By Pete Radcliff
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has now opened up an attack on the very existence of independent trade unions in Hong Kong.
On Saturday 31 July, the main Hong Kong teachers’ union, the HKPTU, was accused by the Communist Party and Chinese state media (People’s Daily and Xinhua) of being a “malignant tumour” that needed to be “eradicated”. A couple of hours later, the Education Department of the Hong Kong government announced it had broken off all relations with the HKPTU, refusing to talk with them – in effect withdrawing recognition. On 10 August, after a series of retreats, the HKPTU disbanded.
The regime has already made large protests or assemblies illegal, threatening renewals of the 2019/20 democracy protests with the National Security Law (NSL) and possible life sentences. On Friday 30 July, 24 year old Tong Ying-kit was given a nine-year prison sentence, six and a half years of which was for flying a flag saying “Liberate Hong Kong”, the first conviction under the NSL.
They have demanded oaths of loyalty to the regime from public sector workers. They have imprisoned some journalists, intimidated others, and forced the closure of some of the oppositional press. The regime’s courts have defined the major slogan of those protests “Liberate Hong Kong: Revolution Now” as incitement to secede illegal under the NSL.
Leading activists of the democracy movement are in jail awaiting trial on NSL charges of subversion for trying to win the 2020 elections. Even the broadest and most moderate groups such as the Hong Kong Alliance and the Civil Human Rights Front have had their leaders arrested and charged under the NSL.
Leaders of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) such as Lee Cheuk Yan and Carol Ng have been jailed. The move against the HKPTU is the first against the very existence of the independent trade union movement. The HKCTU emerged in 1990 to challenge the pro-Beijing HK Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU), and includes new unions set up in late 2019.
The HKPTU is the largest of the HKCTU’s affiliates, with about 96,000 members. Most of its members work in schools, a few in universities. And of the 10,200 arrested by the police in the 2019-20 democracy protests, 42% were students.
The pro-CCP authorities say that teachers were fomenting the dissent. Squashing dissent in schools is now the government’s highest priority.
Three teachers known to have been involved in the protest movement had already been sacked. In May 2021 respect for the NSL was made mandatory in the Economics, History and Social Studies curriculum.
Teachers objected to this pro-National Security Law curriculum being forced on children as young as six years old.
However the main charge made against the HKPTU, at least in the Education Department statement declaring derecognition, was their involvement in the Civil Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Alliance. Most of the activists of both of these broad and generally moderate campaigns have been arrested for their role in protests.
Sadly, the HKPTU has responded to the attacks by retreating. On 29 July, the HKPTU withdrew from the Hong Kong Alliance and also declared that it had always opposed independence for Hong Kong. It pulled out from the HKCTU and from the Educational International union grouping. It declared that it was withdrawing from political involvement and would concentrate on welfare work for its members. On 7 Aug, HK Education Secretary Kevin Yeung issued an open letter to Hong Kong teachers calling on them to resign from the union. On the same day, the HKPTU announced a working group to promote a “positive understanding” of Chinese history and students’ love of “their country”. Then on 10 Aug the HKPTU disbanded.
The attack on the HKPTU is a threat to the whole independent trade union movement in Hong Kong. Despite the ongoing repression and the arrest of their leaders, the HKCTU has bravely continued to function – representing workers against the repression and against bosses’ intimidation too.
The Labour Movement Solidarity with Hong Kong campaign has issued a statement (bit.ly/hk-ptu) signed by three UK union general secretaries and over 150 other trade unionists. We demand a reversal of the HKPTU’s derecognition. Teachers and students must be able to challenge the curriculum and education system that the CCP would like to impose on them. We support the HKCTU against the further attacks now likely.
The Hong Kong independent unions are the only legal ones in the territories ruled by the CCP. They are a beacon of hope for workers in China, where the only union allowed is the state-controlled ACFTU, whose primary role in to police the workers rather than organise them to fight back. The National Security Law, with its xenophobic curbs on “collusion with foreign forces” is now being used to stop unions in Hong Kong making contact and requesting international solidarity.
Hong Kong trade unionists can’t speak out on this without facing arrest. That makes it even more important for unions and activists in Britain and elsewhere to speak out, working with the growing Hong Kong diaspora here.