Workers urgently need to organise to resist the repression. Build for a real general strike!
By Dikang, Socialist Action (Hong Kong)
Carrie Lam’s Hong Kong government has dramatically escalated the level of police violence against the pro-democracy protest movement. This escalation, obvious since the start of November, has clearly been ordered by the Chinese dictatorship. This is one of the outcomes of the ‘Communist’ Party (CCP) Central Committee’s Fourth Plenum at the end of October. Xi Jinping held a rare meeting with Lam in Shanghai soon afterwards to signal to the world the regime’s backing for more brutal measures against the mass protests, which incredibly have now raged for almost six months.
The CCP is afraid of the economic, political and geopolitical consequences of launching a crackdown in Hong Kong by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It sees this only as a ‘final solution’ to be avoided if possible. It therefore prefers to utilise Hong Kong’s ‘internal’ tools, by raising to extreme levels the police violence directed against protesters – both the so-called ‘radicals’ who have fought back against police attacks with bricks and petrol bombs, but also the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. These have again been mobilised in recent days through urgent online appeals to come onto the streets.
The focus of the struggle in the past week has shifted to the universities, six of which were occupied at one point. These occupations were defensive actions by students against the plans of the police to enter campuses making mass arrests. The trigger for what became some of the most serious clashes of the struggle so far was the death of a 22-year-old student, Chow Tsz-lok, on November 8. Chow died from injuries sustained during a police clearance operation in a parking garage. The circumstances are suspicious.
As the anger of young people exploded, calls went out on online messaging platforms – the main organising centre for the struggle – for a ‘general strike’. In reality this was not a strike of workers but a series of direct actions by young protesters aiming to sabotage and close down key transportation arteries such as highway tunnels and bridges. Despite this, much of Hong Kong was brought to a standstill last week, causing the most serious economic disruption of the struggle so far. The Hong Kong stock market fell 5 percent during the week. Schools and universities closed and are still closed.
Many universities are located close to major roads or railways and the aim of the protesters became to secure the universities and at the same time cause maximum disruption to the nearby transportation routes. The police response was to launch unprecedented heavily-armed attacks with water cannon, armoured cars, and “more of everything” i.e. tear gas, rubber bullets, etc., on the occupied universities in order to eliminate the “sources” of the struggle.
The government’s actions are not to “restore the rule of law” as it claims, but to use state terror to suppress the students and youth who have been the backbone of the struggle. They are following the Tiananmen playbook, although so far with a less lethal methods, but nonetheless with exactly the same goal. As in June 1989, the aim is to re-establish the authority of the dictatorship with an overwhelming display of state violence to deter any who would challenge its power.
In one day alone, last Sunday (November 17), as the police mounted a siege of Polytechnic University (Poly U), one thousand tear gas grenades were fired into the campus. Police also used stun grenades and some officers carried assault rifles – for the first time. A statement from the police warned live ammunition could be used unless the occupiers surrendered. Young occupiers posted their last wills on social media as many expected a massacre, which is still a terrible possibility.
The siege and occupation of Poly U is still continuing at the time of writing, although with far fewer protesters remaining inside. More than 1,100 students and their supporters were arrested over a 24-hour period. Hundreds of minors were released after being logged but risk serious charges later. But all over 18-year-olds that were arrested are now being detained in the single biggest mass arrest of the movement so far. Several hundred of these youth face riot charges.
Video footage showed police officers kicking and beating arrested students. Many of the occupiers suffered serious injuries including hyperthermia and bone fractures, with 280 now hospitalised. Still, police denied medical volunteers access to the injured students, threatening to treat them no differently to the “rioters”. Only under mounting public pressure were the police forced to allow a Red Cross team into the Poly U campus.
