Police violence dictated from above fuels unprecedented mass anger
This is the first of a two-part feature article
The political crisis in Hong Kong has taken a new sharp turn. On September 4, the government made an apparent u-turn with Chief Executive Carrie Lam announcing the formal withdrawal of the hated extradition law. This is a step she had stubbornly refused to take during the previous three months of unprecedented and historic mass anti-government protests.
Lam’s move could only have been sanctioned by the highest levels of the Chinese dictatorship (CCP), in other words by Xi Jinping himself, even though the dictatorship prefers to maintain the fiction that Lam and the local government are in the driving seat. That is never the case, especially with major policies that touch on the interests of the Chinese regime.
During the current movement the Hong Kong government has been paralysed and on ‘life support’ almost continuously since June, with real policy dictated by a high-level CCP task force led by Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng, stationed just across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen.
The extradition law has long ceased to be the most important issue for the mass movement. Public outrage against the ‘gangster’ police has become the main driver of the protests, along with the wider issue of democracy, against the Chinese dictatorship’s step-by-step tightening of authoritarian controls in the semi-autonomous territory. Therefore Lam’s September 4 concession was a case of ‘too little, too late’ and was quickly rejected by most forces involved in the mass struggle. As activist Joshua Wong said, “the truth behind this olive branch is by no means a reconciliation, but a tighter grip.”
Like Wong, many fear that Lam has made only a superficial concession in order to push ahead with more draconian repression and the possible introduction of a state of emergency, using a British colonial era law that would grant her wide-ranging dictatorial powers.
This seems now to be the preferred tactic of the ruling class, taking a leaf out of the book of the Polish ‘Communist’ regime in the 1980s, to stage a ‘homegrown coup’ as a less problematic alternative to military intervention from across the border (in Poland’s case by the Stalinist Russian dictatorship). Given China’s tense and worsening standoff with the US – an imperialist conflict over trade, technology, currency, and other issues – there are many reasons why the CCP regime sees military intervention in Hong Kong only as a last resort.
Crisis for Beijing
Even if Lam’s ‘withdrawal’ is largely a symbolic move, it raises many questions about the pressures building up on both governments, Hong Kong and Beijing, as the mass movement continues into its 14th week with no signs of exhaustion. The tenacity and duration of the protests has shocked the dictatorship, which did not foresee this movement.
Lam’s policy switch on September 4 also took pro-CCP forces in Hong Kong and China completely by surprise. There was a new outpouring of recriminations from Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing parties (the right wing capitalist parties that serve as the political base for the unelected government) because they were given no warning. This made them look even more foolish as they had defended the government’s hardline position of ‘no concessions’, in some cases reluctantly. These parties are dreading upcoming district council elections across the whole territory in November, which could see a historic defeat for the pro-Beijing camp, which traditionally dominates these largely powerless and undemocratic councils. Possibly, the elections will be cancelled on ‘security’ grounds to save these parties, and the whole pro-CCP power structure, major embarrassment.
More significantly, in China itself the news came as a bolt from the blue. The South China Morning Post’s former editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei called it “a very sudden – and risky – decision”, also noting “there had been no sign nor murmurs of the impending announcement even the day before.”
Wang pointed out that a press conference held the day before Lam’s announcement by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing (the central government organ responsible for Hong Kong), “did not give any hint of a policy change, continuing to urge all government branches and social institutions to fight violent criminals and take ending the violence as the ‘most pressing task’.”
It is also highly significant that news of the withdrawal has been widely suppressed in China’s domestic media, of course fully controlled by the dictatorship. This follows weeks of hysterical propaganda denouncing ‘violent protesters’ and a US-sponsored ‘colour revolution’.
