The eyes of the world are watching Hong Kong, where masses of people have taken to the streets in defiance of the tear gas of riot police and the threats of the government.
On October 9, Hong Kong authorities cancelled talks with the leaders of protests pushing for democratic reforms ahead of the 2017 elections. The cancellation came after a press conference by protest groups in which the New York Times reported they “pledged to continue the protests and start a new phase of civil disobedience to maintain pressure on the government”.
Sophia Chan of Left 21, a network formed to consolidate left-wing forces in Hong Kong, was interviewed by Marx21 magazine about the background to the protests and their future prospects. It was first published in English on October 2 at RS21. An abridged version is below.
When did the protests start and why?
The protest was actually the result of a long battle for democracy. When the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the Chinese government promised that a democratic system would be eventually implemented in Hong Kong.
After years of delay, the National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China declared in August that the so-called democracy Hong Kong would have is a system where Beijing will basically vet two to three candidates for voters to choose from.
Also, the candidates would have to gain more than 50% of nominations from a tiny electoral committee of 1200 people, most of whom are representatives of business interests in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) organised a student strike starting on September 22. More than 13,000 university students boycotted classes and joined the strike.
On September 26, about 1500 secondary school students also joined the strike. During the strike, university professors held public lectures in the open area outside the Hong Kong government headquarters and parliament.
On the last day of the strike, HKFS students and members of the public stormed past police barricades to reclaim a public area in front of the government headquarters called “Civic Square”, which had been sealed off arbitrarily. The police used pepper spray, and three key student leaders were arrested and illegally detained.
This prompted thousands of citizens to come out and protest, demanding the release of the students. In the early hours of 27 September, the civil disobedience campaign called Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) was launched.
The next day, tens of thousands of people poured into the street and started occupying main roads in Admiralty and Wan Chai. The police began to use pepper spray and later, tear gas. The violence outraged people in Hong Kong and up to 100,000 people came out on September 29.
Since then, the police have held back and the occupation has been going on, with as many as 200,000 people occupying four zones across the city in the peak times.
Who are the protesters? Is it a student protest only, or do workers and people with other backgrounds participate as well?
It was mostly students to start with, but since September 28, when tear gas was used, many people came out in support. Now there are people of many different backgrounds. In occupied Mong Kok, a more grassroots district, many people from the working class have come out. On Hong Kong island, it's mostly students and white-collar employees. Academics also have a big presence.
Who's behind the protests? Are they spontaneous and grassroots or planned? Are there any groups like unions and political groups behind the protests?
Although HKFS and OCLP played important planning roles, and HKFS undoubtedly initiated the action that prompted the protest, it is widely recognised now that most people who are occupying came out themselves. They have organised themselves into different teams and groups in the occupied zones. There is very little presence of a “leader” of any kind right now.
Political parties generally play a supporting role, but the movement is very sensitive towards any bid by political parties to claim leadership, so the parties are mainly giving us material and media support.
How are the demonstrations and occupations organised? Are they preparing for a longer occupations? What kind of grassroots initiatives are developing in the protests?
Most protesters are prepared for longer occupation ― cleaning teams, supply stations, first aid stations, etc, have been set up to enable a better environment.
Grassroots initiatives are definitely developing ― for example, we now have groups of people spontaneously sitting together to form people's assemblies where each person take turns to talk into a mic, sharing their thoughts on the situation and the future of Hong Kong.
Also, teams of volunteers have formed to talk to shop owners around occupied areas, to see what they think of the movement and to obtain their sympathies for the movement as it is causing them inconvenience.
Furthermore, democracy walls have sprung up everywhere ― on the sides of buses, on random walls and pillars, people have written messages and plastered them everywhere.
Lastly, anyone can be a volunteer of some kind as long as they are willing ― there is very little hierarchy on the ground.
What are the main demands?
The main demands are: Free elections, the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung and the resignation of the police chief, Tsang Wai-hung. The movement has been quite united so far in these demands, and no other demand has been made vocal.
Is there a left or progressive wing in Hong Kong? Is it playing a role within the movement?
Left 21 represents the left wing in Hong Kong. We are playing the role of coalition-building and assistance. We have built a coalition of grassroots organizations and trade unions in support of the movement.
On September 29, the day after tear gas was used, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions declared a general strike, and several unions including the Swire Beverages Factory workers responded by going on strike for a day.
Our coalition now consists of 17 organisations, and we have been helping with coordinating the management of the occupied zones.
What demands are the left pushing for?
We see free elections as a major blow to business-government collusion and capitalist privilege, because currently half of the seats in the parliament of Hong Kong are reserved for “functional constituencies”, which basically means that certain economic sectors (such as finance) in Hong Kong are guaranteed a seat in the parliament.
When we fight for policies such as the minimum wage or a standard labour law, it is almost always those members of parliament who block the bill.
Also, the electoral committee for the chief executive election as proposed by Beijing would consist of 1200 representatives, almost all of whom belong to business sectors, such as real estate, banking, etc. Beijing has explicitly declared that this is to protect the interests of capitalists.
Do you expect Chinese authorities to react peacefully or with brute force? How do you predict the movement will react?
Unless the movement escalates to a point where people start challenging the idea of “one country”, we don't think Beijing will deploy its army against Hong Kong, as the price both internationally and locally would be too high. So far, only a very small and marginalised minority (mainly right-wing groups who don't like mainland Chinese immigrants) have called for independence.
We predict that the Hong Kong government will eventually open communication with HKFS and the political parties, but where this might lead is too early to say. The people are very sensitive about compromises made by groups that claim to be leading the movement, so this may lead to a huge public backlash.
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