Hong Kong protest falls short of expectations

Thousands of people in Hong Kong took part in a rally on Sunday, February 1, the first major demonstration since the ending last December of weeks of protests to demand more open elections. This event failed to bring out the same large numbers that took to the streets last year, a clear sign of the dead-end politics of the leaders of the so-called democracy movement.

Sunday’s demonstrations were coordinated by the Civil Human Rights Front, a collection of Hong Kong organizations with ties to the pan-democrat grouping of legislators. Involved were many of the figures who led and subsequently shut down last year’s 11-week protest. They included Benny Tai, a university professor and co-founder of the group Occupy Central, and Martin Lee from the Democrat Party.

Speaking about Sunday’s protest, Daisy Chan, a representative of the Civil Human Rights Front, said, “This only shows that Hong Kongers are no longer satisfied with conventional ways of protest.” She continued, “We will review whether the people want new ways to pressure the government ... I am confident Hong Kongers will show up again when the right moment comes.”

Joshua Wong, from the student group Scholarism, who was prominent in last year’s protests, declared, “We want to sustain the momentum after the Occupy protests.” In reality, the protest leaders are seeking to maintain their credibility as they seek to suffocate and prevent a broader struggle from breaking out.

Organizers estimated the turnout at 13,000, far below the projected 50,000. The demonstration began at Victoria Park and led through Causeway Bay, Hong Kong’s upscale shopping district and financial center. At the height of the demonstrations last year, tens of thousands joined the protests to demand direct and open elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive as well as in response to police repression.

Currently, Hong Kong’s chief executive, the head of the city’s government, is selected by a pro-Beijing committee. When Great Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997, Beijing promised that it would maintain a “one country, two systems” that gives significant autonomy to the city.

On August 31, Beijing announced that it would allow direct elections for chief executive in 2017, but only under the condition that candidates be vetted and approved by a nomination committee comprised of officials close to the central government. Last year’s protest movement demanded the opening up of nominations.

Beijing warned on Wednesday that it would not change its position. Zhang Xiaoming, head of the government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, told top officials, including current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, “We could not allow any attempt to reject the central authority’s jurisdiction over Hong Kong under the pretext of a high degree of autonomy, to advocate Hong Kong independence, or even to overtly confront with the central government through illegal ways.”

The protest leaders represent layers of the Hong Kong elite that are concerned that Beijing’s domination of the city’s administration will affect its viability as a financial centre and are seeking greater autonomy from the mainland. The falling support for the protests is a result of the failure to address the poor and the serious social conditions many face and the lack of an appeal to the working class in either the city or the Chinese mainland.

Indeed, the Hong Kong ruling elite as a whole fears that any move that could lead to an explosion of social discontent. Hong Kong is dominated by a handful of billionaires, some like media tycoon Jimmy Lai with close ties to the pan-democrats, making it one of the most unequal societies in the world. Some 20 percent of people live below the official poverty line with little welfare support. The minimum hourly wage of only $HK30 ($US3.90) has not kept up with inflation, while access to employment has dwindled.

Last year’s protests erupted in late September after police cracked down on a strike and demonstrations by students. Amid public outrage over the use of tear gas, pepper spray and batons, the protests swelled to 50,000 people and protesters occupied sites at Admiralty, the government center, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok in Kowloon for weeks.

Almost from the beginning, the pan-democrats and their supporters in Occupy Central attempted to shut down the protests. While student leaders adopted more militant tactics, their aims were just as limited. They sought to pressure the Hong Kong government and Beijing into making concessions. In early December, Benny Tai along with his fellow co-founders of the Occupy Central group turned themselves in to police, urging the students in the streets to give up.

After 11 weeks, the police shut down the protest sites. Hundreds were arrested, including members of the Democrat Party like Martin Lee, Albert Ho, and others from the pan-democrat grouping. As they had been pressing demonstrators to end their struggle, their arrests were nothing more than a cynical stunt to retain some political legitimacy.

The lesson from last year’s protests was that the democratic aspirations of workers and youth cannot be met within the framework of bourgeois elections. Even if the demand for full and open elections had been achieved, the outcome would be an election dominated by the political representatives of Hong Kong’s wealthy elites which would continue the pro-market policies being pursued by the current city administration.

A genuine fight for democratic rights is bound up with a political struggle against capitalism and all the factions of the ruling elite, and a turn to the working class in Hong Kong, China and internationally on the basis of a socialist program.