Power concedes nothing without a demand.
Frederick Douglass, 1857*
A historic showdown is shaking Hong Kong’s core, between the Chinese government and the mass movement confronting it. The people demand the removal of the Beijing appointed Governor and insist that they vote on his replacement. The Chinese government has vowed zero concessions, creating an inevitable collision with potentially revolutionary effects.
The government has twice made attempts to crush the movement with violence; both failed miserably. Each time thousands of new people entered the movement in response. The following day after pro-government gangs attacked the protestors an estimated 200,000 people mobilized. And after each new, even larger mobilization the fresh threats by the government look increasingly pathetic.
A student leader of the protests was quoted in The New York Times:
“We know that every time they assault us, we resist harder, and we know we’re on the right path, otherwise the government wouldn’t have been so afraid of us.”
This resembles a dynamic often referred to as the “whip of the counter-revolution,” where government violence “whips” people into action, pushing the movement forward.
The mass movement has created a no-win situation for the Chinese government. It’s the same problem all governments face when targeted by a mass movement with a strong demand: if the government surrenders, it loudly pronounces its weakness, inviting more attacks that utilize the same strategy of massive ongoing mobilizations. It’s very risky for an elite-dedicated government to show it can be moved by the people when they are mobilized.
It’s especially risky for China, since there are other regions watching Hong Kong closely, and they will either be motivated or intimidated by the results. China has an especially vulnerable underbelly with its periphery, particularly Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet.
People assumed that Taiwan would gradually fall back into China’s orbit, but this logic is being questioned, as the process towards reunification has stalled. This has infuriated Beijing, and led some to question whether the government is losing control of its periphery. Any protest success in Hong Kong will only power those in Taiwan looking to maintain their distance from China.
An emerging super power cannot tolerate such blatant roadblocks to expansion. The Chinese government is tired of acting passively, both domestically and internationally, when it feels capable of expediting events by force. Smashing the Hong Kong movement will set an example to other regions and ethnic groups inside China’s borders. Failing to smash the movement, however, will have the exact opposite effect.
But the Chinese government faces an even bigger danger at its very core — the Chinese working class. From The Economist magazine:
“… it remains possible that [General Secretary Xi Jinping] will authorize force. That would be a disaster for Hong Kong, and it would not solve Mr. Xi’s problem. For mainland China, too, is becoming restless.”
For a decade the Chinese working class has waged a fight-back against the ultra-exploitation that increased during the transition to capitalism. China now has American-style inequality gaps. During the capitalist transition, 30 million state workers were fired in the massive privatization of state resources that created billionaires while also creating ever larger demands on worker productivity — working faster and/or longer hours —to boost corporate profits.
The racist stereotype of the docile Chinese wage slave has been shattered by collective action. Business Week reports:
“From 2000 through 2013, at least 10 protests have drawn more than 10,000 people…the most common triggers are land grabs by local officials, labor issues, pollution, and ethnic tensions. Underpaid teachers, homeowners, and coal miners have all taken to the streets at one point or another. There is no definitive tally of how many protests are staged each year in China, but one estimate by researchers at Nankai University put the number at 90,000 in 2009.”
These strikes and protests have successfully raised wages and benefits in China, which have repeatedly been declared “bad news for corporate profits.”
The higher wages have threatened China’s capitalist business model, which over-relies on cheap exports that are grounded in slave wages. China’s labor movement has successfully raised the price of labor, and now neighbor nations are using slave labor to challenge China’s exports. If the protests in Hong Kong are successful, unions in China will be inspired to make new, bolder demands. And a healthy Chinese labor movement will inevitably infect the labor movements of neighboring nations.
The protests have already shaken awake the Hong Kong labor movement, helping ensure an even broader base of support. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions recently announced a strike in support of the student movement and included four demands:
“the immediate release of all the arrested, an end to the suppression of peaceful assembly, replacing the ‘fake universal suffrage’ formula with the genuine political reform workers have been demanding, and the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying.”
This is significant because Hong Kong unions have a long history of organizing mass protests, including the successful one in 2003 of 500,000 people that eventually led to the resignation of Hong Kong’s governor. They city has a tradition of mass protests where every year tens of thousands — often hundreds of thousands — mobilize for or against various issues usually related to democratic rights. This tradition began in 1989 when 1.5 million marched to show sympathy with the Tiananmen Square protests.
But mass movements don’t always work. Tiananmen Square was drowned in blood, as have recent protests in Thailand. But in 2002 mass protests in Venezuela defeated a military coup that sought to oust President Hugo Chavez. Egyptians successfully used the tactic to oust a dictator and then struck again against his successor.
The x factor in every mass movement is the army and whether soldiers are willing to kill their fellow countrymen on government orders. When the Iranian revolution used ongoing mobilizations to oust a U.S.-backed dictator, the turning point was when the Shah’s troops were deemed “unreliable” to follow government orders to kill protesters.
When soldiers refuse to fire on protesters — a common feature of revolution — the magical armor of government is shattered, and state power becomes powerless. While recognizing the feebleness of government in the face of mass opposition, the people begin to recognize their own collective power.
All of China is watching Hong Kong closely, as is the whole of Asia. The entire region is affected by China’s economic-gravitational weight, and if the region follows in Hong Kong’s footsteps, it’s capable of dragging the rest of the world behind it.
* Quoted from, If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress, speech delivered by Frederick Douglass, August 3, 1857, Canandaigua, New York. See Black Past, for the complete text.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.