An interesting story was in the Guardian about successful litigation by a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong against her employer, a family who were abusive to the point that she has permanent injuries. The rise in migrant nurses, domestics, and construction workers is accompanied by widespread abuse and slave-like conditions. The wealthy nations continue to get wealthier, and their elite require a wide range of help.
The plight of migrant workers all over the world reminds me of Chief Justice Taney’s famous line from the Dred Scott decision, that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The American system of chattel slavery is not a perfect comparison by any means, but the entitlement that the wealthy have in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, is incredible. If migrant workers are held with contempt and their humanity not made a societal concern, then the abuse should not be a surprise. We can only be surprised by human rights abuses in a world where they should not be expected. We do not live in such a world currently.
Thanks to all who have read some part of this blog in 2014. Though this isn’t a blockbuster website, traffic did quadruple from 2013, which itself quadrupled from 2012. There is now a fairly active Twitter account tied to the blog (@MackayUnspoken), and almost 300 people subscribe through WordPress.
More content in 2015. There’s still chaos in central Africa, eastern Ukraine, and the Rohingya areas of Myanmar. Mass protests have stalled in Hong Kong, while radical left-wing party are on the brink of seizing power in Greece and Spain. We still live in an age of austerity, growing inequity, and environmental disaster. There is so much more to write about, because so much lies beyond the scope of cable news and social media. Immense problems need radical solutions.
Take care, looking forward to all this.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,100 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.
Three years ago, I was standing in front of the City Hall in San Jose. We only had five tents set up (police and city government were preventing a larger encampment) but we were here. Occupy San Jose.
An almost-stranger and I were talking. You met dozens of people, yet learned their deep-set moral principles instead of their names. Who this man was I have no idea, even his appearance has been forgotten. What he said has always stuck with me. It helps illustrate a problem American activists may have, and one that is detrimental to the global social justice movement.
News was coming about developments in the Chilean students’ resistance movement. Their work was inspiring. My conversation companion said “I’m so glad that they’ve been inspired by Occupy Wall Street.”
*record stop* Woh. We have a major problem here. Chile’s movement predated the occupation in New York, dating to around May 2011. Occupy in America started in mid-September, by then mass protests had already happened all over Chile.
To be sure, I do not blame this man for his ignorance. Few non-activists paid attention to what was happening down in South America, and Occupy brought many people in with no prior political awareness. This thought provides a learning opportunity. America (and Americans by extension) are used to running the world. This doesn’t just apply to foreign policy and government action, but is also the case with popular culture. Much of the world mimics or consumes whole American music, film, and fashion. Beyond the economic lies the political and social structure at the lowest levels of the population. If you take your lessons from the largest institutions, you might think that the activists of the United States start all social movements, and invent all new methods of protest.
So America is a grand stage where ideas gain currency. As the first organizers of Occupy San Jose stated plainly to those at our first meeting, the general assembly structure was stolen wholesale from the campaign in Spain. That is the key- to acknowledge the forebears, and avoid being American chauvinists. The Civil Rights Movement had many unique features, but it owed a massive debt to the decades of struggle in India. If Americans claim that all social movement strategy and tactics are native to the country, they risk alienating the larger world community. We must be aware of the past, incorporate past successes, and avoid past failures. In action, steps must be taken to avoid American stereotypes.
Occupy was incredibly important. But it was not born of nothing, and its influences are valuable sources of strength and wisdom.
Just a week ago the protest movement was catalyzed (and moved forward in timescale) due to student action. Now older citizens of all stripes have joined in, including businessmen and women, as this liveblog update catalogues:
In Admiralty, the crowd began to swell, fuelled [sic] by many working in Central who came out during their lunch breaks to voice support.
Clad in a stripped shirt, Lampson Lo Ka-hang, 33, said: “They are doing the right thing because someone needs to pressure the government,”
He said most of his colleagues were supportive of the movement.
Another man in his 30s, surnamed Yu, who works for a financial firm, said: “I just want to take this time to support these students.”
This is joined by large solidarity protests all around the world, including in regions dealing with similar problems, like Singapore.
