There’s a tendency among progressives in the United States to support big crowds of people protesting in other countries. No doubt, the corporate media assists in this process by labelling certain movements ‘pro-democracy’ or ‘freedom fighters.’
But not all protests or marches are progressive, even if they attract large crowds. The Tea Party movement in the U.S., for instance, brought out hundreds of thousands of angry small business owners and shrill middle-class professionals. They were far from spontaneous demonstrations, however; big business orchestrated this giant spectacle to advance its own class interests. Armed with racist demagoguery and free-market economics, the Tea Party helped elect a set of Republican governors that waged war on organized labor, slashed funding for public schools and rolled back health care benefits for working people.
No doubt foreign journalists could – and some did – cover the Tea Party as a ‘pro-democracy’ movement based on their slogans and rhetoric, but only without asking, “Democracy for who? Freedom for who?” These words are meaningless divorced from context since they mean different things to different classes. Anytime we see protests like those in Hong Kong, we have to ask: What is their class character? Whose interests does this serve?
When the corporate media heaps praise on protesters in countries like Venezuela or China while demonizing mass movements here in the U.S., something else is going on.
How to get away with murder
Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: The wave of protests that have gripped Hong Kong in the past few months has nothing to do with democracy, due process or the rule of law.
The recent Hong Kong protests come in response to a proposed extradition treaty between Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. In 2018, Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong college student, brutally murdered his 20-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, while vacationing in Taiwan. Poon’s distraught mother brought the case to investigators, who eventually arrested Chan on lesser charges after uncovering evidence of the murder.
Hong Kong statutes prevent murderers like Chan from standing trial for crimes committed outside of the city – even if they took place in China. But since Hong Kong has no extradition treaty with either mainland China or Taiwan, they couldn’t turn him over to prosecutors in Taiwan to face justice. Heartbroken, the young woman’s family continued to press Hong Kong legislators for justice.
They’re not alone. Although the Western corporate media can’t stop praising its ‘rule of law’ and ‘independent judiciary’, Hong Kong’s legal system is about as lawless as the wild-wild-west. Mafia-style triad gangs like 14K and Sun Yee On rule the streets. International drug cartels launder their profits through Hong Kong – an open secret confirmed by the release of the Panama Papers in 2016. Vida Laboratories, a major Hong Kong-based pharmaceutical company, recently came under pressure for supplying Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel with precursor materials for manufacturing methamphetamine.
In the wake of this miscarriage of justice, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam proposed the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. If passed, this would establish channels for case-by-case criminal extradition between the city, mainland China and Taiwan. Immediately, this proposal drew widespread outrage from Hong Kong’s elite, international financiers and the hotbed of marginal Chinese dissidents living in the special administrative region. Smaller protests in the late spring culminated with a demonstration on June 9 that drew roughly a million participants. As violence escalated at smaller protests in the days to come, Lam suspended the bill on June 15.
But Lam’s concession did not quell the protests. On July 1, an opposition mob stormed the Hong Kong Legislative Council building – essentially their legislative chamber – and raised the old British colonial flag. Organizers from the Civil Human Rights Front, the umbrella opposition group leading most of the protests, called for a ‘general strike’ on August 5. The strike failed to materialize but ensuing riots caused enormous damage to public infrastructure and local businesses. More recently on August 13 and 14, protesters shut down Hong Kong International Airport – the eighth busiest airport in the world – grounding all flights to and from the city.
You wouldn’t know it from U.S. media reports, but both Hong Kong police and the Chinese government have shown tremendous restraint. Hong Kong police have largely allowed the protests to continue, even as they seize government buildings and destroy infrastructure. In keeping with the long-standing ‘one country, two systems’ agreement, Beijing has voiced support for the city’s elected government but defers to local authorities to handle the situation.
Hong Kong’s long road back to China
Hong Kong is considered a ‘special administrative region’ within China, boasting the 35th largest economy in the world. With its low taxes, pliant legal system and relative absence of state regulations, it today serves as a major hub for international finance capital. But for hundreds of years, Hong Kong’s geographical position on China’s southern border made it one of the most trafficked ports in Asia.
The British took note of this in the early 19th century as they brought opium into China with the aim of extending their empire. At the end of the First Opium War in 1842, Britain claimed Hong Kong as a colonial possession and a staging ground for further colonizing Asia. Britain held Hong Kong as a colony for 156 years – their rule only briefly interrupted by Imperial Japan during World War II. When the People’s Liberation Army marched on Beijing and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, wealthy landowners and businessmen fled the mainland for two primary destinations: Taiwan and Hong Kong.
