Massive street protests in Hong Kong: Democratic illusions are a dangerous trap for the proletariat

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In the past month hundreds of thousands, even millions of the inhabitants of Hong Kong have engulfed the streets and squares in protest against an amendment to the Extradition Law [1], proposed by the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam. The amendment would make it possible to extradite Hong Kong citizens to the mainland of China. The biggest rally against this amendment took place on 16 June, when nearly two million people gathered in a street protest.

The first protests in June were made possible by “The Civil Human Rights Front” (a coalition of more than fifty bourgeois organisations). This organisation was instrumental in making the June 9 and the June 12 rallies happen by getting the licenses to march and assemble. But the massive scale of the mobilizations was made possible via social media: people have organised their own initiatives, mainly through Facebook, Telegram groups, and the online forum lihkg.

Already on 31 March, an initial protest had taken place. A second demonstration was held on 28 April, attracting more than 100,000 protesters. Thereafter the movement gathered momentum, peaking during three different rallies on 9 and 12 and 21 June 2019, when millions of people entered into the street. On Monday 1 July, as Hong Kong marked the 22nd anniversary of its 1997 handover, the annual pro-democracy march still claimed a record turnout of half a million. [2]

The Hong Kong protests were not only aimed at the extradition law but, behind this, also at the growing attempts of the Chinese Stalinist regime to gain a more rigorous control over this former British colony. In order to understand these attempts of the Chinese state we must return to certain aspects of the past and the present of China. For China is passing through a more dangerous phase, given the developing economic crisis in China and elsewhere and the sharpening of the imperialist tensions.

The aggravation of China’s internal contradictions

Just as any other state in decadence of capitalism the Chinese state is weighed down by growing contradictions. China is a typical example of state capitalism that "takes on its most complete form where capitalism is subjected to the most brutal contra­dictions, and where the classical bourgeoisie is at its weakest." (International Review no. 34) Such a rigid political system is incompatible with any legal democratic opposition.

The regime in China cannot tolerate such oppositional forces without profoundly endangering itself. The Hong Kong movements of the last month have confronted the Beijing government one more time with the spectre of democracy.

In 1997 Hong Kong became an administrative region of China. Under the “one country, two systems” framework, the Chinese government guaranteed Hong Kong the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years, until 2047.

But the existence of a semi-independent territory, in which anyone who is opposed to Beijing can find sanctuary, is like a tumor on the body of the Chinese state. Here the policy of “one country, two systems” shows its limits, being in fundamental contradiction with one-party rule. The “dual” system is prey to steady erosion, but the Chinese state cannot risk a second Tiananmen.

Centrifugal tendencies in China

In the period of decomposition, as the result of a stalemate in the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the tendency towards each for himself increases dramatically and centrifugal forces tear apart nation states. The most obvious example was of course the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union. But China is not spared from this centrifugal dynamic either. The resistance against the control of Beijing and the call for autonomy in the periphery continues and even seems to have become stronger in the recent years: Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Macao, etc.

After the fall of the Quing Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, China fell apart into smaller political and territorial units. For a few decades, the country was fragmented and ruled over by competing warlords. When the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, it more or less re-established national unity. And if there is one thing the Stalinist Party cannot tolerate, then it is the call for autonomy by peripheral regions.

Before Xi Jinping took office in 2012 all 56 ethnic groups located in China had an equal status and could practice their own cultures and customs. But since then the “us against them” dichotomy, defined by antagonism and pointing at scapegoats, has gained strength in China. Even Taiwan has been not been spared. In January 2019 the Chinese President openly threatened Taiwan with annexation if this country did not yield and unite with the People’s Republic.

The deterioration of Chinese economy

China has also great problems on the economic level. Its actual growth is officially at 6.4 percent. But with a growing population and internal mobility of tens of millions who move from the countryside to the cities every year looking for a job, this figure is more a sign of a stagnant, even worsening economy.

Trump's trade war is also having a serious effect on the Chinese economy.  In February 2019, China's exports showed the strongest decline in three years. Exports fell by 20.7 percent compared to the previous year, despite the government's huge stimulus measures. In 2018, a dramatic year for stock exchanges, the biggest losers could be found in China. The Shanghai Stock Exchange fell by 24.9 percent and the Dow Jones China by 24.7 percent.

