Interview: after the Hong Kong rebellion

Issue: 173

Lam Chi Leung

Hong Kong hit the headlines in 2019 when a wave of struggles erupted, trigged by new extradition laws proposed by the Hong Kong government. Lam Chi Leung, a socialist activist based in the region, spoke to International Socialism about the struggle, its roots in earlier social movements and what has happened since.

At the moment, the coverage of Hong Kong in the West emphasises the repression of the democracy movement. It seems as if the movement that erupted in 2019, triggered by attempts by China to impose a new extradition law on Hong Kong, has been contained.1 How accurate is this perception?

We do have to admit that the anti-extradition movement has been contained. As of October 2021, 10,265 people have been arrested; 2,684 people have been charged with criminal offenses, and 720 of these have been charged with rioting. Nine activists have committed suicide, and some protesters are suspected of having been murdered.

The movement began when small numbers participated in sit-ins and marches in March and April 2019, but it evolved into widespread mass protest on the eve of the attempt by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government to pass the legislation on 9 June.2 The wave of protests included two marches of over two million people in June and August, in which one in four Hong Kong residents took part. There was also a successful occupation of the SAR Legislative Council on 1 July and a relatively successful political strike on 5 August. A large number of secondary school students demonstrated in September by forming human chains, and the Polytechnic University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong were occupied by students and protesters.

Violent clashes broke out with police in November, but the movement reached its climax and started to go downhill after this. Planned protests were halted or scaled down when Covid-19 emerged in Hong Kong in late January 2020, and then the Chinese state bypassed the SAR Legislative Council to force through a deeply reactionary Hong Kong National Security Law on 30 June. Although there were still sporadic demonstrations after the passage of this law, such as the spontaneous lighting of candles in various districts across Hong Kong on 4 June, the mass movement had largely ended.

Can you say more about how Covid-19 and other factors changed the pattern of protests? And what kind of situation has resulted since the protests ebbed?

Building on the momentum of the anti-extradition movement, a series of new unions were set up at the end of 2019. These include the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), which was established by frontline public health workers and recruited some 20,000 members. From 3 February 2020, these workers took five days of strike action, calling on the Hong Kong Hospital Authority to provide adequate personal protective gear to doctors, nurses and other staff. As the novel coronavirus spread from Wuhan to the rest of China, the HAEA also demanded the immediate closure of Hong Kong’s border with mainland China. So the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in Hong Kong caused the prestige of the SAR to tumble, while simultaneously accelerating the growth of the new trade union movement. People saw that an organised working class was better able to advance the movement than unorganised street actions.

Covid-19 was at its most serious in Hong Kong from February to April 2020; since May 2020 the situation has gradually been improving. However, despite the easing of the pandemic, the Hong Kong government has not lifted its directives restricting public gatherings and has prohibited a workers’ May Day march. The SAR government uses these directives to stop mass rallies on “sensitive dates”: commemorations of the Tiananmen Square protests on 4 June, the anniversary of the movement against the extradition bill on 9 June and the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China on 1 July.

The implementation of the National Security Law in June 2020 will be a strong deterrent to mass resistance, just as it was designed to be. The law is very stringent; its prohibition on the “subversion” of state power covers a wide range of activities, including openly calling for the independence of Hong Kong. Raising slogans calling for the downfall of the SAR government or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—including displaying banners with these demands—are likely to be illegal.

“Collusion” between the people of Hong Kong and foreign political forces is also forbidden by the National Security Law, but there is no clear definition of this crime. Moreover, the law provides for the establishment of a special Hong Kong enforcement agency made up of the national security authorities tied to the CCP government. This force can delete online content, enter and search homes, and request any information from an individual—there is no right to remain silent. Its officers can even freeze personal assets without court approval. Essentially, this special agency is unbound by the local laws of Hong Kong and can do whatever it likes.

Secondary schools and libraries have started to remove books that advocate Hong Kong’s independence or promote militant resistance by the democratic opposition. The CCP plans to implement a so-called “patriotic ideology”, leading to attempts at brainwashing in the education system.

