Wed Jul 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

Hong Kong: An Undeterred Struggle For Democratic Rights!

            An important process of struggle has arisen in Hong Kong against the so-called “Extradition Law” proposed by the Beijing-dependent authorities. “The controversial bill will allow suspects of criminal offences, like murder and rape, to be extradited to continental China and other countries to be judged.“[1] The bill was seen as a new attempt, on Beijing’s regime, against the relative autonomy which Hong Kong enjoys. Given the magnitude and continuity of the demonstrations, Carrie Lam. Chief Executive of this administrative region, decided to retreat “temporarily”.

By Alejandro Iturbe

            This is not the first demonstration taking place in Hong Kong for democratic demands since the city was incorporated to continental China in 1997. In 2014 we presented the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” (with a series of demonstrations that reached 250.000 people) in response to the central government’s announcement of measures that went back on its promise of organizing free elections in 2017 to elect the local authorities, as was written in the deal about the incorporation signed between China and the United Kingdom [2]. The movement ended, partly due to repression, but its flame remained lit, as evidenced by the 10.000-strong student demonstrations in 2015 and 2018.

Hong Kong represents a grave political contradiction for the Chinese regime which has only grown steadier of late. To understand this contradiction we must analyse some of its history and present features.

A little history

The Hong Kong territory is an excellent natural port in the Southern China Sea and is separated from the continent (the Guangdong province) by the Pearl River. After the Opium War (1839-1842) it became a colony/enclave of the British Empire (along with other nearby territories), a key point for the commercial and military domination of this part of the Pacific Ocean. Japan occupied it during World War II; soon the UK retook it until the 1997 deal.

Its main activity was maritime trade. After 1950, it lived a period of industrial development boosted by the Shanghai bourgeoisie, which fled the revolution in the continent and sought a free workforce to exploit. Thus arose a large amount of small and medium-sized textile companies, which later expanded to other sectors (plastics and electronics) that exported to Europe and the United States [3].

This situation begun to shift with the capitalist restoration in China, starting in 1978, and the opening for foreign investments. The Hong Kong Industry begun to move to the “special zones” in Guangdong: in the end of 1997, investments from Hong Kong represented 90% of the FDIs (Foreign Direct Investment) received by this province. The change in the economic accumulation model became more acute after 1997: the industry went from 31% to 8% of the GDP in 2008, while services grew from 68% to 92% during the same time (there is no agriculture on the territory).

Since 1997 Hong Kong became a pole for specialized services: finances, administration, logistics, business consultation, transport and trade, etc. We can define it as a bridge for investments and business in continental China (and other parts of Asia) built by the imperialist bourgeoisie (mediated by the UK) and the Chinese-originated bourgeoisie which was outside continental China.

In the sector of finances there are three particularly important banks: HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corporation, private-owned), the Bank of China (state-owned) and Standard Chartered (private, based in London, but with most of its clients in Hong Kong and Asia). Another information is that HKE (the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong) is considered the seventh biggest stock exchange in the world for value of capitalization in the market, above Shanghai, Frankfurt and Zurich.

The 1997 reintegration deal

The territory was handed over to China in 1997. This “devolution of sovereignty” was prepared since 1984 by the “Sino-British Joint Declaration” signed between Queen Elizabeth (Margaret Thatcher was prime minister) and Chinese president Li Xiannian (with Deng Xiaoping as the strong man of the regime).

The formal reason for the deal was the expiration of the “lease” of the territory, in 1997, after a period of 99 years, since 1898, which was the disguise of the British colonial domination. The argument Thatcher used to defend the deal was that the UK had was in no conditions of organizing a military defence of the territory if the Chinese regime decided to invade it. The actual reason was a master move by British imperialism that, with this, made a chess-master move: it would serve as a “bridge” for foreign investments to use Hong Kong, without the hurdle of being a “foreign territory”, in the incipient capitalist development of China and the enormous business opportunities that were beginning to appear.

