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Hong Kong: Now The Hard Part, Kick US Out, Build Consensus

Above: Hong Kong proteest by AFP-Getty.

When protests in Hong Kong exploded, knowledgeable people looked for US involvement. It was not hard to find. The overt intrusion of the US is available in budgets, documents and websites; the covert involvement has not yet been uncovered but is no doubt there.  What does US involvement mean for the credibility of the protest movement and the future of Hong Kong? How should Hong Kong activists respond?

The issues raised by the protests, lack of democracy and an unfair economy, are very real. But so are the concerns of Beijing for economic growth and continuing to lift people out of poverty, something China has done remarkably well. Those who seek to transform governance and create a more equal economy now have a more challenging task than protests, they must build national consensus on their issues in Hong Kong and in China’s leadership. The Chinese People’s Daily quoted a Chinese-American author who wrote the Occupy Central leadership, Yin Haoliu, said: “Democracy is a step-by-step process that cannot be approached in haste, otherwise it will bring about troubles.” How quickly those steps advance depends, in part, on how well the democracy movement organizes.

Now that the US has been exposed, it needs to be removed. US goals are very different than the people in Hong Kong. The US is in the process of encircling China militarily and economically. It sees China as a competitor, a nation that can undermine the US as the single world superpower.  Conflict between Hong Kong and Beijing would serve US interests but undermine the Hong Kong economy which is tied to China. The protest movement has already begun to separate itself from people too close to the US. Hong Kong’s people and government need to go further and expel US influence, remembering the historic imperialism of the US in China and noting the current strategic goals of the United States.

A protester raises a placard that reads "Occupy Central" between riot policemen and protesters outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Riot police in Hong Kong on Saturday arrested scores of students who stormed the government headquarters compound during a night of scuffles to protest China's refusal to allow genuine democratic reforms in the semiautonomous region. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
A protester raises a placard that reads “Occupy Central” between riot policemen and protesters outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Riot police in Hong Kong on Saturday arrested scores of students who stormed the government headquarters compound during a night of scuffles to protest China’s refusal to allow genuine democratic reforms in the semiautonomous region. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

The Occupy Central Movement Gets the Attention of the World

The Occupy Central movement, or Umbrella Revolution, has gotten the attention of the world and challenged Beijing. The protests are at a turning point. The next few days will determine their immediate impact. The movement has awakened hundreds of thousands and put important issues on the political agenda.  If political leadership in Beijing and Hong Kong does not respond to the issues raised, more insurrections will follow.

Hong Kong protester provides umbrella to police by Associated Press.
Hong Kong protester provides umbrella to police by Associated Press.

The protesters have gained sympathy because of their consistently nonviolent behavior which is emphasized in their Manual for Disobedience. They have been labeled the polite protest as they even divide their trash for recycling. They have used excellent symbolism and rhetoric and broadened participation in the protests so it not only includes students – a powerful force in their own right – but the elderly, families and workers. The protesters strategically escalated their actions and increased pressure on the government.

October 2 and 3 were turning points as the chief executive of Hong Kong gave a Mubarak-like speech and refused to resign but agreed to negotiations with the protesters; reversing his refusal to negotiate. Thursday, Occupy Central protesters held a sophisticated debate about whether to block a key road, with some arguing that it would undermine their primary goal of garnering broad public support. Few protest movements are sophisticated enough to see the goal of protesting the government is directed more at the people, for their support, to build a mass movement.

On Friday, anti-occupy protesters, some wearing masks came into protest areas and violently attacked occupy protesters demanding they stop. Police report half of those arrested were members of the triad, organized crime. Some accuse the government of encouraging triad violence, the government denies it; this could just as easily be the covert work of the CIA (we don’t know and should not assume). Occupy Central announced that due to lack of action by the police to stop the attacks, they would not be negotiating with the government. By the next morning the occupiers had rebuilt the destroyed tents and other infrastructure. On October 5,  the students agreed to return to negotiations but required an investigation into whether or not the government indulged the attacks.

Monday protest will need to show signs of continued strength in the streets in order for their impact to build. Monday is turning into a pivot point as the government insists on re-opening schools and businesses; but so far, protesters are ignoring threats and remaining.  If they succeed in sustaining the protest and keeping public support, more compromises, even the replacement of the chief executive are possible. If not, then the negotiations with the government need to be pursued transparently by the protest movement so if they fail – and it is hard to imagine the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing compromising sufficiently without more protest – the democracy can re-energize and take the streets again to show their displeasure.

While the Federation of Students has made it said their movement is “absolutely not a revolution,” even if Leung Chun-ying resigns, the issues raised will not be resolved. The major changes being sought will require ongoing work, building on the awakening of recent days and convincing the population and leadership that the changes are necessary and beneficial. This will take deep organizing, persistence and refusal to compromise.

Occupy Central Vice President Joe Biden meets Anson Chan and Martin Lee at the White House in 2014. Source South China Morning Press.
Vice President Joe Biden meets Democracy advocates Anson Chan and Martin Lee at the White House in 2014. Source South China Morning Press.

What has been US involvement?

