Hong Kong Protests


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Protesters block downtown Hong Kong

When protests in Hong Kong exploded people looked for U.S. involvement. It was not hard to find. The overt intrusion of the U.S. is available in budgets, documents, and websites. The covert involvement has not yet been uncovered, but there is no doubt. What does U.S. involvement mean for the credibility of the protest movement and the future of Hong Kong?

The issues raised by the protests—democracy and unfair economy—are very real. But so are the concerns of Beijing for economic growth and continuing to lift people out of poverty. Those who seek to transform governance and create a more equal economy now have a more challenging task than organizing protests, they must build national consensus on their issues in Hong Kong and in China’s leadership.

Now that the U.S. has been exposed, it needs to be removed. U.S. goals are very different from those of the people in Hong Kong. The U.S. is in the process of encircling China militarily and economically. It sees China as a competitor, a nation that can undermine the U.S. as the single world superpower. Conflict between Hong Kong and Beijing would serve U.S. interests, but undermine the Hong Kong economy, which is tied to China’s. The protest movement has already begun to separate itself from people too close to the U.S. Hong Kong needs to go further and expel U.S. influence, remembering the historic imperialism of the U.S. in China and noting the current strategic goals of the United States.

Occupy Gets Attention

The Occupy Central movement, or Umbrella Revolution, has gotten the attention of the world and challenged Beijing. The protesters gained sympathy because of their consistently nonviolent behavior which is emphasized in their Manual for Disobedience. They also cleaned up, even dividing their trash for recycling—hence, the label “the polite protest.” And they used excellent symbolism and rhetoric. They have broadened participation in the protests and have not only included students—a powerful force in their own right—but the elderly, families and workers. The protesters have strategically escalated their actions and increased pressure on the government.

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Rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong

October 2 and 3 were turning points as the chief executive of Hong Kong gave a Mubarak-like speech and refused to resign but agreed to negotiations with the protesters who were having sophisticated debates about whether to block a key road, with some arguing that it would undermine their primary goal of garnering broad public support, emphasizing that the goal of the protests was to show the people of Hong Kong they are with them. Few protest movements are sophisticated enough to see that the goal of protesting the government is directed more at the people for their support. On October 3, anti-occupy protesters, some wearing masks, came into the protest areas and violently attacked occupy protesters, demanding they stop. Police and occupy protesters report that some of the attackers were members of the Triad organized crime group, perhaps encouraged by the government. Occupy Central announced that, due to the lack of action by the police to stop the attacks, they would not be meeting with the government to negotiate. The next morning the occupiers had rebuilt the destroyed tents and other infrastructure of the protest. On October 5, the students agreed to return to negotiations, but among their requirements was an investigation on whether the govern- ment indulged the attacks.

While the Federation of Students made clear that their movement is “absolutely not a revolution,” and that—even if Leung Chun-ying resigns—the issues raised will not be resolved. The major changes being sought would require ongoing work, building on the awakening of recent days and convincing the population and leadership that the changes are necessary and beneficial.

U.S. Involvement

Complicating the protest, and undermining it, were reports documenting U.S. involvement in the democracy movement. Sadly, U.S. involvement will undermine the credibility and goals of the protests because the U.S. agenda is not the people’s agenda. And, if the revolt is to succeed, what kind of influence would the U.S. have over the selection of the next leader? Would Hong Kong end up like the Ukraine where the U.S. spent $5 billion to foment revolt and now has President Petro Poroshenko who, according to Wikileaks documents, is known by the U.S. government as “Our Ukraine Insider” for being an informant for the State Department since 2006?

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Protesters use umbrellas as shields from pepper spray (Boby Yip, Reuters)

Already there are signs that the Occupy Central leadership, which has U.S. ties, is not to be trusted.  Revolution News reported how a group of students climbed over the fence of the Central Government Offices Complex, remaining there and facing arrest the entire time, without the support of the elder’s of Occupy Central for the next two days. Thankfully,  students came to their rescue. On October 2, a Mint Press News article exposed U.S. support for democracy movements in Hong Kong.

The article described what it called “a deep and insidious network of foreign financial, political, and media support. Prominent among them was the U.S. State Department and its National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as NED’s subsidiary, the National Democratic Institute (NDI).” The article describes work by the NDI in Hong Kong, dating back to 1997 so it has been a long-term strategy of the United States to foment a democracy movement in Hong Kong. “Democracy movement” meant keeping Beijing from selecting who can run for office in Hong Kong and universal suffrage. NDI writes that it has been training young leaders in Hong Kong since 2005 on “political communication skills.”

The U.S. has been funding various civic organizations in Hong Kong to work on these issues, including a think tank at the University of Hong Kong, the Center for Comparative and Public Law, from which Occupy Central’s “self-proclaimed” leader Benny Tai served on the board and collaborates. Another notable Occupy Central activist, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, works closely with Tai and speaks at numerous U.S.-funded forums. Other Hong Kong democracy movement figures conected with NED include, according to Mint Press’s, Martin Lee, founding chair of Hong Kong’s Democrat Party, who this year came to Washington, DC and met with Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Lee took part in an NED talk hosted specifically for him and his agenda of “democracy” in Hong Kong. Anson Chan, another prominent figure currently supporting the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong’s streets, was also in DC and met with Biden and Pelosi.