The dictatorship’s fears of how the Hong Kong events can ricochet through its own internal political system are indicated by the furious reaction from right-wing nationalist netizens, who form part of the CCP’s political base and a ‘troll army’ used against the Hong Kong movement. Many posts have appeared in online forums denouncing the Hong Kong government’s withdrawal as a “surrender” to the so-called colour revolution and warning that “rewarding” the militant protests in Hong Kong will send a signal that similar protests in China can succeed and win their demands.
Lam’s small but significant u-turn is therefore an unmistakable sign of crisis within the Chinese regime and for Xi Jinping personally. Beijing finds itself increasingly besieged by a succession of serious problems, not least the severe slowdown in the Chinese economy, which is considerably worse than the official data shows, and the rapidly escalating imperialist power struggle with the US.
Unprecedented mass movement
The Hong Kong protests undoubtedly represent the most serious mass challenge to the CCP since the 1989 democracy movement. Between 1-2 million people have demonstrated on no fewer than three occasions since June 9. This is more than a quarter of the population, constituting “perhaps the largest per capita protest ever, anywhere in the world” according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The mass protests have included three partial general strikes organised largely spontaneously via social media, with very little organised input from the trade unions. The unions have unfortunately been weak historically and further pushed back during the era of Chinese rule (since 1997) as brutal neo-liberal and anti-worker policies have been accelerated. When the school term started in early September around 40,000 secondary and tertiary students took part in school strikes, also defying police repression.
Almost every section of Hong Kong society, barring the big capitalists and the hard core of the pro-CCP patronage networks, has come out clearly on the side of the mass protests and the ‘five demands’:
- Complete withdrawal of the extradition law.
- The resignation of Carrie Lam.
- Removal of the classification “riot” from the protests, which can lead to long prison terms and an amnesty for those arrested.
- An independent public investigation into the police violence.
- Universal suffrage (i.e. election of the government by ordinary voters rather than the moneyed elite as is the case today).
It is the escalation of police violence against the protests, and the government’s cringing defence of every police atrocity, that has solidified support behind the struggle. This has led to widespread acceptance and tolerance towards the militant tactics of the youth, which are overwhelmingly defensive actions against the often reckless and criminal tactics of the police. The government’s non-stop propaganda against ‘violent protesters’ has therefore made very little impact on mass consciousness.
Groups such as civil servants, lawyers, journalists, social workers, medical professionals and architects have staged protests in solidarity with the youth and against the police, reflecting how even sections of the ‘establishment’ have been swept up in the mood of resistance. Around 30,000 took part in a #ProtestToo manifestation, aligned with the global #MeToo movement, protesting at numerous cases of sexual violence by police against female protesters. Even the day after Lam’s ‘withdrawal’ speech, 23,000 took part in a late night protest against police violence. A new mass demonstration is being called for September 15 by the Civic and Human Rights Front, the pan-democratic coalition group which called the millions-strong marches on June 9, 16 and August 18.
Hong Kong is not Xinjiang
Mass anger against the police has included large groups of local working class residents coming out onto the streets at night time in their pyjamas and slippers to join protesting youth in opposing heavily armed riot police, shouting, “Get out! We don’t want you in our neighbourhood!” The police have been forced to close their units inside two major hospitals due to the hostility towards them from hospital staff.
Under orders from the CCP regime, aiming to grind down and break the will of the youth who form the backbone of the protests, the police have gone on a rampage of frenzied and increasingly indiscriminate attacks, corralling protesters into subway stations, shopping malls and other confined spaces, to make mass arrests and inflict savage beatings.
Even far away from the protests young people are subjected to humiliating random searches, forced to remove their shoes, hand over their smartphones, while all the time being subjected to abuse in scenes that resemble how the CCP locks down the muslim-majority region of Xinjiang. Riot police teams have impounded buses, searching and interrogating all passengers.
Most hated of all are the elite riot police squad, “the raptors”, who have carried out some of the most atrocious attacks such as the bloody raid at Prince Edward subway station on August 31. This attack has triggered daily protests at the station ever since, and even sparked online rumours that at least one person was killed in the police action.