Complicating the protest, and undermining it, was reports documenting US involvement in the democracy movement. Those of us who follow US actions around the world are not surprised by this revelation; indeed we’d be surprised if the US were not involved.  The US consistently uses legitimate concerns of people to build its Empire and challenge perceived enemies. China is at the top of the list for the US with the Asian Pivot of military forces to the region, building military relationships with Asian allies and negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership that excludes China – all isolating and threatening China economically and militarily. It is not surprising that the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong are being used by the US.

US involvement undermines the credibility and goals of the protests because the US agenda is not the people’s agenda. If the revolt were to succeed, what kind of influence would the US have over the selection of the next leader? Would Hong Kong end up with a leader like Ukraine, where the US spent $5 billion to foment revolt and now has President Petro Poroshenko who according to Wikileaks documents has been known in the US government as “Our Ukraine Insider,” an informant for the US since 2006? Will the next government protect neoliberal capitalism that expands the wealth divide and allows US investors entry into China for their benefit, not the benefit of the people?

The iconic Hong Kong Umbrella Man walks through tear gas.
The iconic Hong Kong Umbrella Man walks through tear gas.

Already there are signs that the Occupy Central and Democratic Party leadership, which has US ties, is not trusted. One participant on the ground reports “the dynamic the movement has taken on” its own energy and is now “the actions of ordinary people in their struggle for democracy.” “The movement can now be considered largely leaderless.” The author points to the protest beginning two days before Occupy Central leaders wanted and the refusal to follow their order to leave after police attacks last Sunday, instead thousands stayed. Revolution News reported how a group of students climbed over the fence of the Central Government Office Complex, remaining there and facing arrest the entire time, without the support of Occupy Central elders for the next 2 days. Thankfully students came to their rescue.

Mint Press News exposed US support for democracy movements in Hong Kong. The article described what it called “a deep and insidious network of foreign financial, political, and media support. Prominent among them is the US State Department and its National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as NED’s subsidiary, the National Democratic Institute (NDI).” The article reports on NDI activities in Hong Kong back to 1997. NDI writes that it has been training young leaders in Hong Kong since 2005 on “political communication skills.”

The US has been funding various civic organizations in Hong Kong including a think tank at the University of Hong Kong, the Centre for Comparative and Public Law, from which Occupy Central “self-proclaimed” leader Benny Tai served on the board. Another notable Occupy Central activist, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, works closely with Tai and speaks at numerous US funded forums.

Hong Kong Transition Project report cover, an in-depth examination of the views of youth
Hong Kong Transition Project report cover, an in-depth examination of the views of youth

Other Hong Kong democracy movement figures in bed with NED include, according to Mint Press, Martin Lee (here’s his bio on NED website and the award the NED gave him), founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democrat Party. He came to Washington, DC in 2014 and met with Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).  Lee took part in an NED talk hosted specifically for him. Anson Chan, another prominent figure currently supporting the ongoing unrest was also in DC and met with Biden and Pelosi.

Revolution News went further into the US ties to the Occupy Central movement examining the budgets of US ‘democracy’ institutions.  They report that one of Occupy Central’s key tactics this summer, a “referendum” on democracy signed by 780,000 Hong Kong residents, more than 1/5th of Hong Kong voters, was funded by the US State Department. (A similar tactic was used in the Egyptian protest against Morsi that led to the Sisi dictatorship.)

Revolution News follows the money and reports that: USAID Hong Kong budget for 2012 was $754,552; in 2010 it was $1,591,547. A key organization funded by the US is the Hong Kong Transition Project which has polled the people of Hong Kong since 1991 regarding democracy. In an HKTP report from January 2014, they write that the purpose of the polling is to determine how people view “the fairness of the current consultation process and initial reactions to a possible confrontation with Beijing.”

The Transition Project has been doing in-depth public opinion research every three months not only looking broadly at public opinion but zeroing in-depth on key groups like youth. They also did an in-depth study of who is likely to support Occupy Central and under what circumstances in January 2014. The polls find overwhelming support for self-government, especially among youth.  An April 2014 report examined public opinion that described a looming confrontation and high support for democracy. This type of public opinion research is never available to grassroots movements but is invaluable in deciding when to act, how to act, who to focus on, rhetoric and tactics.

In addition to public opinion research, funding key organizations and activities, the NDI monitors the movement. For example, the impressive young, iconic leader Joshua Wong, the founder of Scholarism, has been monitored by NDI since he was 15. (No documents indicate that he has been co-opted.)

Revolution News reports on numerous State Department cables published by Wikileaks that show the close involvement in monitoring the democracy movement in Hong Kong, turnout at protests, rhetoric of leaders and how to improve future organizing and mobilizing.

We do not report US involvement because we oppose the movement for democracy and a fair economy in Hong Kong, quite the contrary. We agree with Revolution News which introduces its article making the following points:

“We Fully Support A People’s Movement In Hong Kong. As we explain further details about ‘Occupy Central’, it is the intention of this article to help the students and Hong Kongese people who are fighting for the future of Hong Kong make informed decisions on who they join in coalitions with and choose for Chief Executive when they achieve True Universal Suffrage.”

