After Umbrella Movement: Pursuing alternative strategies

by Chris King-Chi Chan

The growing Umbrella Movement has come to an end. Alex Chow, general secretary and student leader from the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), told the media that no further occupation will begin in the short term, but expressed the need to think about other types of movement tactics including general strike and class boycott after the occupy site was cleared in the first day.

When asked by the media during the preparation of the class boycott in September, Chow already mentioned that strikes are a possible tactic for struggle. However, very few people believe that political strike could happen in Hong Kong. On September 28th, while Chow came out from the police station, HKFS, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union (HKCTU), Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU) and other associations were calling for a general strike. We can not know how many workers have really participated in the strike, but thousands of social workers participated in strike assemblies on September 29th. Many university teachers also joined the class boycott. Surprisingly, the Swire Beverages (Hong Kong) Employees General Union, whose members are blue-collar workers, initiated a 2-day strike as well.

Searching for new ways of struggle

In the past three months, if one walked inside the occupy sites in Hong Kong, one would believe that people are not necessarily selfish under capitalism—bottom-up direct democracy and collective management are possible. Thousands of citizens and tourists have been to the occupy sites to participate into the protest or to show support. We know that this moment is short-lived and it will disappear one day though, so people treasure every artwork, creation and altruist action in the occupy sites. But Chow’s reminder of strikes as the future strategy has called our attention that occupy as a tactic of social struggle is transitional. We must explore alternative ways to struggle for a structural political change.

This experience in Hong Kong is not unique—occupy has become a more common type of struggle in the new era. In America, Europe, the Middle East, Taiwan, and even in Mainland China, there have been struggles manifest through occupying space. The Occupy Wall street movement in the America, targeting capitalism, is the most influential movement, which swept across the world in 2011, but eventually died down. In China, many migrant worker protests have occupied high ways and main roads over the past 10 years. In recent years, urban citizens in China also have occupied traffic roads, surrounding or storming government departments in the environmental protection movement.

Undoubtedly, ‘occupy movement’ in the new era has its progressive meaning. It aims at breaking the current order, but without using rally tactics as was previously common, as it is now seen as foreseeable and controllable protest tactic which doesn’t upset the current order. The Umbrella Movement represents a movement, which tries to pressurize the power bloc by breaking the existing social order. The current social order is protecting the interests of the privileged, but exploiting and suppressing the rest. This is an unfair class relationship. The vested interests of the ruling class have to be safeguarded by establishing a discourse to convince the people that their interests are the public interests. In Hong Kong, the most successful and rooted discourse is “the rule of law.” Umbrella movement has unveiled the class nature of “the rule of law” discourse. Toward the end of the occupation, the police used the injunction as an instrument to evacuate the occupy sites. This strategy was successful, as the ‘rule of law’ has been regarded as a core value of Hong Kong for a long time. But whose interests and social order were the judgment from court, the Bailiff, the police and the state protecting for?

The occupy only disturbed the social order

Though the occupy movement did bring some disturbances to the social order, they were just minor disturbances. The economic system keeps operating. The Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect was launched during the movement and the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock price were still rising during the movement. The movement might have affected some small or medium business and transportation corporations, but didn’t pose any threat to the biggest interests group, which are the Hong Kong and mainland tycoons. During the movement, many scholars and research centers did research in the occupy sites. The findings show that the participants were not only students, but also people who are well-educated young white-collar workers who might be labeled as “the lower-middle class”. They work in the daytime and go to the occupy sites to support the movement at night. Unquestionably, this type of action cannot challenge the social order in the production realm.

The atmosphere and external conditions for a general strike on September 29th were present, but there was no powerful organizing base to make the general strike happen. The call for strike from PTU and HKCTU has a symbolic meaning since PTU and HKCTU are the biggest independent union and independent union confederation respectively. Though they have a considerable amount of members, their political mobilization capacity is limited. While the reasons are complicated to explain in this article, a key point is that workers and workplace organizing are always neglected in democratic and social movements.

The leaders of the democratic movement in the past three decades presented themselves as middle class, professional and social elite. They are solicitors, scholars, doctors, social workers and so on, that used their professional knowledge and presentation skills to change society. Surely a few of them were rooted in community, but only a small number of them would aware that HK needs a large-scale strike to fight for democracy. Without the foundation of grassroots and workplace organizing, it is hard to occur even if the political leaders call for a strike.

Lessons from the South Korean Youth movement

The intellectuals and young students of South Korea in the 1980s had a different choice of strategy. After the suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in the 1980, the protest went underground. The students chose to work in big corporations and developed underground trade union or workers’ networks. In 1987, before the military government held the Olympic Game to showcase their economic achievement, many former student leaders led workers to the streets and initiated a general strike. Hundreds of independent and democratic trade unions were established afterwards. The year of 1987 has built an important foundation for the democratic movement and socio-economic development in South Korea.

The speech of Alex Chow is a powerful reminder for Hong Kong. If the people do not want to follow the path of the older generation, they may have to consider other means such as strikes to disrupt the economic production order when opportunities come. To prepare for this, the new generation of activists has to organize in schools, workplace, and communities into the future.

(This article is based on an essay in Chinese that was published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Dec. 31, 2014)

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements in East and Southeast Asia

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