The corporate-owned media, and imperialist governments, are expressing their support for the protest movement in Hong Kong, which they are describing simply as “pro-democracy.”
This stands in stark contrast to how these same media outlets and governments handle protests in their countries against the government, corporations and police violence.
The Occupy Wall Street movement — after which Hong Kong’s “Occupy Central” was named — was repressed with mass and targeted arrests, numbering in the thousands. That movement’s encampments in public parks were permanently broken up in a matter of weeks and months in the name of “public safety” and “order.” These are the same media outlets and governments now reporting favorably on protesters who have threatened to take over government buildings and shut down the city of Hong Kong.
So what accounts for their lavish praise for the demonstrations and sharp criticism of any repression? Working-class and progressive people have to analyze what’s really going on, and go beyond the surface-level descriptions offered by the Western media.
Nearly all political movements in the present era legitimate their own cause with the abstract slogan of democracy. To truly understand a movement and its trajectory, we must ask what social sectors are demanding more power and to what end.
The history of colonialism in Hong Kong and China
1. The struggle over political reform in Hong Kong is bound up with the area’s particular history as a colonial subject of Britain. While in form, the present struggle is over electoral regulations and standards, its content is over the terms of Hong Kong’s reintegration into China, and how that process will unfold.
2. Hong Kong was stolen from China during the Opium War of 1839-1842, when Great Britain sought to punish China for denying it the right to import opium and reap massive drug profits. Until 1997, the British Crown ruled Hong Kong with an iron fist. In the first 153 years of colonial rule the British refused to allow any general election. London had always appointed a white British aristocrat to be governor of this colony that was 98 percent Chinese. This governor had absolute power. Britain only devised an “electoral” game in 1994 as they were about to leave. Now the British and other imperialists are talking about a grievous crime committed against democracy in Hong Kong.
3. There was a mass, popular revolution in China in 1949 of peasants and workers. It was a socialist revolution, reorganizing society in the interests of the vast majority under the leadership of the working class. It was at once also an anti-colonial revolution, reclaiming national control over the territory and the economy after centuries of colonial humiliation.
A chief task was integrating the disparate regions of China, which had been carved up by imperialist division into spheres of influence, and by feudal lords and warlordism. The only reason Hong Kong has a special status today, and was not integrated into the Chinese nation-state through the agency of revolution, is that British colonialism held onto it, and blocked it from becoming part of this revolutionary process. The Chinese people always considered the separateness of Hong Kong, like Taiwan, nothing other than a great and ongoing crime of colonialism.
4. In the 1960s, a strong left-wing movement developed within Hong Kong demanding reunification with revolutionary China. Days of uprising in 1967 were met with violent suppression by British colonialism, and the revolutionary working-class organizations of Hong Kong were greatly weakened.
5. At any time the Peoples’ Liberation Army could have gone in and seized Hong Kong, their stolen territory. The Chinese government was not required to negotiate with British imperialism, which should have been paying them reparations. Instead, the Peoples’ Republic of China sought a peaceful and legal solution.
“One Country, Two Systems”
6. The reintegration of Hong Kong did not occur on a revolutionary basis or through the subsequent force of the Chinese military. Instead, it occurred through the mechanisms of bourgeois legality. It took place during the post-Mao era, when the Chinese leadership had turned decisively towards capitalist methods and global integration as the means to develop the country. China made an agreement with Great Britain to transfer power and reintegrate Hong Kong.
7. By the 1980s, Great Britain had turned Hong Kong into a major global city and center of finance capitalism. Although China had just turned towards capitalist methods and principles, as a social system it was economically, politically and culturally distinct from Hong Kong. Thus, the formula of “one country, two systems” was created, a step-by-step process of integration. The aim was to devise a managed, rule-based system for a peaceful, rather than military, reunification of this stolen and colonized piece of China.
8. The official transfer was carried out in 1997. In both China and Hong Kong there were mass celebrations greeting the process of reunification. The process of merging Hong Kong into the Chinese state and body politic was, however, laid out as a long and delicate process that would last decades.
9. Since 1997, China has further opened its market to foreign corporations and internal class divisions have sharpened. In this way, China became more like Hong Kong and more integrated with it as a primary circuit of finance and trade between China and the West. But Hong Kong also had its own class and political formations, distinct government institutions, and ideological influences as a result of its role as a center of global finance capital and its 153 preceding years as a comprador outpost of British rule. These have not gone away.
Hong Kong’s social classes
10. Hong Kong was and is one of the most unequal places in the world, with a large proportion of financiers and others capitalists on one side. Presently, an estimated 8.5 percent of families are millionaires. On the other side is a large working class, including many migrant laborers, who suffer through the area’s miserable poverty rate. Hong Kong’s professional class has long been culturally and ideologically oriented towards the West, while vacillating in its identification as either “Hong Konger” or “Chinese” or both.
