Monday, October 6, 2014

Hong Kong takes to the streets

As someone who spent the years 1967-74 at a university with a serious tradition of progressive activism, I spent way too much time thinking about the effectiveness and strategies of street protests.  Minnesota isn't a big street protest state because of the weather, but there were some of note.  The last one I attended was in April 1970 when the first Earth Day coincided with a General Electric shareholders gathering in town.  I spent several hours next to a woman who chanted, "Save Mother Earth!" in a really annoying voice.  I went home and swore off marches because I was absolutely certain that I had wasted my day.  Haven't been to one since.

But lately, I have been thinking that maybe the marches I attended were designed to be useless and ineffectual.  I knew next to nothing about the people who organized these affairs but I also know now that the most reliable, dues-paying, organizers were employed by the police or other forces of authority.  And now we see that NGOs sponsored by such reactionary outfits as the National Endowment for Democracy probably organize more protests these days, in more countries, than all the amateurs combined.

Professional troublemaking will only get you so far.  At some point, you must at least pretend to address a real grievance or you won't attract many followers.  So when you see a large mob with staying power, it is obviously more than NED out making mischief.  Someone has identified a real, hot-button, grievance and gotten folks to believe they have a solution.  Of course, with so many real grievances to choose from, this may be little more than focus-group-driven trouble-making.  More likely, the grievance comes first—then the protest.  At that point, the task at hand is to channel the protest into safe and acceptable ways that never threaten the big economic interests.

So no, I do not even pretend to know who is organizing what in Hong Kong.  But since protests in Hong Kong are extremely rare, the best guess is that the real grievances are economic.  Economics is always the best guess if you only have one.  So when I spotted an essay that blames the anger on neoliberalism, I found it believable enough to repost.  Actually, the financial insiders of Hong Kong practice an economics that is so viciously corrupt and exploitive that actual neoliberalism would constitute an improvement.  But close enough.  Unfortunately, because neoliberalism is so well entrenched and has really very little organized intellectual opposition, this protest will probably fade into irrelevance like the other challenges to the orthodox order in the last 40 years.

Occupy Central

Hong Kong’s Fight Against Neoliberalism


As protesters flood the streets of Hong Kong demanding free elections in 2017, the international media puts on its usual spin, characterizing the struggle as one between an authoritarian state and citizens who want to be free. The left, meanwhile, has remained notably silent on the issue. It’s not immediately clear if that goes down to an inability to understand the situation, to an unwillingness to stand for supposedly liberal values, or to a reluctance to criticize China. As stories on Occupy Central flood the front pages of the mainstream news media, both the BBC and CNN have published handy “explainers” that confuse more than they explain, making no real effort to dig into the economic roots of discontent. The “Beeb” went as far as to ask whether “Hong Kong’s future as a financial centre” was “threatened” – giving us some insight into where the global establishment’s priorities lie.

But regardless of what the BBC wants the world to believe, Occupy Central isn’t so much a fight for democracy as a fight for social justice. It’s true that Hong Kongers are angry over Beijing’s interference in domestic affairs, whether these be immigration from China, encroachments on the freedom of the press, or the nationalistic-propagandistic “moral and national education” program. These issues, while serious, pale in comparison to the increasingly difficult realities of everyday life in Hong Kong. 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. There are no collective bargaining rights, no unemployment benefits and no pension. 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.

The list of people who have spoken out against Occupy Central is particularly revealing – oligarch Li Ka-shing, HSBC, the world’s four largest accounting firms, among others in business circles. The main issue with CY Leung’s administration isn’t the fact that it wasn’t democratically elected, but that it serves two main groups: Beijing on one hand, and local elites on the other – in other words, far from democratic in its representation. It’s not hard to see why big business and the oligarchs are terrified of Occupy Central: any movement towards real democracy would see them losing power and losing their grip over the territory. The status quo, on the other hand, serves them well.

Hong Kongers are not an ideological bunch. We’ve never had a vote – not under 17 years of Chinese colonial rule, nor under a century of British colonial rule before that – yet we were good colonial subjects and we stayed quiet because we were making a living just fine. But as the middle and working classes start to feel the crunch, the ruling class is starting to realize that it cannot simply let them eat cake. The battle for democracy isn’t a battle for the vote, but a battle for real democracy: for the right of the people to govern themselves. The vote is merely the starting point to a long process of reform that takes the power out of the hands of Hong Kong and Chinese elites and, for the first time, into those of ordinary people. more

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