Police operational tactics are now effectively dictated by the CCP, which demands more arrests, more deployment of heavy weaponry, and an all-round more brutal approach, including giving free rein to criminal triad gangs to carry out attacks on the protesters. But the CCP’s police playbook is backfiring spectacularly in Hong Kong, which is completely different from Xinjiang, a remote region largely cut off by the Chinese military. In a highly connected city – Asia’s foremost financial centre – it is impossible for the state to conduct its repression in secret. Social media sites are flooded with shocking videos of police violence in Hong Kong. When establishment politicians talk of the protests reaching “the point of no return”, this was long ago the case with the public’s attitude towards the police, which is broken beyond repair.
Inflexibility and bullheadedness
For Xi Jinping, the longer Hong Kong’s mass protest movement continues the more it damages his carefully staked out claim to be the strongest leader since Mao Zedong, with the party (i.e. the dictatorship) “in control of everything”.
For such a regime the ‘fear factor’, precisely to deter such outbreaks of mass defiance, is a crucial component of its rule. A loss of face or signs that the regime’s real power is more limited than it claims could have serious potentially life-or-death implications for its rule. This is the reason why it has taken Lam, her hands tied by Beijing, three months to announce the withdrawal of the extradition law.
This inflexibility and political bullheadedness in the face of political disaster, has given rise to disbelief and a state of shellshock within Hong Kong’s capitalist establishment, which otherwise staunchly supports – even worships – the CCP dictatorship. The Hong Kong capitalist tycoons, while no doves when it comes to opposing any extension of democratic rights, would have preferred much greater tactical flexibility and a readiness to make limited political concessions to try to deescalate the crisis at an earlier stage.
The crisis is costing them as the tourism, retail and property sectors are squeezed and the economy, under intense pressure from the trade war and slowing global economy, slides towards recession. The Financial Times estimates that Hong Kong’s ten wealthiest billionaires have lost over US$15 billion collectively since the protests began, mainly through the falling stock market. No surprise then, that on the day Lam announced the withdrawal of the bill the stock market jumped by almost 5 percent.
Thus, the pressure from the Hong Kong capitalists is undoubtedly one factor behind the belated withdrawal of the extradition law, as is the regime’s wish to placate foreign public opinion, i.e. the Western media, and reduce some of the pressure from US and European imperialism. As we have explained these governments are not primarily concerned with Hong Kong’s rights or democratic rights in general, but have no qualms about exploiting these issues as a bargaining chip to squeeze trade and economic concessions from the CCP.
While the local government has traditionally been used as a buffer by the CCP to avoid directly dirtying its hands in Hong Kong affairs, this arrangement has all but collapsed under the pressure of the mass protests. The illusion that Lam’s administration has any actual power has become harder and harder to maintain.
In the sensational leaked audio recording of a speech Lam gave to a closed meeting of businessmen in late August, she is heard telling her audience that her power is “very, very, very limited” and confesses, “If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit.”
While furious at this leak, the government did not deny its authenticity. Having agreed to work for the dictatorship, Lam is like a gang member who wants to quit the mafia – the only way out is through death!
How to fight the real power – the CCP?
While these revelations about the real power relationship come as no surprise to socialists, they represent a seminal moment for mass consciousness in Hong Kong. The struggle is not and has never been mainly against the puppet administration – it can only go forward as a struggle against the real power in Hong Kong, which is the Chinese dictatorship. This in turn poses the question how can seven and a half million Hong Kongers defeat such a formidable regime? If Hong Kong is isolated, they can’t. The only solution is if the masses in Hong Kong, through their struggle, are able to convince the mainland Chinese masses to join them in battle.
