movement as a whole.

After this second stage we moved towards a stage of negotiations with Beijing. Now the political parties have seats in the Legislative Council so they will have the real decision making power. But through the Occupy movement we connect civil society groups with the political parties. The trust between the two sides needs to be developed. There is some existing distrust there. But we played a role in connecting the two sides. Up until this point we have still been able to maintain a coalition between the civil society groups supporting democracy and the political parties supporting democracy, in order to join together in this action. But nonetheless the relationship is very unstable and we have to work very hard to maintain it and ensure there is trust between the sides. In some respects our coalition is built on weak foundations, but up to this point we have played a role in forging unity. I am not claiming all of the credit for this, but we have played a role in connecting the parties with civil society, which is the hardest part of the movement. Maintaining this relationship is the biggest challenge that we face.

LC: As well as the 800,000 people participating in the Occupy Central referendum, there have been a number of large mobilisations in Hong Kong in recent months. The annual rallies to commemorate the 1st July Movement (which forced the withdrawal of national security legislation curtailing certain freedoms back in 2003) and the Tiananmen Massacre both attracted some 500,000 people. These were not organised by Occupy Central but there is some overlap between the constituencies mobilising. Taken together this suggests that there is a fervour in Hong Kong society for these democratic issues. But I’ve also noticed that the formation of Occupy Central has sparked considerable public commentary, far from all positive. Last Sunday, there was even a pro-Beijing demonstration against Occupy Central! Meanwhile a pro-Beijing petition has apparently received over 1 million names. Do you think its fair to say there has been a public backlash?

BT: Yes, I think there's a clear split that exists in society about Occupy Central. Yet even though there may be a lot of people who supported the public signature campaign against Occupy Central, this is more of a top-down movement that has been carefully coordinated by Beijing groups and organisations that use their resources to win support, rather than a bottom-up campaign. I admit that while many people who have been listed as signatories may not have actually signed it, many people who went to the demonstration you mentioned may not have known why they were there, and may even have been paid to attend, there is nonetheless still a substantial number of people in Hong Kong who are truly against Occupy Central and the things we are doing.

There are 800,000 people who expressed their views through the civil referendum, supporting universal suffrage on certified international standards. But there is also a substantial number opposed to us, which may be bigger, or may be smaller, we don’t know exactly, who need to be taken seriously. We are now reaching a situation where we have two opposing views in society. So the challenge for us in how we can find a consensus between the groups.

There is also a group of moderates. And the group of moderates do not like society to be split in this way. They may not agree with Occupy Central but they think universal suffrage should be supported. So they agree with the goal of the movement, but they disagree with the means, i.e. civil disobedience. But this middle group will not join with the anti-Occupy Central campaign, because they have no demands on the meaning of universal suffrage. So they think we are wrong to occupy the central area, but want to see a substantial form of universal suffrage. We have therefore three sides. We must find a way to reach a consensus in the whole of society so that we can proceed to the future constitutional development.

LC: I know you probably won’t refer to statistics as such, but according to your impression what is the type of people that have been attracted to the Occupy Central movement, in terms of age, social class, etc?

BT: You can actually look at the survey undertaken by professors at the Baptist University Hong Kong on attitudes to the mainland and the Occupy Central movement. From the survey we found that Occupy Central has around 38 per cent support in the population, and against us is more than 50. But we found that our support amongst people under 29 is more than 50 per cent, and amongst those that have been to university is again more than 50 per cent. And those with a higher average of household income also indicated a higher level of support. This is the type of support that we have: younger people, educated, higher income groups.

LC: That’s very interesting. When you talked about the Occupy influence earlier you said that you took a similar idea but without the anticapitalist or austerity-focused form of politics. But how important do you think socio-economic demands are to reaching out to other social groups in Hong Kong?

BT: We have groups within Occupy Central that want the whole movement to also include campaigning for socio-economic rights. But we think it’s better to keep it simple: that we want to have universal suffrage that is more on the level of democratic and political rights, not socio-economic rights. This is not to say that I personally disagree with this kind of view, but if we include reference to this it will be harder to maintain the unity of the movement that is already on weak grounds in some respects. Now if we had universal suffrage those who wanted to pursue more protection of socio-economic rights would have more opportunities to express their view, and more opportunity to raise these campaigns and demands.

LC: So in terms of the traditional left/right spectrum where would you say that Occupy Central sits or is it difficult to define the movement in these terms?