In 2013 China launched a geo-strategic project of its own which, it hopes, will counter the worst effect of the crisis: the “New Silk Road”. But now China is even starting to have problems with its allies that joined this project in recent years. Several of these countries (Malaysia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc.) are indebted at levels that are no longer sustainable.

The increased repression in all regions of the country.

Given the fact that the China state, by its very nature, is unable to tolerate democratic opposition it has to resort to repression in the face of any discontent. And with the growth of the centrifugal forces and the threat of social unrest, this repression over society has only increased. What we are witnessing is China at this moment is a kind of organised terror with the main aim to create a climate of fear. [3]

Beijing has increasingly deployed mass surveillance systems to tighten control over society. It collects, on a massive scale, biometrics including DNA and voice samples for automated surveillance purposes; developed a nationwide reward and punishment system known as the “social credit system”; and developed and applied “big data” policing programs aimed at preventing dissident voices.

The Chinese government has applied sweeping repression in different regions, in particular Xinjiang, home of the Muslim Uighur population. Since 2016, Chinese authorities have stepped up mass detention centers and prisons in this region. Outside these detention facilities the residents of Xinjiang are subjected to extraordinary restrictions on personal life: if they want to travel from one town or another, they have to apply for permission and to go through several checkpoints.

Even Hong Kong does not lag behind in this respect and applies similar measures in curtailing civil and political freedom. The state repression of the past four years had led to 50 trials, in which several hundred political dissidents and activists have been targeted for arrests and selected prosecution with various allegations, while over one hundred of them have been sent to jail.

Beijing’s tightening control on Hong Kong

Since 1997 China's ruling Party has gradually been exerting more influence over Hong Kong. In the past twenty years it has regularly changed the rules in a sense that responds to the need of the Chinese ruling class to strengthen its grip on Hong Kong politics. Every decision it takes and every step it makes is aimed at gaining a better control over this city.

The first large-scale protest against the growing influence of the Stalinist Party took place in 2003. The implementation of Basic Law Article 23 made it possible to convict people for treason, separatist activities, subversion of state power, and theft of state secrets. The second large-scale protest was in 2014, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution”, against the unilateral decision by the Chinese regime to screen candidates for the leadership of Hong Kong. [4]

In 2017 Chinese imperialism upped the ante further. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the handover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared that the Sino-British Agreement, which guarantees independence of Hong Kong on political, juridical and economic matters until 2047, has become “a historical document, [which] no longer has any practical significance”.

The introduction of the new legislation (the amendment to the existing extradition bill), in February of this year, provoked a great concerns and anxiety among the citizens of Hong Kong about the increased risk to be sent to mainland China, where courts are under a rigorous control of the Stalinist state apparatus.

To understand why the protest took on such huge proportions we must keep in mind that nearly half of the population of Hong Kong consists of the second or the third generation who fled China. The moment the Maoist Party came into power, in 1949, millions of Chinese took flight. As many as 100,000 people fled to Hong Kong each month. By the mid-1950s, Hong Kong had increased its population from 500,000 to a staggering 2.2 million.

Therefore the proposal by the Hong Kong government, which puts inhabitants of Hong Kong at risk of deportation to China to stand trial in a despotic court system, really touched the nerve of millions of Hong Kong citizens. They know that, under the rule of the Stalinist Party, people certainly cannot expect due process, and will generally face false convictions. Like the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, China is well-known for its show trials against political opponents. [5]

Censorship and black-out of information

The traditional media are rigorously censored by the Chinese state. Above all since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, China has launched an unprecedented crackdown on online freedom, submerging the internet in propaganda and punishing journalists who post messages that are detrimental to the system.

As the mass protests in Hong Kong might resonate across the border and trigger a chain reaction into the mainland of China, the Beijing regime ordered the Chinese censors to wipe out posts and photos from social media sites. Media outlets have been largely silenced, and as a result not many people in China know what has been happening in Hong Kong.