A hard-core group of perhaps 100 youth are refusing to give up. Police have made clear all who are arrested will be prosecuted on riot charges, which carries a 10-year jail sentence. Others have made daring, desperate escapes, in some cases using ropes to abseil down from bridges to where “parents” (citizen volunteers) have spirited them away in cars and on motorbikes to escape the police dragnet. Dozens escaped through narrow underground drainage pipes, barely wide enough to crawl through, before police discovered and blocked this escape route.
Human rights groups and even foreign governments (who are normally silent) have condemned the police violence. Many people have been stunned and moved by these scenes. Parents, politicians and social workers, many in tears, came to plead with and pressurise the police to lift the siege and allow the youth to leave unharmed.
“Before, I wondered whether some things the protesters, or those who appeared to be protesters, did crossed a line. But now I have a deeper understanding of why they had to use those tactics,” said a father who was trying to rescue his 17-year-old daughter from Poly U. “The Molotov cocktails they throw are mainly to create a distance from the police,” he told the New York Times.
“I don’t understand why police have to suppress students this way,” a tearful mother with two daughters trapped in the campus told a reporter from the South China Morning Post. “I don’t mind dying. Why should we stay in Hong Kong when our kids are not afraid of death?”
The government – mistakenly in our opinion – believes the frontline demonstrators have lost mass support, giving them the opportunity to intensify the crackdown and crush the protest movement as soon as possible. The strategy of the CCP regime has been to deliberately create chaos with brutal policing: banning peaceful demonstrations, provoking a violent reaction from the youth, infiltrating protests, and attempting to exhaust and disintegrate the movement.
But the crazed violence of the state has caused a big backlash in public opinion. At lunch time every day for over a week, thousands of people in the Central Business District, mostly white collar and financial sector employees, have participated in roadblocks and demonstrations, many wearing masks which until yesterday were illegal under an emergency law that has now been overruled by the High Court.
A week ago, Chinese University of Hong Kong was the site of the fiercest clashes with the police. One battle for control of a bridge over a major highway raged uninterruptedly for 30 hours. At this time, thousands of people came to the scene to support the protesters. When, a few days later, Poly U was surrounded, tens of thousands of people responded to online appeals to “save the students”, flocking to police lines near the campus and to the nearby Yau Tsim Mong area as a tactic to try to distract and draw the police away. These solidarity protests were met with exactly the same frenzied violence from the police, which included police buses being driven at high speed towards demonstrators. These are terrorist methods against the population.
Special elite police units known as “the Raptors” have surrounded Poly U for the past three days, allowing only one exit for protesters to come out and surrender, all other exits being subjected to heavy bombardment with tear gas and stun grenades to prevent the protesters escaping. In both Chinese U and Poly U, once the occupations began, demonstrators began to organise self-running canteens dubbed “Café Resistance”, security barriers, mass production of petrol bombs and projectiles.
The support for the protesters among significant layers in society and the mood to “defend” the students is based on the widespread fear the government and police are preparing for a bloody crackdown: a “Hong Kong version of June 4” (the date of the 1989 massacre in Beijing). Reports from the frontline at Chinese University last week, and now Poly U, confirm these fears. A police officer outside Poly U told the crying mother of a 16-year-old trapped inside: “There is no chance this will end peacefully”.
Facing such extreme and overwhelming armed force, students have used simple weapons such as petrol bombs, catapaults and even long bows in an attempt to prevent police advancing and storming the campuses to make a mass arrests.
While the police and some media are making a huge deal about the violence of the protesters, the fact is that these are defensive struggles with the police in every case initiating the violence and commanding much deadlier force. It is an incredibly one-sided struggle and as such, despite an inspiring level of heroism and sacrifice, it is not the foundation upon which a successful struggle can ultimately be built. The struggle has the right to defend itself against police brutality. But for a successful struggle this self-defence needs to be under democratic control. Unfortunately, the mass struggle to date has not produced mass organisations that can exercise such democratic control. Rather than being the primary focus of the struggle, all questions of ‘military’ tactics should be subordinate to the main question of mobilisation and building an organised movement.