And now there is a burgeoning strike movement. Given Hong Kong’s centrality to the global economy, the greatest power protestors possess (besides moral rightness) is the ability to disrupt the way China does its business. The mainland is known for sacrificing many things to keep factories running and capital moving. The PRC government has its hands tied on one of their usual solutions to unrest- appalling violence- and thus has to face the umbrella-wielding activists on unfavorable soil.
The fight will be long, for Beijing is used to besting social movements, as this year’s 25th anniversary of the June 4th massacre shows. But there is a built-up call for more political rights and economic justice. Heartening stories have been relayed, of mainland tourists showing support, amidst the expected skepticism and contempt. Events will always tilt towards those areas where protest is least constricting, and despite the tear gas and pepper spray, Hong Kong is still that island for which the issue of democracy for all of China will ultimately begin.
Each aspect of Hong Kong society is joining together, joined by the huge diaspora across the world, and other allies- many in their own battles against oppressive institutions. The bundle of sticks does not break when bent- it stays strong, and cannot be destroyed.
American media accounts tend to focus on the umbrella- now only four days in immortalized as a revolutionary symbol- as a way to deal with pepper spray. What gets left out is that Hong Kong has a subtropical climate. Not only has it been in the 90s (F), the summer is also notoriously rainy. In this way, umbrellas are the ultimate protest tool. Not only have they helped against police crackdown, the shade and rain protection have kept thousands of people at their posts. An economic shutdown only works as long as people are willing to stay out in the highways and streets.
Twitter is probably the best way to keep track of things, but some websites are doing an excellent job. The South China Morning Post has kept a very well-maintained English-language liveblog, the current section is located here.
Occupy is not just a movement, confined to a place and time. It is a method of action. It is a title given to those that go out and work. It existed long before there was a march on Wall Street, and exists now and will in the future. The protest here has been incredibly well-coordinated, but on a grassroots level. If people are disciplined and certain key traits (nonviolence, respect for the city) are maintained, there is no need for a rigid hierarchy. I am continually impressed by the humanity and decency shown by the protesters, but also their strength under fire, and their endurance under bad conditions- whether pepper spray or pelting rain.
One of the strongest, most incendiary things an individual, or a group, can do is to seize a physical place and refuse to leave. The action of occupation is as old as mass movements, and predated the big-O Occupy movement. It is used to protect people from eviction, to keep park space free from development, to block access to political institutions, and to paralyze the economic infrastructure of towns, regions, and whole nations. As was the mantra in 2011 among some activists, sometimes you need to shut this motherfucker down.
Occupy Central comes from a long and storied history of nonviolence. The color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon occupied key places of political and cultural importance. Central goes beyond that to a more radical place- using occupation as an economic weapon of the people. We saw this happen with the West Coast port shutdowns three years ago, and the related Block the Boat campaign against Israeli industry. There is an added weak point in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and other major ports- access of goods and labor is of international importance. To shut down central portions of Hong Kong is to amplify the power of the act of occupation, so it can reverberate into global markets. In the short term, good business must be paid for by increased political rights. From that platform, working to change the global economic system becomes easier.
They now call it the Umbrella Revolution. It certainly has gained that tangible thing that defines great movements, whether a place, color, or object (Serbia’s 2000 peaceful revolution is sometimes dubbed “The Bulldozer Revolution” due to protestor tactics to break up barricades).
The whole world is watching. We have been blind to the authoritarianism creeping throughout Hong Kong. It has been a time to get educated, and get on the right side of affairs.
Following a strong students’ strike on Friday, the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong launched Occupy Centralin its full form early.They aim to paralyze the economic center of the territory, to force changes in the political structure to allow for universal suffrage and free election of the chief executive in 2017.
I first wrote about the simmering conflict over a year ago, and about Occupy Central earlier this month. It is a reminder that some of richest places in the world, like Hong Kong and Singapore, are not true democracies and their people are fighting for the same political rights that many in the developing world seek.
