10,000 workers + #HongKongStudents #scholarism

by Stephen Petrina on October 1, 2014

Photo by Alex Ogle/Getty

Photo by Alex Ogle/Getty

Michelle Chen, The Nation, October 1, 2014–  The umbrella is a perfect icon for Hong Kong’s uprising: inclusive, aloof, a bit Anglophone and pragmatically defiant of the elements (and according to cinematic lore, readily convertible to a lethal kung fu weapon). It embodies the central plea of the protesters amassed in “Democracy Square”: a civilized demand for self-determination. Yet the biggest worry in Beijing right now isn’t the threat of universal suffrage, but what comes afterward—the struggle for social justice that Hong Kongers face they pivot between post-colonial limbo and authoritarian capitalism.

That’s the labor movement is taking to the streets with young protesters. The Equal Times reports that as of Wednesday—China’s National Day—“According to the latest HKCTU [Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions] figures, some 10,000 workers across all sectors have downed tools.” As unions representing industrial, service and professional workforces rallied alongside the youth and condemned police suppression of the demonstrators, Hong Kong labor echoed the former colony’s long legacy of worker militancy. In a call for mass strikes, the HKTCU declared, “Workers must stand up against the unjust government and violent suppression…. To defend democracy and justice, we cannot let the students fight the suppression alone.”

The immediate spark for the protests was the controversy over the electoral process. Activists were incensed that following Beijing’s decree via the proxy authority National People’s Congress, candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 executive election would be pre-approved by the mainland authorities.

But even prior to the electoral betrayal, students revolted against the imposition of Beijing-controlled nationalist curricula on public schools. Longtime residents chafed at mainlanders’ perceived aggressive economic encroachment on local neighborhoods and businesses. And even the symbols of the protest express a yearning for a change in the social and cultural reality, rather than just liberalizing political mechanics. Like the “Hands Up” iconography of the Ferguson protests, the sea of umbrellas exude both civility and defiance in the face of brutality, not looking for trouble, just demanding dignity.

At the center of their struggle for dignity is the desire to control their economic destiny. A statement issued last week by dozens of labor and community groups draws the link between unaccountable government and the divide between the plutocracy and the people:

The Chinese Communist Party has followed and reinforced almost every governing strategy used by the British colonialists. Working in tandem, the CCP and business conglomerates have only worsened Hong Kong’s already alarming rich-poor gap. …

It is true that even a genuinely democratic system may not be able to bring immediate improvements to grassroots and workers’ livelihoods. However, the current political system and the NPC’s ruling are flagrant violations of our political rights as well as our right to be heard. A pseudo-democratic system will only install even more obstacles on our already difficult path to better livelihoods and a progressive society.

But the group’s demands go beyond electoral freedom: it wants expanded housing protections and welfare policies and a government that is responsive to the economic and social concerns raised by civil society groups. With this aspiration toward a fairer as well as freer society, according to City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll, many leaders fear primarily that “people in Hong Kong will convert demands for increasing suffrage into robust demands for redistribution; that in the face of plenty, those with little or no positive prospects won’t stand for obscenely concentrated wealth, power and privilege anymore.”

As Eli Friedman points out, Hong Kong is both an amazingly sophisticated and intensely unequal economy, compared to other “developed” nations. One-fifth of the population lives in poverty. The minimum wage, just recently implemented at the rate of US $3.60, hardly offsets the astronomical costs of housing, inflation and unemployment. The former colonial trade hub has lost some 80 percent of its manufacturing jobs as industries have shifted to the mainland. The most impoverished are often migrant laborers, youths and women. The radicals at the core of #OccupyCentral represent twentysomethings who are tired of the volatility of the economy and the stagnation of the country’s political system.

Read Moore: The Nation