It is not enough to appeal for solidarity and sympathy for Hong Kong. What’s needed is to actively spread and build the mass anti-authoritarian struggle in China. Engaging in this struggle involves far bigger risks for the mainland masses, such as the workers and youth who have already undertaken important struggles for the right to organise trade unions and against state repression, because the dictatorship’s methods are more severe inside China. Therefore a message that goes no further than saying “liberate”, “free”, or “save” Hong Kong, i.e. that limits the proposed change to only one side of the border, is incapable of generating the necessary mass support.
A mainland worker or student may sympathise and wish the demonstrators in Hong Kong good luck, but offered such a narrow Hong Kong-centric perspective they will remain on the sidelines, rather than becoming an active ally in the struggle. So a very different message is needed if Hong Kong is to break out of its current isolation. To get the right answer, we must ask the right question.
It is necessary to call for united mass struggle on both sides of the border against the brutal capitalist policies of all levels of government: to end the housing nightmare by removing the tycoon developers and initiating a massive public housing construction programme, to put an end to the precarious labour market of low pay and excessive work hours through a programme of public investment under the democratic control of the working class, with strong democratic trade unions that fight to uphold workers’ rights, and to lift the burden of state repression and media brainwashing by toppling the dictatorship and the billionaire class its policies serve.
With such a message, if campaigned for clearly and boldly by the Hong Kong movement, the CCP’s propaganda ‘firewall’ can be breached and the anti-authoritarian struggle can gain a huge echo in China, pulling the carpet from under the feet of the dictatorship.
State of Emergency?
As already noted, it is the CCP and the mainland security apparatus that is increasingly dictating police strategy against the Hong Kong protests. Despite there being no formal declaration, a de facto or creeping state of emergency is being imposed, with even a formal declaration a real danger in the next period. Demonstrations are now more often banned than permitted. The ratio of arrests has skyrocketed. At least 1,200 have been arrested since June with more than a hundred facing riot charges that could lead to a ten-year jail sentence. Many more could be charged with “illegal assembly” which can also result in severe penalties after court sentences were toughened in the crackdown that followed the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
The police have thereby become the main pillar of CCP rule in Hong Kong, acting as a surrogate paramilitary force to preclude what would be an extremely problematical and politically costly direct intervention by China’s army, the PLA, and paramilitary police, the PAP. The crime prevention aspects of police work have largely been abandoned, with a big reduction in regular patrols, as the 38,000-strong Hong Kong police force, now supplemented by unknown numbers of covert mainland military and security personnel, is mobilised behind the CCP’s brutal ‘pacification’ agenda.
The Hong Kong government is also threatening to invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, last used during the 1967 anti-British insurgency, which would give the Chief Executive dictatorial powers of censorship, imprisonment, deportation, bans on political parties and gatherings. The government has even courted the idea of a partial shutdown of the internet in an attempt to block the online forums through which the protests are coordinated, but such a step seems unfeasible, with the business sector already protesting this would be a death blow for a modern economy like Hong Kong.
The fact that such a drastic course of action is being considered is a measure of the depth of the crisis facing the two governments. So far, the threats to invoke emergency powers have not succeeded in cowering the masses. Undoubtedly the government’s fear propaganda will be intensified following Lam’s tactical concession. But given the current fighting mood of the youth and the unprecedented levels of discontent throughout society, it’s by no means assured that a formal announcement of a state of emergency will have any measurable impact or fundamentally change the relationship of forces for the government – in comparison with the de facto state of emergency that is already taking shape. If a state of emergency is declared but is immediately challenged by mass defiance, the regime will not be strengthened but further weakened. This therefore represents a new high stakes gamble by the regime that could backfire, further deepening the crisis.
Chinese vs. US imperialism
While Beijing continues its psychological warfare against the mass protests, with military manoeuvres and official statements showing a readiness for military intervention, this is still not the most likely outcome.
As we have explained, this is not just about the CCP’s ability to deploy massive military force, which is not in doubt, but about the political realities of such action, involving a massive escalation of the current global conflict between Chinese and US imperialism. This is not because the Trump administration cares about democracy or civil liberties in Hong Kong – it clearly doesn’t – but because an open Chinese military intervention, ending any remaining ambiguity about Hong Kong’s ‘autonomy’ under Chinese rule, would put US power in Asia on the line.
