In Hong Kong the sixth World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting fast approaches, and preparations are under way. Organizers, trade unionists, farmers, migrant workers, students, and other global justice and community activists from all over Asia and the world are converging in Hong Kong to organize against, derail and shut down the summit. More than 10,000 protestersâ€”mostly from Korea, the Philipines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Thailandâ€”are expected during the convention from December 13-18.
Before the Wave Breaks
On November 18, while the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum met in Busan, South Korea, 15,000 students, farmers and workers, hurled rocks and fought police in the streets. Some beat riot police with steel pipes and sticks. â€œNo Bush, no WTO, no globalization!â€ they shouted, toppling barricades while economic leaders fled the scene in limousines. APEC, a forum promoting free trade in the Asian Pacific region, was held in a last-minute attempt to push forward the stagnant Doha trade round for the upcoming WTO summit.
The Doha round of the WTO trade negotiations was initiated during the 2001 Qatar WTO summit. Dubbed as the â€œdevelopment round,â€ it had broad, highly controversial implications on international agriculture and trade. In 2003 at the Cancun, Mexico WTO meeting, the Doha negotiations crashed and burned amidst a bloc of walk-outs of officials from poor countries. Combined with the escalating level of civil unrest on a global scope to institutions like the WTO, and the suicide of Lee Kyung Hae, a Korean farmer who killed himself at the police barricades outside the last WTO ministerial in Cancun, Mexico in 2003, protesting agricultural policies that he saw responsible for destroying Korean farmersâ€™ livelihoods, opposition to WTO policies reached a new high water mark.
This year, the Hong Kong ministerial was supposed to finalize the global trade deal after these four years of difficult negotiations between members of the WTO. But ministers have so far been unable to resolve the deep divisions, and at this point most everyone expects the Hong Kong meeting to make little headway. Significantly, tariffs on agriculture continue to be among the main issues at stake, with pressure being applied to financially underdeveloped countries of the global South to allow corporations from countries of the global North to flood local markets with manufactured goods and services.
In the tradition of previous ministerial meetings in Cancun (2003) and Seattle (1999), protesters converging in Hong Kong will be aiming toâ€”at the very leastâ€”disrupt the meetings, and stall and deadlock the agendas of the richest nations.
Enter The Storm Troopers
Hong Kong police preparations for the WTO meeting have exploded into the largest security operation ever undertaken by the island to this date. Estimates put the cost of the WTO Conference near $32 million. Since early in the year an expected 9,000 police have undergone â€œspecial trainingâ€ in shooting their newly purchased tear gas canisters, thumb-sized beanbags and â€œnon-lethalâ€ rubber bullets from guns as well as learning how to operate other sundry riot gear.
In a stark contrast to the permissive attitude bestowed upon the pro-democracy march last Sunday that swelled with 250,000 participants, Hong Kong government and police officials have consistently characterized WTO protesters as disruptive at best, and a potential terrorist threat at worst. In particular, â€œanarchists and Korean groupsâ€ should be watched, according to security expert Phil Curlewisâ€”whose private company Risk Abate, Limited will be providing protection for the WTO delegates.
The Hong Kong government continues to issue warnings of violent demonstrations, frequently citing the militancy of the Korean peasant and labor unions, as well as the protest suicide of Lee Kyung Hae in Cancun, Mexico in 2003. Schools are being closed in preparation of possible riots, a large section of the city near the conference will be sealed off to the public, prison space (in a â€œhistoricâ€ one as well) are being readied for an massive influx of 1,800 plus protesters, and police have been publicly staging drills for chemical and biological attacks. In addition, local media sources have been reporting that the city is fixing the bricks on the pavement around the convention center with extra strong mortar in attempts to preempt their use as projectiles.
As a demographic, Korean activists are being blacklisted by the government in Hong Kong and demonized by the media. Interpol, Hong Kongâ€™s Immigration Department and security consultants, have compiled a list of 300 â€œkey troublemakersâ€ who have not necessarily been charged with any offense. These people are banned from entering Hong Kong. People on the list will be jailed if they resist deportation, the South China Morning Post has reported. Many of those on the list are South Korean. The Hong Kong government has been given photographs of protesters who participated in the APEC demonstrations; it is possible that these people will be targeted first in a crowd here in Hong Kong. Already, one group of Southeast Asian activists have had their hotel reservations canceled after police disclosed their names and passport numbers to hotel staff.