The mystification of democratic rights

No matter how massive they were and no matter how many workers participated in them, the street protests were not a manifestation of working class struggle. In Hong Kong the proletariat was not engaged in a struggle as an autonomous class. On the contrary: the workers of Hong Kong were completely overwhelmed by and drowned in a mass of citizens.

Many protesters were working class youngsters. But during the massive protests a large part of them fought for bourgeois demands and democratic rights. Even if we might salute the courage and the determination of the participants, the mass protests in Hong Kong are a great danger for the proletariat. Completely situated on the bourgeois terrain they cannot but reinforce the illusions in democracy. And the fact that the movement has gained a momentary victory – the amendment being suspended – only increased the illusions among the protesters in Hong Kong and its supporters around the world.

Leftist political organisations only reinforce these tendencies and illusions by encouraging the fight for democratic rights and freedom of speech. In the case of the protests in Hong Kong

  • the socialists of “Alternative Socialiste” in Canada propagate for instance "the struggle for democratic rights and against the current authoritarian system, [of course] linked to the need to break down the power of the capitalists".
  • the “International Committee of the Fourth International” (WSWS) emphasizes that “Reaching out to mainland Chinese is an important step in the struggle for democratic rights”.

Even if leftists connect the struggle for democratic rights with the struggle of the proletariat for “breaking down the power of the capitalists” (whatever that means),  for the proletariat the struggle for democracy remains a trap, only binding it still more to its capitalist exploiters. The real antagonism within capitalist society is not between the dictatorship and democracy, but between the exploiting ruling class and the exploited working class. The latter has nothing to gain by the participation in the movement for bourgeois democratic rights, no matter how massive it is.

The storming and ransacking of the parliament

We reject any slogan put forward by the capitalist left calling for self-determination, for a democratic worker-led government, etc.

The same goes for the intrusion into the Legco (Legislative Council) on Monday night 1 July. After having forced entry, hundreds of protesters swarmed into the parliament building, tearing down portraits of legislative leaders and spray-painting pro-democracy slogans on the walls of the main chamber.

We do not support such pseudo-radical actions. On the contrary: not a single object smashed in a parliament is sufficient to smash the illusions in the parliamentary system. By ransacking, by looting places, by burning buildings of the state we do not break down illusions in parliamentarism. Actions motivated by democratic ideology only serve the interests of the bourgeois state.

This was shown by the fact that the events were immediately used to put the entire protest movement in a bad light. Chinese state media broadcasted no footage of the massive “peaceful” protest, but it did of the “serious illegal actions”, by “Hong Kong separatists” in which “blind arrogance and rage” dominated.

The smashing of illusions in parliament and democracy can only come through the autonomous action of the working class, in defence of its own class demands. The only way to fight against the false system of parliamentary representation is to hold proletarian mass assemblies, animated by serious discussion about the methods and aims of the struggle.

The hypocrisy of the Western democracies

The western states have expressed their support for the people of Hong Kong in their defence of democratic rights and freedom of expression.

On Monday 10 June US State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, declared that “the United States shares the concern of many in Hong Kong that (…) the proposed amendments could undermine Hong Kong’s (…) human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic values”. On Monday 1 July the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that it is imperative that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people are fully respected.”

But neither the United States nor the United Kingdom are any less hypocritical than China, and are far from being innocent regarding human rights violation as the following three examples clearly show.

(1) In China the western companies rely on the repression by the Chinese state to submit the Chinese workers to a system of extreme exploitation. 

Hundreds of millions of Chinese workers must travel thousands of miles to seek job opportunities, often sleeping at the workplace in basic accommodation and only visiting their family once a year and that for a wage that is less than one-tenth of the average monthly wage in America. “In colluding with the government, employers squeeze the maximum labour within the shortest time possible from the workers.” (The Post Multi-Fibre Arrangement era and the rise of China, Au Loong-Yu)

Another factor is the policy of disciplining and repressing of the workers by means of the so-called “household registration system”. This system “acts as a kind of social apartheid, which systemically discriminates against migrant workers, barring them from enjoying public provisions in the cities. Outside the factories and dormitories, they simply cannot survive in the cities. It is an effective way to force them to accept starvation wages, appalling working conditions, and forced overtime.” (Idem)

(2) On their own national territory the western states detain refugees in the most horrible circumstances themselves.

