Chinese state media outlets are railing against groups they claim are involved in money laundering, inciting riots, and supporting gangsters. They warn against “a chronic poison of society” and “a malignant tumor that must be destroyed.” The situation is so bad, the newspapers say, that it is time for the Hong Kong government to crack down.
One would think they’re talking about some major crime syndicate, perhaps a terrorist group. But no: The pro-Beijing press is talking about Hong Kong labor unions. For 48 years the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union has served 95,000 members; its members’ center is well-known for selling stationery supplies. And as with the teachers’ union, the Hong Kong Journalist Association, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), and the Association of Hong Kong Nursing Staff have long and illustrious histories of defending civil liberties and workers’ rights.
Often, after Beijing spotlights people in its papers, Hong Kong police swoop into action. Fearing investigation and arrests, many civic groups—the teachers’ union and now the city’s second-largest labor union, the HKCTU—have opted to disband.
International attention to Beijing’s repression in Hong Kong has focused on widely recognized figures like the charismatic young protest leader Joshua Wong or the Apple Daily tycoon Jimmy Lai. But too few outside of Hong Kong realize that China is also dismantling the city’s unions and detaining unionists, a backbone of civil society.
Fighting for labor rights has always been a slog in a city known for hyper-capitalism, but doing so now is downright perilous. In late July, the police arrested five people from the Speech Therapist Union for “sedition” for publishing children’s books depicting cops as wolves and protesters as sheep. Prominent unionists and labor activists have been arrested and jailed for endangering national security and other vague charges.
For decades, labor unionists like Lee Cheuk-yan, the former head of HKCTU, organized strikes and camped out at factories to demand that employers negotiate with their workers—acts considered rather “radical” by the public in the 1980s. Knowing that the lack of democracy and the exploitation of workers are intimately linked, the teachers’ union and the HKCTU participated in electoral politics. Lee was an elected legislator for over 20 years, until 2016.
Hong Kong’s labor movement gained momentum during the 2019 protests, in which two in seven Hong Kongers participated. Citywide strikes became more broadly accepted. People from various professions—ranging from hairstylists to accountants—formed nearly 4,000 new unions.
The Chinese government knows the power of grassroots organizing and doubtlessly sees the developments in Hong Kong as threatening. Nowadays, the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party—far from its humble origins—are packed with billionaires whose family fortunes are entwined with the Party’s fate. They, like the capitalist elites they handpicked to run the city, know that empowered workers are antithetical to their political and business model.
In June 2020, Beijing imposed a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong, arresting activists, banning protests, enveloping the city with pervasive fear. To square the circle of the purported people’s proletariat repressing workers’ advocates, the authorities portray these unions and other civil society groups with the usual authoritarian trope—that they are “foreign agents” out to “destabilize Hong Kong.” Beijing-controlled unions—such as the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers—are poised to claim the mantle of workers’ sole representatives in the city, much like their counterparts in China.
The demise of Hong Kong’s unions is not just a loss for the territory. These unions have long been part of overlapping communities of labor organizations that promote workers’ rights and democracy in China and Asia. With the Chinese government also cracking down on labor rights groups in mainland China, a valuable window is being lost into the plight of workers amid a global supply chain heavily dependent on China-made products.
Labor unions around the world can support their embattled counterparts in Hong Kong, reviving an important legacy of similar efforts from Poland to South Africa. They can press the Chinese government for the release of Hong Kong union leaders, urge their own governments to place escalating sanctions targeting Chinese and Hong Kong officials and entities responsible for the crackdown, and assist counterparts who are still able to promote labor rights in Hong Kong and mainland China.