During December I attended the protests outside sixth ministerial meeting of the big business-dominated World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Hong Kong, along with thousands of workers and farmers from throughout Asia, especially Korea. Alongside me was fellow Socialist Party member Wynand and two members from our sister organisation in Sweden, Laurence and Eric. It was one of best experiences of my life.
The Hong Kong meeting was supposed to agree a ?blueprint? for completing the so-called Doha Round of trade talks (launched in the Qatari capital in 2001).
The US and WTO has forced Korea to open up domestic rice market despite the enormous damage this would cause to the agricultural sector. The ranks of peasants have shrunk from 10 million in 1994 to 3.5 million and farm debt exceeds about US$ 27,000 per farming household.
Korean farmer Il Houn Ponk told me: “I’m here to struggle against WTO, to knock down WTO! I’m a farmer, and the WTO makes farmers poor. The WTO divides humans into two categories: rich and poor. The rich become richer and the poor becomes poorer. Instead of the WTO we need a new policy that makes everybody fair and equal”. The South Korean delegation really stood out in terms of its size and its militancy.
What happened at the WTO meeting?
The capitalist WTO leaders strained to put a brave face on their own failure to clinch a new round of anti-working class and anti-poor trade “liberalisation”. A weak face-saving agreement was cobbled together to prevent an open collapse of the Doha trade round. The main imperialist powers that dominate the WTO fear the growing “UN-isation” of the WTO, its decline into a powerless talking shop.
What were the effects of the protests?
The colourful daily demonstrations in Hong Kong played an important role in exposing the WTO’s imperialist agenda: to force open ever-greater segments of the market in neo-colonial countries to their control. The biggest WTO powers like the United States and the European Union see a successful deal as a means to speed-up mergers and takeovers in potentially profitable sectors in the neo-colonial world, and push into service areas like banking, water, education and healthcare, by reducing these governments’ ability to protect vital services from foreign takeover. At the same time, increasingly, the dominant powers and an emerging “second tier” of larger but still poorer economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa, are beginning to clash, refusing to surrender their own interests inside the WTO talks.
A campaign of media vilification of the South Korean visitors had been conducted for weeks, portraying them as bent on violence. But this failed to make an impact on the local population, who have poured out of shops and offices to watch the disciplined lines of chanting Korean farmers, accompanied by massed ranks of drummers, wind their way though Hong Kong’s streets. The real fear of the Chinese regime and its stooge Hong Kong government is that the militancy of the South Koreans, shaped by two decades of struggle for trade union rights and against military dictatorship, would rub off on the Hong Kong population. This, at a critical juncture when the Beijing regime are attempting to head-off growing demands for universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
Tear gas and mass arrests
On Saturday 17 December, the Koreans joined by many local youth inspired by their spirit of determination, pushed towards the conference center where they were met by rows of riot police. After a series of smaller skirmishes in which marchers were doused with pepper spray and sludge from water cannon, the security minister declared a state of emergency at six in the evening, sanctioning the use of tear gas to clear the streets.
Seventy people were injured including 21 Chinese and 33 Koreans. Later, as 900 demonstrators defiantly staged a sit-down protest, the police moved in making mass arrests.
SP and its international organisation (CWI) at the protests
For the CWI, the week of action against the WTO has been an incredibly valuable experience and a great step forward for our work in Asia. The overall impression from the series of protests, debates and meetings is of a strong, young working class, fresh to struggle and forging new traditions. The CWI members in Hong Kong sold all the material we had with us bringing in a total about $1500. The week was one of endless discussions with workers and youth keen to learn more about Marxism and the campaigning work of the CWI.
By Greg Bradshaw