The Labour Movement and Dictatorial Regimes Can Never Coexist

Chan Kalok, Associate Professor at the Department of Government and International Studies of Hong Kong Baptist University, Legislative Councillor, member of Civil Party

According to the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, “the working class and the proletariat” were in charge in socialist societies.But in reality, the communist regimes had hijacked “democracy” in the name of  the “People’s Republic”. After they had seized power, the leaders of the communist parties completely  forgot their goal of liberating the oppressed. The first generation of revolutionary leaders replaced bottom-up grassroot democracy and decision making with totalitarian rule. Human dignity, individual rights and freedom were perpetually suppressed: personality cult, brainwashing education, official propaganda with only one voice, controlling and maneuvering the mass media, secret police, labour reform, concentration camps, violent suppression, embezzlement and corruption. To control the society, the dictators used both sticks and carrots to impose submission.

During the era of the Cold War, there was a black humour joke: “In the world of capitalism, trade unions and the labour movement are organized to safeguard workers’ interest, to fight against exploitation and to struggle with the bourgeoisie. In the world of communism, trade unions and the labour movement are part of the state machine that the communist parties use to dominate workers. In fact, trade unions have no more reason to exist!”  The communist parties sometimes claimed that the working class “was not completely awakened and the vanguard party must continue to lead”. At other times they claimed that the nature and the interest of the working class were “very apparent”. Since one could not dispute these claims, the result was always the same.  The May 1 parades in squares to celebrate the Labour Day were such shams. Other than singing praises to the communist parties and the communist leaders, participating organisations and their members never demanded any labour rights.

In capitalist Hong Kong, the death of Yeung Kwong, former president of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, has aroused debates on his role in the1967 riot. Some commentators believed that he should be held responsible, but Ng Hongmun, a veteran in the Hong Kong communist camp, said he must “say something fair” for Yeung. According to him, the former leader of HKFTU was “following orders in all that he did”. He had no decision-making power and had to obey the New China News Agency in everything he did, be they big or small. He was a placid but also acquiescent person. It was because he was obedient that he was appointed the “leader” of the “Anti-British Anti-Violence Uprising”.

What is happening now in China and Hong Kong are actually similar to what happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. If anyone still believes that the trade unions and the labour movement dominated and controlled by the communist regime have their own free will and enjoy autonomy, he or she is impossibly naïve. In fact, a communist regime would never tolerate any trade union or labour movement that is independent of the communist party, the state and the totalitarian regime. The so-called freedom of speech and freedom of thought and action enjoyed by workers and trade unions is mere rhetoric. The trade unions and the labour movement have long been robbed of their right to voice their opinions.

Looking back on the history of the communist regimes of Europe, even though workers’ struggles were sporadic, any resolute struggle that workers undertook was treated as an act of sabotage or (counter)revolutionary activities. Even though workers had long been fighting for bread and freedom, in the face of the formidable and cold-blooded communist regimes, labour movements in Eastern Europe were often caught up in the cycle of “one step forward and then two steps backward”. Solidarity, the Polish trade union movement was joined not only by workers but also by all other Polish citizens. Over ten million people around the country took part in the movement. To counter the ruling regime’s usual tactics of “divide and rule”, the movement overcame differences among its participants in terms of class, social status, religions and other interests. It also kept reforming and improving its organization through practice. To force the Communist Party to negotiate with them on an equal basis, Solidarity occupied factories in 1980. When repression got worse, it went underground in 1982. In 1989, Solidarity became a political alliance that succeeded in overthrowing the communist regime. Through Solidarity the Polish people experienced democratic participation in an unprecedented way. After the extraordinary mobilization of citizens led by Solidarity and with the fall of the communist regime, the trade union leadership split up. Now the trade union no longer exercises the massive political influence it used to have. However, the role Solidarity played as the backbone of the struggle of the Polish people and its importance in Polish history is undoubtable.

As much as communist regimes frowned on democratic elections and multi-party systems, the form of struggles and resistance that the civil society assumed was also born from a desire for democracy and a multi-party system. It is of course not easy for any social movement to become a full-fledged people’s movement or to gain the influence that Solidarity enjoyed. The perseverance of the Polish people in differentiating truth from falsehood and right from wrong was definitely an important condition for the success of the movement. Aiming to build a humane society and refusing lies, they focused on gaining freedom from authoritarian rule and held fast to their belief in national autonomy, democracy and freedom. Solidarity’s organizing involved many aspects of work all of which were difficult and arduous. The Polish are polemicists and everyone wants to act in his or her own way.  However, after fighting with the communist regime over many years, they knew the cost they had to pay if they remain divided. They realized that it was absolutely necessary to safeguard the unity and integrity of Solidarity and to develop and organise the movement with an overall programme. Solidarity provided support and protection to all those who fought against the authoritarian regime, the collapse of which was accelerated because of such concerted effort.