July 1st in Hong Kong

July 2, 2011 at 8:19 am (History, Personal experiences, Politics)

July 1st is an important date in Hong Kong for two main reasons: it is the day when the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, thus leading to the creation of the Hong Kong SAR government; and it also happens to be the day when the the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921.

During July 1st, the pan-democracy camp in Hong Kong organizes a march to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong; while the pro-Beijing camp celebrates the anniversary of the CPC. Every year on this date an interesting sign of social division occurs: the sons and daughters of every family leave to march on the streets, while their grandparents stay in their homes humming along with the red anthems on TV.

Yesterday, I joined half a dozen of my ex-schoolmates in the annual march, which turned out to be one of the largest that Hong Kong has ever seen. According to the organizers, around 218,000 people turned out at Victoria Park in the afternoon; the police claim that the number is closer to 54,000. At any rate, this is the largest march Hong Kong has seen since 2003-2004, during the last two years of the extremely unpopular Tung Chee Hwa administration.

The 2011 July 1st march in Hong Kong, at the front

It would be an extreme understatement to say that the marchers were diverse. As we gathered at Victoria Park, numerous personalities began their speeches and fundraising. In one corner were the conservative Democratic Party, the largest pro-democratic organization in Hong Kong, but whose reputation was damaged in recent years after it made deals with the Communists and reneged on its promises of universal suffrage in Hong Kong (at present, Hong Kong holds limited elections to the legislative council only). Barely twenty meters away, the leftist League of Social Democrats are condemning the very same party, as well as all the government officials it could name; every couple of minutes, between speeches by different political leaders, the usual slogans were shouted by all: “Down with Tsang Yam-Kuen!” “Down with the real estate tycoons!”

Right next to red banners of the Social Democrats, a large group of Filipino domestic workers formed a circle and engaged in a call-and-response routine. Born in poverty, these young women left their homes and families to serve as lowly domestic servants in a foreign country well-known for its racism. Today they gather to demand for higher wages, anti-discrimination legislation, better protection from abuse, and most importantly a chance to become a permanent resident of Hong Kong. Immigrants who find work in Hong Kong can typically become a permanent resident after 7 years; however, due to some legal loophole, the Filipino domestic workers were not considered ordinary immigrants – they were simply hired from a foreign country! There are Filipinos who have worked here for over 20 years, started a family, and are still at risk of being deported any day.

Beside the Filipinos, there were the Confederation of Trade Unions. Trade unions in Hong Kong used to be the main support base for the Communists. Unions tend to be socialist on economic issues and highly nationalist at the same time; for both reasons, they opposed the British and supported the Chinese Communists. But now that the British is gone, the nationalism becomes somewhat irrelevant (although it is still often abused); and as the Chinese Communists become increasingly free-market, there is even less of a reason to support them. Hence there has been an increasing number of defections of trade unions from the Beijing camp to the pan-Democrat camp. The Confederation of Trade Unions is the political party representing the more democratic of the unions; while the Federation of Trade Unions represent those still in the Beijing camp.

One section of the march. In the middle, we have banners from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), one of the many union organizations that shifted towards an anti-Beijing stance in recent years. Kuomintang (Republic of China) flags can be seen to the left; the KMT was formed in Hong Kong over 100 years ago and still has a significant presence.

Some distance away from the trade unions were a sea of yellow and black banners, those of People Power, a newly created radical democratic party that broke away from the League of Social Democrats recently. Raymond Wong, the leader of the party and one of the most famous legislatorss in Hong Kong, gave one of his characteristically fiery speeches against the corrupt legislature and the inefficient bureaucracy (which can be heard 0:25-2:04 in this video). His frank and vulgar style has immense appeal to the marchers, a majority of whom are secondary school and university students. Despite the fact that People Power is only six months old and does not even have official party status, it had by far the greatest support among the marchers.

Besides these organized groups, there was a significant amount of people that took part in the march who had no political affiliation – discontented citizens who were mostly angered over current issues such as the education reforms (whereby a subject called “Civic Education” would be introduced in the curriculum), increasing rents, arbitrary changes of the election laws, lack of environmental protection, and so on. Some were even led here by an Internet movement, and, like their Western comrades Anonymous, donned the notorious V for Vendetta masks. Finally, the front of the march was led symbolically by thousands of new immigrants from mainland China, who were demanding better benefits and higher minimum wages.

An Anonymous-inspired movement that originated in several Hong Kong boards. The banner above reads "Fascist ruler".

Despite all the differences between various parties, though, there is something in common among all the marchers. They were not afraid to show their socialist influence, and are perfectly content with using the former ideals of the 1960s communist movements even as they protest against today’s Communists. During our rally in Victoria Park and later during our attempts to break out of the police cordon, tens of thousands of people sang in perfect unison the socialist anthem L’Internationale. The first rendition was in fact captured on local television – see 1:05-2:40 of this video:

The socialist nature of the movement is not without explanation. As the conservative (economically permissive and socially restrictive) Hong Kong government aligns itself with the Communist Party of China, an increasing number of the left-wing working class is now turning against the Communist Party. Add to that the remnants of the democratic socialist and Trotskyist movements of the 1960s-1980s (fighting against both British rule and CPC influence), as well as the left-leaning Kuomintang factions, and you have one of the largest socialist movements in East Asia.

chinaworker - Socialist Action

Still, the open embrace of socialist ideals is somewhat ironic, given how virulently “anti-communist” most of the younger generation claim to be. Indeed, even the liberal politicians knew the words to L’Internationale and sang along with great enthusiasm. There is, without a doubt, a widespread feeling that such an act helps to turn the table against the Communists and reveal how far they have diverged from their professed beliefs. And perhaps more importantly, the sense of solidarity from the anthem seemed much more important than its superficial meaning.

It is inspiring to see large numbers of people with extremely different beliefs – communists, social democrats, liberals and conservatives – getting together to declare their demands to the state. As someone who is more inclined towards the academia, I have reservations against the efficacy of such kinds of popular action. There is no doubt a lot of populism, a lot of unreasonable demands and a lot of confusion in the protests. But the most important thing one learns in these mass movements is to forget why all that matters; the experience of collective action, of solidarity (what I call “having common knowledge”) is central to the human being, flawed as we are.


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