Since the implementation of the National Security Law, things have been grim in Hong Kong. Around 100 people have been arrested under the law, including 47 opposition figures who participated in the 2020 pro-democracy primaries, which selected a list of candidates for elections to the Legislative Council. Jimmy Lai, the founder of Hong Kong’s pro-movement Apple Daily newspaper, and some of his senior staff were also arrested. Some 40 oppositional political and civil society organisations have announced their disbandment. Among them are the Civil Human Rights Front, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKAS), and student unions at institutions such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There have been big debates about whether to surrender without a fight like this. Some of those in favour of early dissolution of opposition groups insisted that disbanding would mean leniency from the authorities, which is largely untrue; others contended that if they failed to dissolve early, they might be physically harmed, which is likely true. However, still others argued against dissolution, including Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, vice-chair of HKAS: “The bigger the danger we face, the more we need to calmly assess the pros and cons of each choice… The regime has unsheathed its sword: ‘cooperating’ with its operations at this stage will definitely not get us any advantages.”

Along with Apple Daily, which was forced to cease publication in June 2021, Hong Kong’s alternative media has also come under serious political pressure; the website Stand News, for instance, has deleted all of its old articles. Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, which is editorially independent in principle, has been subject to strict government censorship over the past year. Certain programmes have been suspended, and some hosts have been replaced. Hong Kong citizens have become more cautious when posting online and raising political slogans, fearing they may be detected by, or reported to, national security authorities.

The National Security Law stipulates that not only acts, but even speech considered “separatist”, “subversive” or in “collusion with foreign forces” can be criminally punished. The definitions of these three legal categories are extremely vague. By deliberately refusing to clarify precisely where its political “red line” lies, the Chinese authorities aim to intimidate Hong Kong citizens in order to extend central government control. Some pro-Beijing figures have already argued that the National Security Law should not just be used to attack open oppositionists, but should also be the catalyst for a “political purge” lasting at least two years. The aim would be to effect a wholesale transformation of Hong Kong’s judicial, social, cultural, ideological, educational and media institutions.

In order to strengthen the control of the Chinese state, the Hong Kong SAR government is now preparing to restart the legislative process related to Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law. This process would mean Hong Kong establishing its own legislation to protect the “national security” of the Chinese government. The Chinese authorities have wanted to create such laws for a long time; in 2003, a march of 500,000 city residents led to the shelving of similar legislation.

Can you describe the nature and composition of the movement in 2019? What sort of social groups were involved? How did the movement organise? What were the central demands and slogans?

The anti-extradition movement was one of the largest and most violent mass struggles since Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997. It showed that the people of Hong Kong are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo since the handover of power and are extremely distrustful of the central government in Beijing.

The mass movement mainly involved young and middle aged people, but also older and retired people. Along with university and secondary school students, trade unionists, nurses, social workers, teachers and civil servants, there were even pro-movement rallies organised by the elderly. The marches and blockades were mainly launched through social media, and the strikes were in response to calls from trade unions. Nonetheless, neither the marches nor the blockades nor the strikes were primarily the result of mobilisation by social movement groups and trade union organisations. Instead, they were essentially spontaneous. This is why the movement was described as “decentralised and unorganised”.

The mass movement spontaneously came up with its own central slogan: “Five Demands, Not One Less!” These five demands were: full withdrawal of the extradition bill; a commission of inquiry into police brutality; retraction of the classification of protesters as “rioters”; amnesty for arrested protesters; and “dual universal suffrage”, meaning elections for both the Legislative Council and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.3 Other prominent slogans included “Liberate Hong Kong”, “Revolution of our Times”, “Fight for Freedom” and “Stand with Hong Kong”. With increasing state violence, some voices within the movement have even called for the abolition of the police force.