It is being presented by the police and some media as if the youth initiated the violence, which is not true. The first weeks of the movement – with millions marching in June and again in August – were largely peaceful. Even the vandalisation of the Legislative Council (Legco) chamber in July did not result in any serious injuries. This was largely the pattern until recent weeks. Petrol bombs were not thrown until August, when the regime had already begun to ban all demonstrations called by the “peaceful wing” of the movement: the pan-democratic politicians and their allied NGOs.
It is the state – the Hong Kong police under orders from the CCP – that at every stage have elevated the level of violence in an attempt to terrorise the masses into submission. This is the strategy the state has chosen as a calculated policy to first provoke massive destruction and then use this to discredit and isolate the youth.
The only way to shift the emphasis of the struggle away from physical clashes and vandalism, which will not in the end prove an effective method against a well-trained militarised police force, is with a strategy of mass mobilisation and especially for the working class of Hong Kong to establish and build its own organisations. These will be the political ‘cement’ that can hold a successful mass struggle together.
Working class is the key
Socialists are not alone in understanding that the working class is the decisive force in major political struggles against authoritarian regimes. This was the unmistakeable conclusion of a recent study by Norwegian scholars published in the Washington Post (October 24, 2019), which looked at mass democracy movements over the past hundred years:
“In a new study, we systematically examine how citizens have sought to promote democracy in about 150 countries. Here’s what we find: Industrial workers have been key agents of democratization and, if anything, are even more important than the urban middle classes. When industrial workers mobilize mass opposition against a dictatorship, democratization is very likely to follow.”
This is the lesson the Hong Kong movement must embrace if it is to win.
The situation after the university occupations is complicated. Many students feel they have been sold out and abandoned, causing quite serious divisions among youth activists. This underlines the fact that the more the struggle arrives at a critical juncture – as today – the more it needs democratic organisation.
The opposition of many youth to a more organised and traditional movement, flows from the past role of pan-democratic politicians who used their control of the “main stage” to monopolise the leadership of protests. The pan-democratic leaders did not want these struggles to develop and become radicalised, so in most cases called off struggles before they had achieved concrete gains. But rejecting formal and organised structures in favour of a wholly decentralised and formless struggle, while this has also produced many innovative and ingenious protest methods, does not safeguard against “hi-jacking” by a few self-appointed leaders.
Mass organisation needed
The strategy to defeat a powerful and cruel dictatorship has to be formulated consciously, by elected representatives of the broad masses, through debate and discussion about the political aims firstly, rather than the tactics which should always flow from a clear political line. For this reason, the movement in Hong Kong urgently needs to establish democratic structures and real, mass, organisation. This is why democratic committees should be set up in schools, workplaces and local communities.
The CCP and Carrie Lam’s government are preparing even bigger attacks on democratic rights. China’s National People’s Congress has declared war on the Hong Kong High Court after its ruling this week to overturn Carrie Lam’s anti-mask law. If the NPC enforces its position it will completely emasculate Hong Kong’s independent judiciary, which is one of the last elements of “one country, two systems” that still exists. The anti-mask law was imposed in October because the government wanted to test the ground for wider use of the British-era Emergency Regulations Ordnance. This is an antique, draconian legal “nuclear weapon” that was first used in 1922 against the historic Hong Kong seamen’s strike, which paralysed the territory for over a year and played a big part in the emergence of workers’ organisations in China in the 1920s.
The NPC’s latest attack is a preparation for Beijing to further shackle the judiciary in Hong Kong. The District Council elections scheduled for Sunday (November 24) may still be cancelled, using the latest clashes as a pretext. These elections to rather insignificant and powerless local councils are seen as a referendum on the anti-government struggle and could see historic losses for the pro-Beijing parties.
Furthermore, seven pan-democratic legislators now face arrest over a protest that occurred in the Legco six months ago. This looks like the beginning of a new wave of disqualifications to turn the semi-elected Legco into a fortress of the pro-CCP camp.
