Hong Kong
Photo of Hong Kong protesters by Lam Chi Leung.

ERNIE GOTTA interviews LAM CHI LEUNG

Mass protests are erupting in the streets of Hong Kong, as they did in the 2019-2020 demonstrations that saw intense fighting between the government and the mass movement. The COVID-19 crisis has had an impact on the social movements’ ability to mobilize, in a similar manner as to what happened in the United States and other countries. As the virus subsides in Hong Kong and the political situation intensifies, people are again mobilizing in the streets.

The fight for residents of Hong Kong is centered around the repressive “National Security Law” imposed by China, which will have a deeply negative impact on the working class. In response to China’s passing the National Security Law, President Trump, raising xenophobic fears of spying, has threatened to revoke the visas of thousands of Chinese students. Trump’s power play is not meant to assist the mass movement in Hong Kong. Trump and U.S. imperialism aim to scapegoat domestic issues on a world rival as it did by labeling COVID-19 the “China Virus.” Workers in the U.S., Hong Kong, and China have nothing to gain from this inter-imperialist conflict. Instead, we should extend our solidarity across borders to build an international working-class movement that confronts the capitalist class for power across the globe.

Socialist Resurgence interviewed Lam Chi Leung about the dynamics of the recent demonstrations. Lam is an independent socialist based in Hong Kong and editor of the Chinese-language edition of the Marxists Internet Archive.

Ernie Gotta: What is the meaning of the  National Security Law for working people in Hong Kong, and why are people taking to the streets?

Lam Chi Leung: Today (May 28), the National People’s Congress in Beijing approved its “Resolution on Establishing a National Security Law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” There will be two or three months from the passage of the resolution to the enactment of any legislation, but the basic intent of the resolution is already obvious enough. According to the terms of the resolution:

  • It will be forbidden for Hong Kong residents to engage in separatism or subversion of the state (including the Hong Kong SAR government), or to collaborate with foreign forces to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs or organize terrorist activities. This will draw on longstanding judicial practice in mainland China, and on the draft text of the “anti-subversion” legislation under Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law that they tried to pass in 2003 (but which was set aside because of mass demonstrations). As such, the scope of “subversion” will be extremely broad. Buying anti-government publications, for example, or openly calling for an end to the CCP’s single-party rule, will likely be considered breaches of the law.
  • China’s Ministry of State Security will be able to directly establish its official organs in Hong Kong. Previously, when they wished to seize someone in Hong Kong, they had to do it surreptitiously. Now they will be able to simply detain and interrogate them.
  • Hong Kong’s local Security Bureau and the Ministry of State Security’s Hong Kong organs will be able to arrest anyone at any time on the grounds that they oppose the mainland regime. Hong Kong will have to enact laws concerning national security that are similar to those in Mainland China. In terms of putting these laws into practice, not everything will be accomplished at once, but their objective will be to gradually force their implementation.
  • Hong Kong will be required to institute political and ideological education akin to that of Mainland China.

In 2003 some 700,000 Hong Kong residents (out of a total population of 7.5 million) took to the streets and successfully resisted Article 23 of the Basic Law. Beginning in June last year, Hong Kongers demonstrated on many occasions in opposition to the Hong Kong government’s revised extradition legislation (the revision would have enabled Hong Kong residents to be extradited to Mainland China), with rallies of up to 2 million people. Although Carrie Lam withdrew the extradition bill, the city’s residents did not end their struggle there. They demanded the establishment of an independent commission into police violence, and the right to directly elect the Legislative Council and Chief Executive. In the District Council elections held in November last year, the opposition won a big victory.

There’s reason to believe that the Beijing regime worries that the opposition will triumph again in the Legislative Council elections scheduled for September, or that the Hong Kong struggle may provide an example for people elsewhere in southern China to follow, and has therefore decided to bypass the Hong Kong SAR government and legislate directly from the center. Their aim is to stifle the resistance of the Hong Kong masses, particularly of the city’s youth.

EG: Who is leading these demonstrations and are these protests related to mobilizations we saw last year?

