Sunday’s monster demonstration, for one person one vote in Hong Kong, has shaken the territory’s capitalist elite and their allies in Beijing?s nominally ‘communist’ dictatorship, writes Laurence Coates.
The turnout of between 150,000 and a quarter of a million exceeded even the organisers’ expectations. Prominent capitalist figures, who run Hong Kong like a fiefdom, were thunderstruck after conducting a campaign, including newspaper advertisements that linked demands for universal suffrage and democratic rights with ?destabilisation? of the city. Their argument is that things are moving in the right direction (i.e. on greater democratic rights) and therefore the demonstrations, by antagonising Beijing, will be counterproductive. They cannot of course cite a single example in the annals of history where such a strategy – of not struggling – has succeeded.
The fact is, Hong Kong’s capitalists are just as afraid as Beijing?s autocrats of the effects of the growing demands for democratic rights in Hong Kong on the increasingly restive population of China itself, particularly the super-exploited industrial workers who stage dozens of strikes and protests every day over a range of social issues.
The latest demonstration took place one week before a series of anti-WTO protests kick-off to coincide with the global trade body?s sixth ministerial conference. Thousands of protesters from around Asia, gathering to fight against rigged trade rules which have impoverished already poor communities worldwide and led to faster privatization and deregulation, will draw enormous encouragement from the December 4th demonstration. It could also have a spillover effect on Hong Kong?s working class and youth, awakening a keener interest in the anti-WTO protests so vilified by the same government which is fighting to remain outside all forms of popular or democratic pressure.
The background to Sunday?s demonstration is the continual maneuvering by Beijing and their local puppets to forestall democratic elections. In 2003, then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa proposed a vicious package of ?anti-subversion? legislation which would have made criticism of China?s regime a treasonable offence and given police sweeping powers to ban demonstrations and meetings. The response was a mass march of half a million people ? around one-tenth of the territory?s entire population ? and the defeat of the legislation. Tung himself became the unelected equivalent of a ?lame duck? ruler and was forced to retire for health reasons a year later. His replacement, ?Sir? Donald Tsang, is the former finance minister to the last British consul in Hong Kong, Chris Patten. Tsang has enjoyed a certain political honeymoon, with opinion ratings of 70% at their peak, and an economic recovery partly due to conscious efforts by Beijing to push funds in Hong Kong?s direction as a means to buy ?stability?.
A Chinese ?colour? revolution?
When only 21,000 turned out on 1 July this year for the annual democracy demonstration, both Beijing and the local millionaire elite drew a sigh of relief and assumed the genie of democratic aspirations had been put back in the bottle. Tsang then presented an ?electoral reform? package to diffuse demands for free elections in 2007, when he is up for reelection, and 2008, when a new Legislative Council (?LegCo? ; Hong Kong?s parliament) is to be elected. Only half the seats in the LegCo are currently elected. Tsang?s proposals merely tinker with the existing undemocratic arrangement. He wants to double the size of the Election Committee, a body of handpicked notables (businessmen, lawyers etc) that chooses the chief executive. In addition, he proposes to add ten seats to the LegCo, five elected and five appointed, preserving the completely undemocratic character of this institution. The massive rejection of Tsang?s proposals threaten a re-run of what happened to Tung. Given the increasing attacks on workers? conditions through casualisation, attacks on the public sector and relocation of manufacturing to the mainland, there could be a crystalisation of opposition to the local regime around a combination of social grievances and democratic demands. This is also a major headache for Beijing?s leaders, who must navigate between growing mass protests, calls from some sections of the state officialdom for ?political reform? (limited democratic opening), and the fears of other sections of the state apparatus that any relaxation of the regime?s iron political control could trigger an uncontrollable movement (a Chinese version of the ?colour revolutions? in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union).
