Protests involving hundreds of thousands of working people demanding greater political rights have continued for a 10th week in Hong Kong. Many at the actions are demanding the government of the semi-autonomous territory and its Beijing overseers grant direct elections for Hong Kong’s top officials.
The tens of thousands who demonstrated over the weekend of Aug 3-4 faced attacks from cops using tear gas and rubber bullets. Masked thugs helped cops arrest demonstrators.
A citywide strike and mass protests for political rights Aug. 5 blocked much of the road and rail network. The strike caused hundreds of flights to be cancelled at Hong Kong’s international airport, one of the world’s busiest. A subsequent sit-in at the airport swelled to thousands Aug. 12-13, forcing the cancellation of all flights those days.
Those joining the strike included bus drivers, construction workers, teachers, lawyers and pilots. People rallied in numerous working-class or shopping districts. Many civil servants defied orders not to protest and shops were shut.
The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which called the strike, said 350,000 workers took part. The pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions opposed the action.
Wilson Ng, a teacher from Hong Kong, told the Militant Aug. 12 that demands of those taking to the streets include the “formal withdrawal” of the shelved extradition bill, an amnesty for all protesters arrested on “riot” charges and “an independent investigation into police violence” and on how the crisis arose. While calls for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation persist, Ng said, “people realize that even if she steps down the person who succeeds her won’t be much different.” Lastly, he said, is the demand for “direct elections of the chief executive.”
Currently Hong Kong’s chief executive is “elected” by a Beijing-appointed committee of 1,200 people, including many backers of the Chinese government along with company bosses from the island. Hong Kong, a former British colony, has been under a “one country, two systems” arrangement since it reverted to China in 1997. London waited over 150 years until the end of its colonial rule to begin implementing some direct elections.
Hong Kong actions impact in China
The Chinese government fears the impact that the fight for democratic rights in Hong Kong will have on working people across mainland China. Beijing’s aviation authority ordered Cathay Pacific Airways to remove all workers involved in protests from their flights from Hong Kong to China Aug. 9. The airline’s bosses said they would comply.
As economic growth has slowed in China, labor actions have increased.
The China Labour Bulletin reports that so far this year there have been 25 protest actions among auto workers, mostly over layoffs and unpaid wages. Some 220,000 jobs have been lost as vehicle sales dropped 14% in the first half of the year. Most were layoffs but others resigned, unable to survive on a bare wage without overtime payments and bonuses.
In response to the Aug. 5 general strike, Lam claimed that the city was “on the verge of a very dangerous situation.” A spokesperson from Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office threatened that protesters should not “play with fire” and “mistake our restraint for weakness.”
Working people in Hong Kong know this is not an idle threat. On June 4, nearly 200,000 attended a memorial to mark the 30th anniversary of the brutal crushing by Beijing’s military of mass protests in Tiananmen Square. Hong Kong is the only part of Chinese territory where that history is not censored.
Protests have been rising since February against Lam’s proposed extradition law, which would give Beijing legal cover to go after political opponents in the semi-autonomous region. Millions marched June 9 and 16, forcing Lam, with Beijing’s agreement, to suspend the bill. Some company bosses and business groups have made calls for the extradition law to be completely withdrawn and for an inquiry into the cops’ treatment of demonstrators.
Some small groups of protesters have targeted the legislative assembly building, police stations and symbols of Beijing’s overbearing presence, provoking a violent response from riot police. Ng told the Militant that the media focuses on these smaller confrontations as “the government is trying to cover up” the size of the massive peaceful protests.
Chinese government officials seek to drive a wedge between the large numbers of working people at many of the protests and those leading violent confrontations with authorities. Yang Guang, Beijing’s spokesperson in Hong Kong, claimed there was a division between “kind-hearted citizens who have been misguided and coerced to join” and “a small number of violent radicals.”
Growing economic inequalities in the territory are also driving unrest among working people. Hong Kong has the world’s longest working hours and highest rents, according to the New York Times. Rents have skyrocketed in recent years and over 210,000 Hong Kong residents live in subdivided apartments known as “cages,” where tenants are squeezed into spaces as small as 15 square feet.