- Interview by
- Michelle Chen
Hong Kong, a city better known as a financial center than a political hotspot, has erupted in recent weeks. In a movement dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution,” thousands of protesters are demanding “universal suffrage,” or the right to select the city’s chief executive free of Beijing’s meddling.
Local authorities, backed by China’s central government, have responded to the demonstrations and occupations by cracking down. Tensions are especially high in the areas still occupied by demonstrators, with both Hong Kong authorities and some residents complaining of their presence. Recent talks between the government and protesters have broken down, and Beijing and local officials have apparently hardened their stance against electoral reform.
Students are at the forefront of the movement, but unions have also played an important role. Long before the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong’s labor left has campaigned against the city’s massive economic inequality and the collusion between business and political elites to impose neoliberal expansion and marginalize labor.
In response to the initial crackdowns against the activists, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) issued a call for mass strikes, declaring, “Workers must stand up against the unjust government and violent suppression. . . . To defend democracy and justice, we cannot let the students fight the suppression alone.” As the pro-democracy demonstrations and street clashes escalated, teachers and social workers unions turned out on the streets in support of the youth activists, signaling a deepening alliance between labor and other pro-democracy forces.
Mung Siu Tat leads the HKCTU, an independent labor organization with 170,000 members. Mung recently spoke with Michelle Chen about the aspirations of the protesters, the role of labor in the movement, and the complexities of democratic organizing in a fiercely polarized political sphere. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What’s happening with the protests now?
[On October 9] the government suddenly turned down negotiations with students. So the protesters are angry and disappointed with the government. The government is saying that the students union is still sticking to the position against the decision made by the Chinese government on Hong Kong’s universal suffrage in 2017, so they decided to close down the negotiations.
The protesters are very angry with the reason given by the government. We think that is only an excuse to refuse to talk to the protesters. Therefore, we call on the Hong Kong citizens and workers to come again to attend the [the demonstrations] in Admiralty to show our demand and also our anger with the decision made by the government.
We think that we have a common position on the protests. All of us attending this demonstration are demanding true democracy, true universal suffrage. Because we are very angry with the decision made by Chinese government saying that candidates in the chief executive election must be screened by the nominating committee, which is composed of a very small circle of people.
We think that universal suffrage should protect our right to vote for the chief executive, and also protect our right to be nominated as candidates on an equal basis. If the Chinese government screens out candidates, then Hong Kong citizens can only choose among the candidates which are appointed by the Chinese government. Then universal suffrage will be only a tool to repress people’s opinion.
Of course, as we observe, there are people of many different backgrounds coming to this Occupy movement. For example, the trade unions, we have been fighting for regulation on working hours and universal retirement pensions. All of the fundamental workers rights are rejected by the undemocratic government and legislative council.
We believe that workers’ rights and democratic rights cannot be separated. If you want to improve the working conditions, we have to fight for our democratic rights, we have to change the government from undemocratic to democratic government, which can really represent people’s opinion.
How do we see the fears and frustrations about growing inequality under China playing out in the streets?
We can see that in this demonstration, many, many young people are coming. The young people, even if they graduate from university, [all that] they can do is contract work, unstable work, or low-paid work. The situation is very different than ten to twenty years ago.
So I think the students are fed up with the monopoly of the big enterprises in Hong Kong. You know, in Hong Kong, the wealth gap is the biggest among the developed countries. The young people coming to these demonstrations insist on the slogan that the young people should have the right to reclaim their future. They believe that the future can be changed if we can get back their political power, especially from the small circle of people with the big enterprises in Hong Kong.
Of course, some of the people are also coming out because they identify themselves as citizens of Hong Kong, more so than as Chinese in general. But from what we can see, the tendency is that the Chinese government, in cooperation with the Hong Kong government, wants to integrate Hong Kong as only one part of China.
Many, many people are disappointed with this tendency. Therefore, they’re coming out to defend our core values, such as rule of law, human rights, and freedom of speech. We believe that it’s time to show our anger about integration into China, and also to show our desire to defend Hong Kong’s core values.
Initially, it seemed at least from afar that Hong Kong had considerable political autonomy and relatively more rights than mainland China. What do you see as the presence of China’s central government in the day-to-day lives of Hong Kongers?
I think what we can see is the tendency of the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government to try to restrict the level of freedom that we enjoyed in the past in Hong Kong. For example, you can see the media is trying to do self-censorship under [pressure from] the political powers.
Some of the programs discussing political issues were canceled by the broadcasting companies. Some of the social media, which is very popular among the young generation, are closing themselves down under pressure. We can see the police are also trying to repress the protests and demonstrations by prosecuting protesters much more frequently.
So we are afraid of the tendency of the government to try to reduce freedom of speech and assembly in Hong Kong. The people feel that if we don’t have democracy as an institution, then what we enjoyed in the past, that freedom, will be eroded in the future. We think that the best guarantee of freedom is democracy.
Have people become disillusioned with China, or have their views of China changed since the handover?
I think Hong Kong is going down the road of capitalism with more intensive exploitation under the collusion between the government and business sector. China, as we can see, is not socialist anymore. They are developing [even greater] capitalism than the Western countries, without any protection for workers, without any human rights for the citizens.
Therefore, the Chinese government is coming out to defend the existing political institutions within the small circle of the nominating committee. They are saying that the existing nominating committee should be composed of more business people because business people in Hong Kong contribute a lot, so they should have more representation in the committee to protect their rights. I think that this kind of idea could not exist even in capitalist countries.
So what we can see is that there is no more difference between mainland China and the Hong Kong government in terms of going toward capitalism. The only difference is that Hong Kong government has developed into [a system that is] keeping the balance in favor of capitalism and big enterprise even more than before. So, more and more workers realize that they have to come out to fight for democracy if they want to achieve decent work in Hong Kong. There is no choice for us. There is no alternative to democracy.
The movement has been showing signs of internal strain and conflict. What will become of that?
I think the Occupy movement is now demanding true democracy. There is common ground among the participants. However, what kind of strategy, what kind of direction we should go, is still up to the participants to have discussions on. We have a common target to achieve. But we should have more space to discuss among the participants.
I think that what the Occupy movement is trying exercise is not only fighting for democracy externally; it’s also exercising democracy internally, among the protesters, among the participants. What we can see is that the people are having discussions about their strategy, about their expectations for the future, with small group discussions on the roads. I think that is good.
The style is totally different from before, you know. The traditional social movements we experienced in the past took directions from the upper to lower [level]. But now, the people prefer to have discussions at the grassroots, and we can then have more mobilization from the bottom to the upper level. I think that is the way we can mobilize more people to participate, and that is also the way we can make use of the energy and the creativity that people have.
What would you do, if you do get free elections? How might you turn this movement into a long-term political program? If you win your current demands for reform, what will be the next steps?
The student unions are taking the leading role in the demonstrations. However, the student unions also understand that at this point, the Occupy movement is not only the student movement. It has become the movement of all the people in Hong Kong fighting for democracy.
Therefore, the student unions have agreed to build up the alliances which are composed of students, pan-Democratic [pro-democracy] parties, civil organizations, and other human rights groups. We think that under the leadership of the people’s alliance, we can have a clearer direction and be more organized to continue our struggle.