Tiananmen Square Repeat?

With heavy heart I write these words.  The Chinese government and Communist Party will not grant fully free elections in Hong Kong, unless…(I will return to the “unless” in a moment).  All the evidence says that the government/party is immune to domestic demonstrations that call for democracy—as attested to by the numerous  instances of jailing, beating and torture, intimidation, harassment and other sanctions visited upon those who challenge its sole right to govern.  On the other hand, demonstrations against specific problems like low pay, cheating on wages, corruption, environmental degradation and other issues are tolerated. Indeed, they serve to let the central government know things it cannot learn from its local authorities who don’t want to tell the boss what he doesn’t want to hear—a common pattern in all authoritarian structures.

Yet the demonstrators seem intent on pursuing a course that is almost guaranteed to end up in another bloody encounter with the police and/or military.  (One Hong Kong British reporter said recently the Chinese military is “waiting for the demonstrators to make a mistake.”) They are victim of a romanticized idea of what a student movement can accomplish largely on its own, and international internet rhetoric about the power of social media and mass demonstrations—despite what has happened in Egypt, Syria and, with some regularity, in China itself.  Indeed, it happened here in the U.S. in police treatment of Occupy demonstrators in various cities across the country.

Only under the duress of powerful international pressures will the Chinese government negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution to the democracy question in Hong Kong.  And that international pressure is unlikely to come—other than in demonstrations that will be similarly ineffective in moving their respective governments—without something different taking place in Hong Kong.

An alternative strategy 

Within Hong Kong there could be a “freedom election” that provides overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of the people of Hong Kong support the democracy movement there.  This would be a parallel election, conducted in civil society-organized voting places throughout the island.  In 1964, such an election was held in Mississippi, where African-Americans were denied the right to vote.  More than 80,000 of them cast ballots in a freedom election organized by the civil rights movement.  Those voters demonstrated to themselves and the country that black people wanted the right to vote.

That “freedom vote,” in turn, was an expression of two years of organizing work done in Mississippi by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretaries, and local leaders and activists who knocked on doors, visited church-to-church, organized local meetings and took people to the county office to register to vote.  I was on the SNCC staff at the time.  We made a distinction between “organizing”—which is what we thought we were doing—and “mobilizing”—which is what we said Martin Luther King did with his big demonstrations that were followed by an exodus of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference from the site of the action, leaving a vacuum behind.  In truth, we were only beginning to learn what it means to build people power in depth, to root organizing in the daily lives of everyday people so that it reaches exponentially beyond the activists who can be counted upon to show up for a good cause, and local black churches that King worked through were already there.  The organizing versus mobilizing distinction is important for change in the U.S. as well as China.  But that’s a digression.

In Hong Kong, a variety of economic actions could be taken that are short of a full-strike.  These include tactics such as:

(1) “work to the rule” (do exactly what the rulebook says you are supposed to do on your job—it will drastically reduce the efficiency of your work and probably bring things to a grinding halt;

(2) slowdown the pace of your work—it’s actually called a “slowdown,” and is often used by organized workers to make a point to their employer, and;

(3) organize “sick-outs” in which workers stay home with suddenly acquired but undiagnosed illnesses.

There are other workplace tactics that do not expose a participant to the sanctions typically imposed if you go on strike.

“The action is in the reaction.”  That is an aphorism from Saul Alinsky who mastered conflict tactics in the service of marginalized and disenfranchised people.  Instead of picketing a building (which an organizer friend of mine called “pissing on a building”), or marching between two of them and holding a rally at the end of the march, or occupying a civic square, Alinsky used tactics to provoke a response (the reaction) from a specific person who was a decision-maker in a political or millercoveconomic structure that was the target of a people power organization.  An important consideration was not to provoke a reaction greater than your capacity to mount a counter-action.  If you did it right, your adversary’s reaction would anger people on the sidelines and lead them to become part of your action, and the organization organizing it.  A series of quickly escalating, but carefully calibrated, tactics would keep your adversary one step behind.  The careful escalation would also demonstrate to moderates that you had tried “reason,” and it didn’t work.

The Romance of Civil Disobedience

Stunningly, Ellie Friedman, a knowledgeable person on labor happenings in China, writing in THE NATION (Sept. 12, 2014, “Why Hong Kong’s ‘Occupy Central’ Movement Has Beijing Very, Very Scared”), says of the Chinese government, “If Occupy Central presents a major nuisance, the mere intimation of an Occupy Tiananmen is a horror that must be crushed at all costs.”  And then advises exactly what led to Tiananmen:  “Let the era of civil disobedience commence.”