Although none of the five demands had a socio-economic dimension, the breadth of mass participation reflected public dissatisfaction with the serious exploitation and social inequality in Hong Kong. The free market capitalism of Hong Kong has further increased poverty and economic inequality. One in five Hong Kong citizens, some 1.65 million people, live below the poverty line. Its Gini coefficient, which measures wealth inequality, is higher than the United States and Singapore. As the father of Marco Leung Ling-kit, the first young man in the anti-extradition movement to commit suicide, told reporters: “The government has tailor-made the extradition bill for the rich, but has no protection for the rest of Hong Kong people. The government is ignorantly pursuing wealth, making young people work for the rich and become slaves, and the lower class and ordinary people have no right to ask questions about the policy.”

Who provided the leadership in the movement? And were more mainstream political forces involved?

This can be explained in terms of both organisational and political-ideological leadership. From an organisational point of view, the peaceful marches were mainly initiated by the Civil Human Rights Front, but the storming of government buildings and the occupation of universities were mobilised through social networks. The movement adopted the idea of “no big stage”—neither opposition political parties nor social movement groups took over leadership, not daring to do so. Even the Civil Human Rights Front, which initiated many marches, lacked the authority and ability to lead all aspects of the movement, instead merely providing a platform for public participation.

Ideologically, the movement mainly reflected the ideas of bourgeois democracy. Both pro-US and anti-Chinese far-right forms of Hong Kong localism, which resists integration into China from a right-wing perspective, have attempted to dominate the movement, but without success. Unfortunately, the left was also too weak and fragmented to have any real influence on the movement.

The notion of “no big stage” is partially a result of disaffection, especially among young activists, with the weaknesses and compromises of the moderate democrats of the Democratic Party.4 These activists distrust any party that tries to dominate the movement. However, the far-right localists also constantly push the idea, and they even claim to be “tearing down the big stage”, attempting to seize leadership of the movement by vilifying the progressive social movement. One of the movement’s slogans, “Do Not Split!”, ostensibly emphasises peaceful demonstrations and the unity of action without mutual recrimination; however, the objective effect is to allow the far-right localists to organise with impunity.

We on the left do not simply face a choice between two unpalatable options—bureaucratic, top-down organisation or unorganised forms of protest. There is a third option: the creation of forms of organisation from the bottom up, in which participants are mutually accountable. Once established, this could provide a platform for debate on the direction of the movement and, more importantly, a collective force to counteract the actions of individuals who undermine it. This would be an important step towards mass self-organisation. However, the 2019 movement failed to work towards this goal. This was a major weakness of the movement.

There were a number of large protest movements across the world in 2019. Did people in Hong Kong identify with any of these wider movements?

Solidarity rallies in sympathy with Catalan independence activists were launched during the mass movement in Hong Kong, but this does not equate to the masses identifying with Catalonia or other struggles around the world. Although Hong Kong is known as a cosmopolitan city, the general population is not very internationally minded, and most are still influenced heavily by British and US mainstream media. Nevertheless, the anti-extradition movement was never an isolated phenomenon. In 2019, mass movements erupted in Iran, Iraq, Ecuador and Chile. Some even compared these developments to the Arab Spring in 2011, dubbing them the “Spring of the Global South”, although there were also serious movements in the Global North, including France and Catalonia. Despite their differing catalysts and methods of struggle, these uprisings were united in their anger against social inequality and political repression.

Even the ruling class in Hong Kong and China understand that the gulf between the rich and poor is driving deep disappointment with the status quo, especially among young people. The inability to see a way out of this situation fuelled the movement for over half a year, and mainstream public opinion continues to support the protesters. The extradition bill was only a spark for the protests; the more deep-seated causes lie in the state’s neoliberal policies, the exploitative behaviour of financial and real estate capitalists, and the servile relationship of the government towards the rich.

The struggles in Hong Kong and elsewhere since 2019 all exhibit a certain crisis of the notion of leadership, and this has been particularly acute in Hong Kong, where the movement has advocated “decentralisation and no leadership”. This stands in contrast to the Sudanese Revolution’s “resistance committees” and the “assembly of assemblies” created by the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) in France.

What were the continuities and changes between the movement that emerged in 2019 and earlier movements such as the 2014 Umbrella Movement?

