Expanding the Umbrella Revolution

Workers must play a decisive role in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution if movement demands are to go beyond political rights.

Pasu Au Yeung / Flickr

Spirited and defiant, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has entered its second week, following a dramatic escalation over the weekend that saw tens of thousands protesters returning to the streets night after night.

The principal impetus for the mobilization is the Chinese government’s about-face on the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, the Beijing-installed political leader of the city. Having claimed it would grant universal suffrage, Beijing reversed its decision in late August and said it would limit the nomination of candidates to an ad hoc committee made up of the city’s business and political elites. The protesters are demanding an open nomination process in which Hong Kong citizens can field candidates without the backing of Beijing.

The Occupy Central movement, the major grouping in what’s being called the Umbrella Revolution, is led by moderate reformers: two academics and a reverend. Students have also been at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement. The Hong Kong Federation of Students has threatened class boycotts and labor and business strikes while demanding open nomination and the sacking of the current chief executive. Another student group, Scholarism, led by seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong, is also active. (A pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper has asserted that Wong has connections to the US government, a charge the student leader denies.)

The movement has drawn comparisons to China’s Tiananmen democracy movement and the Arab Spring. It is clear that neither is the Hong Kong government likely to use lethal force, nor is the level of domestic repression comparable to that of China, Tunisia, or Egypt. Still, the similarities remain striking: a youthful movement using nonviolent civil disobedience to fight for democratic rights. And, like Tiananmen and the Arab Spring, the grievances go beyond basic political rights and extend to economic injustice.

The political structure of Hong Kong is deeply pro-business. The Legislative Council’s functional constituencies, which select thirty of the Council’s seventy seats, ensure the over-representation of business and professional interests. Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong is one of the world’s most unequal societies and with its low taxes and limited social welfare spending, Friedmanite capitalism par excellence. Over the last decade, its Gini coefficient has consistently exceeded 0.5 and continues to rise. Home to the wealthiest people in Asia, 21 percent of Hong Kong’s population lives below the poverty line, and another 20 percent are on the verge of poverty.

Known for its astronomical housing prices, the city is also, after London, the second most expensive in the world. An average home in Hong Kong costs more than thirteen times the average annual income, leaving many to live in “cage homes.” Its very modest minimum wage was only introduced in 2010, and workers still don’t have collective bargaining rights. The failure to tackle these issues explains the government’s unpopularity. In a September poll, just 21 percent said they approved of the incumbent chief executive.

Hong Kong plays a crucial role for both global and Chinese capital. The city provides equity financing and access to global capital markets for Chinese companies seeking initial public offerings ($43 billion since 2012), and serves as a hub for capital investment (accounting for two-thirds of foreign direct investment into China last year).

The protests have divided the Hong Kong business community. While the tourism and retail sectors have benefited most from mainland tourism and are hit hardest by the demonstrations, some in the banking and financial sector are upset at what they see as the erosion of a good business environment.

Early this year, a former hedge fund manager appealed to the business sector to support the Occupy Central movement, arguing that the city’s economic health has been undermined by political cronyism, threats to the independent media, and the Chinese state’s involvement in the economy. But in late August, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce issued a statement giving full support to Beijing and opposing what it called “illegal” action to occupy Central, the core business district.

The Hong Kong branches of the “Big Four” accounting service firms warned of the protest’s negative impacts on financial services. Yet in another paid advertisement, employees of the “Big Four” stated their bosses do not represent them. And, in the last couple of days, financial traders have cooked food for the protesters, and some have even participated in the protest. Such involvement should undoubtedly give the Left pause.

The dominant role that students and the middle class are currently playing in the movement also limits the scope and nature of the demonstrations. Critical to the movement is the mobilization of trade unions and community groups, whose deepened participation would not only swell the ranks, but give egalitarian economic demands a social base. In Tiananmen, student leaders excluded workers, fearing unruly behavior. But in Hong Kong, there’s some precedent for solidarity between students and workers: last year, they allied during a forty-day dockers’ strike.