The deal also included the idea of “one country, two systems”. This meant, on one side, respecting the capitalist system of Hong Kong and its investors (the Chinese regime had already restored capitalism, but still identified as “socialist”). The territory would keep its own currency (the Hong Kong dollar) and its monetary authority (the Central Bank). On the other hand, the juridical and legal system of Hong Kong would be kept with more democratic liberties than in the continent, and elections for the local authorities would happen in 2017.

As we already said, the UK move was very successful in the aspect of the economic-financial role the territory could play (it was also used by the Chinese regime to attract foreign investments). But, in its political aspect, it was a sort of contradictions and mass protests like the ones we are witnessing.

Some present data

Hong Kong has a territory of 1.100 km2 and nearly 7.500.000 inhabitants. The population lives in about a fourth of this area: the rest is either uninhabitable or preserved areas. It is considered the densest urban region in the world. It is basically a huge “vertical” city. In 2017, its nominal GDP was estimated in 340 billion dollars, equivalent of more than 45.000 dollars per capital, above countries like Germany, France, Japan and Italy. Its economy is based on finances, services and transport.

In 2011, the workforce was estimated as around 3.700.000 people [4], mostly focused in services. HSBC has some 30.000 workers; Standard Chartered, 20.000; Bank of China 10.000, and Hang Seng Bank (a subsidiary of HSBC). This is without counting smaller head offices of large international banks like Citibank, JP Morgan, Lloyd, etc.

            Another relevant sector are transportation workers. The port and transport logistics from and to container terminals are dominated by four large companies. There are also some 20 companies operating the mid-stream services (loading and unloading ships directly from the bay without entering the port), and a ferry service that connects to Guangdong. The most important of these companies (China Merchants International, property of Li Ka-shing, one of the richest men in the world) employs around 30.000 workers [5].

In the passenger sector, urban mass transport is supplied essentially by a modern, efficient subway system, operated by MTR Corporation (Mass Transit Railway, which also operates trains in other cities: Beijing, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, London and the entire subway networks of Melbourne and Stockholm). The subway-rail system of Hong Kong has a 221 km long network. To get a better view of this amount, in the city of São Paulo and its neighbouring cities (without almost three times the population and about 8.000 km2 of area), the subway and CPTM (metropolitan train) networks total about 350km. The MTR employs about 12.000 workers[6]. Also, the rail network KCRC (Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, also operated by the MTR) connects the territory to the city of Canton/Guangzhou with passenger services, and has about 2.500 workers.

We said that industry and the industrial proletariat were very reduced, but it is important to mention the construction sector, which is very large due to the permanent growth of new skyscrapers and public contracts. One example is the bridge linking the city of Zhuhai, in the Guangdong province, with Macao and Hong Kong. It will have 55 km (with an underwater tunnel stretch of 6 km) and it is considered one of biggest offshore buildings of the world [7]. In the industrial sector properly there are repair companies for ships and ferries, and factories which supply them with machine-tools.

Salaries and work conditions

In 2019, the average salary in Hong Kong was estimated to be 2.450 dollars per month (almost 2,5 times that of continental China)[8]. But the cost of living is very high: the rent of a one-room apartment in the poor neighbourhoods costs an average of 1.450 dollars and can reach 2.400 downtown. In 2017, the rents of the territory were estimated to be 4,5 times higher than those of Buenos Aires and double that of Barcelona [9].

The price of land and of construction per square meter is one of the highest of the world, and it keeps on rising [10]. The price of food, almost always imported, is also high: if we look at a list of average prices for basic products (lettuce, onions, sweet potatoes, chicken, milk, etc.), the prices are two or four times more expensive than in a supermarket in São Paulo [11]. This explains why, even with this average salary, 20% of the population is below the poverty line [12].

The work journeys and weeks are very long: 10 hours per day and more than 50 hours per week on average. At its most extreme points, many workers accept the system of 12 hours daily x 6 days weekly [13]. In Hong Kong the very advanced development of capitalism is combined with very high levels of overexploitation, which the article mentioned above calls “savage capitalism”.