BT: It is very difficult to say given the situation here. In Hong Kong, when you say “the left” what do you mean by “the left”? In everyday discussion you mean the Communist Party. But interestingly enough in Hong Kong the Communist Party work very closely with business people, the very wealthiest people. But they also have influence over some trade unions. So it’s interesting that this “left” in Hong Kong has among its supporters some who are at the furthest end of the right. You can say that we are on the centre, perhaps. But we also have the labour groups supporting us. We also have the lawyers and professionals who may classify themselves as more on the right, but they are also supporting us. So you cannot put the thing in such a simple way of either left or right. It’s more about the relationship with China. In Hong Kong, we have this very unique situation. The way we draw the line is not the traditional left or right but in our relationship with China. Those who China cannot trust, or those who do not trust China, etc, are on the one side, and those who support the regime are on the other side. This is where the line is drawn.

I hope that if we can achieve universal suffrage we can go back to the normal kind of political spectrum with a left and right. Labour groups whether or not they have a good relationship with China would, in this situation, be able to work together to pursue socio-economic rights. And also some of the political parties that now may be considered anti-Beijing will no doubt join with the businessman in supporting Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong if we had real democracy. There will be a very different political geography once our struggle for universal suffrage has been won.

LC: A student activist I spoke to made a similar point about Communist Party support in Hong Kong that it combines the support of the very, very rich with some of the poorest sections of society. To what extent has the CCP been successful in creating a quasi-civil society, so to speak, around itself in Hong Kong since 1997?

BT: Oh yes I think they have been quite successful. They have been able to utilise the resources of the state to secure this. Take for instance one of the biggest parties in Hong Kong, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which is the main pro-Beijing political party. They are able to win a lot of seats at the local municipal level because in those elections the voters care more about the services that the district councillors can provide for them. So if the councillors can organise tours to visit the mainland or, at festival time, distribute mooncake, etc, for people living in the district, then they will be popular locally. How are they able to do this? Because they have the resources. Why do they have the resources? Because Beijing is behind them. The DAB also get a lot of money from business people who want to have a close connection to the DAB because of their economic interests in mainland China. Why is this? Well we can say it's obviously not a communist party now; look at the policies they apply in mainland China. This is a society that is even more capitalist than many capitalist societies! If you want to do business in China then you must have good relations with the CCP. If you want to have good relations with the CCP you have to support the DAB in Hong Kong. These resources are then passed on by the pro-Beijing groups to help people of the lower classes, and it is partly successful in winning their support. So this is the situation.

LC: Some of the people I have spoken to, despite being very supportive of the Occupy Central movement, have in private been quite pessimistic about the situation and the possibility of Beijing conceding to the movement’s demands. But given the CCP has this social base in Hong Kong doesn’t that provide some scope for them to compromise and accept the movement’s democratic demands?

BT: We are making a similar argument. If the anti-Occupy Central movement can assemble over 1 million names supporting their demands then that means they have a very big social base. Why worry about democratic election that they’ll still be able to win? Actually we try to make the point that it’s very unlikely even that Hong Kongers would vote for a Pan-Democrat Chief Executive because they know such a candidate would not be able to work with Beijing. The Communist Party also to some degree understand this. They know that in the coming 2017 election a pro-Beijing candidate, i.e. one Beijing can trust, would be elected. But what they would not want is to see is any possibility of losing whatsoever. They want 100 per cent control over the matter.

LC: Perhaps as a final point we can discuss how your position as a legal scholar relates to all this. The Basic Law – the constitution of Hong Kong that enshrines ‘one country, two systems’ – is a rather unusual historical document because despite being agreed by the Communist Party it protects many basic rights and freedom, such as the rule of law, and establishes an independent judiciary. Given that the judiciary have the power of ‘final adjudication’ over whether laws are deemed constitutional do you see this as important to creating a space for political activism like Occupy Central? And how secure do you believe these rights are?

BT: This is a complicated question. But first thing to say is that I am a researcher into the rule of law in Hong Kong and I am interested in how it can be maintained. I find that the situation of the rule of law is deteriorating and one of the reasons for that is we don’t have a democratic electoral system to put it on a solid foundation. The rule of law is not just judicial independence – yes, this is important and many people emphasise this – but how to ensure judicial independence? You must have sufficient limits on the powers of the executive branch before you can have a good protection of this. And without democratic election the kind of protection will be weaker. As the Hong Kong situation deteriorates in terms of the rule of law we have to find a way to increase these protections. This is why we must have a democratic election. I am not saying that we don’t have a rule of law at the moment – we do – but how to protect it has become the central question when we are under a whole number of challenges. So we need to have a democratic system to sustain the rights that we have properly.