Hong Kong exists in the nexus between colonialism and authoritarianism, a British holding turned over to China but given certain rights that the mainland population does not have. The agreement was vague, and Beijing is attempting to keep true democracy off the table, and make an already anti-democratic system more rigged.
Occupy Central is a shining example of the mass civil disobedience that is popping up all over the world, which can challenge governments and the existing economic order that resists progress.
As with climate change, world poverty, endemic racism- there is no time for gradualism. Hong Kong has waited 17 years for full democracy and has not gotten it, and will never get it if the present state of affairs continues. The need is for people to get more radical and ambitious with their movements. It’s to go beyond symbolism and into disobedience. Nobody said a just society would come easy.
The ongoing struggle for transparent democracy in Hong Kong continues, as the last week featured significant setbacks. 2017 will bring the first direct elections for the head of Hong Kong, but it appears that the process of nomination will be rigged in order to elect candidates willing to support policies of mainland China. Candidates will need to be approved by a majority of a large nominating committee, which will likely have a conservative bias that defers to the Beijing government.
Election boards do not see high-profile use in the United States, but they are a key mechanism resisting multiparty politics. They have been used to exclude many candidates for the Presidency of Iran, and are a weapon for incumbents and dominant parties.
When the British left in 1997 very little effort was expended towards ensuring a democratic Hong Kong. Thus the past two decades have been full of vague promises. Since no dates were etched in the political process, things have been delayed as long as possible. This has mostly benefitted pro-Beijing groups; democratic opposition can only show its full power when there are democratic elections to move in.
One of the main democratic coalitions, Occupy Central, are furious. They promise to radicalize and expand protests, but Hong Kong does not have the same powerful push for democracy that other places have. Due to its economic importance, and its attachment to the political and economic power of China, few major players date side with Occupy Central:
China recently warned foreign countries against “meddling” in Hong Kong’s politics, with an article in a state-run newspaper on Saturday accusing some in Hong Kong of “colluding” with unnamed “outside forces”.
Despite great wealth and geopolitical importance, Hong Kong is an ignored front in the fight for worldwide democracy.
Hong Kong has only recently entered into international focus. Several weeks ago, NSA analyst Edward Snowden began to divulge information about American surveillance programs against foreign and domestic targets. He did so from a hotel in Hong Kong, and the next month was a media circus over who Snowden was and whether he would be extradited to the United States.
Ultimately, the struggle over Snowden is not the major struggle involving Hong Kong. On July 1st, 1997, sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, which made the territory a Special Administrative Region (SAR). The agreement between the two countries made explicit that Hong Kong was to enjoy fundamental freedoms that the rest of Chinese citizens do not have. This dichotomy, part of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” policy, is reflected in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which in part reads:
Article 5 The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.
Despite these legal provisions, Hong Kong is a frontline in the battle for democratic rule and civil rights. Though this fifty year guarantee is written into law, the history of post-handover Hong Kong is not one of democratic rule. The executive head of a the area was picked by the Beijing political elite and though “Beijing has promised that Hong Kong citizens will be able to pick their own chief executive …no later than 2017 and pick an entire legislature by 2020” it would be ill-advised to expect an authoritarian state to give full democracy to a part of its people.
July 1st has also been key anniversary, and brings together of groups that oppose the current government of Hong Kong, the Chinese government, or lament that handover from Britain. Despite monsoon rains, at least 100,000 people marched.
The battle for justice and civil rights does not just go through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Burma. It goes through Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore- where highly-developed free market capitalism is stubbornly married to intrusive, strong-armed governments. Though political scientists have correlated certain types of wealth to more pluralistic and free societies, there are always exceptions.
Hong Kong is held between two worlds. The PRC every day looks more economically similar, the charade of democracy is still there. The wealthy capitalist countries of Europe have the same gleaming skyscrapers and business cultures, but they also have universal suffrage and imperfect, but working democracies.
Every great march in Hong Kong could be its last. With these calls for reform, democracy, and civil rights we see 1989 again. The failure, the blood, and promise that never again will such change be turned away with armored cars and rifle butts. This July 1st, those in the past and those yet to come, are a reminder.