The umbrella is a perfect icon for Hong Kong’s uprising: inclusive, aloof, a bit Anglophile and pragmatically defiant of the elements (and according to cinematic lore, readily convertible to a lethal kung fu weapon). It embodies the central plea of the protesters amassed in “Democracy Square”: a civilized demand for self-determination. Yet the biggest worry in Beijing right now isn’t the threat of universal suffrage, but what comes afterward—the struggle for social justice that Hong Kongers face they pivot between post-colonial limbo and authoritarian capitalism.
That’s what the labor movement is taking to the streets with young protesters. The Equal Times reports that as of Wednesday—China’s National Day—“According to the latest HKCTU [Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions] figures, some 10,000 workers across all sectors have downed tools.” As unions representing industrial, service and professional workforces rallied alongside the youth and condemned police suppression of the demonstrators, Hong Kong labor echoed the former colony’s long legacy of worker militancy. In a call for mass strikes, the HKCTU declared, “Workers must stand up against the unjust government and violent suppression…. To defend democracy and justice, we cannot let the students fight the suppression alone.”
The immediate spark for the protests was the controversy over the electoral process. Activists were incensed that following Beijing’s decree via the proxy authority National People’s Congress, candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 executive election would be pre-approved by the mainland authorities.
But even prior to the electoral betrayal, students revolted against the imposition of Beijing-controlled nationalist curricula on public schools. Longtime residents chafed at mainlanders’ perceived aggressive economic encroachment on local neighborhoods and businesses. And even the symbols of the protest express a yearning for a change in the social and cultural reality, rather than just liberalizing political mechanics. Like the “Hands Up” iconography of the Ferguson protests, the sea of umbrellas exude both civility and defiance in the face of brutality, not looking for trouble, just demanding dignity.
At the center of their struggle for dignity is the desire to control their economic destiny. A statement issued last week by dozens of labor and community groups draws the link between unaccountable government and the divide between the plutocracy and the people:
The Chinese Communist Party has followed and reinforced almost every governing strategy used by the British colonialists. Working in tandem, the CCP and business conglomerates have only worsened Hong Kong’s already alarming rich-poor gap. …
It is true that even a genuinely democratic system may not be able to bring immediate improvements to grassroots and workers’ livelihoods. However, the current political system and the NPC’s ruling are flagrant violations of our political rights as well as our right to be heard. A pseudo-democratic system will only install even more obstacles on our already difficult path to better livelihoods and a progressive society.
But the group’s demands go beyond electoral freedom: it wants expanded housing protections and welfare policies and a government that is responsive to the economic and social concerns raised by civil society groups. With this aspiration toward a fairer as well as freer society, according to City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll, many leaders fear primarily that “people in Hong Kong will convert demands for increasing suffrage into robust demands for redistribution; that in the face of plenty, those with little or no positive prospects won’t stand for obscenely concentrated wealth, power and privilege anymore.”
As Eli Friedman points out, Hong Kong is both an amazingly sophisticated and intensely unequal economy, compared to other “developed” nations. One-fifth of the population lives in poverty. The minimum wage, just recently implemented at the rate of US $3.60, hardly offsets the astronomical costs of housing, inflation and unemployment. The former colonial trade hub has lost about 80 percent of its manufacturing jobs since the early 1990s, as industries have shifted to the mainland. The most impoverished are often migrant laborers, youths and women. The radicals at the core of #OccupyCentral represent twentysomethings who are tired of the volatility of the economy and the stagnation of the country’s political system.
The latest uprising was portended last year when dockworkers staged a major strike to demand stable, fair working conditions. They galvanized international solidarity in criticizing multinational corporations’ degradation of global labor rights.
So far, Beijing shows no signs of heeding the demands for free elections or the resignation of mainland-aligned Chief Executive C.Y. Leung. Protesters are doubling down, too, heartened by a groundswell of international solidarity actions. And so the brittle “one country, two systems” policy is steadily unraveling. Not necessarily because Beijing has tried to impose its rule directly—for the most part, Hong Kongers enjoy infinitely more civil freedoms than their mainland counterparts—but because Hong Kong, on principle, just wants to be able to claim full freedom and self-rule for the first time in its modern history.
The voices of Hong Kong’s workers are instructive for international observers. It’s too easy to draw a simple parallel to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. The idealism is there, but universal suffrage is a means to an end, the first step away from decades of being lorded over by reactionary ruling elites—one building block toward social democracy.
Sophia Chan, an activist with Left 21, tells The Nation, “We see free elections as a major blow to business-government collusion and capitalist privilege.” She emphasized that the current parliamentary government, dominated by business leaders, has been structured “to protect the interests of capitalists.… although we do think that a democratic political system is only the first step to real change, we also think that that in itself would already be a huge improvement for our fight against capitalist oppression in Hong Kong.”
In 1997, Hong Kong was handed over by Britain to its “motherland,” the crown jewel of China’s new empire. But the deal turned out to be more than what Beijing had bargained for. The mainland regained a piece of territory, but it never conquered the hearts of a people who are ready for true decolonization and will settle for nothing less.