Will Hong Kong break China?
We are witnessing some truly remarkable defiance in Hong Kong, where the authority of one of the world’s strongest superpowers is being challenged, tested and withstood. On the seventieth anniversary of China’s people’s revolution, the events in Hong Kong convey some very illuminating lessons for those of us who reap hope from defiance and for whom rebellion can be the only justified response to a world rife with inequality and barbarism. It is not just Hong Kong that is burning, people are lining the streets from Equador to Iraq, to the more familiar protests against climate change and the Extinction Rebellion which will shake London this month.
Let’s make something clear. These protests have been led and sustained by students and workers, who are demanding both more economic equality as well as political freedom.
The protests are not, as the Chinese government would very much like us to believe, orchestrated by international forces hostile to China. This, of course, is the cliche explanation most governments seek, when they are the target of mass popular unrest. But like most protest movements we have seen in the 21st century, Hong Kong’s rebels are driven by a desire for more economic justice and political freedom, a goal eloquently expressed by student group Demosisto: “(…) we push for the city’s political and economic autonomy from the oppression of the Communist Party of China and capitalist hegemony.”
In spite of Hong Kong’s international reputation as a wealthy financial centre, over 1.3 million people live beneath the poverty line. The city attracts billions in foreign direct investment, but this is mainly down to massive levels of exploitation of its working population. In recent years, Hong Kong has increasingly been sucked into China’s hyper-capitalist initiative of creating economic zones that are equivalent to globalisation at micro-level, relying on cheap land, labour and minimal regulation, resulting in massive wealth creation, but leaving a wasteland of exploitation, inequality and environmental destruction in its wake.
In a way, China’s development in the last decades resembles the experiences of Europe’s industrial revolution, with millions of rural dwellers adapting to new lives in industrial super cities. Likewise, this development, which once spawned the socialist movement in Europe, is now once more creating a new, militant labour movement which has nothing to lose but its chains. The working class in Hong Kong (as well as in other large Chinese cities) is large and dwells relatively close together, giving it both unity in purpose and action.
This movement is the backbone of the protests on the streets of Hong Kong and it is important for progressives internationally to recognize this. If international solidarity is not forthcoming and the Hong Kong protests remain relatively isolated, the movement might yet take a different, more sinister direction, as some elements look to the Trump administration to speak out on their behalf. This would be a disastrous course and greatly endanger the genuine demands of the protests which are in many ways universal and could connect to the grievances we are increasingly seeing on streets across the world.
For now, let’s share the excitement that one of the world’s most powerful capitalist countries (yes, China) is trembling at the defiance on the streets of Hong Kong. Perhaps this will awaken the enormous militancy and anger so far contained by China’s murderous dictatorship. Protests like this could potentially unleash the true energy locked up in China’s ever expanding economy.
If this happens, who knows what else might be possible.