Consequently, anything short of a robust diplomatic and economic reaction, probably far in excess of the West’s response to Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, would create a crisis of historic proportions for US imperialism and its attempts to construct a containment strategy against Chinese power in Asia.
As Trump’s national security advisor, the notorious anti-China hawk John Bolton warned, “The mood in Congress [over Hong Kong] is very volatile at this point and a misstep by the Chinese government, I think, would cause an explosion on Capitol Hill.”
The sharpness of reactions in the US in part reflects dissatisfaction within the political elite on both sides of Congress with their president’s flip-flopping over Hong Kong (as on other issues). In July, Trump called the Hong Kong protesters “rioters” completely echoing Beijing’s line. In another speech, Trump said, “Because Hong Kong’s a part of China, they’ll have to deal with that themselves, they do not need advice.” This statement so pleased Chinese nationalists that a pro-regime rap band sampled it for one of their songs.
US policy in Asia is dictated by naked financial and great power interests and has never been based on promoting democratic rights, as shown by US support for dictators such as Park in South Korea, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, Marcos in the Philippines, and Suharto in Indonesia. When mass pressure in these societies – revolutionary movements in some of them – forced the old military regimes to be dismantled, the US government used economic and diplomatic bullying to make sure that political change stayed within solidly capitalist and pro-Western limits.
Unfortunately, a layer in Hong Kong’s protest movement have illusions that the US ruling class will apply pressure upon the CCP to help the movement win its demands. This is a cruel deception. US power will be used only to further its own interests, with Hong Kong seen only as leverage to extract bigger economic and geopolitical concessions from Beijing.
It is no coincidence that just days before Lam’s u-turn a new agreement was reached between US and Chinese negotiators to meet in Washington for trade talks in October. While there is very little prospect of an end to the trade war in the short-term, this agreement to revive the stalled talks reflects a desire on both sides for the Hong Kong issue to recede into the background.
How to go forward?
In any other society – a ‘normal’ capitalist state – Hong Kong’s government would have collapsed by now under such a tsunami of mass pressure (in fact, this has happened up to a point, but unfortunately only one – the smaller and weaker – of Hong Kong’s two governments has ‘collapsed’).
Due to the brutal political realities of Hong Kong and due to the needs of the mass authoritarian struggle in the whole of China, more is needed to take the current incredible movement forward. This poses the urgent need for a clearer programme and strategy for Hong Kong’s ‘revolution’, for organisation to put such a strategy into effect (spontaneity, at times dazzling and full of creativity, has reached its limits and a more coordinated struggle is required), and a clearer understanding of which social force has the real power – not the ‘taxpayers’ or ‘consumers’ or ‘citizens’, but the working class as the producers of society’s wealth – to play the central organising role in the movement and to be the basis for exporting the struggle to mainland China, where victory can be achieved.
This is why socialists have stressed the importance of strikes and a real general strike, following on the partial successes of August 5 and September 2-3. Such an upgrade will need real organisation, democratic strike committees, and the setting up of trade unions in the many sectors where they don’t exist.
The Hong Kong events are of historic importance; there should be no doubt on this score. Xi’s hardline inflexible position, which brooks no challenge from any quarter, has now blown up in the face of the Chinese regime.
Hong Kong, and China as a whole, has become a gigantic pressure cooker, where class antagonisms are boiling over but have been mechanically suppressed by dictatorial rule and police repression. Politically, the Hong Kong of today is therefore the China of tomorrow. This is the starting point for working out a successful programme and strategy for the mass struggle.
In part two of this feature article we will look at the social issues behind Hong Kong’s mass struggle and why an organised movement and a programme based on the working class, rather than today’s ‘leaderless’ movement, is a precondition for defeating the dictatorship.