Vast crowds occupy Beijing to demand democracy (c) Pasu Au Yeung https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ (edited for shape)
Demockracy in Hong Kong
It’s been impossible to ignore the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong this week, though Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung “Cy” Chun-ying probably wishes he could. An attempt by his riot police to intimidate the protesters with tear gas and violence has backfired, drawing Hong Kong’s trade unions into the student-led protest.
The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, who stress in their own mission statement that “labour rights and political rights are inseparable” called for a general strike to protest “the brutal suppression of peaceful protest”. Accusing the Hong Kong government of using totalitarian tactics, the HKCTU are demanding the release of arrested protesters, an end to the suppression of peaceful assembly, the resignation of the Chief Executive and – crucially – a new start to consultation on constitutional reform and an end to the offer of “fake universal suffrage”.
This is what the thousands of Hong Kong’s students and workers have been protesting about. Since the latter days of British Imperial rule in Hong Kong, piecemeal democratic reforms have edged the now Chinese “Special Administrative Region” towards electing their own Chief Executive. When the Chinese took control in 1997, they promised that the post would be fully and freely elected by 2017. Although campaigners have consistently (and unsuccessfully) pushed for an earlier timetable, the half-hearted offer from Cy Leung and his Beijing sponsors has clearly exhausted the patience of an awful lot of people.
Instead of universal suffrage and a freely elected Chief Exec, Hong Kong is being offered an officially approved shortlist of potential candidates, checked against Beijing-controlled notions of “patriotism”. Having already waited 20 years for Beijing’s promise of democracy to be delivered, having their choice filtered by a vast panel of 1,200 officials, dominated by Beijing appointees and commercial interests, has clearly been too much for demonstrators, and many thousands have occupied the streets of central Hong Kong.
There is a lot at stake, including for trade unions. Under the “One Country Two Systems” approach that Beijing agreed to in the 1985 Sino British Joint Declaration, for a period of 50 years after handover the territory would have many freedoms not found on the mainland. These include an independent judiciary, a free press and – so far – free trade unions. Hong Kong’s freedoms of expression and association have allowed it to become a base from which organisations can monitor or support workers and fledging unions on the Chinese mainland, be that through the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the international trade union movement (IHLO), or others like the excellent China Labour Bulletin and SACOM. Without them – and their freedom to operate – our knowledge of workers’ rights in China might be negligible.
Cy Leung’s “demockracy” doesn’t really roll back any of the democratic gains Hong Kong has made, but it stalls progress and sends a dangerous signal about China’s commitment to honouring its earlier promises. Freedom of the press remains in principle, but the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reports that journalists were targeted as part of the brutal crackdown at the weekend. Other freedoms may be just as vulnerable to attack.
While promises have been broken, however, the determination of Hong Kong’s people has not. China may be unlikely to back down in its proposals for tightly controlled elections, but hopefully due to the response of the HKCTU and other supporters it will never again try to beat Hong Kong into submission.
The HKCTU have launched a petition demanding the right to peaceful protest and universal suffrage for Hong Kong. Please support them.