Some thoughts on the HK anti-parallel trade demonstrations

I’ve been trying to think my way through the anti-parallel trade demonstrations. My opinions have oscillated. The demonstrations have provoked a wide range of views on the pro-democracy side.

Some say they represent a new strain or phase of the movement. These people say that traditional demonstrations à la Civil Human Rights Front’s Victoria-Park-to-Central marches have proven ineffectual and new methods need to be employed, methods these recent demonstrations are developing as they evolve. They say the HK government is so unresponsive and anti-democratic that the only way of having any effect on it is to really push hard and embarrass it. Otherwise, it’s simply intransigent. They say these demonstrations have been successful in tapping into popular resentment at the mainlandization of HK and thereby embarrassing not only the HK government but also the Partystate into at least speaking as if they are going to do something to compensate for their obvious neglect if not facilitation of the over-running of parts of HK with mainlanders and what amounts to illegal activity. In addition, the demonstrations address what has arguably been a blind side of the pro-democracy movement, socioeconomic issues, which for many HK people are much more urgent in their everyday lives than genuine universal suffrage.

Others say the anti-parallel trade demonstrations are providing the perfect opportunity for the anti-democrats of HK to tar and feather the pro-democracy movement with charges of “radicalism” and “violence”, charges they’ve trotted out ad nauseam in the past but which have never really stuck because the movement has more often than not appeared reasonable and peaceful. I’ve spoken with many “ordinary” (ie, generally apolitical) people who have vague sympathy for the pro-democracy movement (ie, they passively support it) and who have been shocked at video images of what appear to them to be demonstrators harassing and verbally abusing parallel traders and shopkeepers involved in parallel trading. The critics of the demonstrations say we should not condone behavior on our side that we abhor when blue ribbons engage in it. They say the demonstrations can’t do the pro-democracy movement any good and may harm it. They know that the pro-democracy movement and the anti-parallel trade protests are not the same thing, though they may overlap, but they’re afraid that “ordinary” HK people won’t be able to distinguish between the two, especially when HK government propaganda (as well as much of the media, the pro-Partystaters, and the police) encourages people to equate them. They say principles of nonviolence must be strictly adhered to, and that includes not verbally abusing or acting aggressively towards others.

Before I go any further, I must thank all of the people who’ve been facebooking and tweeting the demos. Mainstream media coverage has been inadequate and often misleading, and the facebookers and tweeters have provided much needed perspective and information. More than ever, opinion in HK is divided between those who rely on the mainstream media for their news and people who get it from social media. And I should note that I haven’t attended an anti-parallel trade demonstration, not for lack of desire but due to parental duties.

My own reaction has been mixed. On the one hand, it’s rah-rah, sock it to ‘em, let’s show these people (ie, the police, the HK government)! But I wonder if that’s to do with my desperation for something, anything to happen to further the cause. On the other hand, I’ve felt uneasy, and at times I’ve not been quite sure what that unease is about — am I simply getting more conservative as I get older?!

But I think my unease is that the target of much of the demonstrations’ ire has been the little guy, the parallel trader. However obnoxious some parallel traders might be, however much their huge influx has damaged the quality of life of some parts of HK, and despite the fact that many engage in what strictly speaking is illegal activity, most parallel traders are people just trying to scratch a living at the margins of society. In that sense, they’re not much different from many HK people. They have an impact on HK not by intention but by their sheer numbers.

Now, we all know that the parallel traders as individuals are not the true culprits here. Parallel trade is one piece of the big picture of the mainlandization of HK, and it’s the Partystate and the HK government which are responsible for that. We should at the very least thank the demonstrators for putting the focus on mainlandization, one of the top problems facing HK. The manifestations of mainlandization are wide-ranging:

· The fake universal suffrage that the Partystate wants to foist on HK would cement mainlandization in terms of formal politics and governance.

· In addition to that, we’ve got the many United Front operations ranging from obvious ones like the DAB and the pro-Partystate political establishment to the FTU and the many “patriotic” and neighborhood organizations as well the infiltration of many sectors of society.

