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How Should Americans Respond to the Hong Kong Protests?

Jiachuan Lu Oct 14

With news pouring in of demonstrations in Hong Kong, people in the United States are wondering what is going on there and whether we should support the movement. The U.S. mainstream media has been putting out the narrative that pro-democracy protesters, suffering from police brutality, are seeking help from the United States. However, for an American public tired of U.S. interventions on foreign land, such a narrative is too dubious to swallow. 

Formerly a British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. But instead of creating conditions for a smooth transition, the British government planted seeds of hatred and division. During the Cold War, Hong Kong was a chess piece in the Western encirclement of socialist nations, while internally the colonial government treated the Hong Kong people as second-class citizens. Faced with growing unrest against its oppressive rule in the 1960s, the colonial government began to implement a series of economic reforms, including absorbing international finance capital and selling off government-owned land to real estate developers. Forging an image of a cosmopolitan city enjoying an economic boom, the British government created an illusion of prosperity under colonial rule. 

The China-U.S. conflict is essentially one of capitalist powers competing with each other.

To maintain control in the colonies, the British government injected racism and stirred division among its colonial subjects in order to mentally subjugate them. The people of Hong Kong developed a sense of pride and privilege over their mainland siblings and their southern and Southeast Asian neighbors. Capitalism works and colonial subjects are more civilized thanks to Western education, so the narrative went. Such a mentality helps maintain an underclass as migrant workers from China and Southeast Asian countries began to pour in during Hong Kong’s economic rise. Looked down upon as inferior and uneducated, they were exploited as cheap labor for construction, domestic and other service industries and were pitted against the native-born workers and used to undercut working conditions. (Hong Kong labor and immigration law is similar to that of the United States. It gives employers the power to check a worker’s status and criminalizes undocumented immigrants for working.) 

An identity of Hong Kongers as high-class Chinese was established. So was the trend of growing inequality, longer working hours, rising costs of living and a worsening living environment. As a result, wealth became more and more concentrated among a few tycoons who have developed deep ties with the U.K. and the U.S. governments, while the majority became poorer and poorer. This has become the new normal in Hong Kong.

The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, negotiated the terms of Hong Kong’s return at a time of a big transition of its own. Abandoning the political leadership of the working class, the Chinese government instead opted for economic reforms that encouraged privatization and individual entrepreneurship, with gradual openings for investments from the U.S. and European countries. Economic development, the Chinese leaders reasoned, would be the decisive factor to win people over. However, by aiming to grow a strong economy by following a capitalist path, the CCP leadership has become an apprentice of neoliberalism led by U.S., the dominant imperialist superpower. 

Thus came the CCP’s choice of a “one country, two systems” policy: the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) could keep its system — economic, political and ideological — intact after 1997 for another 50 years. Meanwhile the CCP works with tycoons like Li Ka-shing to control the economy and its population. Making little attempt to help the Hong Kong people overcome racial divisions and their colonial mentality, the PRC government colluded with big real estate and corporations to keep Hong Kong in a semi-colonial status while using nationalist rhetoric to fight the U.S., its number one competitor. The China-U.S. conflict is essentially one of capitalist powers competing with each other, one on top and the other one trying to catch up. Both sides have the same interest in maintaining exploitation in order to stay in the competition. The HKSAR government represents the continuation of exploitation.

For the majority of Hong Kong people, business as usual after 1997 has meant continuing to be screwed by the exploitative system. Worse, now they witness their “uneducated and uncivilized” siblings from mainland catching up financially overnight. Absent of working-class leadership, concerns of worsening living and working conditions are channeled by the liberal elites into reactionary frustration about losing pride and privileges rooted in the colonial time. Such pride and privileges are racist and divisive in nature. They have quickly turned into an anti-mainland, anti-immigrant, nativist sentiment, despite the cosmopolitan reputation Hong Kong once had. Reminiscent of the good old days of a developing capitalist society, liberal elites are misleading the public into conjuring the ghost of the West and targeting Chinese as the enemy. Such is the political direction behind the latest — and also the largest — “pro-democracy” movement in Hong Kong, a perfect marriage of liberalism and fascism.

It is therefore not surprising to see that the slogan “Restore Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time” become the main theme of the movement, while none of protesters demands address the root cause of people’s frustration. It also comes as no surprise that the figureheads of the “pro-democracy” movement would come to the U.S. to beg for intervention. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, with bipartisan support in Congress, would call for the president — yes, Donald Trump — to evaluate the human rights situation in Hong Kong and implement sanctions against those officials deemed involved in human rights violations.

Imperialistic in essence, the act claims to protect Hong Kong people’s freedom as well as U.S. national security interests. For the Hong Kong liberal elites who have no interest in breaking the chains tied on working people, their pathetic plea for intervention is nothing more than seeking a change from the yellow master to the white, more powerful one. They would like Hong Kong to be the running dog for the U.S. to contain China and East Asia.

What would society look like under U.S. rule? Is the United States democratic? Like people in Hong Kong, we are facing high rents and long hours of work, and more and more of the wealth we produce is going to the top 1 percent. The New York City government pushes pro-developer policies and approves luxury high-rise developments that displace working-class communities, despite local opposition. New York State legitimizes 24-hour work shifts with only half pay and has allowed wage theft to go rampant and unchecked for decades, with labor laws unenforced. Nationally, the federal government goes to war despite millions marching in opposition, while criminalizing an underclass of undocumented immigrants as cheap labor. Deprived of the right to organize, the wealth they produce and without control over their time, how do people in the United States truly have freedom and democracy? Is this really what Hong Kong people aspire to? 

The call for U.S. intervention only strengthens the domination of capitalists. On the other hand, continuing with the current semi-colonial status would fail to provide a future that works for the majority of Hong Kong people. 

We should encourage people in Hong Kong to break from the pro-imperialist agenda and start fighting for themselves in order to address the root causes of their oppression, to unite working people locally and beyond. The first step is to draw a clear line against the liberal-fascist alliance and strongly condemn their arguments, which will lead to a more divisive and undemocratic society. The second is to hold the HKSAR government accountable by raising demands that unite people, including equal rights for all workers, control over work hours and an end to the pro-developer agenda. 

We need to get organized to fight against similar conditions in the United States. True and meaningful solidarity is developed when we identify our common interest in fighting exploitation and for liberation from our common enemy.