Argument

Hong Kong on Strike

The picket line could be a powerful tool in the fight for democracy.

Protesters confront police after the Legislative Council building was damaged in Hong Kong on July 2.
Protesters confront police after the Legislative Council building was damaged in Hong Kong on July 2. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Hong Kong’s business community is usually a conservative and cautious group. But as the world’s camera lenses were fixed on a violent clash between protesters and riot police in Hong Kong on June 12, more than a thousand local businesses participated in the city’s first general strike since the 1960s.

Suggestions for a strike began on June 9, when it became clear that the government would refuse to shelve the controversial extradition bill despite huge demonstrations. A local minivan delivery service became the first company to announce that its employees would go on strike on June 12, the day that the bill was scheduled for a second reading in the legislature.

In the following days, businesses including restaurants, bookstores, grocery stores, and cafes announced that they would shut their doors to join the protest.

In the short term, the impact of the strike was minor. But the adoption of a new protest technique points to how the extradition bill has radicalized Hong Kongers—and could prove a potent tool of opposition to Beijing.

Ironically, Hong Kong’s last general strike was instigated by Chinese communists against the British colonial government in 1967. A series of major labor disputes descended into rioting in the summer of that year. Pro-communist activists rallied 60,000 workers to go on strike, and 20,000 students boycotted classes. Rioters also planted thousands of homemade bombs around the city and cached firearms. An anti-communist journalist was burned to death. By the time the riots subsided in December, 51 people were killed and hundreds injured.

The 1967 riots left Hong Kongers with a distaste for labor strikes and a wariness of mainland political interference that continues to this day. The riots also forced the British government to initiate a series of unprecedented social reforms, such as public housing programs and creating a labor tribunal, to improve the welfare of workers. This, together with the disappearance of blue-collar jobs in subsequent decades, led to the decline of labor strikes as a political phenomenon in Hong Kong.

The city hasn’t seen a single strike for the past five years. Its last industry-specific strike, carried out by dock workers who demanded better pay and working conditions, took place in March 2013.

Labor was a critical force in driving the strike, although participation was strictly voluntary. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the city’s largest pro-democracy labor group representing almost 200,000 workers, urged its members to join in. Hong Kong’s largest teacher’s union called for a citywide class boycott, and 4,000 teachers went on strike as a result. Various bus and airline unions, including staff members of Hong Kong’s flagship air carrier Cathay Pacific, also struck.

Yet the eventual strike was fairly small—unsurprisingly for a grassroots, hurriedly organized, and fragmented campaign. The vast majority of Hong Kong’s 370,000 enterprises remained open for business. Most of the establishments that went on strike were small and medium enterprises, which employ less than half of Hong Kong’s workforce even though they comprise 98 percent of all city’s businesses.

But the June 12 events could still be a precursor for sustained nonviolent activism. While peaceful demonstrations have often been ignored by the government, and riots are condemned or suppressed, a large-scale general strike that gathers people from an array of different industries could be a third way to compel a constructive response from the authorities.

With its reputation as Asia’s financial hub at stake, any credible threat of paralyzing Hong Kong’s economy could force the establishment to make concessions that current demonstrations have failed to realize.

Mass strikes have been a successful political tool in the past. In 1981, Poland’s communist government was brought to the negotiation table by Solidarity following the biggest warning strike in the history of the Soviet bloc. More recently, a general strike was initiated in Sudan on the same day as protests broke out in Hong Kong on June 9. The Sudanese strike convinced the country’s military government to renew negotiations with the public to form a civilian administration.

The result of future general strikes in Hong Kong will depend in part on whether the movement can rally workers in the four key industries whose ongoing operation is vital to the city’s economy: finance, tourism, logistics, and professional vocations including legal and accounting services. These four sectors make up almost 60 percent of the city’s GDP. A successful strike depends on the participation of workers in these industries and other white-collar professions, including the civil service, where union activity has historically been anemic.

An effective general strike must also mount a public relations campaign to win support and sympathy from a broad swath of society. When protesters start to engage in violent activity—such as the forced entry and occupation of Hong Kong’s legislative building on July 1—they risk losing the moral high ground and support not only from the general public but also from the international community.

By contrast, nonviolent strikes should make a persuasive moral case for impeding the everyday operations of the city and argue that short-term economic loss is a worthy sacrifice for safeguarding fundamental liberties that would be irreparably damaged by the passing of the bill.

Pro-democracy strikers will run into the challenge of a lack of resources. The largest trade union in the city, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, is pro-establishment, making it highly unlikely that it would back any resistance against the government. Any union that benefits from financial support from the mainland would also be reluctant to join the strike.

That will necessitate substantial mutual aid networks. Hong Kongers have already proved themselves more than capable of organized supportive action during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when thousands cooperatively managed resources to sustain a sit-in that lasted for over two months.

However, general strike action in Hong Kong could potentially trigger extreme action from the Chinese Communist Party. In December 1981, half a year after the strike led by Solidarity, the communist Polish regime jailed around 5,000 Solidarity members and other activists overnight and imposed martial law in the country to prevent the opposition from gaining more power. Martial law was lifted only two years later following a period of intense political suppression. Such actions could be paralleled by Beijing, which may see it as a preferable cost compared to allowing the democracy movement to hold Hong Kong’s economy hostage. Especially given the seizure of the Legislative Council buildings on July 1, Beijing may be moving to more extreme measures.

Yet a well-coordinated general strike in Hong Kong, coupled with ongoing public dissent, would be an arresting civil campaign. The government has bowed to public pressure and suspended the extradition bill on June 16. But the Civil Human Rights Front, the principal organizer of the demonstrations, has announced that it will reserve the option of initiating a general strike as a last resort. Hong Kongers’ resilience, and the threat of economic disruption, could very well force the government to think twice before pushing unpopular bills through in the future.

Dominic Chiu is a native Hong Konger.

Tiffany Wong is a native Hong Konger now based in Berlin.

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