The second thing to say on this is about my own advocacy of civil disobedience, because some people have questioned this on the grounds: how can a law professor tell people to breach the law? This poses questions of what we mean by the rule of law, about the ideal of the rule of law, and what we are struggling for today. This is what Hong Kong people have not understood in the past: the mistaken idea that if you are planning civil disobedience – and therefore planning to breach the law – then you are somehow going against the rule of law. And this is something that the anti-Occupy Central campaign has developed as one of their main points. But the rule of law should not be literally understood as ‘obeying what the law says’. It is rather about whether you have a system of law that can achieve justice, including the political rights and freedoms of the people. So sometimes under certain conditions it is right to breach the law to help us achieve justice. That is the whole spirit of civil disobedience. Other people talking about that may not attract much attention but because I teach law here, at the University of Hong Kong, and am considered to be an expert on the rule of law in Hong Kong, these arguments have been raised over my role in Occupy Central. And this creates an interesting level of theoretical and practical argument within the movement.

LC: And most people I’ve spoken to in the movement think that the rights they enjoy today are more vulnerable than in the past, and that the current situation cannot hold: they can either go forward or back. So to defend what you have at the moment it is necessary to push for more. I assume you would agree with that?

BT: Yes, we see Beijing interfering into Hong Kong affairs more and more. We therefore need a democratic system in Hong Kong to ensure that we enjoy the autonomy that was originally granted under ‘one country, two systems’.

If Benny Tai Yiu-ting thinks he can convince Beijing to allow free elections in Hong Kong by demonstrating that Beijing's candidate will still win, he's seriously wrong. And even if he was right, the campaign of militant civil disobedience would be exactly what would cut off any possibility of Beijing's agreement.

The reason for this is that free elections in Hong Kong would be a beacon to the rest of China, something that everyone there would look to, whether with approval or disapproval. And, if Beijing gives way to the Occupy Central movement, it would be an engraved invitation for the youth of every large Chinese city to try it themselves. There are nine bigger than Hong Kong, including Shenzen just across the border.

Democratic rights, therefore, can only be won in Hong Kong if the struggle is linked to the struggle on the Chinese mainland. The so-called "Communist" Party has to be defeated - and the only social force capable of that is the working class. This is therefore a call for a workers' revolution in China, one that sweeps the Party and its corrupt members and hangers-on into the dustbin of history and puts the working class in control.

This perspective, of course, is completely foreign to that of Occupy Central. Their emphasis on bourgeois political rights is unrealistic, because of the demonstration effects on the mainland if they win their struggle. Nevertheless, the militant civil disobedience campaign is to be supported and commended, because it is leading vast numbers of young Hongkongers to learn important political lessons - not least about the State and its purpose. It will be these young people, and not the Occupy Central leadership, who will go on to found a truly revolutionary movement in Hong Kong, one that will deliberately use the organising space that exists there, in order to seed the nascent working class movement in China with revolutionary ideas.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 10/06/2014 - 18:38


Press Release

30 September 2014

HKCTU calls on international union movement to support Hong Kong people's protest for genuine universal suffrage

19 trade unions' support are pouring in till now

HKCTU has called an emergency strike on 29 September, to protest against the Hong Kong Government's heavy-handed repression of Hong Kong people's freedom of expression and rights to assembly, and police violence against a peaceful protest, organized by students and citizens. Shorter than 24 hours, several unions have joined this call (including Swire Beverages ( Hong Kong) Employees General Union, Union Of Hong Kong Dockers and social workers in Hong Kong). Their actions show that they fear no repression and their determination to fight for democracy till the end.


The international trade unions are also writing to support HKCTU and workers in Hong Kong. By noon, 30 September, International Trade Union Confederation-Asia Pacific, International Union of Food workers, Building and Wood Workers' International, as well as national unions from South Korea, Philippines, Fiji, the USA, Canada, Sweden, the UK, France, Italy and the Republic of Ivory Coast and many others have shown their support to the Hong Kong people. HKCTU has also launched a petition campaign, which more than a thousand signatures from unionists across the world have been collected. Together, we want Leung Chun-ying, Chief Executive of Hong Kong and Xi Jinping, President of China to know that we disapprove of their crackdown and we demand:


1)    The Chinese Government to withdraw its proposal to control Hong Kong's election and return the rights to genuine universal suffrage to Hong Kong people ;

2)    To immediately stop repression and guarantee Hong Kong people's rights to peaceful demonstrations. The authority must bear full responsibility of any crackdown.

