Torn Between Authoritarian Rule and Right-Wing Populism: The New Challenge of Hong Kong's Democratic Labour Movement

The democratic labour movement in Hong Kong encountered numerous challenges in 2016. At the eve of May Day 2016, the major student unions from nine universities, which had previously been on friendly terms with the HKCTU, released a joint statement, declaring their withdrawal from the Solidarity March hosted by the HKCTU. In their eyes, union struggles are “simply a matter of rituals”, “claiming to safeguard workers’ rights and interests, pleading the communist-run Hong Kong Government to pity and improve Hong Kong people’s situation, yet no improvement on labour rights has been achieved in Hong Kong.” Since its establishment in 1990, the HKCTU has always practiced social movement unionism. HKCTU is not only a crucial team-player in fighting for democratic movements, but also in student movements. Of the two major strikes of the last decade, namely the bar-benders strike of 2007 and dockers strike of 2013, student organizations also worked closely with the HKCTU to support workers’ struggles.

Dr. Chan King Chin Chris

(Associate Professor,
Department of Applied Social Sciences,
City University of Hong Kong)

However, after the Umbrella Movement in 2014, a structural change took place in the Hong Kong society. Disappointed by the “fruitless” Occupy Central Movement with some 200,000 participants and angered by China’s brutal repression against civil society in Hong Kong, people started to turn to right-wing populism. Thus, the call of “Hongkongers first”, local organizations and political parties with a pro-independence agenda come into existence and are supported by the youth, causing the traditional college student unions to change their stance on labour support. In discussing most of the social policies, the HKCTU upholds the principles of internationalism and criticizes the narrow-minded localism. For instances, the HKCTU fought with migrant workers for the right to abode in Hong Kong and it also supports new immigrants from China to be covered by social welfares. In the light of this background, HKCTU does not only fight for social and political reform in Hong Kong, but also cares and supports the development of labour and democratic movement in China. HKCTU’s general secretary Lee Cheuk-yan served as the second chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. The rise of right-wing populism is posing new political challenges to HKCTU’s internationalism and its perspective on China.

In the Legislative Council Election in September 2016, Labour Party, a political party established by HKCTU and other activists in 2011, suffered heavy losses and lost three seats with only one seat left after the election. One of the legislators who lost their seat was Lee Cheuk-yan, who has been in office since 1995. Replacing them were six young candidates who support “localism”, including three moderate-left localists and three extreme-right localists, who were all elected with high votes. Lee Cheuk-yan has been a well-respected leader in democratic movement and union movement. HKCTU and Lee played a major supporting role in the Umbrella Movement, despite they were not the leaders and founders of the movement. Yet, the pro-Beijing media keeps defaming them of receiving foreign fund to Occupy Central. Two years after the Umbrella Movement, Lee lost the election. This symbolizes the difficulties faced by the democratic labour movement, namely being suppressed by both the authoritarian regime in China and the local right-wing populism in Hong Kong.

After becoming a major economic power in the world, China is also changing its ruling policies, both internationally and domestically. Its policies on Hong Kong and Macau is a mix of both. Since he took office in 2012, President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign and Chinese Dream rhetoric have made him popular domestically and his “One Belt One Road” and “Free Trade” plans gained him a positive image internationally. However, he also tightened his grip on civil society and labour movement. China does not only deprive Hong Kong people of their right to universal suffrage, but also increasingly interferes with domestic issues in Hong Kong, such as interference in election, cross-border law enforcement and etc., more and more people start to doubt the existence of “One Country Two Systems”. In terms of economic development and livelihood, China continues and even strengthens the neo-liberalist economic practices inherited from the Colonial Era. This leads to a decline in Hong Kong’s social development, leaving it a less socially developed place than its neighbours, such as the Four Little Dragons in Asia and mainland China. In recent years, HKCTU and its partner organizations have been advocating for reforms in social policies, such as the legislation of standard working hours, universal pension scheme and etc. When the current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was running for “election” five years ago, he promised to take these policies into serious consideration. Yet, with half a year left in his current term, these promises remain empty. Two major candidates of the upcoming Chief Executive election, who are both previous ministers, expressed their unwillingness to implement these two basic labour welfare policies. In short, this election has become a race between the vested interests of business sector and the Chinese Government, while labour rights fail to draw public attention as it did in the previous election.

Facing the enormous political repression and threat from China, supporters of the new localism and the traditional democrats are both exploring new strategies to survive and develop. Yet, none of them choose to combine democratic movement with labour movement, to push for social democratic reform. Instead, some opt to partner with local bourgeoisie. John Tsang, the former finance minister who runs for the upcoming Chief Executive election, successfully builds a “local Hongkonger” image while his policy programme reflects only the interests of Hong Kong entrepreneurs. A large number of Election Committee members, including from major democratic parties such as Democratic Party and Civic Party, and some independent members decided to endorse Tsang, despite their long term opposition to real estate hegemony. How the democratic labour movement would resist such an internal conflict and external repression, is a serious question to explore in future.