China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: growing integration and joint struggle
HONG KONG — AU Loong YU is a leader of a small socialist group, Pioneer, formed in the early 1980s from a split in the now defunct Revolutionary Marxist League (RML). It publishes a Chinese language bimonthly magazine of the same name and has maintained an active intervention in the social struggles in Hong Kong. Green Left Weekly's EVA CHENG spoke to him.
Question: How has Beijing ruled Hong Kong over the last two years?
Beijing has taken steps to reshape Hong Kong's legal framework to its needs, through tightening the Basic Law [Hong Kong's constitution] and other legislation. Central government bodies in Hong Kong can now operate above Hong Kong laws.
The Hong Kong government has not yet activated those laws. Any crackdown can trigger a crisis of confidence, especially of investors. The ongoing recession raised the stakes of such a move.
Hong Kong remains a key ground from which China raises investment funds. It has been especially active in privatising state firms through the Hong Kong stock market.
The recession in Hong Kong was not caused by the Asian economic crisis alone. The local economy was made vulnerable since it was restructured to meet China's needs. Industrial capital has shrunk to insignificance since the early 1980s, with manufacturing jobs slashed by two-thirds to about 350,000.
Earlier, there still was a reasonable chance of finding a job in the service sector. But service industries are also moving to southern China.
Speculative funds from China flooded Hong Kong in recent years, targeting stocks and real estate. This contributed to the seven to eight times jump in real estate prices in the decade or so before the handover.
Question: What's the situation of the working people?
Real wages in Hong Kong were already squeezed before the handover. Now unemployment has risen to 6%, the highest in decades, wage cuts are widespread, and job security has gone. The government is planning extensive privatisation, which will mean more cuts in jobs and working conditions. Welfare assistance is highly inaccessible.
Workers' ability to fight back is weak — not helped by the recession, low unionisation (less than 20%) and a servile trade union leadership. There was some resistance to wage cuts, but with no great success.
Hong Kong's economy depends a lot on China's trade, which has slumped. China's exports last year stayed flat, failing to meet an expected growth of 27%.
Question: Did the so-called democratic forces lead any fight?
Hardly. They are increasingly open about their pro-capitalist positions and have become quite discredited among grassroots activists.
The Democratic Party (DP), the biggest in this camp with about 500 members, won half of the popularly elected seats [which account for a third of the total] in the post-1997 legislature, but it has increasingly abstained from grassroots struggles.
The Frontier, headed by high profile legislative councillor Emily Lau, has a program that's even more pro-capitalist. Her group is very small, run mainly by paid staff, and doesn't engage in mass work.
The Citizens Party, also tiny and headed by another high profile legislative councillor, Christine Loh, holds the most anti-worker positions.
On the eve of the handover, two pro-democracy demonstrations were held concurrently, one by the DP and the other by labour and women's groups. The latter, of which my group was a part, didn't want to mix with the DP. The first demonstration demanded democracy in the abstract while the latter translated this into concrete demands for such things as the right to a job and basic housing.
In a January demonstration, the Coalition Against Unemployment (of which my group is a part) which organised the event consciously excluded the DP because of their pro-capitalist program. They didn't even support basic workers' rights such as minimum wages and unemployment benefits.
Question: What is the state of the revolutionary forces?
Hong Kong people are still very politically apathetic. The left here can only sustain itself with a clear perspective on China. If there's no breakthrough in the workers' struggles in China, the Hong Kong left is likely to remain marginalised.
Trotskyists and former Trotskyists are the only left forces in Hong Kong. I don't consider the grassroots and single issue groups as left. My group is the main force despite our very small size. The Revolutionary Communist Party, which publishes the magazine October Review, is operating underground and has abstained from mass actions for the last five to seven years. There's also the April 5th Action [led by former RML members].
For a long time, sectarians and the Maoists sought to undermine the activists who are sympathetic to the ideas of Leon Trotsky by smears and slander. In recent years, this tactic has lost some impact.