In Solidarity,

1.    AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations)

2.    ASA (Asian Students Association)

3.    BWI Asia Pacific (Building and Wood Worker's International for Asia and Pacific)

4.    Canadian Labour Congress

5.    CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour)

6.    CIAGAHCI-DIGNITE (ITUC Affiliate at Ivory Coast)

7.    Flai CGIL (The italian trade Union of Agriculture and Food sector)

8.    FTUC (The Fiji Trades Union Congress)

9.    Global Labour Institute

10. ITUC-Asia Pacific (ITUC Regional Organisation for Asia and Pacific)

11. IUF (International Union of Foodworkers)

12. KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions)

13. KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno)

14. LIVS (Swedish Foodworkers Union)

15. RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, US)

16. Toronto & York Region Labour Council

17. UFCW (The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, US)

18. UNIFOR (Canada’s largest union in the private sector)

19. UNITE HERE (The hotel, food service and gaming union in the United States and Canada)

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 10/10/2014 - 12:36


Where did the mass protests in Hong Kong emerge from and where are they going?

Willy AuYeung / Flickr

Willy AuYeung / Flickr

In an interview originally published in German for the magazine Marx21, Sophia Chan from Left 21 discusses the protest wave sweeping Hong Kong. The English translation appeared on rs21.

When did the protests start and why? What was the turning point?

The protest was actually a result of a long battle for democracy. When the British handed Hong Kong back over to China in 1997, the Chinese government promised both in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the mini constitution of Hong Kong (the Basic Law) that a democratic system eventually would be implemented in Hong Kong. After decades of delay and making excuses, in August this year the National People’s Congress of the PRC declared that the so-called democracy that Hong Kong would have is a system where Beijing will basically vet two to three candidates for voters to choose from. Also, the candidates would have to gain at more than 50 percent of nominations from a tiny electoral committee of 1,200 people, most of whom are representatives of business interests in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) began organizing a student strike that started on September 22. More than 13,000 university students boycotted classes and joined the strike. On September 26, around 1,500 secondary school students also joined the strike. During the strike, university professors held public lectures in the open area outside the Hong Kong government HQ and parliament.

On the last day of the strike, HKFS students and members of the public stormed past police barricades to reclaim a public area in front of the government HQ called “Civic Square,” which had been sealed off arbitrarily. The police used pepper spray and three key student leaders were arrested and illegally detained. This prompted thousands of citizens to come out and protest, demanding the release of the students. In the early hours of September 27, the civil disobedience campaign Occupy Central (OCLP) was launched.

The next day, tens of thousands of people poured into the street and started occupying main roads in Admiralty and Wan Chai. The police began to use pepper spray and later, tear gas. The violence outraged people in Hong Kong and up to one hundred thousand people came out on September 29. Since then, the police have held back and the occupation has been going on, with as many as two hundred thousand people occupying four zones across the city in the peak times.

How have the protests developed? Why are they occupying the Central District?

The occupation of Central was conceived last year by a university professor called Benny Tai. Central was chosen because it is symbolic as the heart of Hong Kong. Most important businesses have their headquarters there, and the old government HQ, as well as former parliament are there. More importantly, OCLP thought that occupying Central would be the best way to produce such disruption that the government would have to listen to people’s demands.

However, in the end, it was the HKFS (Hong Kong Federation of Students) who prompted the early launch of the campaign with their action of storming the Civic Square. Currently, the two groups hold joint leadership in the movement.

Who are the protesters? Media coverage reports mainly students — is it just a students protest or do workers and people with other backgrounds participate as well?

It was mostly students to begin with, but since September 28, when tear gas was used many people came out in support. Now it’s not only students, but people of many different backgrounds. In occupied Mong Kok, a more grassroots district, many people from the working class have come out. On Hong Kong island, it’s mostly students and white-collar employees. Academics also have a big presence.

Who’s behind the protests? Are they spontaneous or planned and organized? Are there any organizations like unions and political groups behind the protests?

Although HKFS and OCLP played important planning roles, and HKFS undoubtedly initiated the action that prompted the protest, it is widely recognized now that most people who are occupying came out themselves, and have organized themselves into different teams and groups in the occupied zones. There is very little presence of a “leader” of any kind right now.