From 2009 to 2019, Hong Kong witnessed a long wave of rising struggle. This included the fights against the Hong Kong Express Rail Link in 2009 and against the implementation of the National Education curriculum in 2012. Underlying these protests were a radicalisation of ordinary people, particularly the youth, who are dissatisfied with the SAR government’s favouritism towards large consortiums in urban planning policies and attempts to introduce ideologically biased content into secondary schools. The so-called Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the 2019 anti-extradition movement are part of this long series of popular struggle. What all of these instances have in common is an impulse towards radical action to secure political democracy, albeit without a thought through plan.

Despite this lineage, the 2019 movement displayed characteristics different from its predecessors. First, unlike the Umbrella Movement, which fought to extend democratic rights to a general election and the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, the anti-extradition movement sought to defend existing personal freedoms and basic human rights from further encroachment. In this sense, it was a defensive rather than offensive struggle.

Second, the Umbrella Movement pursued tactics such as long-term road occupations, stressing the need for a “valiant” struggle with no retreats. In contrast, the anti-extradition movement adopted more flexible tactics in its early stages. Protesters did not just stubbornly defend their ground in the face of police repression; instead, they advocated a repertoire of protest tactics described as “smart struggle”.

Third, during the Umbrella Movement, many far-right localists were able to highjack the movement with demagogic slogans, such as “Hong Kong First”, which often targeted new mainland Chinese immigrants and tourists. The far-right localists’ influence in the anti-extradition movement was still evident, but also weakened. The majority of participants in 2019 were citizens who were inclined towards peaceful demonstrations and strikes. They criticised the far-right localists for advocating independence for Hong Kong, and they hoped, quite pragmatically, to gain support from mainland Chinese residents. To take one example, a protest took place in Kowloon district on 7 July 2019, where some organisers themselves tended towards xenophobic localism. Despite this, rank and file activists distributed flyers in simplified Chinese to tourists, sung the Internationale and chanted the slogan “Democracy is a Good Thing”—the title of a well known book by Yu Keping, a CCP official at the University of Beijing. Clearly not all protesters tended towards far-right localist ideas.

To what extent were workers, particularly organised groups of workers, involved in the movements of the past few years?

Since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the working-class struggle has made some steps forward. For instance, there was a public sector strike against privatisation in 2000, a construction workers’ strike in 2007 and a dockworkers’ strike in 2013. However, generally speaking, the level of activity and class consciousness among workers cannot be described as high.

The 2019 movement, for the first time since the Hong Kong riots of 1967, put the question of the political strike on the agenda.5 On 5 August 2019, some 350,000 airline and airport staff, social workers, and teachers struck. Perhaps a third of all air traffic control employees took part in the action, and a section of Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines cabin crew also joined, leading to the cancellation of over 200 flights. Subway lines were also suspended for half a day. Strictly speaking, though, this was not a full-blown strike; in order to avoid retribution from their employers, some workers (including teachers and social workers) used their annual leave entitlements to participate in the action. Some employers simply let their employees take leave for the day. Yet, although it was only a symbolic one-day strike, this was still a breakthrough. During the 2014 mass movement, only dockers participated in the occupation of the central business district, and only 2,000 social workers went on strike in support of the movement. The scale of mobilisation among workers in 2019 was much higher.

Some on the left see the recent movements in Hong Kong as pro-imperialist movements, influenced by the British and US governments, who wish to use them against China. What do you say in response to this?

From the establishment in China and Hong Kong to post-Stalinists internationally, there have been accusations that our popular movements are controlled and backed by Western forces, and that the movement is ultimately in favour of Hong Kong independence. This is false. The movement was initiated by citizens themselves, and its primary driving force has been young protestors—foreign governments have had no power to intervene. Some pro-democracy members of parliament, and prominent activists such as Joshua Wong, have favorable views of the West and a degree of faith in the US government. These people often appeared in the media, but only because they are relatively well known public figures. They also have no power to lead the movement, and they have very clearly disavowed leadership.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have said that they oppose the repression in Hong Kong, but there is a long history of exchanges between US law enforcement and Hong Kong police. Weapons and riot control technology used by the Hong Kong police have been supplied by US companies for many years. Many of the same technologies have been used on black protesters and their allies in the US.