The intense rhythm, the tendencies and pressures towards consumerism, and the extreme competition between workers encouraged by companies cause a high number of cases of karoshi (stress due to excess work and work tension that may lead to depression, collapse and even death): “Many consider Hong Kong a stressful and stressed city. This tensions causes one in every nine person to suffer from anxiety, eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorders, and a study from the Mental Health Association shows that almost 12% of the population is depressed”. [14].

An important strike

In my research I found little information on strikes or conflicts for workers’ demands. But one called my attention: in 2013, the port workers went on strike for 40 days for salary increases and improvement of working conditions. This strike had radical methods (like pickets which occupied ships to stop them from docking on port) and the solidarity of many sectors that contributed to the strike fund [15]. The strike conquered a salary increase and a compromise from the companies of opening negotiations on matters of work safety and health.

            However, at the same time, the Supreme Court of the territory produced a decision restricting the right to strike and ordered the union to limit itself to “reasonable and legal movements”. The decision was obeyed, but this struggle became an important precedent for the workers of Hong Kong.

The union organizations

Unlike in continental China, in Hong Kong there is the right of having various trade union federations. The biggest one is the HKFTU (Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions), with 410.000 members and 251 rank-and-file unions, founded in 1948. It is the local arm of the official Chinese union federation and opposes the democratic demand of autonomy.

The most active one is the HKCTU (Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions), founded in 1999, with 160.000 members and 61 unions. It is linked to the CIOSL and the Western unions of imperialist countries. It is strong among port workers, teachers, domestic workers and social services workers. The port worker union headed the 2103 strike, and supports and takes part on the democratic popular demands of the current movement.

Another organization that has participated in the popular movements is the Construction Site General Workers’ Union (CSGWU). In October last year it called for and participated (along with environmentalists and dwellers) in a 8.000-strong demonstration against the building of a series of artificial islands: the East Landau Metropolis Project, spearheaded by governor Carrie Lam.

They considered it a “white elephant” in service of big constructors and not a plan to solve the acute popular housing problem of the overpopulated territory [16]. This confederation is intimately linked to China Labour Bulletin and the various NGOs that act in continental China (to which we will refer in the third part of this article).

            The third confederation is the HKTUC, historically linked to the Kuomintang and Taiwan, with 60.000 members. Finally, a small confederation (the FLU), with some 20.000 members, is directly linked to Beijing and the local Communist Party.

The institutions and political parties

The current political-institutional system in Hong Kong is an heir of that which worked in the last decades of the British colonial time. It is defined by the Basic Law (a sort of Constitution) of 1997. It combines a guarantee of democratic liberties (liberty of press, creation of political parties and unions, right of leaving and entering from or for other countries, etc.) with a very restrictive electoral and legislative system. Hong Kong also elects deputies for the National People’s Congress.

The head of local institutions is the Chief Executive. He is elected through indirect voting by a very selective Electoral College, composed of 1.200 members, representing the interest of the “four functional sectors”: industry, commerce and finances; professional associations; workers and social sectors; and members of the Legislative Council. It is a deeply antidemocratic mechanism, and, to make matters worse, the elected must be approved by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.

The Chief Executive has the power to present “special laws” to the Legislative Council, and also of approving or vetoing them. The Executive Power also manages the Hong Kong Police and the Monetary Authority. Since March 2017, the office is held by Carrie Lam, 62 years old, an alumni of local and British universities (Cambridge), who developed a long bureaucratic career since the time of the British rule.

The Legislative Council of Hong Kong is composed by 35 members elected through direct vote and 35 through indirect vote (with a system similar to that we described above). It can approve “common law” with simple majority, but “special law” (that which affects the relations with the Chinese regime, democratic liberties and the economic system) requires 60% and must also be approved by the Chief Executive.