Political parties generally play a supporting role, but the movement is very sensitive towards any attempt by political parties to claim leadership to the movement, so the parties are mainly only giving us material and media support.

How are the demonstrations and occupations organized? Are they preparing for a longer occupations? What kind of grassroots initiatives are developing in the protests?

Most protesters are prepared for longer occupation — cleaning teams, supply stations, and first aid stations, etc. have been set up to enable better environments. However, the movement might escalate soon, because the HKFS has issued an ultimatum to the government — either the chief executive resigns or the protest will extend to surrounding government buildings. We’re not sure how the police will respond to that if it does happen.

Grassroots initiatives are definitely developing — for example, we now have groups of people spontaneously sitting together to form people’s assemblies where each person takes turns to talk into a mic, sharing their thoughts on the situation and the future of HK. Each person is allocated five minutes, and if someone tries to hoard the mic, the rest of the group will nicely tell him to pass it on. Also, teams of volunteers have formed to talk to shop owners around occupied areas, to see what they think of the movement and to obtain their sympathies for the movement as it is causing them inconvenience.

Furthermore, democracy walls have sprung up everywhere — on the side of buses, on random walls and pillars, people have written messages and plastered them everywhere. Lastly, anyone can be a volunteer of some kind as long as they are willing to – there is very little hierarchy on the ground.

What are the main demands? International coverage names free elections – are there any other demands?

The main demands are free elections, the resignation of CY Leung, the chief executive, and the resignation of the police chief, Tsang Wai-hung. The movement has been quite united so far in these demands, and no other demand has been made vocal.

Is there a left in Hong Kong? Is it playing a role within the movement?

Left 21 represents the left wing in Hong Kong. We are playing the role of coalition building and assistance. We have built a coalition of grassroots organizations and trade unions in support of the movement. On September 29, the day after tear gas was used, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions declared a general strike, and several unions including the Swire Beverages Factory workers responded by going on strike for a day. Our coalition now consists of seventeen organizations, and we have been helping with coordinating the management of the occupied zones.

What’s the Left emphasizing? What are demands are you pushing for?

In this democratic movement, we have been trying to push the economic and labor side. We’ve been doing this by 1) organizing public talks on the ground for protesters; 2) trying to bring out the capitalist dimension of Hong Kong’s political problems in our articles and other materials; 3) building a local labor and grassroots coalition with the democratic movement; 4) we’ve also managed to get the support of various trade unions around the world, such as the UK National Union of Teachers, which released a statement today in solidarity with Hong Kong.

As for our demands, we see free elections as a major blow to business-government collusion and capitalist privilege, because currently half of the seats in the parliament of Hong Kong (“Legislative Council”) are reserved for “functional constituencies,” which basically means that certain economic sectors (such as finance) in Hong Kong are guaranteed a seat in the parliament. When we fight for policies such as the minimum wage or a standard labour law, it is almost always those members of parliament who block the bill. Also, the electoral committee for the chief executive election as proposed by Beijing would consist of 1,200 representatives, almost all of whom belong to business sectors such as real estate, banking, etc. Beijing has explicitly declared that this is to protect the interests of capitalists.

As such, although we do think that a democratic political system is only the first step to real change, we also think that that in itself would already be a huge improvement for our fight against capitalist oppression in Hong Kong. Of course, we do also try to spread the idea that even if we obtain free elections, we would still battle against tycoons and capitalists.

Do you expect Chinese authorities to react peacefully or with brute force? How do you predict the movement will react?

Unless the movement escalates to a point where people start challenging the idea of “one country,” we don’t think Beijing will deploy its army against Hong Kong, as the price both internationally and locally would be too high. So far, only a very small and marginalized minority (mainly right-wing groups who don’t like mainland Chinese immigrants) have called for independence, so the situation is under control.

We predict that the Hong Kong government will eventually open communication with HKFS and the political parties, but where this might lead is too early to say. The people are very sensitive about compromises made by groups that claim to be leading the movement, so this may lead to a huge public backlash.

What do you think will happen in the future? Is there a chance the protests will carry the day? What will happen if so, or if they don’t?

We don’t think the government will allow the protest to carry on indefinitely because the occupation is spreading quickly across Hong Kong. However, there has been a lot of smearing of the movement by the pro-government media, which emphasizes the inconveniences brought to other residents, as well as the negative economic impact of the movement. Thus we think that this is a battle for public sympathy — if we lose sympathy, the police would have strong grounds to clear the occupation.