On Sunday, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which identifies with the pan-democracy movement and in opposition to the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, issued a call for a general strike. The teachers’ union followed suit. Some workers and unions have responded by staging strikes, but it has not yet spread to more sectors. This underscores the weakness and division in Hong Kong’s labor movement, but it also speaks to organized labor’s lack of ties to the working class.

One group that could also be mobilized is Hong Kong’s 320,000 migrant domestic helpers from Southeast Asia. Suffering from rights violations and physical abuse by their employers, they have staged rallies in the last couple of years, overcoming the fear of deportation. Some have already expressed support for the protest, but their consulates have warned them not to go near the demonstrations.

Going beyond the call for political rights, scores of progressive activist groups and trade unions have issued a statement urging the authorities to legislate on work hours and pensions, restrict real-estate speculation, protect housing rights, and implement social policies beneficial to workers, women, and ethnic minorities. But for these to demands to have political force, the movement needs the active participation of the social groups most affected by these issues.

There are serious risks for the movement, too. One is the growth of anti-Chinese sentiment. The organizers have kept their distance from the anti-Chinese “anti-locust” campaign, which emerged in the last year in response to recent mass immigration and consumption-driven tourism from the mainland. The campaign asserts a distinct Hong Kong identity developed under more than a century of British rule, even flying the British colonial flag in some instances.

If such nationalism gains a foothold in the Umbrella Revolution, it would divert attention from core grievances and significantly diminish the movement’s potentially progressive character.

A second risk, as in any protest movement, is internal division. Some students are suspicious that Occupy Central will take over the movement, and tactical differences are also present. These divisions may come to a head if the Hong Kong authorities don’t grant concessions.

The protests have Beijing worried. The Tunisian uprising showed that a revolt in the periphery can spread to the center. China already has its fair share of unrest: farmers protesting the government’s acquisition of land, workers striking for higher wages, and urban residents demonstrating against polluting factories. The success of Hong Kong’s democratic movement, it is feared, would encourage similar mass mobilization in the mainland that could tap into existing grievances.

Alert to this possibility, Beijing has maintained a media blackout, heavily censored China’s social media, and questioned and detained mainland supporters of the protest. Of course, Beijing would have never allowed something like this to proceed in the mainland: local authorities would quickly demobilize protests by negotiating a settlement and cracking down on organizers.

Beijing has several options as far as a response. At one end of the spectrum, it could pressure the Hong Kong authorities to end the protests with force. In the most repressive situation, the Chinese military based in Hong Kong could be deployed. This is extremely unlikely.

The use of tear gas by riot police over the weekend, unprecedented in recent times, has already elicited strong criticism. Consequently, they have largely withdrawn from the street. The political costs of a violent crackdown, both for Beijing and Hong Kong authorities, are simply too high; the economic shock alone counsels against such repression.

Beijing could also choose to accept the main demands of the protesters and allow direct nomination of candidates for the 2017 election. After all, the contest is still three years away, and the Chinese government could use other means to select its preferred candidates. But in the face of an emboldened democratic movement, the room for Beijing’s future maneuvers would likely be restricted.

Moreover, acceding to protesters’ demands would be a humiliating admission of political weakness that Beijing may judge it can ill-afford. As China maintains a tough and uncompromising posture in dealing with maritime disputes and internal unrest in ethnic regions, appearing weak would likely be seen as compounding these situations.

The safe option for Beijing is to let the Hong Kong authorities wait out demonstrators in the hope that the movement will dissipate or sufficiently alienate the public, particularly small business owners affected by the protest. This is the strategy that Beijing is currently betting on, but whether it will work depends on how the protest movement evolves.

At bottom, the direction of the movement is contingent on its class composition. Trade unions and workers must play a decisive role if protest demands are to go beyond electoral democracy. Political rights alone won’t secure the structural economic changes necessary for a more democratic workplace, and a more equal and just society.