Some on the left still hold a campist view, believing that some anti-US regimes still represent a progressive force against Western imperialism. Some even think along the lines of the old, false adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Those left wingers who support the Chinese regime as “anti-imperialist” and refuse to criticise it misunderstand the nature of this state. It is a bureaucratic, capitalist regime directed against the working class.

To what extent is there an organised left in the movement in Hong Kong—either broad formations or narrower revolutionary socialist groups? What kind of politics exist on the left?

The left in Hong Kong is small and divided, and encompasses social-democratic and broad left organisations, plus a minority of anarchist-style networks and revolutionary socialists. The socialist left has only a limited influence. Nevertheless, there were some positive developments between 2009 to 2014—particularly the formation of Left 21, a board left platform, founded in 2010, that has about 80-100 young members. It played an active role in solidarity with the 2013 dockers’ strike. Subsequently, however, amid the rise of far-right localist ideology, the broad left fell into political confusion, and some people were even won over to the far right.

Unfortunately, the left was unable to intervene effectively in the 2019 movement. Today, in the new political environment, the socialist left needs to work with the new generation of youth, organising around the issues that most concern the public, and clarifying its ideas at the same time. Only in this way can it gradually strengthen its influence.

In recent years, there have been big workers’ struggles in China over issues such as wages and factory closures. Yet, these seem very different in character to the movements in Hong Kong, which focused more on political questions rather than economic ones. Is there any prospect of bridging the gap between these two movements?

During the past decade of mass struggles in Hong Kong, the battle for democracy, universal suffrage and political freedoms has been the main theme, but it has also included economic struggles among workers. Conversely, the level of workers’ struggle in mainland China has been relatively high over this period. This has been complemented by a variety of civic currents, from the feminist movement to residents’ campaigns against polluting enterprises.

Since the 1990s, Hong Kong activists have consistently supported labour, human rights, gender rights, LGBT+ and environmental activists in China, contributing to the development of Chinese social movements and civil society. The relative civil freedom in Hong Kong enables activists to spread social movement literature into China, promote intellectual exchanges among mainland Chinese and Hong Kong activists, and organise solidarity with resistance in the mainland. Many books that could only be published in Hong Kong have been brought into mainland China, including writings by mainland Chinese authors. However, discussions about social movements have also been increasingly suppressed in Hong Kong. With growing central government control over Hong Kong and the disbanding of numerous labour NGOs, this role has been seriously undermined. It is unlikely to recover in the next few years, and may get even worse.

Nevertheless, there is still some room for activists from both sides to take stock of the experiences of the past decade and to build networks for the exchange of information and analysis. This would ensure that the movement could re-emerge in the future and develop healthily. The socialist left needs to work to facilitate this process.

What should revolutionary socialists be arguing for in Hong Kong?

As a city that is already part of China and highly integrated into the Chinese economy, Hong Kong’s future is closely linked to that of China as a whole. The greatest obstacle to democracy in Hong Kong comes from Beijing. Thus, democratic self-governance for Hong Kong can only be achieved if we do our best to work closely with the working people of all China, fighting for full democratic freedoms and working-class power.

This is why revolutionary socialists never saw Hong Kong’s independence as an objective. Only by promoting workers’ struggles and progressive social movements, such as the feminist movement within China, can we transform the bureaucratic capitalist system that dominates mainland China as well as Hong Kong. Realistically, advocating independence will fail to garner the support of the working people in mainland China, instead facilitating groups that seek to divide the residents of Hong Kong from those of China and to distort the democratic demands of Hong Kong residents. Therefore, calling for Hong Kong’s independence is an unreasonable and unwise choice.

Revolutionary socialists advocate the general slogan of establishing a “Hong Kong residents’ representative assembly by universal suffrage”, but we have no illusions about capitalist democracy. It is only the working masses, not the capitalists, who have the strength and determination to convene such an assembly. When mass struggles arise in the future, working people should set up a representative assembly to implement their own class will and move towards an anti-capitalist transformation of society and the economy.