When protesters in Hong Kong raised the old British colonial flag at protests, the Western media labeled them ‘pro-democracy.’ But there was nothing democratic about Hong Kong under British colonialism. Under its rule, the city grew into a major trading hub for the benefit of monopoly capital – and at the expense of the vast majority. As the cultural revolution raged in mainland China in 1967, the working class in Hong Kong rose up in revolt against the colonial system. Facing brutal repression and legal punishments like flogging, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions led a wave of strikes demanding basic labor protections and an end to their exploitation.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s reform program marked a new chapter in relations between the People’s Republic and Hong Kong. The southern city became more economically integrated with the mainland throughout the 1980s, culminating in negotiations with Britain over the city’s future. Their once-mighty empire shattered beyond repair, Britain agreed to transferring sovereignty over Hong Kong back to China in 1997. In exchange, Deng put forward his now-famous formulation of ‘one country, two systems,’ which would allow Hong Kong to retain its British-based liberal constitutional system – the Basic Law – and capitalist economy for 50 years after the transfer. Under Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, China regained control of Hong Kong on January 1, 1997 and has stood by the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement to present day.
Understanding ‘one country, two systems’ as part of a strategy
To understand the issues fueling today’s protests in Hong Kong, we have to understand ‘one country, two systems.’ The Communist Party of China (CPC) adopted this formulation as a part of the strategy for further developing socialism in China, and fully grasping their motivations allows us to cut through bogus claims in the Western press.
China’s revolution in 1949 put the working class, the peasants and ordinary people in power for the first time in their nation’s history. Deposed nationalist officials, big business owners and wealthy landlords saw the writing on the wall and fled the newborn People’s Republic. Some ended up in Hong Kong or Macau, the latter under Portuguese colonial control at the time, but the heaviest hitters from the old regime set up shop on the island of Taiwan. Declaring themselves the legitimate government of China, Taiwan won the military backing of the world imperialist powers, who refused to recognize the People’s Republic until well into the 1970s. While Taiwan today calls itself an independent country, the CPC still considers it part of China.
The ‘one country, two systems’ approach to Hong Kong aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of China after centuries of colonialism and foreign plunder. This meant getting the British out of Hong Kong, removing Portuguese control of Macau and bringing Taiwan back into the fold. National defense played a role in this calculation too. The Western imperialist countries had just waged a savage war on Korea – occupying the south to this day – along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Bringing Hong Kong and Macau back under Chinese sovereignty would eliminate two major footholds for Western imperialism right at China’s southern doorstep.
While ‘one country, two systems’ paved the way for regaining Hong Kong and Macau, it had another purpose for the People’s Republic: demonstrating a viable path for Taiwan to rejoin China. As the haven for counterrevolutionaries who fled the mainland after 1949, Taiwan was always going to be the hardest sell for Beijing. By following through on ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong – relative non-interference in the political and economic affairs of the city – China hoped to win Taiwan’s confidence in rejoining the mainland.
After China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, the city has taken on additional significance to the People’s Republic. ‘One country, two systems’ allowed Hong Kong to continue operating a more or less free market, even while belonging to the larger, socialist People’s Republic of China. With some modifications, Hong Kong also operates a traditional liberal constitutional government and legal system based on British common law. For Western investors and financiers, these familiar and easily manipulated institutions made Hong Kong an attractive commercial base.
The city became the primary gateway for foreign direct investment into mainland China. A major aspect of the 1978 reforms included an ‘opening up’ to the rest of the world, both diplomatically and economically. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of the socialist countries, the CPC keenly understood the risks of inviting foreign capital into their country and developed methods of limiting its power and independence. To that end, Hong Kong, as its own administrative region, serves as a buffer between international finance capital and the mainland.
But it goes beyond attracting foreign investment. Hong Kong’s stock exchange has served as a staging ground for China to further internationalize the use of its currency, the Renminbi (RMB). In more recent years, this channel has helped facilitate China’s Belt & Road initiative, a multi-trillion dollar global infrastructure project aimed at developing an alternative trade network to U.S.-dominated channels.
China’s trade policies have caused controversy among socialist observers around the world for decades, but there’s no denying the staggering economic growth and social development achieved since 1949. Hong Kong played an important role in that process in the 21st century.
