On Occupy Central’s ties with the NED

A follow-up piece to “Occupy Central: Hong Kong’s fight against neoliberalism“. Also published on CounterPunch.

Numerous alternative media outlets, including WikiLeaks, have pointed out the connections between Occupy Central and the United States government through an organization called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). I am not surprised at this, nor do I welcome it, given the United States’ questionable record (to put it nicely) at bringing “democracy” to countries where it has intervened in the past. It is most likely in Hong Kongers’ best interests that the US withdraw its monetary support for Occupy Central, as unlikely as this is to happen.

The same outlets, however, have been openly hostile towards Occupy Central for these reasons alone. Tony Cartalucci recently claimed that the protests “masquerade as a “pro-democracy” movement seeking “universal suffrage” and “full democracy,” but are really backed by “a deep and insidious network of foreign financial, political, and media support”. This assessment doesn’t do Hong Kong justice for two reasons: firstly, it portrays Hong Kongers’ grievances at the status quo as fictional and illegitimate, when they are in fact real, and it treats the protesters as pawns, when many in fact are taking to the streets of their own accord. Secondly, by treating the US as the sole independent actor in the movement and focusing entirely on analyzing and criticizing its actions in other countries, it only strengthens a United States-centred worldview that the mainstream media likewise seeks to disseminate.

None of the support provided by the NED for Occupy Central changes the reality of the economic situation facing middle- and working-class Hong Kongers today, brought about by the most extreme form of capitalism that the world has ever seen – to the extent that the extreme-right-wing Heritage Foundation dubs it “the world’s freest economy” year after year. It is poor journalism to even attempt to analyze the roots of discontent in Hong Kong while paying no attention to the structural factors involved, and yet the alternative media, like the mainstream media, have been guilty of doing so. Foreign writers who claim the movement is orchestrated purely by Americans are naive to believe Hong Kongers can simply be co-opted by an external force to demonstrate. This type of thinking is unfortunately symptomatic of a neocolonial conviction that somehow only “Westerners” are capable of thinking for themselves and acting of their own accord. Hong Kongers, like the Ukrainians, Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans and Venezuelans, are merely being manipulated by the “West”. Of course they are. After all, only those protesting against regimes in the “West” or backed by the “West” are legitimate – the rest are mere agents for “regime change”!

I will admit that I am not at all optimistic about the prospects of Occupy Central bringing genuine social change to Hong Kong. These prospects are only diminished by the involvement of the United States, with its own neoliberal and far-less-than-democratic agenda. They are further diminished by the absence of any radical groups calling explicitly for a more equitable distribution of income and wealth and end to the state’s collusion with established local and Chinese elites. But what is evident is that the status quo leaves no room for Hong Kongers to decide on how their territory is run, and that attaining the vote provides the opportunity, though far from a guarantee, for genuine socioeconomic reform, by deposing the established political and economic elite from their position of power. Who we will replace them with must be ours to choose, and that is precisely why the United States, as with China, must step back and allow Hong Kongers to decide their own fate.

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Occupy Central: Hong Kong’s fight against neoliberalism

Also published at CounterPunch, ZNet and GlobalResearch.ca.

As protesters flood the streets of Hong Kong demanding free elections in 2017, the international media puts on its usual spin, characterizing the struggle as one between an authoritarian state and citizens who want to be free. The left, meanwhile, has remained notably silent on the issue. It’s not immediately clear if that goes down to an inability to understand the situation, to an unwillingness to stand for supposedly liberal values, or to a reluctance to criticize China. As stories on Occupy Central flood the front pages of the mainstream news media, both the BBC and CNN have published handy “explainers” that confuse more than they explain, making no real effort to dig into the economic roots of discontent. The “Beeb” went as far as to ask whether “Hong Kong’s future as a financial centre” was “threatened” – giving us some insight into where the global establishment’s priorities lie.

But regardless of what the BBC wants the world to believe, Occupy Central isn’t so much a fight for democracy as a fight for social justice. It’s true that Hong Kongers are angry over Beijing’s interference in domestic affairs, whether these be immigration from China, encroachments on the freedom of the press, or the nationalistic-propagandistic “moral and national education” program. These issues, while serious, pale in comparison to the increasingly difficult realities of everyday life in Hong Kong. As City University of Hong Kong professor Toby Carroll points out, one in five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line, while inequality has risen to levels among the highest in the world. Wages haven’t increased in line with inflation – meaning they’ve fallen in real terms. The minimum wage, only introduced in 2010, is set at HK$28 (US$3.60) an hour – less than half of that even in the United States. There are no collective bargaining rights, no unemployment benefits and no pension. The average workweek is 49 hours – in case you thought 40 was rough. Housing prices are among the highest in the world. Even the neoliberal Economist placed Hong Kong top of its crony capitalism index by some distance.

The list of people who have spoken out against Occupy Central is particularly revealing – oligarch Li Ka-shing, HSBC, the world’s four largest accounting firms, among others in business circles. The main issue with CY Leung’s administration isn’t the fact that it wasn’t democratically elected, but that it serves two main groups: Beijing on one hand, and local elites on the other – in other words, far from democratic in its representation. It’s not hard to see why big business and the oligarchs are terrified of Occupy Central: any movement towards real democracy would see them losing power and losing their grip over the territory. The status quo, on the other hand, serves them well.

Hong Kongers are not an ideological bunch. We’ve never had a vote – not under 17 years of Chinese colonial rule, nor under a century of British colonial rule before that – yet we were good colonial subjects and we stayed quiet because we were making a living just fine. But as the middle and working classes start to feel the crunch, the ruling class is starting to realize that it cannot simply let them eat cake. The battle for democracy isn’t a battle for the vote, but a battle for real democracy: for the right of the people to govern themselves. The vote is merely the starting point to a long process of reform that takes the power out of the hands of Hong Kong and Chinese elites and, for the first time, into those of ordinary people.