Asia, International, World in Revolt

Interview • The Struggle in Hong Kong with Kevin Lin

In October of 2019, Marx21 talked with Kevin Lin, a labor activist and researcher on China, about the recent background and prospects of the immense ongoing movement in Hong Kong. Part of our World in Revolt 2019 series.

After four months of enormous protests, can the state continue to sit this out? Are they just waiting for it to die down?

It is important to be reminded of the extent to which the protests were utterly unanticipated and unusual for Hong Kong. Prior to June, the opponents of the Extradition Bill could not have expected such large-scale, durable and militant mobilizations, nor had the Hong Kong authorities–who believed they could rush through the legislation without popular opposition.

For these reasons, we have been in uncharted territory for some time. There have been a few moments when the protests became especially disruptive, such as during the general strike and airport occupation that paralyzed the normal functioning of the city, when it appeared that the Chinese government was on the verge of signaling direct intervention.

Right now, even as the protests see no sign of dying down and instead become more destructive, the Chinese government may be content with sitting it out for a bit longer, perhaps hoping that the discord within the movement created by the violence on the street and the deepening of economic pains may generate enough pressure to end the protest, while the Chief Executive Carrie Lam makes conciliatory gestures.

Although military intervention cannot be entirely ruled out, all sides recognize it will be the end of Hong Kong as we know it. Despite relative decline in economic importance to the rest of Chinese economy, Hong Kong remains vital to the future of Chinese capitalism and its global expansion by acting as open currency, equity and debt markets for Chinese companies and as a launchpad for foreign direct investment into mainland China.

We have seen many reports of older citizens supporting the younger militant demonstrators, but less about the class makeup. Hong Kong is a very unequal society (with a higher Gini inequality coefficient than the US). Are the demonstrations cross-class?  

The demonstrators who participated in large rallies on weekends and holidays are very diverse and cut across class lines, ranging from tens of thousands to a couple of millions at different points. The more militant protesters, however, are very young. Most are high school and college students and recent college graduates. The 18-year-old protester who the police shot in the chest with live ammunition is representative of a large percentage of the protesters. Among the more than 2,000 protesters arrested since June, a third of them are under the age of 18. So, it appears it is a youth-driven movement more than a class-based movement.

However, there are clearly class dynamics at play. Billed as the world’s freest economy in terms of rule of law, regulatory efficiency, the size of government and open markets, Hong Kong is a capitalist utopia with one of the lowest tax regimes and no minimum wage until 2011. It is not only a very unequal society, but its inequality is now the highest in almost half a century. While the political idealism of protesters cannot be ignored as a driving force on its own, such severe and permeating inequality – and the related lack of social mobility – undoubtedly drives many young people to the streets.

The movement built around a set of democratic demands first served as a strength in uniting diverse social groups with differing and sometimes incompatible political outlooks and goals. But the broad alliance forged at the expense of class politics has ended up obscuring and limiting any articulation of class-based demands. It is now the Hong Kong government that tries to appease the public by talking about the social ills. Still, the deepening of the democratic process, through the expansion of universal suffrage in particular, could undermine the disproportionate power of business over the Chief Executive election, and opens up space for advancing the interests of the non-capitalist classes in Hong Kong.

Who are the major institutional players (for instance, parties, unions, NGOs and student movements? Are there any socialist groupings?) and what role do they play?

While the mass demonstrations are called by Civil Human Rights Front – an umbrella organization to which progressive political parties and social organization are affiliated, the lack of dominant institutional players has been the hallmark of this movement. In particular, among the young militant protesters, there is a deep suspicion and distrust of any organization representing the movement.

Consequently, an array of opposition groups has fallen by the wayside. The oppositional parties, the pan-democrats, are sidelined. The pro-democracy activist leaders who emerged out of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, such as Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Nathan Law, have had a more public role, as opposed to being influential within the movement. The trade union movement has been a supporting force, and during the general strike exerted a crucial power, especially the Cathay Pacific cabin crew union – for which the union and employees faced retaliation. But rarely have the unions been one of the main actors. The progressive NGOs similarly assumed a supporting role. While students have played a key role, they largely did so not through the once powerful Hong Kong Federation of Students–which was weakened after suffering from disaffiliations.

Individual socialists have tried to bring social and economic issues into the movement’s discussion, but the Hong Kong left is too fractured to act as a unified force in the movement. It is in some ways perhaps less powerful than even during the Umbrella Movement.

What are the pluses and minuses of the current leaderless protests? We saw similar theories in Occupy, which initially helped people to get involved, but also created unaccountable hidden leaders and difficulty in making democratic decisions on priorities. In Hong Kong, are there real leaders behind the scenes?

Similar to Occupy and other leaderless movements, the Hong Kong protest movement has its own hidden power structures and leaders who are all but visible to the militant protesters. While there is a certain element of decentralized, online democratic decision-making in coordinating direct actions, the leadership structure is not transparent or accountable to the broader movement.

This structure has been extremely effective in mobilizing and coordinating protest actions, and is instrumental in preserving the momentum of the movement. There is no individual or group of leaders who could be coopted or simply arrested by the Hong Kong authorities.

But this structure may serve the movement less well when the direction of the movement is in need of some form of open and democratic discussion. Direct actions in the early months of the protest sparked the awakening of mass political consciousness. We may need to consider if the movement now faces the risk of being effective at escalating confrontation without deepening or even alienating mass democratic participation. We see this in the use of a homemade bomb targeting police, inviting stronger state reaction without necessarily building broad support.