· Then there’s the media and the police which at times appear to pretty much have gone over to the dark side. (The judiciary and the education sectors have been the ones that up to now have best withstood mainlandization pressures, and that is why they are coming under increasing attack.)

· There are the infrastructure mega-projects such as the high-speed rail link and the Macau-Zhuhai-HK bridge tying HK physically closer to the mainland.

· And then there’s the changing demographics of HK, the mainlandization of the population. As the government itself says in its recent Population Policy report, “new arrivals under the OWP [one-way permit] Scheme will continue to be the major source of our population growth”, and since 2003, 828,000 mainlanders have settled in HK — 63,000 a year. (http://www.hkpopulation.gov.hk/public_engagement/pdf/PPbooklet2015_ENG.pdf)

· And then there’s the economy: At the high end, you’ve got mainland money swamping HK, buying up properties and companies, and various mainland businesses — many either Partystate-owned or closely allied with the Partystate — taking over ever more of the economy, gradually elbowing even some HK tycoons out of the way. At the low end, there are the tourists and the parallel traders.

So the parallel traders are the bottom-feeders of mainlandization. Targeting them seems like attacking the most vulnerable in order to get at the most powerful. I get that parallel trade is one of the most visible and obvious forms of mainlandization, but of all the forms we have to worry about, it probably isn’t the most insidious or damaging. The problem with the demonstrations, then, is that they in effect attack the little guy for what is really the fault of the big guy, and not only that, they distort perspective on the much larger issue of mainlandization by focusing on one small aspect of it, blowing parallel trade out of proportion while the really big fish go about their business of swallowing HK whole.

But here we face a conundrum: how to get at the big guy, a government that is utterly impervious to popular opinion and refuses to address the myriad problems that HK people confront in their everyday lives?

One of the reasons I’ve been encouraged by the emergence of supposedly more “radical” groups is that other groups simply haven’t done that much of late. The established pro-democracy political parties are really quite a conservative force and play largely a defensive role. Hopefully, they can be counted on to defeat fake universal suffrage (though I will worry right up to the last moment, given the Democratic Party’s capitulation last time around), and within their realm in the Legislative Council, they are doing what they can. But traditional pro-democracy political organizations, whether parties or NGOs, in HK have been inadequate at organizing, mobilizing, strategy planning and execution, and coordiantion. HKFS, Scholarism and students in general came along with the Umbrella Revolution, and their emergence is hugely positive, but since the end of the occupations, they’ve been relatively quiet, understandably exhausted and having to attend to the rest of their lives put on hold for months during the occupations.

In his recent interview comparing the Sunflower and Umbrella Movements (http://newbloommag.net/2015/03/07/interview-ian-rowen/), Ian Rowen says that a key difference between the two was centralization of Sunflower versus the loose organization of Umbrella. He said the loose organization of Umbrella was clearly a disadvantage when it came to developing strategy and taking concerted action, but it can also be seen as a sign of maturity that the movement didn’t have to rely on a few key actors. I agree with that, but it’s easy, in the midst of it all, to become exasperated with our frequent inability to get our act together when it comes to strategic collaborative action. We have to remember we’re up against the Partystate, one of the most centralized and powerful political forces in the world, not to mention the HK government and police, which are well-funded, bureaucratically and administratively well-organized, and whose members get paid for what they do. What chance do we stand if we’re not well-organized ourselves? I like the idea of everyone doing their bit, and here the anti-parallel trade groups are stepping up and doing theirs, but on the other hand, I fear their emergence also points to our continuing weakness when it comes to strategizing and coordinating.

