Hong-Kong’s Democracy Movement


[Author’s Note: This article was originally written in late November 2004 and published on the weblog In The Water . It was meant to provide some wider analysis on the mainstream democracy movement in Hong Kong that was particularly active and visible between 2002 and 2004, specifically on the character of this movement given the presence of US elite involvement.

Though some of the individual facts might seem dated, William Blum’s most recent Anti-Empire Report , with his thoughts on US imperialism and democracy movements worldwide, prodded me into this reprint.

And although the Democratic Party in HK has more or less severed its links with the rest of the movement, opting to organize ‘patriotic’ anti-Japan rallies instead, some of the more progressive organizations involved are still using the word ‘democracy’ as a rallying call. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), for example, continued to print “Fight For Democracy!” as one of its May Day slogans this year.

So, though the mainstream democracy movement has been less visible lately, and the debate in much the media seems to have lapsed into a squabble over the terms & identity of the next Chief Executive, I think the issues raised here might still be relevant. See what you think.]

Some interesting stories have come up on the theme of democracy this November. The term recently re-entered the mainstream press in Hong Kong when a recently elected legislator, Cheung Chiu-hung, suggested holding an unofficial referendum in the city on the best method for choosing the Chief Executive and members of the legislature. The response from the Central Government was vitriolic, their Hong Kong representative Li Gang warning that Cheung was “playing with fire.” “Only Beijing can decide when the time is right for Hong Kong to enjoy full democracy,” Janus Lam concluded in the Asia Times.

Ironically, then, the official English-language People’s Daily recently ran an editorial titled “Democracy is Not Coca-Cola,” criticizing what it called American attempts to impose democracy by the gun.

“Democracy is a slow process based on the actual conditions of various countries, it is not like coca-cola that the normal juice can be transported from the United States to various Middle East countries and turned into products by adding water to it.”

Aside from the questionable logic of the piece (which is based on the false presumption that US actions in the Middle East are in fact carried out to “export democracy”), it seems disingenuous for Beijing to argue that democracy is a process that comes from within a country, and then actively curtail that very process in Hong Kong and China itself.

However, I do also think that we in Hong Kong would do well to spend more time thinking about the ‘Coca-Colaization’, in a sense, of mainstream ‘pro-democracy’ groups here. It was recently reported, for example, that US elite organizations as Madeleine Albright’s National Democratic Institute are in town and “providing support to activists” in HK. Hong Kong’s democracy marches have also received extensive and glowing coverage in the same US corporate media that ignores its own domestic popular movements or refuses to cover them with any favourable regard. Indeed, many North American commentators seem to employ HK as a sort of buffer to cushion bad news from other parts of the Empire: some right-wing ideologues going so far as to merge Hong Kong and Iraq in the same piece as examples of American commitment to democracy worldwide.

It was also not long ago that Martin Lee and other major Hong Kong ‘pro-democracy figures’ embarked on their famous trip to Washington to “discuss democracy” with senior figures in the Bush administration. The easiest thing to do here would be scream at the top of our lungs that accepting this sort of ‘help’ is hypocritical, and also dangerous, since it is in fact giving legitimacy to US actions that continue to cause suffering and insecurity around the world in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’.

And of course, the wider geopolitical implications involving the US and China should also be considered- we should not have any illusions about the interests of US elites in this part of the world, given the historical record and their stated goals. These are real concerns, but have so-far tended to lead to nationalist conclusions, voiced by pro-Beijing groups who go on to employ terms like “traitors” and “unpatriotic”. Rather than repeat these nationalist arguments against the involvement of US elites (arguments which I frankly don’t care for) I think it would be more constructive to think about what such involvement indicates about us, or at least about the mainstream democracy movement in HK.

For me, it has quite clear indications as to the character of the movement with regards to the issue of class. Here I see two possibilities.

One is that the mainstream pro-democracy groups have a very conscious set of class politics that are shared internationally by their counterparts in Washington and elsewhere. Indeed, if we look at the constituency of groups such as the Democratic Party, they are generally comprised of ‘middle class’ (or ‘coordinator class’ to use a ParEcon term) leaders and members, and represent the interests of such groups. This has also, to a large extent, been reflected in the demographics of the recent mass demonstrations in Hong Kong.

We could also say that the dominant discussion about ‘democracy’ in Hong Kong has often reflected these class interests. Articles and debates have often focused on such questions as whether or not Hong Kong is ‘ready’ for democracy, whether there are people around who are ‘capable’ or ‘suitable’ enough to be elected, which camp is more ‘patriotic’ than the other, what the implications of democracy are for ‘stability’, and how democracy will affect the confidence of business interests. The leaders of HK pro-democracy groups have taken such matters seriously, and spent much of their time and energy on them, rather than dismissing them as the ruling class fears that they are.

If we accepted the above argument, we could highlight Martin Lee’s trip to Washington as a display of class solidarity rather than as a traitorous visit to a ‘foreign’ power. It coule be seen as an example of how the interests of elite and coordinator classes transcend borders, particularly when it comes to as strategic an area as Hong Kong.

But the other possiblity I would like to suggest is that perhaps the mainstream democracy movement in Hong Kong has absolutely no conscious conception of class at all. That the word doesn’t even register as a theme to be discussed, and that they implicity see themselves as a ‘classless’ movement.

I think the actual situation is somewhere in between. I don’t think there is an explicit class politics at work in the democracy movement in Hong Kong- but that doesn’t mean there are no class politics at work.

Specifically, I don’t think mainstream pro-democracy groups consciously preach class war, or even see class as being relevant to the democracy issue. But they nonethless practice class politics, through at least three fundamental assumptions that I think they make:

  • That an accepted model of ‘democracy’– a ‘Western-style’ representative system impacting on the political arena alone, and involving the election of career politicians— exists, and will be followed. (“we want elections and universal suffrage”)
  • That corporate control over the economy and economic decision-making is desirable, and will remain untouched by this representative democracy. (“democracy is good for business”
  • That preservation of the status-quo– stability– without challenging existing power relations within society is desirable. (“maintaining Hong Kong’s success”)

Such a basis colours the character of the movement in a way that affects its every move. It means that leaders will ask thousands of angry people assembled outside LegCo to ‘respect the rule of law’ and go home rather than taking more direct action. It leads them to be involved in debates over whether ordinary Hong Kong are ‘intelligent’ or ‘capable’ or ‘experienced’ enough to control their own lives. And it racks up enough ticks on the imperial checklist to make it an acceptable horse for US political and economic elites to back fairly openly.

The class position, conscious or not, of the mainstream ‘pro-democracy’ groups in HK is particularly important to consider since the movement for democracy has thus far been a top-heavy one: demonstrations are organized by leading organizations, people attend, then go home to await the next mobilization.

So, we should find ourselves asking, what have these ‘lead organizations’ in the democracy movement so far been ignoring, and on what assumptions do they base their positions’?

Moreover, WHO is leading this movement? And where?

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