LCL: The resistance is still lacking in organization for the most part, and relies on spontaneous calls that are issued online. Hong Kong residents have been demonstrating continuously ever since last Friday (May 22), when Beijing announced the resolution. Because of the ongoing pandemic, the government has forbidden public gatherings, and so, separate acts of resistance are taking place in multiple locations. The police have been more heavy-handed than they were last year in dealing with demonstrators, even arresting high school students. The scenes of street fighting are very similar to last year’s mass mobilizations.

It’s noteworthy that on this occasion protesters have taken up the slogan “Hong Kong independence is the only solution,” and have not been particularly friendly to mainland visitors or recent migrants from the mainland to Hong Kong (e.g. yelling at them to go back to the mainland). This is a worrying xenophobic trend, which seems to be gradually gaining ground within the opposition movement, particularly among the militant youth. Naturally, it’s not the case that all protesters endorse this trend.

EG: What way forward do you see for the working class in Hong Kong? What are your thoughts on strategies and tactics?

LCL: Since Hong Kong returned to China, the working-class struggle has made some steps forward, including the 2000 public sector strike against privatisation, the 2007 construction workers’ strike, and the 2013 dockworkers’ strike. But generally speaking, the level of activity and class consciousness among workers here can’t be described as high.

Last year’s campaign against the extradition bill for the first time put the question of the political strike on the agenda of the mass movement (the last such political strike was in 1967), and one such strike was actually carried out on Aug. 5, with some 300,000 cabin crew, airport staff, social workers, and teachers participating in the action. Although it was only a symbolic, one-day strike, it was nevertheless a breakthrough.

Building on the momentum of the anti-extradition movement, at the end of last year a series of new unions were set up. These include the “Hospital Authority Employees Alliance,” which was established by frontline public-health workers. They recruited 20,000 members, and on Feb. 3-7 took five days of strike action, calling on the Hospital Authority to provide adequate personal protective gear to doctors, nurses, and staff.

In my opinion, whether the goal is to resist the national security law, to defend political freedoms, or to campaign for democracy, there is a need to mobilise the mass of ordinary Hong Kong residents to participate in the struggle. Working-class self-organisation and widespread strike action should play a central role here, because these have the greatest potential to force the authorities to back down.

EG: How has COVID-19 impacted the mass movement?

LCL: COVID-19 was at its most serious in Hong Kong from February to April, and since May the situation has gradually been improving. However, despite the fact that the pandemic has been easing, the Hong Kong government has not lifted its directives restricting public gatherings, and prohibited an International Workers’ Day march on May 1.

I anticipate that the government will continue to use these directives to prohibit mass rallies on the upcoming “sensitive dates” of June 4 (commemorating the Tiananmen Square protests), June 9 (the one-year anniversary of the movement against the extradition bill), and July 1 (the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China).

Still, by the time the pandemic subsides, around August-September, it will be the eve of the formal passage of the “Hong Kong National Security Law,” and Hong Kong will definitely see mass rallies. The number of people joining the marches may be even greater than last year.

EG: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

LCL: The security of the state is not the same as the security of the people. Unless the state reflects the “community of freely associated individuals,” people have no obligation to support state security.

The working masses of Hong Kong need to organise themselves, and unite with all forms of working-class struggle and campaigns in defence of people’s rights in mainland China. Only in this way can political freedoms eventually be won throughout China, and Hong Kong’s democracy autonomy be secured. To mobilise wider layers of workers to defend these freedoms, it’s necessary to combine demands for political rights with the working class’s demands for social and economic equality: an anti-capitalist program is needed. We should learn the lessons from last year’s struggle against the extradition bill: back then, the movement did not raise demands for social and economic reform, and found it difficult to draw more workers to participate in it.

In contrast to mainland China, Hong Kong residents have enjoyed basic freedoms for a long time. There exist all kinds of community organisations, media, and political parties, and most people do not support the Chinese authorities. This situation won’t fundamentally change in a short space of time just because of the “Hong Kong National Security Law.” Likewise, the direction of public opinion among city residents won’t be reversed simply because one or two movements experience defeats. These are factors that will sustain the current campaign against the National Security Law. Right now, a lot depends on the resolve and ingenuity of the mass struggle.

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