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HF Hung on class relations and the democracy movement in HK

by | 17 December 2010 | 3 Comments | Last modified: 18 Dec 1:51 pm

Anti-WTO demo in Hong Kong, 2005

The new issue of New Left Review (#66) contains several items of interest, including two pieces on China: Tariq Ali’s review of Rebecca Karl’s new book Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World, and an article by sociologist Ho-fung Hung on the political situation in Hong Kong. The latter, called “Uncertainty in the Enclave,” is not on NLR’s website, so here I’ll just comment on some highlights. (See abstract here.)

First of all, I didn’t know much about Hong Kong history, and this was a great introduction, clearing up things I had heard HK friends mention but never pieced together, from 1842 all the way up to last summer. (Hung’s account of the colonial period references, among other sources, a new book that may be worth checking out: Collaborative Colonial Power: The Making of the Hong Kong Chinese, by Law Wing Sang, 2009.) Of special interest is the process of working class formation and resistance in the 1950s-1960s, and how this forced the colonial regime to broker a compromise with the HK bourgeoisie, resulting in sweeping social reforms in the 1970s, and leading to a higher of standard of living for HK workers and the emergence from their ranks of a sizable Chinese middle class by the 1980s. On this Hung writes:

The US embargo on trade with the PRC, introduced in 1950, voided Hong Kong’s purpose as a commercial entrepôt, so its capitalists turned instead to manufacturing. Industrial employment rose from a mere 5 per cent of the workforce in 1950 to 10 per cent in 1960, rising to 25 per cent in 1970. At the same time, the colony saw an influx of refugees from the mainland, who contributed to a huge increase in the population: from 600,000 in 1945 to 2.5 million in 1955. The new arrivals included small-scale entrepreneurs from Guangdong or textile magnates from Shanghai, who helped fuel Hong Kong’s industrial takeoff, but the majority of the refugees were peasants and workers who provided Hong Kong’s emerging industries with low-cost labour. They settled in urban slums, which became fertile ground for CCP-affiliated organizations—including a myriad of unions grouped under the Federation of Trade Unions, as well as schools, news agencies and filmmakers.

In the 1950s and 60s, these organizations grew against a backdrop of rampant government corruption, police brutality, class polarization and institutionalized discrimination against Chinese. Leftist unions frequently flexed their muscle with strikes. Their film companies—Southern Film, Great Wall, Phoenix, Longma—made box-office hits portraying the misery of the working class and helped disseminate propaganda about the new socialist China. Leftist community organizations, replete with supplies from the PRC, were often more effective than the colonial administration in delivering disaster relief in the aftermath of the fires, landslides and typhoons that constantly threatened working-class neighbourhoods, which usually consisted of wooden shacks perched on Hong Kong’s hilly terrain.

In the spring of 1967, the CCP-affiliated Hong Kong and Macao Work Committee, under the influence of the Cultural Revolution, made use of a minor labour dispute to launch an all-out offensive against the colonial authorities, rallying and directing other Leftist forces in the colony. This was meant to generate a revolutionary crisis that ignited all social and political contradictions at once, paving the way for a CCP takeover, or at least for conjoint rule over the colony by the British and the Left, as had been achieved by an insurgency against the Portuguese in Macao in late 1966 {this is something I had never heard of…}. In the initial phase of the Hong Kong uprising, mass rallies and demonstrations organized by the Leftists drew broad, spontaneous support among the Chinese population. However, the tide turned in late summer, when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reaffirmed to the British the CCP’s policy of maintaining Hong Kong’s colonial status. Emboldened by Beijing’s non-interference, the colonial authorities mobilized the security forces to crack down on the Leftists, closing down their unions, schools and newspapers, and deporting key leaders to the PRC. Pushed into a corner, the Leftists resorted to terrorist tactics, such as roadside bombs targeting both government facilities and civilians. This violent turn alienated the wider Chinese community, costing the insurgents popular support.

I once asked a HK friend for a good report on the struggles of the 1960s, and he said this history is highly contested, and he’s heard it’s difficult to do research on that era due to political sensitivity, so he’s not sure which accounts to trust. During my last visit to HK, the recently formed “Left 21” group there organized a forum about the 1960s, but unfortunately I was unable to attend.