The class character of the Hong Kong protests
The Hong Kong protests are absolutely not driven by or in the interests of the working class, whether in Hong Kong or mainland China. For one, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) has come out strongly against these protests. As one of the largest labor organization in the region, the Federation represents 410,000 workers in transportation, logistics, manufacturing, infrastructure, construction and other major industries. Many of their 251 affiliated unions have actively campaigned against the protesters’ calls for a ‘general strike’.
Nor have working-class neighborhoods in Hong Kong joined in the months of rioting and unrest. An NPR investigation published on August 14 looked at the North Point district, one of the city’s largest working-class neighborhoods, and interviewed construction worker Xiao Yongli. Along with his neighbors, many of whom are migrant workers, Xiao warned protesters against coming into their community.
It’s not just the longer, more risky work commutes caused by the increasingly violent unrest. Hong Kong’s working class has nothing to gain from worse relations with mainland China, much less from ‘independence.’ They suffered greatly under British colonial rule – no minimum wage laws; no labor protections; barbaric legal punishments like flogging and more. As bad as conditions in capitalist Hong Kong are today, workers know that even the bare-boned safety net, annual wage hikes and abolition of heinous torture wouldn’t exist under colonial rule.
In actuality, the protests in Hong Kong serve the interests of finance capital, both in the city itself and around the world. Hong Kong has the highest number of billionaires per capita of any city on earth. The Civil Human Rights Front, which leads the protests, is full of organizations financed and backed by the U.S. State Department and the National Endowment of Democracy (NED), along with local billionaires and bankers. Even the so-called left-dissident forces in the umbrella organization acknowledged this in a June 18 interview with Jacobin magazine.
But while finance capital provides the real leadership, the bulk of the protest shock troops come from middle class students, academics and white-collar professionals. On August 12, the Chinese University School of Journalism and Communications released the results from a multi-month survey of 6600 protest participants at 12 demonstrations. More than half identified as “middle class,” and nearly 75% had some college education. Incidentally, the protests tend to skew male (54%) and younger, with almost 60% of protesters under the age of 30.
There’s a pernicious idea peddled around the U.S. left that three roughly equal political factions are contending for leadership of the Hong Kong protests: a ‘left-wing,’ liberal democrats and far-right ‘localists.’ This is a gross distortion that even the ‘left dissidents’ themselves don’t believe. Activist Lam Chi Leung, for instance, openly acknowledges in the Jacobin interview that the far-right localist groups have the greatest influence over the movement. He adds too that the liberal democrats have fallen into line with them.
That tracks with the actions and statements of Demosisto, the most vocal liberal organization active in the Civil Human Rights Front. The group has explicitly called for outside intervention by the U.S., Western Europe and Japan to ‘liberate’ Hong Kong – presumably along the lines of the ‘liberation’ of Iraq in 2003. Demosisto leader Joshua Wong met with Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with other diplomatic officials from the U.S., and openly praises the efforts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to undermine Chinese sovereignty.
More disturbing, the Civil Human Rights Front has increasingly picked up the far-right slogan, “Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution in our time!” This comes directly from right-wing localist politicians, who popularized the slogan during their 2016 electoral campaign. They have made crystal clear what they mean by ‘reclaiming Hong Kong’ by deploying racist slurs against Han Chinese and openly pining for a return to British colonialism. When protesters stormed the Legislative Council on July 1 and hoisted the old British colonial flag over their legislature, they removed all doubt over who is really calling the shots.
When the protesters claim support from ‘labor,’ they are referring to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). Though similarly named, the HKCTU is much smaller than the Federation, representing roughly 160,000 workers and 61 affiliates. Unlike the Federation, the HKCTU mainly covers professionals, civil service employees, public officials and white-collar workers in finance. They joined the Civil Human Rights Front and participate in demonstrations, although their reach with their own rank and file appears tenuous. Despite frantic calls to support the August 5 general strike, the HKCTU reported mobilizing just 35,000 members (25%). Police reported even smaller numbers.
An attack on socialism
Hong Kong has extradition treaties with more than 20 foreign governments, including Britain and the United States. It maintains these treaties even while being a part of China. There’s no compelling reason why they shouldn’t have a framework for criminal extradition with the mainland of their own country.
But there are many billionaires, executives and financiers who have their money stashed in Hong Kong who don’t see it that way. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption dragnet already has a lot of them on-tilt. With so many billionaires executed or dying from ‘unnatural causes’ every year in the People’s Republic of China, they rightly fear for their lives and wealth. It’s not a question of ‘sovereignty’ or ‘due process’ at all, but these abstract concepts – elastic enough to mean different things to different classes – allow them to draw together a mass base of middle-class supporters, who otherwise might not care to protect the ill-gotten gains of Hong Kong’s ultra-rich.