We also agree with Hong Kong-born writer Ming Chun Tang who writes “prospects are only diminished by the involvement of the United States, with its own neoliberal and far-less-than-democratic agenda.” Tang continues:  “I am not surprised at this, nor do I welcome it, given the United States’ questionable record (to put it nicely) at bringing ‘democracy’ to countries where it has intervened in the past. It is most likely in Hong Kongers’ best interests that the US withdraw its monetary support for Occupy Central, as unlikely as this is to happen.”

Despite US involvement, the people of Hong Kong have very real grievances not only regarding self-governance but also regarding the economy. It is important to emphasize: the protesters are people not acting for the United States, indeed the vast majority have nothing to do with the US or organizations it has funded, but acting on their own accord. We hope exposing US involvement diminishes those who work closely with the US and encourages the movement to remain independent of the United States.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas on September 28.
Hong Kong police fire tear gas on September 28.

Beyond Democracy: Economic Issues Underlie Protests

While democracy has gotten the headline, economic injustice in Hong Kong is also a driving force of protests.  The fact that the right-wing Heritage Foundation applauds Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy is a signal that it is among the most unfair, i.e. poor worker and environmental protection and lack of regulation preventing corporate abuse. Life in Hong Kong for most people is difficult, Ming Chun Tang writes:

“As City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll points out, one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line, while inequality has risen to levels among the highest in the world. Wages haven’t increased in line with inflation – meaning they’ve fallen in real terms. The minimum wage, only introduced in 2010, is set at HK$28 (US$3.60) an hour – less than half of that even in the United States. . . The average workweek is 49 hours – in case you thought 40 was rough. Housing prices are among the highest in the world. Even the neoliberal Economist placed Hong Kong top of its crony capitalism index by some distance.”

Jeff Brown, author of 44 Days Backpacking in China, writes:

The middle class and poor are being decimated by the Princes of Power’s draconian, libertarian capitalist policies of pushing the Territory’s profits to the 1%, at the expense of the 99%. Students are graduating from college and finding it difficult to get good paying jobs or affordable places to live. . . . Standards of living for the 99% are cratering. Like in the US, Hong Kongers are having to work 2-3 jobs and much more than 40 hours a week, just to pay the bills, never mind prosper.

There is a trade union in Hong Kong with 160,000 members and 61 affiliates in various sectors, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which is represented in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong pushing for greater worker protections and union rights. There is also a pro-Beijing trade union the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.

The economic challenges in Hong Kong are in part related to its changing role in China. The Guardian reports that when Deng Xiaoping announced economic reforms in 1978 Hong Kong was the entry point into China leading to a ‘golden era.’ Hong Kong attracted major financial institutions and transnational companies that wanted to participate in Chinese economic growth, making Hong Kong a wealthy city. But, China has grown and become more open so Hong Kong is no longer the only entry point or financial center of China. The China Daily bluntly reports:

“Much has changed since 1997. Hong Kong has lost its role as the gateway to the mainland. Previously Hong Kong was China’s unrivalled financial centre, now it is increasingly dwarfed by Shanghai. Until recently, Hong Kong was by far China’s largest port: now it has been surpassed by Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Guangzhou will shortly overtake it.”

Martin Jacques of the Guardian writes that while this has caused “a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement” the reality is Hong Kong’s “future is inextricably bound up with China.” When it comes to Hong Kong’s economic future, he concludes: “China is the future of Hong Kong.”

Occupy Central protest

The Awakening of the Democracy Movement Now Requires Building National Consensus

Hong Kong has had two successful revolts against the government prior to these protests. In 2003, protests of 500,000 people stopped the implementation of a national security law that would have undermined civil liberties. And, in 2012 students were able to stop a new curriculum from being put in place that would have emphasized patriotism for China.  Many of these students are involved in the current protests. Thus, the people of Hong Kong have experienced political success.

The protests today are facing a much more difficult issue, the doctrine of ‘one country, two systems,’ which is at a potential breaking point because the idea of self-governance, real democracy where Beijing does not approve candidates who run for office, challenges Communist Party rule.  The Hong Kong challenge should also be looked at in context of widespread economic and environmental protests in China. Researchers at Nankai University estimated that there were 90,000 protests in China in 2009. But, China has made clear in a front page story in the People’s Daily that any attempt to launch a color revolution, i.e. the Eastern European revolutions of which the US played a covert role in many cases, will not work in China and insisted the rule of law must accompany democracy.

Activists should not feel like they accomplished nothing if these protests do not immediately gain them the democracy they want. The awakening of a national democracy movement is a major advancement and it is common for successful social movements to go through a mass awakening, followed by no immediate change. After the protests, the job of the movement is to persevere and develop national consensus that cannot be ignored. They must convince the people of Hong Kong and the leadership in Beijing that their vision of real democracy and a fair economy are the best path for the nation. They have started down a historic path and must continue to succeed.

Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese are organizers with Popular Resistance, which provides daily movement news and resources. Sign up for their daily newsletter; and follow them on twitter, @PopResistance.

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