Here I’d also like to note that what appears, in Hung’s account, as Beijing’s betrayal of the HK groups affiliated with the CCP in the summer of 1967, might be related to the central Maoist leaders’ contemporaneous turn away from and suppression of the grassroots forces unleashed during the “Cultural Revolution.” Could it have been that those leaders feared that the rebellious activities of workers and semi-autonomous CCP groups in HK might get out of hand, as they feared “ultra-left” currents on the mainland calling to abolish the bureaucracy as a whole and establish a “People’s Commune of China”? We do know that some of those mainland “ultra-leftists” fled to HK around that time, where the anti-authoritarian journal “70s” published their writings. But this is too much conjecture - I’d like to know what research has already been done on all this.

Hung continues:

The insurgency had subsided by early 1968. Though many Leftist organizations resumed their activities under the colonial authorities’ watchful eyes, they became ever more marginalized and demoralized during the 1970s. With a renewed sense of urgency, the colonial government set about shoring up its legitimacy. It managed to break the usual resistance from its business allies and, under the influence of Fabian socialist currents in the UK, began a series of interventionist social and administrative reforms in the early 70s. These included public assistance for the poor, universal free education for nine years, government-sponsored social services, and an effective and internationally acclaimed anti-corruption agency. The authorities also built the world’s largest public housing system, which accommodated more than half of Hong Kong’s population—4 million in 1970, growing to 5 million by 1980.

In tandem with these reforms came the rise of the student movement. In the early 1970s, the memory of the 1967 insurgency was still fresh among student radicals, who were also influenced by the world-wide student revolts of 1968, and sympathetic to the CCP. With a unifying theme of ‘anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism’, the movement sprang up in 1971 in protest against the American handover to Japan of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which China claimed were its territory. The movement soon split into two main currents: a Maoist faction, which focused on propagandizing the achievements of socialist China and paid little attention to struggles in Hong Kong, and a ‘social faction’, which was critical of the CCP regime’s authoritarianism and directed its efforts into supporting local social movements. Many of the Maoist students were later recruited by CCP-affiliated organizations, while some members of the social faction joined an array of independent social movements and political organizations that emerged in the 1980s. After 1982, when it became clear that Beijing intended to reclaim sovereignty over all of Hong Kong in 1997—rather than just the New Territories, on which the lease was set to expire that year—some of these new social organizations converged into a democratic movement, which supported the retrocession of Hong Kong to the PRC on the one hand, and sought political and social reforms during the decolonization process on the other.

As on the mainland, it seems that much of the anti-authoritarian currents that emerged from the proletarian rebellion of the 1960s ended up drifting towards and merging with the “democracy” movement of the 1980s, where a certain kind of naive liberalism became predominant. But - again as on the mainland - the crackdown of 1989 and the neoliberalization of the 1990s eventually led to a resurgence of currents that were both pro-”democracy” and anti-capitalist. Only, in contrast with the mainland, HK’s equivalent to the “New Left” has a closer relationship with the “democracy movement,” generally considered to be right-wing on the mainland. Whereas the mainland New Left split off from the “democracy movement” and then (despite all its internal diversity) congealed into a position that tends to ally with the CCP in reaction against the “pro-democracy” (liberal) wing of the right (whose opposition to the CCP hardened after 1989), in Hong Kong, the left-leaning currents that emerged from (or, already existing, allied themselves with) the “democracy movement” never abandoned their opposition to the CCP, and they managed to articulate perspectives that combine aspects of the “democracy” program with (1) opposition to capitalism, and (2) preference for direct action and participatory democracy over the formal, parliamentary democracy fetishized by the liberal wing of the democracy movement. These different trajectories of the respective new lefts of HK and mainland China seem to result from: (1) the fact that, from HK’s perspective, the CCP’s alliance with private capital (and big private capital at that) against proletarian interests is even more obvious than on the mainland (where the CCP is often regarded as a buffer, or an open, contested entity - especially by the mainland New Left); (2) the earlier and deeper erosion of the power and standard of living of HK’s proletarian and middle class population (the middle class having formed the core of the democracy movement), and the growing sense among young people that they’re “running out of future” (as Europeans put it), vs. a generally opposite sense on the mainland, made possible by a combination of state control over information and real economic growth (growth facilitated in part by the outsourcing of jobs from HK to the mainland); and (3) the greater reality of formal democracy in HK than the mainland, which enables young proletarians there to see both its uses and its limitations. Hung’s article provides some illustration of each of these points.