What are the prospects for the movement in Hong Kong, and in China, in the years ahead?

The defeat of movements always leaves scars. After the failure of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in China in 1989, there were many years of downturn. Nevertheless, Hong Kong is different from, say, China back in 1989, because we still retain many freedoms. There is not total censorship of books and the internet, and we can still communicate with one another. National security surveillance is not as severe as it was in mainland China—or in Taiwan during the Kuomintang’s period of martial law between 1949 and 1987.6

Some argue that failed mass movements leave little memory and that future movements will find it difficult to learn from earlier experiences. This is an overly pessimistic assessment. Even in mainland China, it is common for young people to break through the restrictions on the internet and seek valuable information.

When will the current downturn come to an end? Looking at previous historical developments, it is unlikely that it will last long. China has lacked a strong mass movement since 1989, but there was a resurgence of workers’ and peasants’ struggles from the mid-90s onwards. After the Prague Spring in 1968 came the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia in 1977.

To a great extent, the future of democracy in Hong Kong depends on whether there is an economic and social crisis in mainland China. If the CCP’s bureaucratic rule remains strong, Hong Kong will face a period even more difficult than at present. However, the global capitalism system currently faces deep problems, and China’s crisis is brewing.

China has become an imperialist state, according to the classical Marxist definition, based on the rule of “monopoly capital”. The class nature of the Chinese state is not fundamentally different from Western imperialist states. China’s distinctive feature is its bureaucratic capitalism. This is a model of state capitalism that we could also refer to as party-state capitalism. This state form facilitates corruption and appropriation of state property by the bureaucracy, but it also allows for greater control of the economy than is typical under neoliberalism. Nevertheless, this model only benefits the bureaucrats and capitalists, and it is exploitative and oppressive towards working people. Internationally, China no longer represents anti-imperialism, instead becoming a late-developing but powerful international competitor. China is now turning into a regional hegemon in Asia through its capital exports, its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure project and its military expansion.

All the horrors of capitalist society are felt particularly acutely in China. Labour’s share of income in China substantially declined from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s. In 2020, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, remarked that China has 600 million people with a monthly income of just 1,000 renminbi (US$156). That is more than 40 percent of the Chinese population. Both economic and social crises are accelerating. The appeal for social justice is gathering strength.

With the passage of the National Security Law, Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms in relation to mainland China are disappearing. In this sense, the people of Hong Kong and China have become a single community of destiny. The struggle against the authoritarian capitalism in Hong Kong is an integral part of the opposition to Chinese party-state capitalism. Our allies should be the people of every country, especially the people of mainland China.

Lam Chi Leung is a socialist based in Hong Kong and the editor of Selected Writings of Chen Duxiu in his Later Years (Cosmos Books, 2012).


1 The new law would allow the Chinese state to demand the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China for trial. The movement argued that this would hand more power over Hong Kong to the Chinese central government and enable greater political repression.

2 The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was created in 1997 after territorial sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China. Hong Kong maintains separate economic and political institutions from mainland China under the principle of “one country, two systems”. The area was colonised by Britain from the end of the First Opium War (1838-42) and controlled by a governor appointed by the British state.

3 The Chief Executive, who is the head of government in Hong Kong, is currently selected by an electoral committee, with candidates mostly restricted to a list of those supportive of the Chinese central government. The right to vote in elections to this committee has been heavily restricted, with just 246,000 registered voters in 2016.

4 The Democratic Party is the biggest force within the “pro-democracy camp”. Along with other pro-democracy parties, as well as organisations from the “pro-Beijing camp”, it contests elections to the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

5 Strikes and riots shook Hong Kong in 1967, inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and resulted in government concessions that drove up wages, living standards and investment in public services.

6 The bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan after their defeat by Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and took charge of the island with the backing of the US. Martial law was declared in May 1949 and only repealed 38 years later. During this “White Terror”, 140,000 people were imprisoned for being perceived as pro-Communist. About 4,000 were executed.