Viewing the reports from the U.S. the images of black-clad young people brandishing sticks and Molotov cocktails fighting the police may remind us of Black Block or anarchist demonstrations in the West. Does anarchism have any influence there, are there parallels?

While anarchism does not have a stronghold in Hong Kong, increasingly anarchism, or at least anarchism-inspired activism, has been attractive to young activists opposed to both capitalism and the traditional left in Hong Kong. Their political critique is worth reading. The more recent militant protests have certainly adopted the tactics and methods of anarchists, favoring direct actions and street battles, as well as destroying properties and targeting businesses opposed to the protest.

This development, too, is unexpected. Until very recently, protests in Hong Kong have been remarkably peaceful. Violence, if at all, is overwhelmingly initiated by the police, and egregiously so this time, with well-documented excessive use of force, arbitrary detention and torture in detention.

But the more militant protesters have also become more comfortable crossing the non-violence line. Importantly, public acceptance of violent protest tactics in Hong Kong has increased, reflecting the frustration of the public with the Hong Kong authorities. Many have participated in “unlawful” protests, and militant protesters reacted angrily when the authorities used a British colonial legislation to ban wearing masks at protests.

On the other hand, the anti-mainland Chinese rhetoric of some of the localists, and their call for “proportional violence against the government” may remind us of the far-right in the West. Are there parallels there? Is it important to guard against a far-right influence in the Hong Kong street demonstrations? 

The nativist current in the movement (with a vicious orientation against the people of mainland Chinaas opposed to only the Chinese state) has always been and remains marginal. However, it has definitely become more acceptable in recent years, thanks to the failure of mainstream opposition parties and young Umbrella Movement activists, as well as the intransigence of the Hong Kong authorities to make fundamental change.

When we talk of “localism” however, it is harder to simply categorize it as right-wing or map onto a political spectrum. The Left and other less political participants concerned over preserving cultural heritage and political autonomy share localist tendencies too, without necessarily advocating for independence. In fact, any talk of independence would have been regarded as ludicrous in Hong Kong just a few years ago; it still is, but less so. The popularity of a Hong Kong national anthem composed for the protests is merely one sign of this growing nationalist identity.

Looking back at the long term, the youth identification with being Chinese as opposed to being Hong Kongers has significantly declined over time. This is even a harder problem for the Chinese government than ending this particular protest. The growing acceptance of localism and nativism has enabled and tolerated some anti-mainlander rhetoric and even isolated violent actions against mainlanders in the protest movement. This may in fact worsen, and would take the movement in a reactionary direction.

The escalating protests won the withdrawal of the extradition order, but have won no victories on demands for democracy or an inquiry into police violence. How do you see this play out?

The momentum of the protest movement was at its highest when the Hong Kong authorities withdrew the Extradition Bill, so the movement collectively decided to continue and insist on the other four core demands to be met as well. The short and medium-term demands such as not characterizing the protests as “riot”, an independent inquiry into police violence and release of all arrested protesters could be conceivably agreed to by the authorities at some point.

The last, and the most far-reaching demand, the universal suffrage (the democratic nomination and election of the Chief Executive), has been resisted by the authorities for many years. From the Chinese government’s perspective, making this concession would mean a fundamental change of Chinese governance of Hong Kong, showing political weakness and losing one of the key mechanisms of control over Hong Kong.

In the meantime, as the militant protesters are fueled by police brutality to escalate battle with the police, the political demands are receding into the background. At this point, even if the Hong Kong government is willing to meet some of these demands and make policy promises to address social issues, it may be too little and too late for the militant protesters who more fundamentally challenge the government’s legitimacy.

There have been many voices calling for a strike. But while the student strikes were very successful, a recent call for a general strike was not as solid in the workplaces and unions. In order to organize a significant strike, what would be the strategy with the unions? Are there any people trying to make connections to workers’ struggles in mainland China? Is this possible or out of reach at present? 

The general strike on August 5 was the most successful one among the several general strike calls since the start of the protests in June. The calls for labor strike, business shutdown and student class boycott are regularly invoked in Hong Kong’s protests, and in general class boycotts tend to be the most successful. This time around, it brought the city to a standstill.

It succeeded primarily because of several key unions, including the Cathay Pacific cabin crew union among others, and the participation of ordinary employees across a number of sectors. More than 2,000 aviation workers joined the strike, leading to mass cancelations of flights at the Hong Kong International Airport. Direct actions interrupting transportation is another reason for the success of the general strike. But the overall number of participants is not significant. The risk of employer retaliation and lack of union power in the workplace make mass participation in a general strike difficult.

There is no substitute for trade unions’ workplace-based organizing to strengthen union capacity for mobilizing workers, and there are signs that this is happening. Because the Chinese state is intent on containing the protests within Hong Kong, the protest movement has not yet figured out how to link up with the labor movement in mainland China–which has itself been the target of repression in the last year–without posing extreme high-level of risk to workers and activists in mainland China.

Partly because of the isolation of the movement from the rest of China, the movement has looked to the US and UK governments for political support. As a result, many on the US left have had difficulty relating to what is happening in Hong Kong. This has happened far too often in social movement caught between the US and its enemies.

I think the left should take up this challenge of developing a critical, internationalist and anti-imperialist perspective on Hong Kong that can critique problematic developments in the movement, as discussed here, while still maintaining solidarity with the broad mass movement in Hong Kong.