Two Generations of Union Front-- An Interview with Alex, the chairman of Hong Kong Hotel Employees Union

“In this movement, some people have given up their lives or sacrificed their future to push forward the course of this struggle. The fire of revolution will never go out.”

Victor Hugo said that history is an echo of the past in the future. The 1989 democracy movement was remembered as a student movement. Few people mentioned the role of the unions. In addition to the demand for democracy, another demand of the 1989 democracy movement was against the ‘arbitrage’ behaviour of officials who abused power for personal gain, and yearning for an even distribution of economic resources. Beijing Workers' Autonomous Union (hereinafter Workers' Union) was then established. At the beginning of the establishment of the Workers’ Unions, there were only dozens of people, they mainly cooperated with the students and participated in the publicity and logistics works. However, when student organizations fell into low tide in mid-May, workers gradually became the backbone of the movement. They recruited members nationwide. According to research by Walter and Sasha Gong, more than 15 provinces and cities had independent worker organizations in the country, and they had more than 20,000 members. The first manifesto of the Workers’ Unions at the station of Peking University at the Square stated that if the State Council refused to respond to the political demands of the students, it would initiate a citywide workers strike. Although the Workers’ Unions eventually died out due to the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) bloody suppression, the workers’ movement was undeniably a key part of the movement.

The ‘union front’ that emerged during the uncertain times in Hong Kong faced a similar situation as that of the Workers' Union 31 years ago. While the battling fronts on the streets of the anti-extradition bill movement were caught in a bottleneck due to the escalation of police brutality, the energy of the movement spawned a large number of new trade unions, who awakened the labour subjects in Hong Kong. Medical staff connected workplace issues to political demands and used industrial actions to force the government to give in. These actions demonstrate the way to resist tyranny based on trade union and strikes as a means. The government's threat to settle scores with medical staff who went on strike and the arrest of union officers reflect that the suppression of the regime has affected the unions. In this era, the new trade unions, which are at the forefront of the anti-tyranny movement in Hong Kong, are comparable to the Workers’ Union during the 1989 democracy movement, who bore the important task of the time. In this June 4th special issue, we interviewed Alex, the chairman of the Hong Kong Hotel Employees Union. We look at his understanding of June 4th and his initial intention to join the union, and through which we glimpse at the crossing fate of the two generations of unions in different time and place.


June Fourth as democratic enlightenment; suppression approaching Hong Kong

Alex, who was born in 1995, has not experienced June 4th. His first contact with this subject was through the teaching of a secondary school teacher. Although he mourns the event, he does not have actual action and overall the feeling is not profound. Although he has never experienced it personally or witnessed the bloody scenes of June 4th, he thinks that June 4th is the enlightenment of his democratic thought. Experiencing the anti-extradition bill movement in the past year, Alex admits that he feels that June 4th is approaching Hong Kong.

When asked about the controversy of the June 4th memorial in recent years, Alex thinks that the foremost importance of remembering June 4th is to defend an anti-tyranny value, ‘June 4th is a human rights issue. Besides the issue itself, how should we defend this universal value? To continue to voice out is the most important.’ He adds that the June 4th happened on the eve of the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, which broke the CCP’s facade. However, the local consciousness was not widespread at that time, and the determination of Hong Kong people to defend their homeland was not solid enough, so many people immigrated.

Totalitarianism is approaching, peaceful demonstrations face a dead end, resistance is the only way out

Alex points out that the current suppression in Hong Kong is more and more similar to that in China. ‘The current Hong Kong government uses various means such as violent repression and literary prison to suppress the people who strive for democracy and put political considerations above freedom of expression. For example, they call teachers “corrupted teachers” and reporters “corrupted reporters”. This kind of criticism of professionals is extremely similar to that of the Cultural Revolution.’ He also believes that in the age of totalitarianism, peaceful demonstrations are no longer tolerated. Like the Hong Kong protestors, students in 1989 protest at first thought that peaceful demonstrations could solve the problem, but were met with bloody suppression. ‘In any case, the regime poisons the well by accusation such as inciting the overthrow of the national regime. Any objection is faced with endless suppression. Whether it is peaceful or violent (protest) makes no difference in the eyes of the regime.’

For Alex, the two battles of CUHK and PolyU are the closest moment for June 4th to reappear in Hong Kong. Speaking of PolyU, Alex has vivid memories of the endless warfare at that time-- the police and soldiers, the students in the square and the protesters on the campus faced a similar fate in different time and place. ‘I couldn't sleep at all that day. The frontline protesters simply did not have enough equipment to face the heavily armed police.’ He thinks that the greatest similarity between of the two incidents is the fact that although there was great disparity between the force of the demonstrators and the regimes, it did not hinder the protestors’ determination to pursue democracy and freedom.

Organizing trade unions, continuing the struggle, rebuilding local consciousness

‘I am distressed. I don't want to see any more sacrifice. As long as we have enough people to strike, we can shake the regime without bullets.’ The heavy casualties of the protesters in the street battles were also one of the reasons for Alex to organize the union. He believes that worker is the largest group in society, for example, there are 4 million workers in Hong Kong. As long as the working class is united, it is possible to gather strong resistant forces, launch strikes and threaten the regime. In addition, he believes that trade unions have also played a significant role in shaping Hong Kong people sense of resistance. Alex points out that Hong Kong people are used to solving problems only when the problems occur. The trade union plans ahead, prepares for future struggles and helps reconstruct the local consciousness.

‘Initiating a strike is the most effective way on the local level. Hong Kong's trade unions also need to connect with the international community and unite global forces to resist tyranny and force them to return power to people.’ With the escalating repression of the regime, Alex believes that Hong Kong people must join the trade unions, gather their strength, be prepared to strike and struggle, and they also need to face the international community.

The Workers' Union at the time and the new trade unions in Hong Kong both have been at the forefront of the fight against tyranny. Recently, the government is planning to implement the ‘Hong Kong version of the National Security Law’, and further tearing up the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement. Alex represents the Hotel Employees Union and frequently goes to the streets, sets up street counters and distributes leaflets to explain the harm of the evil law, which was very similar to the Workers Union who participated passionately in publicities works in the 1989 democracy movement. As for the future of Hong Kong’s revolution, Alex says, ‘In this movement, some people have given up their lives or sacrificed their future to push forward the course of this struggle. The fire of revolution will never go out.’