It is not often that revolutions can be seen unfolding before our eyes. The recent wave of protests in Hong Kong, however, have more in common with the great European Revolutions of 1848 than they do your standard student protests. Wounded campaigners waving banners in the street, harsh and often violent government crackdowns, choral renditions of Do You Hear the People Sing; all resonate with dramatic flare and historic significance. The protests have caught the eye of the world and won several moral and symbolic victories in the face of authoritarian encroachment.
These will never be enough, however, as revolutions can only succeed when they gain political power. Yet unlike most would-be revolutions, the protestors in Hong Kong have already done this. From street to street, mass celebrations shook the city at the close of 2019 as the District Council elections delivered a crushing defeat for incumbent pro-Beijing councillors. The District Councils only have limited power but are one of many institutions in the city that, until the 26th of November, remained firmly under the thumb of the political establishment. On the day before the election, 331 of the 479 Council seats were held by the pro-Beijing camp. By the time the sun came up in the morning, they were down to just 81; the opposition surged to an unheard-of 388. Among the defeated candidates were several leading conservative Hong Kongers, perhaps chief among them Junius Ho, a close ally of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and a vociferous critic of the recent protests. Now as the protests move from streets to ballots, the nature of the movement changes.
Whilst the protests themselves are easy enough to understand, the electoral situation in Hong Kong can seem rather impenetrable. All but the most ardent Hong Kong localists insist that their enemy is not China, not even the CPC or Beijing, but the Hong Kong Government of Carrie Lam. This is about reforming the government of a city, defending the rights of its people and striking out at corruption.
Political parties into Hong Kong broadly fall into one of two camps; pro-Beijing or pro-democracy, with a smattering of localists and independent sprinkled in. Since the handover in 1997, pro-Beijing parties have dominated in almost every sector of society and seemingly established a permanent governing coalition under the constant eyes of their “friends” in Beijing.
Just because this group support closer ties to the People’s Republic and the Communist Party, however, doesn’t mean that they should be mistaken for communists themselves. The vast majority of the pro-Beijing camp fall on the centre-right. The heart of the alliance, the DAB Party, are a socially and fiscally conservative group backed by big business and committed to Chinese nationalism. The second of the pro-Beijing parties, the Business and Professionals Alliance, are about as Maoist as the name would suggest. As for the rest of the camp, the NPP are conservative, the Liberal Party are conservative, and so too are the more socialist-sounding Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, who, instead of breaking this trend, are as devoted to social and cultural conservatism as they are to Xi Jinping Thought.
The pro-democracy camp, in perhaps an expected contrast, fall almost entirely on the centre-left. Their largest constituent party is the Democratic Party of Hong Kong: social liberals and reformists. They are joined by the more centrist liberal Civic Party, the social democratic Labour Party, the “radical democratic” People Power – League of Social Democrats, and a litany of smaller progressive groups. If you’re looking for socialism in this mess, you’re unlikely to find it; baring the reactionary Beijing lackeys of the FTU, social democracy is as left as it gets.
The anti-democratic forces aligned against the protesters come together into a Frankenstein’s monster of entrenched interests. The technocratic and theoretically communist CPC have thrown in their lot with a nationalist, pro-business, and reactionary cabal. On the flip side, the protesters, unfortunately, have found a few unpleasant tag-alongs on their path to freedom. The Trump Administration and others in the Republican Party have backed the protesters, though it should be obvious to everyone that they could scarcely care less about the cause. Hong Kong provides a useful lever with which to pressure China in the ongoing Sino-American clash of empires and is just the latest noble cause to win fleeting, cynical American support. Other international figures, varying from the democratic left to the alarmingly reactionary – the most well known being a ragtag group of a half-dozen Ukrainian fascists. Not unlike Trump, these groups see a chance for self promotion, to strike at a poorly understood “communist” foe, and to hide their own authoritarianism by aligning with a legitimate and democratic cause.
But to point at these taggers-on as a sign of the PRC’s righteousness is willfully ignorant. At present, China is embarking on a genocidal campaign of cultural obliteration against the Uyghurs. They continue to silence internal dissent from both the reformist left and democratic centre, and continue to centralise economic and political power in a political middle class and oligarchical business elite. These unsavory supporters are few and far between and rejected by the protest movement, as they should be. It is apparent to all but the most deluded that the current government of Hong Kong, in league with Beijing, are working towards the creation of a strict political and economic hierarchy, not anything even comparable to socialism. The only genuine choice for democratic socialists in the west is to support those fighting for democracy.
With the election of a new Legislative Council next September, the protesters will have to keep their momentum going another ten months if they want to truly strike at the heart of the political status quo. There is ample time yet for the train to go off the rails – the Chinese government could grow bold enough to occupy the city, the protesters could splinter or fizzle out, or, most likely, the world might move on and leave the protesters to their fate. Already Hong Kong is old news and western media has reverted to focusing on Trump, on western elections, on Brexit, and coronavirus. It is essential that we keep the spotlight on Hong Kong, that we keep faith with the protesters and that we do not let the governments of the west leave the people of Hong Kong to their fate – as they have with the Kurds – as they have with the Uyghurs. Inaction is collaboration; there is no more time for sitting on the fence.