Sacha Ismail says solidarity with beleaguered Hong Kong and Chinese workers is key

Mainstream UK political discourse about China focuses on the relationship between the British and Chinese governments. Labour, the trade union movement and the left should certainly counter right-wing pressure for geopolitical confrontation between Western governments and China. But our main duty is different.

The only morally defensible and politically viable basis for left-wing opposition to Western-China conflict is support for democratic and workers’ struggles in China.

Those fighting exploitation and oppression in China deserve solidarity just as much as those fighting in the US, for instance. In some ways, comrades in China need it even more, as they face such brutal repression.

The UK Labour Movement Solidarity with Hong Kong (LMSHK) was set up in 2019 to support the magnificent uprising for democracy which swept Hong Kong that year. We have since seen that struggle suppressed and the only fully independent workers’ movement in China dismantled.

March 2022 saw the start of the trial of 47 leading democracy activists, including Winnie Yu, leader of health workers’ union HAEA, and Carol Ng, a former British Airways worker and trade unionist who was chair of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). Other trade unionists, including HKCTU general secretary Lee Cheuk-yan, have already been sentenced to years in prison.

The Hong Kong and Chinese government have moved to dismantle the Hong Kong unions themselves. In January, the Union for New Civil Servants – one of many new unions formed in Hong Kong during the 2019-20 protests – became the first union to disband after civil servants were ordered to swear a loyalty oath. Since then, state pressure has broken down the dam, and the trickle has become a flood. In September, Hong Kong’s largest independent union, the Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) with 95,000 members, disbanded after almost 50 years’ existence. The HKPTU was the largest affiliate of the HKCTU. In October, under huge pressure, a meeting of HKCTU delegates agreed to disband the federation itself, bringing to an end its three-decades-long history of militancy.

The destruction of Hong Kong’s unions is part of a much wider assault on its civil society, including independent media. Previously, Hong Kong had enjoyed comparatively fair and free elections, albeit with limits and controls. In 2019, pro-democracy candidates swept the board in elections for district councils. However, in this year’s Legislative Council election, only pro-Chinese government “patriots” could stand, and turnout fell by half compared to 2016, to 30%.

Standing with democracy and trade union activists in Hong Kong is a matter of basic labour movement solidarity. It is also part of an even bigger picture.

The fate of China’s working class, and its ability to challenge the country’s increasingly powerful ruling class, will likely define the 21st century. At the same time as the destruction of Hong Kong’s unions, repression of workers’ struggles in mainland China has intensified. At the other end of the country, the Uyghur people are experiencing much more intense, even genocidal repression at the hands of the Chinese state.

LMSHK has been working to rouse the British labour movement to solidarity – with Chinese and Hong Kong-background activists in the UK, our friends in the Uyghur Solidarity Campaign, and a growing network of union branches, CLPs, trade councils and national unions including PCS, UCU, NEU and RMT. We have worked with many Labour MPs, particularly John McDonnell, Nadia Whittome and Clive Lewis. We helped get strong solidarity motions submitted to last year’s Labour Party conference, one of them by Labour socialist society East & South East Asians for Labour (formerly Chinese for Labour).

Now, in the aftermath of the Hong Kong democracy movement’s suppression, increasing numbers of Hong Kongers are coming to the UK, only to encounter a bleak reality of Tory anti-migrant restrictions, racism, lack of jobs, precarious employment and services in crisis. The Tories will not criticise UK corporations, including HSBC, that have endorsed and aided the repression in Hong Kong.

We must point out the growing parallels between repression in Hong Kong and China and here, with the Police Bill, Nationality and Borders Bill and other anti-democratic legislation.

Labour and trade union activists should invite a speaker from LMSHK to discuss solidarity – with those facing repression in Hong Kong and China, and with those who have made it or want to make it here in the UK.

In building solidarity, we can improve the politics of our own movement. Embarrassed to champion China as socialist, Stalinist-influenced voices resistant to supporting workers in China (and other authoritarian but anti-Western regimes) have exaggerated the threat of a ‘new cold war’ – and try to suggest it rules out working-class solidarity. They must be challenged.

International workers’ solidarity is the necessary basis of an effective struggle against inter-state conflict. The Hong Kong labour movement will rise again; China’s workers will rise and challenge the Chinese regime. Our labour movement must help speed the day.

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