Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hong Kong: Communists & capitalists versus workers in a neo-liberal city without collective bargaining laws


(Modern-day Hong Kong at night)

(This is my latest installment from my recent trip to China. Coming soon: a roundup of action closer to home, including the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina and UPS-Teamsters dispute)

HONG KONG – Chinese junks no longer dot Victoria Harbour. A foot-powered rickshaw is even harder to find. The stately colonial-era buildings at the heart of the old city are now dwarfed by skyscrapers.

Still, this is the same Hong Kong I visited as a young soldier on R&R from Vietnam four decades ago. Busy Nathan Road still teems with orange-robed Buddhist monks and bearded Sikhs, businessmen, women in mini-skirts and high heels, Indian hawkers peddling suits and watches, construction workers, and Westerners like me.

A frenetic energy is everywhere, and not only because of whistleblowing fugitive  Edward Snowden, holed up in some hotel here during my stay after exposing U.S. cyber-surveillance of practically everyone in the world, including U.S. citizens.

Seven million people are crowded into this tiny corner at the southeastern tip of China. It was a British colony the last time I was here. It’s theoretically part of Communist China now, but Mao ZeDong would roll over in his grave if he knew what the People’s Republic tolerates these days. No little Red Books in Hong Kong. No Red Guards shouting the Chairman’s famous dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun!”

Nope, this remains the citadel of capitalism that Imperial Britain created after extracting it from Imperial China in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. Of course, there’s an edge, an unanswerable question: Just how long and to what extent will Beijing allow autonomy? After all, Mao’s portrait still looms over Tiananmen Square, and his successors still pledge loyalty to his party.

“Hong Kong has always idolized the free market economy,” says Hong Kong Labour Party Chair Lee Cheuk-yan during my interview with him at his office in the city’s Legislative Council Complex. “We let the market rule everything and then we don’t intervene, and that’s it. That’s the model for Hong Kong.”

(To the right, Lee Cheuk-yan)

Not that Lee thinks that’s a wonderful thing. In fact, he’s arguably Hong Kong’s top critic of both its capital-worshiping neoliberalism and Beijing’s hidden hand in its politics and business practices. Lee is general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions—the city’s largest independent labor organization—and he was key organizer of both the city’s recent 40-day dockworkers’ strike and the giant June 4 vigil marking the 24th anniversary of the brutal crackdown of the 1989 pro-democracy rally in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Hong Kong’s wealth was built on the backs of its workers, and those workers deserve a fair share of it, Lee says.  “Workers rights should be entrenched everywhere in the world. We have to support independent unions. At the same time … democratic rights. We also need to support democracy in China. Unless there is democracy in China, it will be far more difficult for Hong Kong to have a real democracy.”

The recent strike on Hong Kong’s docks pitted workers against Asia’s richest man, billionaire Li Ka-shing, who controls more than 70 percent of the city’s port traffic. Workers hadn’t received a pay raise in more than a decade yet worked 12-hour or longer shifts with no breaks.

In a city without collective bargaining laws, the striking dock workers secured a 9.8 percent pay raise and a commitment to better working conditions. Public support for the strikers was widespread.

(Geoffrey Crothall)

“It touched a nerve with people,” says Geoffrey Crothall, communications director with the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong, a non-governmental organization that monitors and promotes labor rights in China. “Property prices are stratospheric. Just going to a local café or vegetable market is hurting ordinary people. People understand when dockworkers have not have a pay raise in 10 years. They can relate to that. They see it as an injustice, particularly when the employer is the richest man not only in Hong Kong but in all of Asia.”

The irony is that today labor-hostile billionaires are as tolerable to Hong Kong’s distant Communist overseers as they were to colonial-era British leaders. In fact, Lee says, Beijing believes the model of “colonial government really works well for them. As a one-party, authoritarian regime, they have no problem with that. … The capitalists support the Communist regime, and the Communist regime supports the capitalists in Hong Kong.”

The June 4 vigil Lee organized—attended by many thousands despite a thunderstorm and heavy rain—was the only such large-scale commemoration of the 1989 crackdown in all of China. In fact, Hong Kong reporters were detained in Beijing on June 4 during the daily flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square.

Still, the strikers in Hong Kong did get a pay raise, and the fact that activists like Lee Cheuk-yan can speak as openly and as critically as he does is impressive. Perhaps even Mao would have to admit that political power today is as likely to come out of a stuffed wallet as the barrel of a gun.

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