11. These upper-class professionals’ main political expression has been in the “pan-democratic” movement, focused on attaining greater influence in the Hong Kong political system, through a political party and nominating process for candidates that is similar to that in western capitalist countries. By such an “open” process, the upper class would have their candidate in the elections who represents their interests of perpetuating independence from China. In the current situation, for the upcoming Hong Kong election, a nominating committee of 1,500 is vetting the candidates to assure their support for eventual integration into the People’s Republic of China.
This movement attributes many social contradictions inside of Hong Kong not to global capitalism, but to “interference” and corruption from Beijing. Although some of its rallying calls speak to socioeconomic concerns, such as high prices, this movement has historically been completely disconnected from the working class.
12. In addition, there is a considerable right-wing, anti-PRC trend within Hong Kong society. It defaces the Chinese flag, the flag of the 1949 revolution, while waiving the British colonial flag. It portrays mainland Chinese tourists and migrants as invading “locusts,” demagogically trying to combine the demands of various social sectors with anti-mainland moods to build their fascistic movement.
13. The large protests taking place now in Hong Kong reflect the fact that Hong Kong has become polarized between those supportive of the Peoples’ Republic of China and those mobilizing in opposition to it. There have, in fact, been dueling protests with pro-Beijing forces also mobilizing large numbers in opposition to Occupy Central earlier this year.
14. Given the contradictory and complex social formation of Hong Kong, as well as its significance in the overall relationship between China and the West, from the perspective of the Chinese government it is absolutely essential, as a matter of national interest, to closely manage the integration process. Britain, China and the people of Hong Kong have long understood this, and it is reflected in the Basic Law governing the balance of power.
The Basic Law
15. Under the 1984 Sino-British treaty detailing the handover of Hong Kong, there was no explicit mention of universal suffrage. This was established in the 1990s in the Basic Law, which functions similar to a constitution for Hong Kong. It explained that, “the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic proceedings.” From China’s perspective, the clear long-term strategy has been to help develop a stable local leadership in Hong Kong, integrated in with the Chinese state. That way, the implementation of a distinct form of political rule in Hong Kong would not result in a new crisis, a pro-Western independence movement or the destabilization of mainland China.
16. In accordance with the transfer of power agreement and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s chief executive has been chosen by a committee of Hong Kongers — like an electoral college — selected by the central Chinese government to be “broadly representative.” The legislative body is filled with those elected by popular vote (including both pro-Beijing and anti-Beijing sectors of the Hong Kong upper classes.) It also includes those who run on behalf of “functional constituencies,” which typically consist of corporate leaders of different economic sectors.
17. China’s National People’s Congress has over time taken up the question of introducing broader suffrage into Hong Kong politics. Under the Basic Law, it was not required to give a precise timeline for such changes and it has revised the expected timeline on a few occasions. Most recently, it outlined a plan for the 2017 election for Chief Executive in accordance with the Basic Law. For the first time in Hong Kong’s history, the proposal provides for the top governing official of the city-state to be elected via a one-person, one-vote system. The candidates for this position must still be pre-approved by a nominating commission, and this is the stipulation that the Hong Kong opposition movement is currently fighting.
State formation, universal suffrage and bourgeois democracy
18. While being projected by the capitalist media as out-of-control tyranny, it is worth noting that this system is far more democratic than what existed under British rule, where the leaders were simply appointed. The British and U.S. governments presently back up open monarchies all over the world — recently trotting out several of them as “regional representatives” in the bombing of the Islamic State in Syria.
19. Moreover, the proposed system is not entirely inconsistent with the practice of bourgeois democracy in many places around the world. The United States has an Electoral College. In Britain, the Prime Minister is not directly elected. In many Western European countries there are “party-list” systems, where voters choose parties rather than individuals. Smaller bodies within each party selects — or “pre-approves” — the candidates, without being accountable to voters.
20. In the United States, candidates historically were selected by tightly controlled party machines, and to the extent that this has changed with the primary system, it has only expanded the influence of money in politics. In none of these forms of bourgeois politics do the people actually rule. So what exactly is the model of universal suffrage that is being upheld? The one where the 2016 U.S. presidential race is likely to be another Bush against another Clinton?
21. An election where everyone can vote but the only realistic candidates are pre-approved by the rich — this is the norm for democracy under capitalism everywhere.