Revolution News went further into U.S. ties to the Occupy Central movement by examining the budgets of U.S. democracy institutions. They report that one of Occupy Central’s key tactics this summer, a “referendum” on democracy signed by 780,000 Hong Kong residents, more than 1/5th of Hong Kong voters, was funded by the U.S. State Department. (A similar tactic was used in the Egyptian protest against Morsi that led to the Sisi dictatorship.) Revolution News followed the money and reported that: U.S.AID Hong Kong budget for 2012 was $754,552, in 2010 it was $1,591,547. One of the key projects funded by the U.S. has been the Hong Kong Transition Project, which has been regularly surveying the views of the people of Hong Kong regarding democracy since 1991. In a HKTP report from January 2014 they write that the purpose of the polling was to see how people view “the fairness of the current consultation process and initial reactions to a possible confrontation with Beijing.”

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Protesters block route to Kowloon district

The Transition Project has been doing in-depth public opinion research every three months that not only looks broadly at public opinion, but zeroes in on key groups like youth. They also did in-depth study of who is likely to support Occupy Central and under what circumstances. In April of this year, they did a report examining public opinion that described a looming confrontation and broad-based support for democracy in Hong Kong. This type of public opinion research is never available to grassroots movements, but is invaluable in deciding when to act, how to act, who to focus on in outreach and tactics of any protest.

In addition to public opinion research, funding key organizations and activities, the NDI monitors the movement. For example, Joshua Wong, the founder of Scholarism, has been monitored by NDI since he was 15. (Documents indicate that he hadn’t been co-opted.) Revolution News also reported on numerous Wikileaks cables that show the close involvement of the U.S. State Department in monitoring the development of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the turnout at protests, the rhetoric of organizers, and how to improve future organizing and mobilizing.

We do not report U.S. involvement because we oppose the movement for democracy and a fair economy in Hong Kong, quite the contrary. We agree with Revolution News which introduces its article making the following points: “We Fully Support A People’s Movement In Hong Kong. As we explain further details about ‘Occupy Central’, it is the intention of this article to help the students and Hong Kongese people who are fighting for the future of Hong Kong make informed decisions on who they join in coalitions with and choose for Chief Executive when they achieve True Universal Suffrage.”

We also agree with Hong Kong- born writer Ming Chun Tang who writes that “prospects are only diminished by the involvement of the United States, with its own neoliberal and far-less-than-democratic agenda.” Like Tang, we are not surprised to see U.S. involvement and urge it to stop or be stopped by activists in Hong Kong. Tang writes: “I am not surprised at this, nor do I welcome it, given the United States questionable record (to put it nicely) at bringing ‘democracy’ to countries where it has intervened in the past. It is most likely in Hong Kongers’ best interests that the U.S. withdraw its monetary support for Occupy Central, as unlikely as this is to happen.”

Economic Issues

While democracy has gotten the headline, economic injustice in Hong Kong is also a driving force of these protests. The fact that the right-wing Heritage Foundation applauds the Hong Kong economy as the world’s freest economy is really a signal that it is among the most unfair, i.e. poor worker and environmental protection and lack of regulation preventing corporate abuse. Life in Hong Kong for most people is difficult. Ming Chun Tang writes: “As City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll points out, one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line, while inequality has risen to levels among the highest in the world. Wages haven’t increased in line with inflation—meaning they’ve fallen in real terms. The minimum wage, only introduced in 2010, is set at HK$28 (US$3.60) an hour; the average workweek is 49 hours; housing prices are among the highest in the world. ” Or, as Jeff Brown, author of 44 Days Backpacking in China, writes: “The middle class and poor are being decimated by the Princes of Power’s draconian, libertarian capitalist policies of pushing the Territory’s profits to the 1%, at the expense of the 99%. Students are graduating from college and finding it difficult to get good paying jobs or affordable places to live…. Standards of living for the 99% are cratering. Like in the U.S., Hong Kongers are having to work 2-3 jobs and much more than 40 hours a week, just to pay the bills, never mind prosper.”

zeese4There is a trade union in Hong Kong with 160,000 members and 61 affiliates in various sectors, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which is represented in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong pushing for greater worker protections and union rights. There is also a pro-Beijing trade union, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions. The economic challenges in Hong Kong are in part related to its changing role in China. The Guardian reports that when Deng Xiaoping announced economic reforms in 1978, Hong Kong was the entry point into China. This led to the golden era of Hong Kong when it attracted major financial institutions and transnational companies that wanted to participate in Chinese economic growth. This made Hong Kong a wealthy city. But, China has grown and become more open so Hong Kong is no longer the entry point or financial center of China. The China Daily bluntly reports: “Much has changed since 1997. Hong Kong has lost its role as the gateway to the mainland. Previously Hong Kong was China’s unrivalled financial centre, now it is increasingly dwarfed by Shanghai. Until recently, Hong Kong was by far China’s largest port: now it has been surpassed by Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Guangzhou will shortly overtake it.” Hong Kong has had two successful revolts against the government prior to these protests. In 2003, protests of 500,000 people stopped the implementation of a national security law that would have undermined civil liberties. And, in 2012, students were able to stop a new curriculum from being put in place that would have emphasized patriotism for China in schools. Many of these students are involved in the current protests. Thus, the people of Hong Kong have experienced political success.

One Country, Two Systems

The protests are facing a much more difficult issue, the doctrine of “one country, two systems” is at a potential breaking point because the idea of self-governance, real democracy where Beijing does not approve candidates who run for office, challenges Communist Party rule. In addition, the Hong Kong challenge should be looked at in light of widespread economic and environmental protests in China. Researchers at Nankai University estimated that there were 90,000 protests in China in 2009.

Activists should not feel that they had failed if these protests do not gain them the democracy they want. The awakening of a national democracy movement is a major advancement. It is common for successful social movements to go through a mass awakening, followed by no immediate change, but after the protests, the job of the movement is to persevere and convince the people of Hong Kong and the leadership in Beijing that their vision of real democracy and a fair economy are the best path for the nation.

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Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese are organizers with Popular Resistance, which provides movement news and resources.