There is no way back from the struggle that began in June. But to go forward a new strategy is needed and especially an organised appeal to the Chinese masses. An appeal to the Chinese masses requires a different – friendly and political – approach. We want united struggle against Xi Jinping’s brutal reign. If even half the energy that has been invested by some sections of the protest movement into appealing to the US Congress (which we predict will deliver very little) was invested in calling demonstrations and coordinated actions to appeal for mainland workers and youth to join our struggle, this could represent an explosive rebirth of the mass movement pointing in a direction that will terrify the CCP.
Ruling class is split
The internal cohesion of the pro-Beijing capitalist establishment has been seriously shaken. Recently, the former President of the Legislative Council Jasper Tsang Yok-sing gave a remarkably candid interview to a French sinologist. Tsang said that the main pro-government party, DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong) had already asked Carrie Lam to agree to an independent commission to investigate the police – one of the movement’s five demands. Despite this being favoured by a majority of the pro-Beijing establishment leaders, Lam has rejected it citing the “fragile” morale of the police force. The real reason is the hardline position of the CCP and its Fourth Plenum meeting to escalate repression and prepare a crackdown.
Establishment politicians like Tsang bear full responsibility for the current crisis. They supported the extradition law and the purges, arrests and crackdown against the democracy movement that took place over the past three years. But now the establishment camp is deeply split, with many urging the government to make concessions to defuse the mass anger. They fear permanent instability in Hong Kong which could cripple its formerly super-profitable status as a global financial centre.
The CCP is ordering Carrie Lam to ignore all such ideas of concessions. Its starting point is not what is happening in Hong Kong, but their fear that any weakness they show towards Hong Kong will cause even greater instability in mainland China.
Build for a real general strike!
It is more important than ever to turn towards the strike as the best means to organise the resistance. For a real strike we must rely on workers to organise themselves and build stronger trade unions. The Hong Kong protesters have long had the idea of a strike, but because the working class lacks mass unions, it has so far not effectively launched a collective strike. A strike needs to be organised and led, it cannot just “happen”. It needs to be rooted in the workplaces, in schools, and in local areas, not just online. Messaging apps and forums can be a powerful tool but they are only a tool. Workers’ organisation must become a physical reality by urging all employees to join or set up a trade union.
Spontaneous sick leave and vacations is not a substitute for collective action launched by the union against the white terror of the bosses. Unfortunately throughout the past months the official union leaders have been largely silent.
To organise and lead such a movement, structures are needed by building democratic committees where all issues can be debated and voted upon. It is much harder for police and government agents to infiltrate open meetings and democratically elected committees than to insert themselves into online forums and anonymous crowds in order to misdirect and cause havoc. Organised and open structures mean that all ideas can be challenged and countered with other proposals and everyone declares who they are and which group they represent.
The Civic Human Rights Front (the pan-democratic network that called the historic June 9 and June 16 demonstrations), which has been side-lined as a result of the police ban on demonstrations, needs to show a lead in this situation. It should announce a one-day mass assembly open to representatives from workplaces, schools and campaign groups, to discuss the way forward for the mass struggle and how to resist the government’s plan for a “June 4” crackdown in Hong Kong.
After over five months of mass struggle, more and more protesters are coming to recognise the importance of working class organisations. There is the potential in many industries to begin to organise trade unions, which should then coordinate and assume the main role in the mass struggle.
Socialist action calls for:
- Organise trade unions and strike committees, prepare to launch a real general strike!
- Change the mode of struggle and make workers’ struggle the backbone of the movement!
- Five demands and not one less, but the demands also need to be broadened to incorporate the urgent livelihood needs of the working class!
- Export the revolution to China for united mass struggle of mainland and Hong Kong workers to defeat the CCP dictatorship!
- Dismantle the undemocratic Hong Kong capitalist regime. Replace the undemocratic Legco with a real People’s Assembly, based on universal suffrage at 16-years of age, to immediately implement policies for the working class and break the economic power of the capitalists!