The combined system for electing its members makes its composition controllable and manipulable by the Chinese regime. In the 2016 elections, a pro-Beijing block of 40 members was elected (headed by the so-called Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong), 23 of the “democratic opposition” (led by the Democratic Party, founded in 1994 and strongly tied to parties of imperialist countries), and 7 “local” lawmakers (autonomists) or “independent” ones. Some of these last parties, like Demosistō and Youngspiration, were intimately linked to the 2014 movement. Six of these lawmakers were stopped from taking office due to the use, on being sworn in, of expressions that “were considered offensive to the People’s Republic of China”.

All the same, this configuration led to a legislative impasse, since the pro-Chinese regime block did not have the majority it needed to approve the “special laws”. In March 2018, complementary elections took place to fill the vague seats: the pro-Beijing block managed to win two more seats, reach “qualified majority”, and, thus, stop the “democratic opposition” from vetoing measures such as the “Extradition Law”.

At the same time, its discredit (and that of the legal system) grew among the population. Not only the youth, but also in the middle sectors, like shop owners and liberal professionals. Something which was happening since 2014: in late 2016, 2.000 lawyers marched in silence against the attacks on the law and the legal system on Beijing’s part. “It is like a tank trampling over the Hong Kong legal system”, said Martin Lee, one of the founders of the Democratic Party, which was part of the commission that wrote the Basic Law [17].

Lastly, the territory has its own police force of 35.000 members, with a tactical unit (the PTU) specialized in “riot repression”, which is more and more important since 2014.

From the Umbrella Revolution to today

The turning point for the beginning of the demonstrations was the realization that the Chinese regime would not keep its compromise of direct elections for the Chief Executive, which was predicted to 2017. That was what led to the “umbrella revolution” with the students as protagonists, demanding the resignation of then Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying [18].

The process was controlled and stopped, but kept on living through all these years with smaller, but important student movements. On the other hand, aside from rejecting the indirectly-elected Chief Executive, there was a lot of experience with a police force that was until then presented as “the best police force in Asia” [19], for its repressive action.

Since then, more and more elements have poured gas in the fire. The legislative elections of 2016 (and the complementaries of 2018) showed that the Legislative Council is also an anti-democratic institution, and this idea is starting to hit the legal system (until now presented as “one of the most independent justices of the world”) [20], as the lawyer movement shows.

The “Extradition Law” was the trigger which detonated this new wave of demonstrations with high numbers than the previous one: the largest demonstrations reached an estimated one million participants. Secondary and university students and their organizations (and the youth in general) are still in the vanguard [21]. But workers and middle sectors have also joined: the HKFTU and its unions took part and called for a strike, calling on owners of many companies and shops [22].

At the same time, their methods grow more radical. Faced with the risk of repression and prison that the identification “of the faces of the participants” represented – as was the case of Joshua Wong in 2014, then a 17-year old high school student (he has just left prison) – the demonstrations are organized by “social groups” hard to detect, and many youngsters use surgical masks to protect from the clouds of tear gas and avoid identification.

Along with this, sectors of demonstrators blocked the area around the Legislative Council and tried to get in, broke the police lines and started to throw sticks, bricks and bottles. In response, the police increased the repression and imprisonment of demonstrators. But this only provoked more indignation and fighting spirit [23]. On the next day, the entire Police central building was surrounded the whole day.

Given the strength of the movement and the difficulty of applying the level of repression necessary to defeat it, the Chief Executive Carrie Lam opted for a retreated and announced the proposal would not be voted then, to “restore peace and order” [24]. It was a victory of the partial, but very important movement, that places the local government (and the Chinese regime in the region) in a more unfavourable situation, and the masses in better conditions to continue the struggle for their democratic demands.

Some conclusions

For its historical tradition and the features of its society, Hong Kong represents an enormous contradiction for the Chinese regime. This contradiction is not between capitalism and “Chinese socialism” (which has not existed for decades). In this sense, the territory is perfectly compliant and is very useful for the Chinese capitalism, bourgeoisie and regime. The main contradiction is between the Chinese political regime (a dictatorship) and the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong (workers, middle sectors and small-bourgeoisie). The power of Beijing needs to “tame” Hong Kong, but it is unable to, and this generates a crisis for the local government and a challenge to the Chinese regime as a whole.