22. Universal suffrage in the United States has not existed eternally, but only in connection with different stages of state formation. Given this history, the U.S. government is in no position to lecture China about voting rights and how it forms its state. The U.S. Constitution did not grant universal suffrage at the time of the country’s founding. It left issues of suffrage to the states, which generally only gave the right to vote to white male property holders, barring women, Black people (free and enslaved), Native peoples and white male non-property holders. Universal suffrage, it was feared, would upset the class domination of the capitalists, landlords and slaveholders. The states gradually and unevenly widened the right to vote as a key strategy to achieve social peace amid growing social contradictions, movements and transformation.
23. New territories were gained primarily through the process of settler-colonialism and genocide, and “universal suffrage” established only on that basis. These territories became states only by federal Congressional approval, when the central government, in other words, trusted that the local governments would adequately fall in line with the rest of the country.
24. In its very founding, the United States was formed with its own “one country, two systems” model — but in this case, the other system was that of brutal chattel slavery. This was the order it protected through a delicate process of laws and codes until this “one country, two systems” contradiction was finally resolved through civil war. It required the Civil War, followed by the passage of the 15th Amendment, another 100 years of racist hypocrisy and heroic struggle, and a new Voting Rights Act to make “universal suffrage” a legal reality for Black people. Even today, millions of current and former prisoners – disproportionately African American – are denied the right to vote.
Hong Kong’s opposition movement and its trajectory
25. The Hong Kong opposition is dominated by “liberal-democratic” bourgeois ideology. That is, they espouse the abstract “democratic” standard that Western capitalist states also espouse, while never meeting it themselves.
26. A January 2014 study by the Hong Kong Transition Project shows that the Occupy Central movement has a definite social base among upper-class and upper-middle class Hong Kongers. Managers and administrators were evenly split in opposition and support. Upper-middle class sectors — professionals and educators, associate professionals, and college students — were the only sectors offering more support than opposition to the movement. The lower-class sectors of clerks, service employees, blue-collar workers, retirees and the unemployed, as well as housewives, responded with overwhelming opposition to the Occupy Central movement. This was clearly not formed as a movement of and for the “99%.”
27. Given its own particular history as a hub of Western colonialism and finance capital, and taking note of the present global situation, no movement in Hong Kong that feeds on anti-mainlander sentiment or seeks greater autonomy from China can develop in a progressive direction. A progressive movement in Hong Kong would emphasize the criminal division of China by British imperialism and, on the basis of unity with China, fight for the social and class interests of the working class, including ultimately the return of socialist leadership.
28. The leadership of the so-called “democratic movement” in Hong Kong does not call for a complete breach with China, simply a different type of election process. On the surface, this seems innocuous. However given their fundamental disagreement with the PRC, the development of a strong autonomous current there would create a very rich beachhead oriented towards the West inside of the People’s Republic.
29. It has already been established by the South China Morning Post and Wikileaks that Hong Kong is a hub of Western spy activity, so to bring into power a government that may give aid and comfort to its enemies is clearly the key concern behind the NPC decision to select candidates more narrowly for the 2017 Chief Executive election.
30. The U.S. State Department is heavily involved behind-the-scenes in the Hong Kong protests and other “civil society” opposition trends within China. The U.S. State Department has provided grants of $500,000 to train students at the University of Hong Kong in building a “pro-democracy” movement. One of the founders and central leaders of Occupy Central, law professor Benny Tai, is a close collaborator with the U.S. State Department, serving on the Board of Directors of the U.S.-funded “Centre for Comparative and Public Law” at the University of Hong Kong. Other Occupy Central political leaders promoted in the media, such as Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and Martin Lee, are also close allies of the U.S. State Department who both met with Vice President Joe Biden in the White House this year.
31. Notwithstanding the participation of some working-class youth and small left-wing organizations, the likely trajectory of this opposition movement — in both its composition and its program — is towards the right-wing and towards Western imperialism. Already the strongest organizations in the movement are of middle-class “pan-democrats” and the far-right, both of which orient towards Western support. To the extent that confrontations sharpen with the state, and the liberals pull back or seek compromise, the far-right has already stepped forward as the militant alternative. They are promoting and provoking sharper confrontations because they understand they have the most to gain from an anti-mainland China movement. A similar process unfolded in the Maidan movement of Kiev, Ukraine.
32. This basic class character of the movement can be misinterpreted because of several factors. For one, the major finance and industrial tycoons who effectively run Hong Kong desire stability above all else and thus have criticized the disruptions caused by the movement. They have a narrow class interests in protecting their profits by preserving their status quo relationship with China. Secondly, many students in Hong Kong are facing the same objective problems existing for young people throughout the capitalist world: low-paying jobs, debt and unemployment. This is compounded by the high cost of living in a major global city like Hong Kong, squeezing even middle and upper-middle classes economically. Although the poor and working class of Hong Kong are largely standing aloof from the movement, it is not impossible that a larger anti-government and anti-corruption struggle, including episodes of police violence, could draw in such sectors.