Korean activistsâ€”and perhaps more significantly what they represent: militant, direct actionâ€”have become easy scapegoats for those who seek to divide opponents to the WTO on perceived issues of the legitimacy of different protest tactics.
The Peopleâ€™s What?
The Hong Kong Peopleâ€™s Alliance (HPKA) describes itself as â€œa network of grassroots organizations which include trade unions, community labor groups and organizations that represent migrant workers, students, women, church, human rights, research organizations and regional organizations that are based locally in Hong Kong.â€
HPKA is the major coordinating body for the WTO protests in Hong Kong. They have also been working closely with the police and government officials throughout. They have, with the police, decided on routes for the three major protest marches, and locations for demonstrations to stand inside of penned areas (out of sight from the actual convention centers) where protest groups can supposedly stage anti-WTO events.
Elizabeth Tang, a spokesperson for HPKA, has said that she understands that police have a job to do in making the WTO meeting a â€œsafe event.â€ In her words: â€œIf people are not genuine in this and want to use violence, then the police have a right to stop it.’
Tang told reporters that she attended the Seattle WTO demonstrations in 1999 and that the â€œviolent,â€ â€œradical actionsâ€ of some groups have marred the image of all protesters.
â€œI’m really afraid that, in December, I’ll go out in the street and be beaten up by the police, because some people will spoil the optimism and good mood that is so often associated with Hong Kong marches,’ she continued.
HPKA has appointed â€œmarshalsâ€ to keep order during the protests. The marshals are told to isolate any group or person whose actions can be construed as potentially breaking any law or just seeming unruly.
Many activistsâ€”both local organizers and those from abroadâ€”absolutely disagree with Tangâ€™s stance. Some express that the position that Tang is taking creates a false dichotomy where â€œtactics are then either legitimized by the government and completely ineffective in getting across anything beyond a most abstract â€˜message,â€™ or else if they are creative in any way then they are criminalized as being â€˜violentâ€™â€”even if itâ€™s just a situation of people sitting in a road, linking arms. Then those people are left vulnerable to police attack since the others will be told: â€˜Theyâ€™re not legitimate, donâ€™t support them.â€™â€
In an open letter of concern regarding the public statements that HPKA has made in regards to â€œviolent protests,â€ as well as HPKAâ€™s lack of support for a range of tactics in the upcoming protests, one Hong Kong-born activist wrote:
â€œHKPA has constantly pledged peaceful demonstration and attacked violent demonstrations with the claim that it plans on following all rules, guidelines and regulations set out by the HK government. How can HKPA legitimate the police force, negotiate and follow all rules set out by the police and the HK government when they are protecting the most illegitimate institutions that feeds on poor people? It is inappropriate for HKPA to monitor the behavior of other demonstrators as is suggested by certain statements that organizers of HKPA have made. So far HKPA have not provided a proper account of what constitutes peaceful demonstration and what constitutes violent demonstration and there is no talk of non-violent direct action.â€
HPKA has made no comment on the letter.
Last week the government announced its intentions to build a three-foot wall fencing in the area alongside the harbor to where protesters will be herded.
Members of the Korean Peasants League, a South Korean farmers’ group who will be sending a delegation of 2- 3,000 people, have expressed that they will not accept the venue. According to Tang, they also maintained that they would comply with Hong Kong laws.
Beyond the Protest Pens: A New Starting Point for Hong Kong Activism?
â€œHong Kong is like the office; China is the factory and warehouse,â€ one Hong Kong labor activist said in his explanation of the role Hong Kong plays in the global economy. â€œPeople here donâ€™t realize how important we are internationally. We donâ€™t realize our own power.â€
Local organizers have repeatedly stressed their hopes that the connections and organizing against the WTO meeting next week will be a beginning point for a heightened level of resistance to capitalism and imperialismâ€”both in Asia and globally. Linking in solidarityâ€”critically and strategicallyâ€”with social movements worldwide will be increasingly crucial in the years to come. With luck, this sense of solidarity will begin here.
* the ONLY direct action Hong Kong anti-WTO site* www.targetwto.revolt.org
*South Korean independent media: www.gomediaction.net
*Hong Kong independent media: http://inmedia-conf.blogspot.com/
*Hong Kong People’s Alliance: http://hkpa.does.it