Events in Hong Kong have reached the point of no return. The Chinese dictatorship’s decision, from the platform of its pseudo-parliament the National People’s Congress (NPC), to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong means it will take direct political control over the territory, bypassing Hong Kong’s own governmental institutions. Hong Kong’s limited political autonomy within the ‘one country, two systems’ framework is effectively abolished. The fragile freedoms that exist in Hong Kong but are denied in the rest of China, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, are now threatened as never before.
Hong Kong may retain its economic autonomy, which is a very profitable arrangement for the Chinese regime (CCP), but possible Western countermeasures, sanctions, and the logic of the new US-China ‘cold war’, also point to a process in which even the Hong Kong capitalists’ special privileges could be progressively eroded. That the fate of Asia’s foremost financial center is on the line shows the dramatic times we live in.
“The implications of the CCP’s national security law are huge and serious, much worse than the extradition law which triggered last year’s gigantic protest movement,” says Jaco of Socialist Action (ISA in Hong Kong).
“This means the Chinese regime imposing its direct rule over Hong Kong politics, over elections and what level of opposition is tolerated. They will use charges like ‘subversion’ and ‘separatism’ to ban and imprison opposition activists and groups and make it a crime to say things like down with the dictatorship,” he says.
The new law means:
Mainland Chinese agents and secret police will be able to operate legally in Hong Kong for the first time. New “security organs” can be set up by Beijing to spy upon and arrest political opposition.
The law will ban “subversion, separatism and acts of foreign interference”. Similar laws already exist in Hong Kong but the new law will enable the dictatorship in Beijing itself to enforce the “red line”.
An immediate focus of the law will be to ban “activities of foreign and external forces” — to strike against all forms of solidarity but also to make an example of those sections of the protest movement that have aligned themselves with foreign governments (such as pro-US and pro-British groups). Others will also be accused of “foreign links”.
Opposition political parties and organisations will increasingly be banned from taking part in elections. Some may be banned, especially if they are accused of advocating Hong Kong independence.
The right to protest, already under attack since last year, will be heavily curtailed.
Freedom of speech will be heavily curtailed. It may no longer be possible to call for an end to one-party dictatorship. Events like the annual June 4 (Tiananmen massacre anniversary) vigil risk being banned unless this slogan is deleted from their program.
More harsh prison sentences and persecution of political opposition — the CCP is frustrated that the current level of repression and arrests in Hong Kong is not enough.
Increasing censorship. Press freedom has already declined to a global ranking of 80 (out of 180 countries and jurisdictions) from 58 in 2013, according to Reporters Without Borders. Articles like the one you are reading could become illegal.
A more heavily policed internet. There is a stampede to get VPNs (virtual proxy networks) which are used to skirt government internet controls. One company said it sold a week’s worth of VPN subscriptions in one hour.
The new law has huge implications that go far beyond Hong Kong’s borders. It is intended as a diplomatic show of strength by China’s absolute ruler Xi Jinping, delivering a slap in the face to the US and other Western powers who have subjected his regime to a global roasting in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic and ensuing economic collapse has reignited the power struggle within the CCP and Xi feels the need to show his power.
Xi’s move has parallels with Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, although of course Hong Kong is already part of China, it is the degree of control that is changed. For Hong Kong’s people this is a new terrible reality. If there was ever any doubt the Covid-19 crisis is changing the world, accelerating contradictions, and detonating new crises, Xi’s power grab in Hong Kong offers a clear example.
The new law is a frontal attack on the limited democratic freedoms Hong Kong has enjoyed as a semi-autonomous region of China since 1997. Seizing direct political control shows the dictatorship no longer trusts the largely decorative political institutions it previously tolerated, such as the Legislative Council (Legco).
Until very recently the CCP’s plan was to use the Legco to pass a local variant of the national security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constutution. This was to take place next year if the September Legco election results favoured the pro-CCP parties and that was to be achieved by large scale banning of opposition candidates. Beijing’s plan was to avoid a repeat of last year’s District Council elections which became a referendum on the anti-government struggle and saw its puppet parties routed. The intervention of the NPC this week shows the Chinese regime no longer feels confident or willing to risk further humiliating electoral upsets and so instead is imposing the law from Beijing.
The CCP’s aim is to crush the mass democracy struggle and expurgate support for independence and other radical ideas among Hong Kong’s youth. It cannot succeed in this aim; the effect will be the exact opposite, to repel even bigger layers of Hong Kong society and reinforce pro-independence ideas among significant layers especially of the youth. More protests are certain including some possibly huge demonstrations in the next few weeks, but also more police brutality and state terror in an effort to enforce Xi’s law.