33. The Hong Kong movement is not “leaderless.” In fact, the concept of a leaderless, all-inclusive “umbrella” movement, however, can only exist for very short periods in the course of political struggles. In all movements, as the dynamics of real-life struggle present new contradictions, organizations and parties step forward to give leadership. Whether or not they are elected or proclaim themselves leaders, one force or another is always leading in the long run. Western-oriented liberalism and far-right fascism are contending for leadership at present in the Hong Kong opposition movement.
34. While the middle-class opposition movement has a mass character, and may draw in working-class sectors with broader social demands, any Hong Kong movement that seeks “democracy” for the purposes of greater autonomy or independence can, under the present circumstances, only develop in the direction of Western imperialism.
The global situation and China
35. In present-day China, liberalizing “political reform” is the core program of Western-oriented NGOs and the most servile, comprador elements of the Chinese big bourgeoisie, who make up a considerable (but not dominant) trend within the Chinese Communist Party.
36. The CCP does not follow a revolutionary policy in either international or domestic affairs. At the same time, it has retained state power and while it has allowed and encouraged capitalist development it is not under the thumb of the capitalists. The Chinese Communist Party is large and variegated. It contains a variety of views but in the main is led by those attempting to manage a society that mixes volatile elements, including a market economy and the shell of a socialist state. This is why, for instance in labor and political disputes, workers and peasants rarely call for the overthrow of existing state structures but for their rights within them to be recognized.
37. The core program of revolutionaries and working-class militants in China is not “democracy” in the abstract. It is to protect and defend the interests of the working class and peasantry against the depredations of capitalism; it is to reassert state control over major industries; it is to re-establish as guaranteed social rights access to work, health care, education and housing; it is to popularize the socialist ideas and restore the internationalist foreign policy of China’s revolutionary era; it is to safeguard China’s national integrity, self-determination and sovereignty against Western imperialism. There are millions of revolutionaries who remain inside the Chinese Communist Party, and although they are not in power, they do not advocate breaking up its political monopoly along the lines of Western bourgeois democracy. The historic program of the Hong Kong left was to build unity with the Chinese working-class and the revolutionary elements within the Chinese Communist Party.
38. In every trade forum and from the columns of all major capitalist newspapers, China is taken to task for not truly “opening-up” its political system, refusing to allow Western companies free rein, not giving due deference to capitalist intellectual property rights and so on. The United States and other Western nations heavily promote movements in China that seek to push it in this direction or bring about regime change in one form or another. Separatist movements in China often find aid and comfort from the United States and its allies, and in fact any dissident of any variety, aside from communist, will almost assuredly be widely celebrated in the Western press.
39. This situation therefore is not of Europe in 1848, when the working class took up the banner of “universal suffrage” in alliance with the progressive middle-class and bourgeois sectors to overthrow feudalism and improve conditions for the emergence of working-class politics.
40. The present situation is of a formerly colonized country (China), the state of which emerged from a socialist revolution, now oriented towards rapid development through capitalist integration while also protecting its national sovereignty in a world dominated by Western militarism and imperialism. The call of universal suffrage emerges from a long-colonized hub of Western finance capital, built on stolen territory as a hostile social system to the mainland, in the course of the contradictory process of reintegration. It is a call for Hong Kong’s self-determination on a reactionary basis — against the self-determination of China to integrate a stolen territory.
41. The present era is characterized by the rise of formerly underdeveloped nations within the global capitalist system. This has given super-profits and a new lease on life to the crisis-prone imperialist centers, while also presenting them with new challenges to their hegemony. Starting with the “re-opening” of China in the 1970s, through the overthrow of the Soviet Union and the rolling back of anti-colonial and socialist movements and states in the 1980s and 1990s, and up to the present day, the main trend in the world has not been of revolution, but of counter-revolution (with a few notable exceptions). In the previous period, working-class, democratic and national liberation struggles evolved in the direction of socialism, based on the existence of a socialist pole. Today, many opposition movements in the underdeveloped countries that take up the slogans in the abstract of “democracy” and even “self-determination,” for whatever legitimate grievances they may express, often gravitate in the strategic interests of Western imperialism and turn in a right-wing direction. Such was the case in the overthrow of the Soviet bloc, in the “color revolutions,” in Iran’s “Green Movement,” in Ukraine’s “Maidan,” and it also became a significant aspect of the long-term unfolding of the Arab Spring.