In our propaganda material, we don't state our support of Trotskyist ideas, but we don't deny it. The label matters much less than the perspectives and actions. Despite these gains, most grassroots activists remain ideologically confused and uninterested in socialism. In the medium term, the chance of an upsurge in workers' struggle in Hong Kong looks slim.
The ongoing restoration of capitalism in China is a defeat of the Chinese workers. But it also lays the basis for a new wave of resistance because the process has helped forge an increasing integration of the economies of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The fate of the working class of these three places has become more closely linked, confronting the same enemy.
Question: Are you aware of any revolutionary forces active in China today?
No. China's move towards capitalism hit the workers hard. It has prompted many workers to resist, with protests increasing several-fold in the last few years. But their perspectives for struggle are rudimentary.
After prolonged atomisation, some workers pinned their hopes on kind-hearted officials, while others sought to kill their plant managers. Those sacked are mostly older and tired. The hope is in the younger ones and their stronger staying power.
There is room for workers' organising in China at the plant level, but the open formation of an independent trade union is harder.
The recently emerged Chinese Democracy Party (CDP) is pro-capitalist. One of its leaders even proclaimed that workers should abandon the dream of being masters of the country, saying there's no room for that in a market economy.
Many intellectuals became very prejudiced against workers because all suppression of them under Mao was done in the name of the workers. Even now, many intellectuals don't see workers as their ally, not even those from a newer generation like Wang Dan [a 1989 Tiananmen leader]. Some embraced an elitist mentality. The workers so far mobilised on their own, with no noticeable links with the students.
They also have illusions in Clinton and Western democracy, looking to them for protection, or even lending support to the Kuomintang [ruling Taiwan]. Veteran pro-democracy activist Wang Xizhe even applied for KMT membership.
There is also a tiny emerging loose network of the "new left" engaging in political rethinking. Some in this grouping are older cadres of the Chinese Communist Party but have become more critical and independent. Others have few links with the CCP but have dumped their past pro-capitalist illusions and are looking for a socialist alternative. Others merely seek a space to the left of Maoism. They put out a magazine in the US called The World and China.
They are against privatisation and the incipient capitalist class, but they say nothing about democracy and the need for a multi-party system. There's a danger that these people will degenerate into a tool of a CCP faction.
The author of an upcoming biography of Chen Tu-hsiu [a founder of the Chinese Trotskyist movement] stated in an official magazine in China recently high assessments of the contribution made by Chinese Trotskyists. This was inconceivable a few years ago.
It indicated some rethinking was going on within the CCP on its position on Chinese Trotskyists. In another surprise, Isaac Deutscher's trilogy on Leon Trotsky has been translated into Chinese and published in China. A bigger surprise was the translation of Trotsky's book on Stalin. It was recently published in China by an official publisher. We're collaborating with a magazine in China in an attempt to publish a collection on Chen.
Question: Your group is in contact with political activists in Taiwan. What's happening with the left there?
At the end of last year, some ex-members of Taiwan's Maoist Labour Party invited us and some Japanese Trotskyists for a discussion on the Asian economic crisis. Some activists there were planning a left journal.
The left in Taiwan are mainly of Maoist origin. They didn't think our political perspective works, but are friendly. They even invited us to give talks to their supporters.
Programmatically, they are very divided. In 1988, shortly after the political liberalisation in Taiwan, the Labour Party was set up. However, it was soon divided on questions like Taiwan's independence and the class nature of the Chinese state.
The Labour Party is now dominated by so-called Dengists and Han chauvinists. It still advocates socialism and is engaging in some workers' organising. It supports Beijing's perspective of reintegrating Taiwan based on the "one country, two systems" model. But it seems to have lost some credibility in recent years, especially among the youth.
The left in Taiwan remains divided also by the alleged paternalism of some older comrades. Some younger activists found it hard to work with them but remain active in social campaigns while trying to forge their own Marxist organisations.