Also in the NATION,  (“Hong Kong’s democracy movement stands at a crossroads”; Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Denise Y. Ho.  September 12, 2014.):  “An open letter by Occupy Central supporters to Chinese President Xi Jinping is even more explicit, ‘Don’t stage another Tiananmen crackdown in Hong Kong. The whole world is watching.’  The whole world was watching in 1989 as well.  When push came to shove, it did not matter to Beijing.  Why should this time be different?

The same article contrasts earlier democratic claims from Communist China when Hong Kong was under British rule, or things earlier Chinese Communist leaders said when China was controlled by Chiang Kai-shek—as if consistency matters.  It doesn’t.

These writers are thoughtful, committed people, but I cannot escape the sense that they are counseling suicide.

Civil disobedience is but one tactic.  Delegations of notables, lobbying, public hearings, accountability sessions (in which a target it asked to publicly respond with “yes” or “no” answers to clearly formulated proposals) and others exist in civil society and politics.  I earlier identified some workplace tactics.  Others include corporate campaigns and boycotts.  Strikes should be a last resort, not a first step.  When you strike, how do you escalate?  You’ve fired your big cannon!  Obviously some of these are more-or-less practical depending on the extent civil liberties exist in the country in which you’re acting.

If a broad-base is organized, you can engage in massive mobilizations.  That’s what the industrial union movement did in the U.S. in the 1930s.  To give you an idea of scale, in 2011 demonstrations in Israel against Netanyahu’s economic policies brought 300,000 people into the streets—and Israel then had about the population of Hong Kong.  In the U.S. context, that would equate to 11 million people demonstrating around the country.  And we get excited about 300,000 in a climate demonstration in New York City.

Moving Globally

If the Hong Kong movement included significant support from trade unions, particularly its longshore union, an effort could be made to enlist the world’s longshore unions to refuse to load and unload cargo from Chinese vessels entering their ports.  The International Longshore & Warehouse (ILWU) threatened such a boycott when the authoritarian government of South Korea was about to execute Kim Dae-jung.  Word of the boycott was transmitted to the South Korean government.  ILWU let the South Korean government know that it, and its Pacific Basin fraternal unions in ports of South America, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, would place a freeze on South Korean ships if they appeared in ports of their jurisdiction.

Kim was, instead, imprisoned.  He subsequently was released and became the first freely elected post-authoritarian government president.  ILWU was invited to his installation ceremony as an official guest of the new president.

Don’t Count On U.S. Government

Do not expect the U.S. government to do anything more than utter pronouncements on how evil the Chinese government’s action is.  The economic interdependencies of the two countries, and the multinational corporations headquartered in the United States, create an obstacle that U.S. politicians will be unwilling to try to overcome.  It is, after all, these corporations who fund their political campaigns.  Further, should China wish to unload on the world financial market the debt it now holds from the U.S. it could cause economic chaos on Wall Street.

In general, what I am suggesting is tactical caution combined with strategic people power that does not rely on western government’s to provide the critical leverage to make the Chinese government engage in good-faith negotiations.

Assuming that the Hong Kong movement gets to such a negotiating table, there then arises the very big question of what constitutes an acceptable agreement.  That, of course, is for them to decide.  But I hope they will look very carefully at what went on in the negotiations between the Tiananmen students and the Chinese government just before the brutal intervention on the Square.  I believe there is a fine line not to be crossed if a result other than martyrdom is what the Hong Kong democracy movement wants.

This strategy, taking into account national and regional, religious, political, economic and other contextual differences, is one I believe appropriate for all of us wherever we may be struggling with the beast of multi-national corporate power, various manifestations of the corporate state, questions of war and peace, and other issues.  We need to have our eyes on the stars and our feet firmly planted on the ground.  We need plans that will take us on the long march through the institutions of power that confront us.  Those are more difficult to organize than occupations of the public square.

Mike Miller is executive director of the ORGANIZE Training Center (OTC), www.organizetrainingcenter.com, author of A Community Organizer’s Tale:  People and Power in San Francisco, and co-editor of the forthcoming People Power:  The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky (Vanderbilt University Press).