The anti-establishment mood in Hong Kong is more powerful than even a year ago. The idea of ‘lam chau’ (If we burn, you burn with us), which comes from the Hunger Games films, finds stronger support even among older layers. But anger is not enough; there must be an alternative — a way forward. All wings of the protest movement will agree with ‘lam chau’ but they give no explanation what it means as a strategy for struggle. The moderate pan-democrats just say it means obstruction in the Legco such as filibuster.
The dictatorship’s nightmare is that Hong Kong’s mood of resistance will spread to mainland China and ignite an infinitely bigger movement that — in sharp contrast to Hong Kong’s protests — would have the necessary critical mass to bring down CCP rule. Therefore the regime’s plan to crackdown in Hong Kong is about “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” as the Chinese proverb goes. It sends a message to the masses in China, especially the working class, not to oppose the regime.
The Chinese regime’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak in its first months — paralysis, censorship and cover-ups — sparked massive discontent across the mainland which shook Xi and the ruling group. Once again the spectre of a new 1989 loomed, before Western governments and especially president Trump, relieved the pressure on Beijing by showing themselves to be even more inept and negligent in dealing with the emergency.
While the ‘crisis barometer’ reading has fallen somewhat since the peak of the outbreak in China, the dictatorship knows it is not out of harm’s way. Hence the urgency and indeed desperation of many of the steps Xi is now taking.
“The CCP feels forced to act now, they feel they cannot wait,” says Jaco of Socialist Action.
China’s economic growth has imploded this year, one in five workers are unemployed, and average wages in export industry have fallen by more than half. At the same time the conflict with a badly destabilised US government has become more dangerous. Partly, Xi’s regime wants to use the distraction of the global pandemic to fortify its positions, including in Hong Kong, hoping that both a new eruption of mass protest and economic countermeasures from rival imperialist regimes will be blunted by the pandemic and the global economic crash.
A draft of the new Hong Kong law was deliberately leaked to media on Thursday 21 May, the eve of the NPC meeting, to insure Hong Kong and the CCP’s power grab, rather than the pandemic and the crashing economy, will be the headline story of the NPC session.
The meeting, delayed for two months by the pandemic, is nothing but a worship session to heap exaltations on Xi and the dictatorship. This year more than ever Xi needs this to be a show of strength, for appearances to disguise the reality. The reality is his regime has suffered a loss of credibility and support at home, while under immense pressure abroad.
There could be significant retaliatory measures taken by the US and other foreign governments, such as sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials or companies. A growing section of the Hong Kong protest movement is putting its hopes in this. This is a deeply misguided view, but also reflects a realisation that the struggle is vastly unequal, that even massive and continuous protests in Hong Kong are not enough to defeat the world’s most powerful dictatorship and second military superpower.
Unfortunately, encouraged by the confused nationalist and pro-capitalist ideas of the Hong Kong localists and sections of the liberal pan-democrats, the growing hope for ‘outside help’ is facing in the wrong direction.
Instead of looking to Trump or Johnson, to capitalist regimes with a long history of propping up dictatorships if this pays well, the Hong Kong democracy struggle needs to turn to those who have a genuine interest in resisting the CCP: the masses in mainland China and the international working class. Especially the 800 million-strong working class of China suffers even more directly under the dictatorship and the same repressive laws that are now to be foisted on Hong Kong.
In the short term, the brutality of the CCP will sow even bigger illusions in the West and even in such a repulsive figure as Trump. It’s possible we will see many more US and British flags on protest marches, reflecting the skewed consciousness within the movement. This will be reinforced if — as is quite likely — the first targets of the new security law are those activists and groups that Beijing accuses of being in league with “anti-China forces”, the US, EU, etc., and especially those politicians who have most prominently campaigned for US sanctions to be applied.
Blow and counter-blow
Xi and his advisors calculate that the enactment of the new law will disorientate and catch Washington and other governments off guard. Again, with the pandemic and global crisis to deal with, they guess that the West’s response will be a terrifying amount of angry words without much real content.
The South China Morning Post (a Hong Kong newspaper) said the new security law had “double-dared” the US to either make good on the threats it has made, under special legislation signed into law by Donald Trump last year, to slap economic sanctions on Hong Kong, or to be exposed as “liars, hypocrites or fools”.
Beijing knows the US government is split and Trump is in crisis. Despite deafening and escalating anti-China rhetoric from Trump and his officials, the president is noticeably indifferent to what goes on in Hong Kong. The limited measures he has threatened in the past have been under pressure from both sides of Congress and to avoid being labelled as “soft on China”. But even the Trump-critical Washington Post, in an editorial, says Hong Kong “demands a US response — but a careful one”.
This voice of Big Business frets over the billions of dollars US capitalism stands to lose if the US makes good on its threats, such as revoking Hong Kong’s special trade status, which under new legislation passed in 2019 will be up for review later this month.
