Thursday 5 September 2019

Rebellion in Hong Kong?

Frankly, I’m sceptical. If that photo isn’t enough to justify my scepticism, these may help. If still images aren’t enough, then these two short video clips in Dan Cohen’s Twitter thread could be.

But maybe images aren’t your thing. Well, Cohen’s article may be.

Personally, I found some data about the protesters useful. A team led by Prof. Francis L. F. Lee (School of Journalism and Communication, The Chinese University of Hong Kong) collected answers from participants in Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests (website, report).


A word of caution: It’s unclear how reliable that data are. The researchers followed a definite methodology, which lends credibility to the results. Regrettably, however -- but understandably -- there is no indication of the population size.  Moreover, the information collected was necessarily limited and the circumstances the questionnaires were filled inevitably far from ideal.

Still, that’s the data. And I believe rarely, if ever, comparable data are available.

I present their results for June 9, July 1, and August 4, so as to give a roughly monthly account of how the protest movement evolved (readers, I trust, shall find it hasn’t changed much since its start). The survey offers data for August 4 two separate demonstrations. I weighted those results by sample size and consolidated them in a single set.

The first thing I would like to draw readers’ attention is the political affiliation of the respondents:

Based on the categories presented, it’s hard to form an opinion about the protesters’ political stances: for example, what does “localist” mean? Undoubtedly, such labels would make much more sense to local Hongkongers than to overseas readers.

The “motivations” (or demands) protesters expressed provide much needed further clues. According to the survey, their leading demands are calls for “the withdrawal of the extradition bill”, “the resignation of major officials”, “withdrawal of the ‘riot’ characterization of the June 12 protest” and “establishment of an independent commission of inquiry”. Additionally, protesters mean to “express dissatisfaction with police’s handling of the protests”, and to “strive for Hong Kong's democracy”.

The admittedly vague and uncertain impression the survey provides is that the protests are strictly limited to political/administrative issues. In other words, the goal does not seem to be a total and radical transformation of Hong Kong society, but only reforms on the way it is governed.

Another thing immediately apparent is that there does not seem to be any socialist movement involved.

Indeed, on the face of the protesters’ modest (and, frankly, reasonable) demands alone the pseudo-Communist, authoritarian Chinese government’s reaction seems out of proportion (although so far a lot less brutal than the French democratic government’s reaction to the gilets jaunes, largely ignored by western media). One could speculate they fear demands could escalate, the protest could metastasize into mainland China and that it could be fostered by foreign interests.

More understandable, but much less-publicised, is the adverse reaction of local plutocrats: as side effect, the protests are disrupting business. Their reaction should alert westerners intent on “progressive” reforms.


The survey provides strictly limited data on socioeconomic characteristics. That data apparently meant to elucidate income levels are not overly enlightening:

Again, a more precise picture is elusive, because that data correspond to respondents’ reported subjective self-assessments and people have a well-known tendency to see themselves as “middle class”, for example.

More instructive is the education level data:

Taking that data at face value, with all their limitations, the guess that the protest movement is more a “middle class” than a “grassroots” phenomenon seems reasonable. The fact even Hong Kong lawyers have taken to the street in protest (and published op eds in ABC asking to involve the Australian Labor Party in the protests) seems to fit into that guess.


Like I said, I am sceptical and I would advise Australian workers and socialists to be very cautious on this issue. But I would make that particularly extensive to Hong Kong workers and socialists: history is full of examples of bourgeois and petty bourgeois movements where the working class is used as cannon fodder in struggles between the high and mighty. Needless to say: the so-called People’s Republic of China is no such thing either.


Which is not to say that there’s nothing Lefties could learn from the Hong Kong protests. In fact, as this recent TV report by the ABC’s Sophie McNeill shows (and here), the protests reveal unusually clever and professional tactics. Food for thought, comrades.

UPDATE (12/09/2019):
Hong Kong protesters ask US President Donald Trump to 'liberate' Chinese territory as clashes erupt
Monday September 9
Thousands of protesters in Hong Kong have urged US President Donald Trump to "liberate" the semiautonomous Chinese territory during a peaceful march to the US Consulate, but violence broke out later in the business and retail district after protesters vandalised subway stations, set fires and blocked traffic.

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