The US claims to be supporting democracy from Ukraine to Cuba, and from Somalia to Iraq, often by bombing the alleged opposition, or by supporting proxy wars and subversion. But one place where real democracy activists are battling against the forces of repression they are curiously getting scant backing from the United States: Hong Kong.
There, student activists, a local occupy movement, and now the independent trade union movement, are mobilizing to prevent China from going back on a pledge made in 1997 to allow Hong Kong people in 2017 to elect their city’s “mayor,” called the chief executive, by popular vote.
The government in China, which assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, at the time established what was called a Basic Law governing Hong Kong, and granting the former British Colony self-rule for at least the next 50 years, calling the policy “one-country, two-systems.” As part of that Basic Law, the partially-elected, partially-appointed legislative council was dissolved, and new elections were held. The appointed British governor was replaced with a chief executive appointed by a panel of business leaders and other prominent figures hand-picked by the central government in Beijing. But over the course of the ensuing 20 years, the number of members of the Legislative Council who are directly elected by the citizens of Hong Kong was to be gradually increased (it is currently 40 out of 70, with the balance elected by so-called functional constituencies — basically the professions like law, banking, etc.), and in 2017, the chief executive was to be directly elected.
Now China says that this last crucial democratic reform will not happen. Instead of picking their own “mayor” democratically, China says Hong Kong residents will have to choose between candidates who will first be vetted by the government in Beijing, which will only allow to run for office those deemed to be suitably “patriotic” and to “love China.”
That backslide from a promise of true democracy has sparked a huge and growing protest in Hong Kong which began with students, who tried to occupy the grounds in front of the Legislative Council building. The students last week were joined by the large Hong Kong Occupy Central movement–the latter a local democracy movement inspired by the 2011 US occupy movement. Earlier this week Hong Kong police, who over the years generally have shown considerable restraint in dealing with public protests, acted more like today’s militarized American cops, firing rounds of teargas into the peaceful crowds, spraying pepper spray into the faces of sitting protesters, wielding batons and making large-scale arrests.
This repressive turn by police backfired, as normally passive and apolitical Hong Kong residents poured out to support the embattled young protesters, bringing them food, medical supplies and water, and even standing and facing police along with the students and occupy activists. Then today, in a big development, the Hong Kong trade union movement joined the protests, with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the only independent labor union in China, calling on its members to go on strike in support of the students and activists.
Three major unions in the confederation, representing beverage workers, teachers and dockworkers, walked off their jobs in response to the call.
This is a powerful movement, and one that clearly has China’s leaders sweating. In part this is because of what the strike and protest mean for Hong Kong itself and for Beijing’s control there, and also because of the image protest and police repression sends to people in Taiwan, the independent island nation that China considers to be an integral part of China and which it wants to lure into its fold (Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, considered a friend of China, announced today his support for the Hong Kong protesters, and also said he rejects Beijing’s proposal of a similar “one-country, two-systems” merger for repatriating Taiwan). But what probably worries Beijing most is the fear that this democracy protest in Hong Kong might spill over into China, for example into the adjacent province of Guangdong. There people have ready access to Hong Kong television news broadcasts. (China has already reportedly blocked Instagram to prevent photos of the massive HK demonstrations from spreading around the country.)
But while the US has actively worked to stoke rebellion in Ukraine, reportedly spending up to $5 billion to fund anti-government “civic organizations” that supported the putsch which ousted the elected government in Kiev earlier this year, while the US has sought, and continues to seek the overthrow of the elected, if dictatorial leader of Syria, Basher al Assad through direct attacks, and while the US is today bombing and rocketing ISIS in Iraq, allegedly in defense of the allegedly democratic government of Iraq, Washington has had little but generalities to offer (like “We support the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong”) in support for the democracy activists of Hong Kong. there hasn’t been one word of condemnation of the China-ordered police crackdown on young people whose struggle just to hold China to its word is a genuine battle for democratic freedom.
The US-backed coup in Ukraine brought in a neo-fascist government, later “elected” by only a portion of the country, which promptly launched a civil war against portions of the country’s eastern region which had rejected the coup and the rigged vote that followed. In Syria, the US a year ago came within a day of launching an air war against Assad aimed at “regime change,” only backing down because of massive opposition among the American people to yet another war in the Middle East.
America is now bombing in Syria, claiming to be targeting ISIS, the very rebels it earlier had trained and armed to topple the Assad regime. The argument is that those ISIS rebels have turned their guns on Iraq, and are supposedly threatening to attack America too. But the strong suspicion, held even by many pro-American governments in NATO, is that this is a subterfuge designed to get a US air war going over Syria, after which the target will shift from ISIS to the Assad government and military (mch as the UN Security Council resolution to allow bombing of Libya to “protect refugees” turned out to be a subterfuge to allow regimg change, with NATO aircraft backing rebels who overthrew the Ghaddafy regime).
Finally, in Iraq, the notion that there is even an Iraqi democracy to defend is laughable. The US first had to orchestrate the ouster of Iraq’s elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before it would supply troops and aircraft for a defense of the Baghdad government. Some democracy!
All this gives the lie to President Obama’s vow in recent speeches in the UN and at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative “to stand with the courageous citizens and brave civil society groups who are working for equality and opportunity and justice and human dignity all over the world.”
Whatever else it is doing, the US is clearly not standing with the courageous citizens and brave civil society groups of Hong Kong.
Of course not. Hong Kong is the gateway to China for American corporations. It is where most of those companies that invest in China have their headquarters. As well, Hong Kong Stock Market is where American investment banks put their money when they want to invest in China’s economy, preferring to buy stocks in so-called “Red Chips” — Chinese state companies that list some of their shares on the reasonably transparent Hong Kong stock market — rather than buying shares on the less-than-transparent and easily manipulated Shanghai or Shenzhen exchanges inside of China.
Don’t expect the US to rock the boat with China.
For years, American business leaders and politicians have parroted the Milton Friedmanesque argument that American corporate investment in China would inevitably lead to democracy there. Never mind that Nobel Laureate Friedman’s theory linking capitalism and freedom never had a shred of real evidence to back it, and that there is, in fact, plenty of evidence, from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy to Pinochet’s Chile, to debunk it. Almost 40 years of the reintroduction of capitalism in China have not got much in the way of freedom to show for them.
Hong Kong’s citizens have, for some time, had freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion and travel. They have been slowly gaining democratic control over their government too, but now have run up against a Chinese Wall, and are taking to the streets to push down that wall.
The US government, ever the democratic poseur, so quick to finance chaos in Ukraine or to launch missiles, bombers and armed drones in Syria or Iraq in the name of democracy-building, has nothing to say in its defense.
I’m not saying that the US should be threatening drone strikes against China if it presses the crackdown against Hong Kong democracy activists (it shouldn’t be sending drones anywhere!). But certainly the US should be taking a strong public stand in condemning China for going back on its word about allowing democratic election of the city’s chief executive in 2017, and against the violent police crackdown on peaceful protesters.
Oh yeah. What was I thinking! How can the US, or indeed President Obama himself, complain with a straight face about countries or leaders going back on their word? And how can the US, where documents show that the Homeland Security Department orchestrated a nationwide brutal police crackdown on the 2011 Occupy movement, and where the police in most cities act like occupying soldiers in their routine patrol duties, complain about brutal behavior by Hong Kong’s Finest?
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).