Their emergence also challenges a central tenet of the more moderate or mainstream parts of the movement: Whatever you do, you’ve got to track close to public opinion. That view is understandable: You’ve got to reach out to people and invite them to join, broaden your appeal, not alienate them. The thinking is that the middle 50% of HK people are conservative by nature, could go one way or the other, and will shun you if you’re perceived as “radical”, whereas you stand a good chance of getting their support if you appear “rational”. But there are several problems with the tenet. The first is “public opinion” is illusory. Yes, it can be measured to some extent by opinion polls. But it can also be actively shaped. And that has to do with leadership. Few freedom movements sit back and say, Well, let’s just wait until public opinion is firmly behind us, especially given that in less-than-democratic societies such as ours, public opinion is distorted. They say, this is what we believe in, and we’re going to go out and shape public opinion. I recall well when, after the NPCSC decision, all the air seemed to go out of Occupy Central, to the point where its plan was to, well, yes, occupy Central, but, hey, we don’t want to disturb anybody or disrupt any activity, so we’ll plan it on a national holiday when much of Central will be shut down anyway; that way, we won’t offend anybody. That was tracking of public opinion taken to absurd lengths, and it’s also the reason why Occupy Central failed to appeal beyond a core group. Thank whomever the students came along! Something that many of the groups that have emerged since last summer have going for them is they say, We’re going to be out in front, we’re going to take the lead on this. That doesn’t mean ignoring public opinion (after all, there’s pretty strong public opinion against parallel trade, which is why the HK government has been so embarrassed at being so negligent about it). It means that sometimes you go out in front and encourage others to follow, or even that you are willing to sacrifice your popularity if it advances the cause.

Lastly, the anti-parallel trade demonstrations have focused on a socioeconomic issue, and socioeconomic issues are ones that most of the pro-democracy spectrum has traditionally not provided strong leadership on. This goes way back to parties like the Democratic and Civic Parties being founded by lawyers and other professionals and having little to no base in the grassroots. I was encouraged when League of Social Democrats first emerged because that’s what HK needs — a strong commitment to both democracy and social justice in order to oppose oligarchical control of the economy. But LSD opted far too much for street politics and throwing bananas in Legco, which is o.k. for starters but can only take you so far and has basically brought LSD to a dead end. LSD’s promise was that it could reach out to the public housing estates and appeal to people there. Up to now, the huge Achilles heel of the pro-democracy movement is that it’s ceded huge swathes of HK territory to the well-funded DAB. It needs to have a strong and consistent presence in those communities to tell people that the reason they’re getting screwed — that their lack of access to meaningful political participation is the main reason for world-beating inequality, low wages, exorbitant property prices, poor labor protections and working conditions (no mandatory overtime pay, no standard working hours law, poor parental leave laws, no child care provision unless you can afford to hire someone from a faraway land to leave her own children and come look after yours, no law to enforce the right to collective bargaining guaranteed in the Basic Law is that the political system and the economy are controlled by a tiny number of elites intent on milking them for all they’re worth — it’s not for nothing that HK ranks #1 on The Economist’s crony capitalism index). But up to now, no one in the pro-democracy movement has effectively made that argument to the people who need to hear it.

So it’s great these anti-parallel trade groups are focusing on a socioeconomic issue that impacts people in their daily lives. I’m just not sure it’s the most pressing one for HK as a whole. In this sense, the solidarity with hawkers shown in Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok around Chinese New Year is perhaps what there needs to be more of. And would it be possible for the anti-parallel trade groups to shift their focus slightly from parallel trade to mainlandization more generally?

As much as anything else, the anti-parallel trade demonstrations have shown that the traditional weaknesses of the pro-democracy movement — organization, mobilization, coordination and strategic planning — persist in the post-occupation era, despite the fact that various groups have expressed their intention to do “community work”. Yes, there should be plenty of room for initiative, spontaneity, improvisation, feeling our way along as we go — many successes come of just such approaches — , but we have to remember that since we don’t have economic or political power, our main leverage is people power, and the power of numbers doesn’t amount to much in the end if it’s not maximized by organization, mobilization, coordination and strategic planning. And while the demonstrations may have helped developed some new techniques of demonstrations, they also point to the limitations of street action in general if it doesn’t occur on a solid foundation of community organization and strong democratic presence in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas of HK.

KTG

13 March 2015

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Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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