But rather than boring you by elaborating on that, let me move on to the end, where Hung describes what he calls the “radicalization” of HK’s democracy movement in the early 2000s:

Parallel to the rise of the Civic Party and LSD [League of Social Democrats], after 2003 a spate of community movements emerged in opposition to the demolition of colonial-era buildings and neighbourhoods by the government and developers. Organized by diverse groups of students and young intellectuals, these movements manifested a strong sense of a Hong Kong cultural identity, as well as resentment against monopoly capital and a preference for collective direct action. Some leaders of these movements sharpened their organizational and tactical skills through their involvement in the anti-wto protests of 2005, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with militant labour and farmers’ groups from other countries, especially Korea.

In 2009–10, these community movements converged in a mobilization against the construction of the Hong Kong–Guangzhou section of the national high-speed rail system. The project would destroy various rural and urban communities within Hong Kong, and its unit cost would be the highest of all the segments in the national system. Moreover, its principal supporters in LegCo were mostly FC councillors who would stand to benefit in one way or another from fat government contracts relating to the project. During the LegCo sessions of January 15–16, 2010, when debating and voting on the budget for the rail link were taking place, several thousand protestors encircled and blockaded the LegCo building, nearly succeeding in detaining the government officials and pro-project legislators inside overnight.

Though the movement was unable to prevent the project going ahead, its mobilizing capacity and potential to paralyse the government alarmed Beijing, already disturbed by reports of a surprise attack on the CCP’s Hong Kong headquarters on New Year’s Day. That night, a group of young protesters, somewhat overlapping with the anti-rail activists, had successfully broken through the police lines and metal fences to stage a sit-in at the building’s rear entrance. In the spring of 2010, this emergent group of radicals, young and growing in numbers, joined hands with the CP and LSD to precipitate a referendum movement, amidst heated debate over the government’s political reform proposal for the Chief Executive and LegCo elections in 2012.

Here I would like to close by adding a couple comments:

(1) Hung’s appreciation for this “radicalization” of HK’s democracy movement seems to clash somewhat with the article’s overall focus on the domain of electoral politics. Within the structure of the article, these radicals enter the picture as a means to the end of achieving formal democracy, whereas my impression from interacting with them is that, in this anti-authoritarian wing of the HK Left, there seems to be little illusion about formal democracy; they take part in the democracy movement mainly with the hope of increasing their space for grassroots action, where they believe social change and democracy in a more meaningful sense can take place.

(2) The movement against evictions related to urban renewal and the high-speed rail is worth further discussion - almost nothing has been written about this English. When I first learned about this in summer 2009, I was a little surprised to see so much energy being put into, for example, the movement to protect a village of only 100 households who had squatted there just a generation or two ago, while demolitions of much larger and older villages take place on the mainland almost every week, usually with no outside support if the villagers resist. In fact, I had heard about the campaign to protect this Choi Yuen village from mainlanders who were impressed by the mobilization techniques, which they eventually drew on in their own campaign to protect East Lake in Wuhan. Only after talking to the HK activists did I come to understand that these anti-eviction movements are an important space where HK’s anti-authoritarian left is reviving and growing. And the movements aren’t limited to negative protest actions; they are experimenting with new forms of creative activity, from indymedia, music festivals and documentaries (for which they have organized a Social Movement Film Festival for eight years) to cooperative living and farming. Last year I posted a very brief report about the Choi Yuen campaign. I hope to post a longer update about this, or about HK’s anti-eviction movement in general, before long.

To return to Hung’s article, overall this is a well-done introduction to the little-known world of class relations and politics in Hong Kong, with implications for China as a whole. Importantly, whereas those who do write about politics in Hong Kong normally leave out the key dimension of class, writing as if everyone simply wanted “democracy” except for the CCP, Hung makes clear the continuity of the present system with the British colonial regime, the HK bourgeoisie’s close alliance with the CCP in suppressing the democracy movement since the handover (and before), and the re-proletarianization of a section of HK’s middle class underlying the increasing split of the democracy movement into left and right wings.

By the way, Hung also directs us to NLR’s interview with HK labor activist Au Loong-Yu about the anti-WTO mobilization in 2005, published as “Alter-Globo in Hong Kong,” NLR 42, 2006. The full text is online here.

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