Pure and simple, these protests are part of an attack on socialism. Although much of the U.S. left has written off China as a capitalist – or even imperialist – power, the monopoly capitalists have no such illusions. They may disagree on the timetable for war with China, but they all understand China’s socialist system as an existential threat to their power.
Unlike Obama’s longer-term ‘pivot to Asia’, Trump has turned up the gas on anti-China aggression. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Chief Economic Advisor Peter Navarro and other anti-China hawks in the Trump administration see war with China as inevitable. This doesn’t mean they plan to declare war tomorrow or next year, but it signals a strategy of increased hostility towards the People’s Republic.
Hong Kong isn’t just home to financial investment. The U.S. State Department and its non-profit appendage, the National Endowment of Democracy, have made substantial political investments in the city for decades. Their ability to fund so-called ‘civil society groups’ in mainland China is limited. But Hong Kong’s almost non-existent legal system and autonomy from Beijing has made it a safe haven for pro-West Chinese dissidents to operate. For the State Department, it’s a one-stop-shop for identifying, coordinating and funding Chinese dissidents.
This includes self-described ‘left-wing dissidents.’ China Labor Watch, for instance, is a Hong Kong-based outfit popular in Western liberal publications that purports to document strikes and labor unrest in China. They are financed wholesale by the NED and its proxies for the purpose of overturning China’s socialist system, whatever the personal beliefs of individual members. When they aren’t publishing hit-pieces on Socialist China’s supposed mistreatment of workers, they broadcast anti-communist propaganda into China from Hong Kong, day and night. Ironically, the continued existence of these State Department stooges demonstrates Beijing’s abiding respect for the ‘one country, two systems’ approach.
The State Department wants to see the civil unrest in Hong Kong spread across mainland China. In their best-case scenario, maybe the unrest topples the Communist Party or fractures enough of the country to weaken its power. In the worst-case scenario, at least it puts a thorn in Beijing’s side. To that end, they need more than just right-wing localists and Western-aligned liberals. The localists would just as soon see the Communist Party driven from power in China too, but that’s not their immediate concern. These Gone with the Wind reactionaries want a de facto return to British colonial rule, which is the practical application of the call for ‘reclaiming Hong Kong.’ Sure, their right-wing populism and xenophobia plays well with sections of the middle and upper-middle classes in Hong Kong, but its potential to spread to the mainland is dead-on-arrival.
Even in a reactionary movement like this, liberals and the ‘dissident left’ nevertheless have a purpose. After all, the State Department doesn’t fund them ‘just because.’ Their role is not to lead on the ground – how could they, given the extreme right-wing interests behind the protests? – but rather to popularize the call to “spread the movement to the mainland.” Some of these well-educated middle-class dissidents call themselves socialists and preach solidarity – some may actually believe it too. They serve as friendlier faces for the Western corporate media to showcase, as opposed to the localist buffoons screaming racial slurs.
This is right out of the State Department playbook, going back to the overthrow of socialist Poland in the 80s and before.
Socialist China and capitalist Hong Kong: Two systems compared
China’s explosive economic growth is difficult to exaggerate, averaging 9% every year since 1989. Critics on both the left and the right attribute this to the People’s Republic supposedly discarding socialism in favor of capitalism. But while China’s private sector and markets have grown, the country has not seen a recession since the founding of the Peoples Republic. Recessions resulting from overproduction and reckless speculation are endemic to capitalism. Most capitalist countries experience these crises every ten years or less, yet China has avoided this outcome.
While the rest of the capitalist world grinds its working class into poverty, Chinese workers have seen their wages dramatically grow every year, averaging 8.2% increases annually between 2008-2017. In the last 30 years, China has lifted 700 million people out of poverty – the fastest and most dramatic reduction in the modern world. Last year, President Xi announced an initiative to completely end poverty in China by 2020, and with the poverty rate at 1.7% in 2018, they seem on track to meet that goal.
At a certain point, all the talk about ‘capitalist restoration’ in China flies in the face of everything we know about capitalism. To say China is a socialist country doesn’t mean it’s perfect or without contradictions. It means that the working class holds state and economic power, which it exercises through its political party. Building socialism is a process, and the Communist Party of China has stressed since the 1970s that they are still in the earliest stages of constructing the new society. The most important industries remain under state ownership, along with the financial system and all real estate, which allows the state to centrally plan development and prioritize human need over profit. China’s private sector, while much larger than other socialist countries like Cuba, does not rule over the state, the economy or society.