Where do the capitalists stand on these issues? One significant aspect of the movement in Hong Kong is that it completely exposes the democratic hypocrisy of the capitalist politicians and business leaders. Their mantra has been that the free market and democratic freedoms are indissolubly linked. Socialists have always explained that this is a myth. Democratic freedoms ? of assembly, free speech, the right to strike, to organize and form political parties and take part in elections ? have not been granted out of the kindness of heart of the ruling classes, but by determined struggle by the working class movement over many decades. Most of Europe did not enjoy universal suffrage until after the working class took power in Russia in 1917 and established the rule of the soviets (democratic workers? councils), forcing the capitalists in other countries to make big concessions to their own workers or themselves face revolution. Britain ? ?the mother of parliaments? ? ruled Hong Kong for 155 years but never gave its subjects the vote. Today?s rulers ? Hong Kong?s financial elite ? denounced Sunday?s demonstration as ?mob politics?. This was the comment of Gordon Wu, chairman of Hopewell Holdings and one of Hong Kong?s top capitalists. Casino boss, Stanley Ho, took out advertisements in the local press accusing the demo organizers of ?destabilizing the city? and predicting that less than 50,000 would turn out!
Struggle for democracy and socialism
China and Hong Kong are proof that the capitalists? talk of democracy is a smokescreen, and in fact they prefer authoritarian rule to maintain ?stability?. Without the brutal police apparatus of the ?communist? party, its repression of independent trade unionists and workers fighting for their rights, transnational corporations and local capitalists would not be able to make the super-profits they are making in China today. Of course, they can – when pushed – tolerate democratic rights but only if this does not threaten their economic power. Socialists, on the other hand, have always been in the forefront of demands for democratic rights. We stand for the right to vote, to form political parties and trade unions, and for elections to determine the government in Hong Kong and the mainland. Genuine socialism has nothing in common with Stalinism in China and Russia in the past, which was a system of bureaucratic rule where the elite claimed to be ‘socialist’ in order to defend their own privileges and power, while resisting any attempts by the workers to exert real control over the state or economic life. At the same time, socialists also warn against illusions in bourgeois democracy – the idea that ?if only we get the vote then everything will change?. Hong Kong’s own ‘democratic’ politicians are a warning that this idea is deeply flawed. They stand for neo-liberal economic policies, which offer nothing but more misery for working class people. The mass demonstrations, impressive as they are, have had the character of a ‘rainbow coalition’ including trade unions and left groups, but dominated by pro-capitalist politicians, lawyers etc, whose ideas do not represent a fundamental challenge to the regime in Hong Kong or China, merely a ‘democratic’ variant of the same anti-working class medicine.
Even in the most ?democratic? capitalist states like the US, Britain etc, it is the stock market and the boards of the big companies that take the real decisions, not the politicians. Popular disillusionment with the limited democracy offered under capitalism is evident today in South Korea and Taiwan, where the end of dictatorial rule has not given any real say to working people over the way society is run. An even clearer example is the very ?colour? revolutions so hyped by US leaders and other capitalist spokesmen. In Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzia ordinary workers are asking ?what has changed?? since the mass movements that toppled corrupt and authoritarian leaders. Because the economies of these countries are still run by capitalist cliques and foreign imperialism, the new regimes have quickly become just as corrupt and repressive as their forebears. Even in the richest capitalist countries, under the pressure of capitalist globalization, governments of both left and right are pursuing the same basic mix of neo-liberal policies. Only if they are prepared to break with capitalism, with its relentless demands for ‘investment-friendly’ policies, wage cuts for workers and tax cuts for the rich, can an elected government actually deliver on their promises to the electorate. This is why the struggle for democratic rights has to be linked to the socialist transformation of society: for democratic control over the economy, for placing the major companies and banks under the democratic control and management of workers? organizations and elected representatives.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s demonstration, amidst the charged atmosephere of the anti-WTO protests, there will undoubtedly be an intensive discussion on these issues as workers and youth deliberate the way forward in the struggle against autocratic rule and capitalist exploitation.