“If a negative report by the State Department led to a repeal of the privileges, Hong Kong’s economy would be devastated — as would a lot of US businesses. The estimated $38 billion in annual US-Hong Kong trade would be at stake; so would the regional headquarters that some 290 US companies maintain in the city. The result could be to speed the conversion of China’s most free city into just another provincial capital, which is not in the US interest, let alone Hong Kong’s.” [Washington Post editorial, 22 May]
But at the same time there would be a massive political cost not only for Trump but for US imperialism’s global interests and its position in Asia if it were seen to be weak in the face of China’s latest moves. The countdown to the US elections, Trump’s loss of balance, and a sharp further mood swing within the US ruling elite with both Republicans and Democrats making China a central plank of their campaigns (baiting China features in all US presidential campaigns but this year it is on a different level), all this means the reaction to Xi’s gambit could be more explosive than he is perhaps counting on.
How to re-launch the mass struggle
Xi Jinping wants to inflict a devastating counterblow upon Hong Kong and the mass struggle of the past year. It will prove much more difficult than he imagines. There are many previous examples where Xi has overreached — the Belt and Road, his threats against Taiwan last year, and not least the extradition law episode of 2019 — transforming a problem into a much bigger problem.
Mass struggle is the key to defeating the new law, but the struggle is about much more than this, it is about defeating the CCP dictatorship. While re-launching the mass struggle is the first step, a successful struggle must also know which steps should follow. It is not enough to call people onto the streets — a movement needs to be organised and sustained especially when the opponent is so powerful.
Crucial lessons need to be drawn from the experience of the past year, about why the movement despite its astonishing scale and heroism, did not succeed in pushing back the dictatorship. The movement achieved much, establishing a tradition and symbol of mass resistance, but it did not succeed in securing real concessions and the attack on democratic rights is unrelenting.
This shows that a more organised, centralised, and politically clear struggle must be built. There are three vital planks to such a struggle that so far have not been understood or embraced by the mass movement:
The main role in the mass struggle needs to be played by the working class, which is uniquely placed by its role in the economy and its collective traditions and class-consciousness to lead a struggle against dictatorship and for democratic rights. While working class people participate and in some cases predominate in the Hong Kong movement, they do so individually, not as a coherent organised force. The strike weapon has not been used in a serious and planned way in Hong Kong. Calls on social media can work for a one-off demonstration, but a real strike needs planning and careful preparation, it needs actual forces in the workplace — real workers’ unions with democratic membership structures.
A well-publicised 2019 study by American and Norwegian scholars of mass movements in 150 countries found that, “Industrial workers have been key agents of democratisation and, if anything, are even more important than the urban middle classes. When industrial workers mobilise mass opposition against a dictatorship, democratisation is very likely to follow.”
The struggle must be democratically organised. Spontaneous actions can play an important role but they are also limited. To sustain a movement and spread it beyond Hong Kong (because it cannot win in Hong Kong alone) it needs direction and coordination, the selection by democratic votes and debates of the best tactics and best representatives to speak for the movement and clearly outline its aims, to mobilise the huge numbers needed.
All major decisions need to be arrived at through democratic discussion. This was never the way under the elitist pan-democrats who dominated the democracy movement for years. But neither can a virtual decentralised movement provide this direction. Even before the pandemic made mobilisation more difficult, there was a degree of exhaustion and fragmentation because last year’s methods had reached their limit — a new direction and organisational method is needed with the working class at its core.
The struggle can only succeed by catalysing an even bigger movement in China and across the wider region. This basic fact of life becomes even more apparent with the passing of the national security law and the CCP’s direct political control over Hong Kong. It won’t be possible to detonate a movement in China behind the very limited message of ‘Five demands’ or a Hong Kong-only agenda as embodied in the slogan ‘Reclaim Hong Kong — Revolution of our times’. Workers in China will not see they have any stake in such a struggle. Why should they take the much greater risks associated with opposing the dictatorship for an agenda that makes no attempt to include them?
The struggle needs to be transformed into a class struggle against the capitalist system, on both sides of the border, which is both an undemocratic system and is now in such deep crisis that economic collapse, housing misery, unemployment, and millions in poverty is all it can offer. The Hong Kong democracy struggle therefore needs to move beyond its limited agenda of democratic demands (which Beijing has anyway completely ruled out) to embrace additional urgent demands to protect workers’ rights and jobs, abolish unpaid leave and wage theft during the pandemic, spend massively on public healthcare and social services, tax the super-rich to pay the costs of the pandemic, bring drug companies, banks and property companies into democratic public ownership, and break the power of the capitalist tycoons.
Such a fighting program linking the need for revolutionary democratic struggle with a socialist overturn of the capitalist system is the way to organise workers in Hong Kong, ninety percent of whom are not in a union, and to reach out to mainland China’s working class.