Hong Kong provides an interesting point of comparison, given the special administrative region operates a dramatically different system, both political and economic, then the mainland. Conditions in Hong Kong are generally bad for the working class. The People’s Republic has stood by its commitment to ‘one country, two systems’ and allowed Hong Kong to largely make its own decisions. Of course they offer support for the city government as the region’s legitimate authorities, but Hong Kong’s leaders aren’t ‘puppets of Beijing.’ They stand by an economic and political order at odds with the socialist system in mainland China, made clear in this fight over extradition. If China is a capitalist country, why does so much friction exist between the ‘two systems’ in ‘one country’?
As China enters the final phase of completely ending poverty on the mainland, Hong Kong is setting new records for the most income inequality in the world. More than one in five Hong Kong residents – and about 45% of the elderly – live in poverty, while one in seven residents are millionaires. Hong Kong didn’t even set a minimum wage until 2000, and today it lags almost $3-per-hour behind a comparable mainland metropolis like Shanghai. 37% of workers in mainland China belong to a union versus just 23% in Hong Kong. The mainland also boasts a significantly higher labor force participation rate than Hong Kong – 69% compared to 61% in 2019 – a more accurate measure of unemployment than the official rates.
The same pattern emerges in other economic areas important to workers, like out-of-pocket health care costs (37% in Hong Kong vs. 28% in the People’s Republic). Housing costs have risen in mainland cities like Beijing, but they don’t come close to the outrageous rent costs in Hong Kong. 70% of monthly income for Hong Kongers goes towards rent, versus 22% in Beijing.
The two governments’ responses to rising housing costs is equally telling. After the 2018 party congress, the Chinese government has ramped up construction of affordable housing units, especially for families living in smaller cities and rural areas. “Houses are for living, not for speculation,” said President Xi in his address to the congress.
But in Hong Kong’s free market system, more than 200,000 of the poorest residents live in ‘coffin homes’ – tiny, narrow, cage-like storage spaces with just enough room to lay down and sleep. The city has also seen homelessness rise by almost 20% for the past four years. The city government has recently made some moves towards addressing the issue, but Hong Kong’s low taxes and barebones social spending – both products of their capitalist system – don’t allow for the dramatic action necessary.
A word for socialists in the United States on Hong Kong
Socialism in China has delivered better outcomes to the vast majority of working people than capitalism ever could. The People’s Republic’s emergence as one of the two largest economic powers in the world poses an existential challenge to monopoly capitalism. Just as they waged a not-so-Cold War against the Soviet Union for more than 40 years, the rulers of the U.S. are positioning for a showdown with socialist China. To them, the Hong Kong protests are a way to gain greater leverage over Beijing.
Trump’s public rhetoric on Hong Kong has seemed subdued, especially compared to his typical unhinged Twitter rants. The White House is full of anti-China war hawks, including Trump himself, but the U.S. economy is teetering on the edge of a recession. Whatever Trump’s original intent with the trade war, he overstepped his bounds with China. Trump badly needs the stock market to keep rip-roaring into November 2020 because his chances of re-election drop significantly if the economy slides into recession. His aggression has forced him to walk a fine line for now, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly meets with Hong Kong protest leaders. Too much brazen support for the protests all but kills any chance of a near-term resolution of the trade war.
While many liberals and progressives in the U.S. who back the Hong Kong protests do so from a place of genuine misunderstanding, others should know better. We’ve seen this movie already – whether in Libya, Ukraine, Syria, Nicaragua or most recently in Venezuela. The U.S. instigates and uses these mass protests to destabilize nations they want to dominate. Segments of the left twist themselves into knots trying to explain how protests dominated by right-wingers and monopoly capital are actually progressive, usually singling out one or two marginal ‘left-wing’ participants as evidence. For all their calls to support ‘the people’ or the ‘revolution’ in these situations, somehow it always ends with either the right-wing in power or utter chaos.
As the growing socialist movement in the U.S. grapples with events like the Hong Kong protests, it’s important to remember we are part of a worldwide fight. Too many times, parts of the U.S. left gets roped into supporting our own ruling class’ agenda in the name of abstract ideals – democracy, rule of law, independence, due process, take your pick.
Drill down to the material root of those buzzwords and it becomes a lot less tricky to see what side of the class war the Hong Kong protesters are on.