On a day of protest in Hong Kong, more than 63,000 people took to the streets in two demonstrations targetting two particularly odious government proposals.
By far the larger march was the one later in the day, a 60,000-strong demonstration against proposed “national security” laws that the Hong Kong SAR government has been planning to enact for months. A wide cross-section of Hong Kong met in Victoria Park to participate in the march, whose turnout defied all expectations. Journalists, church groups, human rights activists, right-of-abode seekers, Falun Gong members, members of independent trade unions, and ordinary working people all turned out to swell the crowd far beyond the organisers’ projected estimate of 5,000. Demonstrators marched with a variety of colourful banners, signs, and flags, including a giant puppet of Kwan Kung, the Chinese god of war and justice, and a mock guillotine with which activists were “beheaded” in front of the Central Government Offices. Talking to the South China Morning Post, one of the organisers pointed out the urgency of mobilising the public against the law: “We fear that after the law is enacted, terror will come to Hong Kong.”
The march was probably the largest in Hong Kong since June 1989, when nearly one million demonstrators filled the streets following the Tiananmen Square massacre. In this one brave and defiant display, the people of Hong Kong have decimated the government’s claims that the general public would not be interested in the details of “national security” legislation, or that the laws would not affect anyone but a privileged elite of ‘troublemakers’.
An apt metaphor for the demonstrators rebutting such government claims, perhaps, was the complete eclipsing of a bizarre ‘carnival’ in defence of the legislation, orchestrated at the other end of the park at a similar time by the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions. Despite their massive stage, garish sets, hundreds of seats- some of them filled- and some occasional jeering at the massive demonstration, the pro-government lobby could not hide the fact that they had been soundly routed on the day.
Much hard work remains for Hong Kong people, particularly activists and NGOs, to translate this into a defeat of the legislation before it can be enacted. But today many people, including most of those demonstrating, have seen for the first time how strong the opposition to the “national security” legislation is. In one day this movement has gained momentum through the element of surprise as much as through the actual number of people in the streets.
I had actually chosen to attend another march earlier in the day, beginning at the same venue. Relatively it was a much smaller event, but part of an equally important struggle for justice and dignity.
It was around noon that a vibrant group of around 3,000 migrant workers and their supporters met to reclaim the streets of central Hong Kong, to protest against another discriminatory government proposal: a targeted flat tax of HK$500 per month (about US$65), aimed at the wages of Hong Kong’s Foreign Domestic Helpers (FDHs). That this gathering took place on a Sunday was an important factor- for many of the protesters, this was the one day’s holiday they are given per week by their employers.
There was a charged atmosphere as excited protesters prepared for the hour-long march to the Central Government Offices unfurling colourful banners, and tying bright strips of yellow and red cloth around each others’ heads, the words “NO TO WAGE CUTS!” painted in white across them. Even at this early stage, the police were confused.
“Who is in charge here?” a senior officer barked at one of the protesters, only to be met with a genuine shrug. As the crowd took shape, and we waited for the march to being, an old man rode by on his bicycle.
“I support you,” he shouted “Don’t give the bastards anything! They want $500, don’t even give ’em $5!”
The tax being proposed by the government is a deplorable, highly selective levy. Though it ostensibly charges employers the monthly rate of HK$500, the minimum wage of FDHs will also be lowered by the same amount if the levy is enacted. This is the latest in a series of anti-migrant proposals the SAR government has attempted to pass over the last few years. Two years ago a direct 20% levy on migrants’ wages was proposed, and a HK$500-750 levy was floated just last year. Both were defeated after massive, popular protests from migrant worker communities and their allies, forcing the government to consider more indirect forms of taxation, such as the present proposal.
The earlier measures were also too obviously discriminatory to be wholeheartedly endorsed by any political party in the territory. The current proposal, however, has a number of powerful backers in Hong Kong’s political centres. The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), pro-business Liberal Party, and the so-called Progressive Alliance have all thrown their weight behind the idea, saying that such a direct siphoning of money to the rich from poor, unprotected sectors of society was a “difficult and painful decision” but that migrants had to do their bit to “help the economy”.
Naturally, most human beings, and particularly migrant workers’ unions and support groups, have been completely appalled by the proposals and the ferocity with which they are being pursued by the government. The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), for example, calls the proposed levy and its predecessors “institutionalized robbery in the making”, saying rightly that “[they] rob from those who are already plunged deep in economic problemsâ€¦taxing those who are already struggling to make ends meet”. Requests from migrant workers’ groups to discuss the levy with government officials have been denied.
Smaller, more ‘alternative’ media have also been highly critical of the government’s moves. Filipino community newspaper The Sun, for example, pointed out in an editorial that migrant workers “have done their part in making Hong Kong the economic success that it is now. For this alone, they have the right to be treated fair and square.”
Of course, most outraged have been the proposed victims themselves, the nearly 240,000 Foreign Domestic Helpers who live and work in Hong Kong. They are mostly women, and have come here from many countries around Asia- most often the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. As individuals and as a sector of society, they are some of the most vulnerable, marginalised, and easily exploited in the territory. But their many voices came together on December 15 in a brave, lively, and spirited challenge to the government’s attack on their lives and livelihood.
At the same time, at the other end of the park, crews were busy setting up the soon-to-be-eclipsed “national security carnival”. As their extravagant PA system competed with the migrant workers’ megaphones, a young demonstrator came over to talk to me.
“They have a big stage and chairs for everybody,” he pointed out. “And if they pass this levy, they’ll even have tables next time.”
But just as it would pale in front of popular opinion later in the day, the saccharine carnival could in no way replicate the tremendous energy and life flowing through the migrants’ march. Walking through the Central Business District, the protesters screamed slogans such as “THE LEVY IS DEAD WRONG!” as they carried large, mock $500 bills. They also held enlarged pictures of Tsang Yok Sing of the DAB, James Tien of the Liberal Party, and Ambrose Lam of the Progressive Alliance, with the words “Enemy of the poor” printed under each of them. Appeals such as “Respect Workers’ Rights”, “End Modern Day Slavery”, and “Workers of the World Unite” were all prominently displayed, along with such simple pleas as “Spare $500 for our families”.
They beat drums and gongs, and crashed cymbals, and a positive, festive atmosphere prevailed despite the powerful and insidious forces aligning against them. They were cheered from the sidewalks by fellow migrants and local supporters as they made their way to the Central Government Offices.
Thousands of people then packed into the Central Government’s premises to listen to speakers from Thai, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, Filipino, and Indonesian workers’ groups.
“We are the people who clean your houses!” one speaker screamed. “We sleep on your kitchen floors. This is an attack on us!”
Other speakers pointed out that migrant workers are always the easiest scapegoats for politicians and groups seeking a quick route to power. The only way to stop this, they said, was to collectivise, and to actively support each other.
“Long live international solidarity!” the crowd responded. A government representative later came out to be presented with a 20,000-strong petition against the levy.
The gathering eventually disbanded, its participants returning for another week to their jobs, and an uncertain future. But they left promising to continue their struggle in defence of their rights, dignity, and welfare. Another march is planned for early 2003.
“Migrant workers are a very vulnerable sector of society, but these proposals have brought them out to the streets to protest,” a member of United Filipinos in Hong Kong reiterating me. “They are out here because they have to be. Because this targets their means of survival.”
The government seemed to underestimate the ability of people to organise against such attacks. But it was clear today that all people living and working in Hong Kong demand to have control over their own lives, and to have a conclusive say in decisions that affect them. The government cannot disguise the truth of popular opinion with its carnivals any longer.