Here we must consider two questions. In the international scope, imperialist powers support the Beijing regime, from which they accrue big economical benefits. But, at the same time, they want to avoid a qualitative growth of Chinese capitalism. For this reason, among others, they pressure, very timidly, for democratic matters. Hong Kong is part of this game: there they try to avoid an absolute consolidation of Chinese control and save the independence of their investments. In this sense, they formally support the democratic struggle.

In the local scope, on one hand, the Chinese regime cannot repress the democratic struggles with the same method it uses on the continent (although it is gradually using harsher methods). On the other hand, these struggles continue and establish a balance of forces which is totally unlike that of China as a whole, much more favourable to the masses.

The contradiction is not limited to Hong Kong: as the democratic struggles in the territory continue and grow deeper, this situation can act as a “spark” that lights other fires in China, through the many communicating vessels, especially the Southern region closer to the territory. As such, the Chinese regime’s need of “taming” it is increasing, as well as its attempt of gaining complete control of the territory’s institutions while keeping its formal aspects.

Evidently the democratic demands are the focus of the current stage of the movement, with its epicentre in the election of the Chief Executive through direct vote. I believe that to this epicentre it is immediately necessary to add the demand for the direct election of the Legislative Council. Also, the command of the Police cannot be in the hands of the Executive Power. All of this leads to a conflict with the Basic Law and the demand for its withdrawal.

Inside the scope of democratic demands there is a background question about which of them is the most important: is the struggle for the autonomy of Hong Kong inside China, or for independence for the territory? This is a debate which is growing inside the organizations that begun or grew stronger in the 2014 process: Youngspiration defends independence, while Demosistō is for full autonomy inside China (a bit more to the left of the “democratic opposition” led by the Democratic Party) [25].

We must demand, for the people of Hong Kong, the right to self-determination, as to an oppressed people, or do we consider it part of China? Our position is that Hong Kong is not a nation, but, with its specific features, is part of China, and its struggle must be integrated in the struggle of all the Chinese working class and people against the dictatorship regime of Beijing.

But, indeed, the Chinese regime does not accept any of these alternatives and permanently attacks even the relative autonomy of the territory, let alone an independent path. So, this democratic struggle must necessarily seek for solidarity and extend itself to continental China. Whatever the alternative chosen (autonomy or independence), it can only be achieve if, along with the continental Chinese working class and popular masses, it advances towards the toppling of the regime (“down with the dictatorship”).

This reality turn these democratic aspirations into transitional slogans. Something that is profoundly against the interests of the essential sectors of the Hong Kong bourgeoisie and of many middle sectors, of negotiating only limited autonomy, keeping the Basic Law.

It is impossible, from where we are looking now, to be sure how the movement will evolve in its methods and organization. We cannot predict either how the struggle in Hong Kong will reflect on continental China, and through which means. But there is a point of which we are very sure: it is essential that working class, with its strength, its organization and its methods (something which is already beginning to happen), joins the fray and lead it.

Certainly there will be moments of united action with these bourgeois sectors like we have just seen. But the strategic formulation that Trotsky expressed in the Permanent Revolution is useful here: “The theory of Permanent Revolution means that the whole, effective resolution of its democratic objectives and its national emancipation are only possible through the dictatorship of the proletariat…”.

It is essential that we support, promote and, with our limited possibilities, take part in these struggles for democratic demands, understanding their specifics and its presence in the consciousness of the workers and the masses, as well as their illusions in bourgeois democracy. But we will only do it correctly with this strategic perspective pointed out by Trotsky and, as we said, by bringing the working class as a leading part.



[2] y











[13] Idem.

[14] Idem.




[18]  y





[23] See NY Times, note 21.



Translated by Miki Sayoko

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