Britain’s network of immigration removal centres are a real humiliation for the 25,000 migrants who pass through each year: there is no rehabilitation, no criminal sentence, inadequate healthcare, very often no time limit on the loss of liberty and overcrowded cells. Many of those incarcerated say that the conditions are far worse than actual prison, as they are physically and verbally abused by staff members, and this includes sexual and racist violence.

In the United States the Homeland Security inspector has found “dangerous overcrowding” and unsanitary conditions at a detention centre in Texas, where hundreds more migrants were being housed than the center was designed to hold. The inspector said that the cells “smelled of what might have been unwashed bodies/body odour, urine, untreated diarrhea, and/or soiled clothing/diapers”, (“Crammed into cells and forced to drink from the toilet – this is how the US treats migrants”, The Guardian, 3 July 2019)

(3) Just like the Chinese government the western ‘democracies’ also use super-intelligent technology to spy on civilians.

In the United States the CIA, via sophisticated hacking tools and software, uses everyday devices - from the phone in your pocket to the television set in your bedroom - to gather information on civilians. Internal CIA documents (…) indicated the spy agency had gained access to Android and Apple smartphones, Samsung Smart TVs and Internet-enabled cars using a variety of tools.” (“CIA Uses Smart Devices to Spy on Citizens, WikiLeaks Reveals”, Marissa Lang, San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 2017)

“At least 100 aircraft are being used by US law enforcement to spy on citizens. These aircraft are equipped with advanced, very high-resolution imaging and video technology — specifically Sting Ray, the secretive bulk cellular phone-tracking technology, and likely infrared or other night-vision hardware. The FBI has placed its eyes across the skies of the nation to mass surveil the public and spy on protesters.” (“Mass Surveillance and ‘Smart Totalitarianism’”; Chris Spannos, ROAR Magazine, February 18, 2017)

The trap of the Western support for democratic rights

The Western democracies are completely indifferent regarding human rights and the well-being of the people around the world. The same goes for the people of Hong Kong, which once was the most successful colony of Britain in the world. But when China became the main focus and more lucrative for the United Kingdom, Hong Kong was disposed of, in full knowledge that it would come under the yoke of a Stalinist regime.

Trump's administration and other western governments are content to work and conduct lucrative trade with a multitude of odious dictatorships around the world, including China. At the same time they are ready to utilise the defence of democratic rights and autonomy by the Hong Kong people as useful propaganda in their trade war against the same Chinese regime.

The protesters in Hong Kong, by waving American and British flags, show that the struggle against the Stalinist dictatorship on the bourgeois terrain of the democratic freedom, only leads them to embrace democratic dictatorship. The mobilisation of Hong Kong citizens is being used, by the United States and Great Britain in particular, for their sordid imperialist interests in the geopolitical confrontation against China.




[1] Currently, Hong Kong is only obliged to extradite persons suspected of a crime on a case-by-case basis to 20 countries, under two main laws – the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (FOO) and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance – which expressly exclude “any other parts of the People’s Republic of China”. In February 2019 the Hong Kong government proposed to pass an amendment to the law for transfers of persons suspected of a crime not only for Taiwan and Macau, but also for mainland China.

[2] In the weeks thereafter the mobilisation decreased: Sunday 7 July, protesters came into the street in a mobilization of 250,000 and again on 14 July in demonstration of 100,000 people. But they have become more violent, notably after the intervention of triad gangsters against the demonstrators and increased police use of tear gas and systematic beatings.

[3] In China, anyone seen as a threat to the CCP can be “disappeared”. Some are held in secret prisons, while some are placed in detention centers under false names. Family, lawyers, and even China's state prosecutors are denied access.

[4] See the article “Hong Kong's ‘Umbrella Revolution’: soaked by democratic ideology”; ICCOnline, October 2014

 [5] Many critics of Beijing rule, after being arrested, appear on CCTV, confessing to vague almost non-crimes, criticising themselves, or discrediting others. All this is symbolised by the 11-year prison sentence served on the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo for advocating democracy. He was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison.