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Kong Yee Sai Mau (No to WTO): The Battle of Hong Kong

Pranjal Tiwari and David Solnit | 19.12.2005 22:15 | WTO Hong Kong 2005 | Analysis | Globalisation | Migration

Sat Dec 17, Hong Kong—It’s 1:30 am in Hong Kong. We have just returned to the house after being in the Hong Kong streets all afternoon and evening in the most intense street battle that we have ever seen. We are taking turns showering the teargas and pepper spray off as we write this up. Farmers, workers, women’s organizations, fisher folk, Hong Kong youth, migrants and other movement people from Korea, across Asia and around the world marched on, broke through several police lines to less than a block from the site of the WTO conference center and laid siege to it until we were dispersed with teargas and mass arrests tonight.

We have heard reports that as many as 900 have been arrested or detained and we just got a cell call from an activist still surrounded in the streets who was had been warned that the police will start to use rubber bullets. Riot police have not been seen en masse on the streets of Hong Kong for some 20 years, and this city will never be the same after tonight.
Much of the commercial heart of Hong Kong Island was shut down tonight, and WTO delegates were locked in as the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center was under siege. Reports from inside signalled that they were desperate, frightened, and had even looted snack bars after the employees fled.

Korean farmers and unionists have led been the leading edge of the protest all week, both in numbers, creativity and militancy. They have been joined by farmers from across Southeast Asia, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and people from movements around the world. As the direction of the WTO negotiations of the future of the planet remained dangerously unclear, every sector of the global movements had called for the derailing of the WTO in Hong Kong- with the exception of a handful of co-opted groups like Oxfam who called for a better deal. Contrary to what media reports might say, the confrontations have been anything but chaotic. Korean groups led veritable battles against the police with their well-organized, incredibly courageous and militant resistance, and the scene on the streets felt more like medieval warfare than a riot. The police were out-organized, inexperienced, and unable to contain the huge numbers of people that broke through their lines on numerous fronts in the Wan Chai district. Police scrambled and remained on the defensive all afternoon and until mid evening. As hundreds of people assembled and fought with police within a city block of the Convention Center, they finally dispersed us with tear gas.

All this week, Victoria Park has been a massive, central convergence space, the staging ground for daily rallies, demonstrations and marches, celebrations and cultural performances, teach-ins, forums, networking and strategy sessions. Today’s march began with a couple hours of rallying on the stage there; farmers from the Via Campesina network, migrant workers and others speaking about their desperate struggles to survive, interspersed with songs, music, and theatre. Walden Bello, a long-time radical analyst, organizer and writer with Focus on the Global South had told the rally that what happened in the streets today would determine what happened inside the WTO. Very slowly, people formed into contingents. The various Korean farmers’ groups comprised the largest block of people, each with a giant flag at the head of their groups and other farmer groups marched together with the green Via Campesina bandanas and flags. We have been working to support the organizing of Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong all week, and were working on art for the demonstration the next day as the Thai farmers—part of a radical network called Assembly of the Poor-- formed up next to us.

We joined the march with a few friends from Hong Kong, Canada and the US, and we marched with a contingent of 150-200 people, most of them Indonesian women domestic workers in Hong Kong. They carried numerous purple flags and a giant batik banner-mural on bamboo poles, a large Indonesian flag with slogans painted across it, and another giant banner that read ‘Sink the WTO’. As we slowly filed out of the park into downtown Hong Kong behind the green flags of Via Campesina groups, we heard from people around us that some other, local groups had already marched to the designated protest zone—a controlled cul-de-sac along the waterfront within a two or three block view of the Convention Center-- and were confronting a massive police barricade tower, from which police were using pepper spray and water cannons to disperse the crowd. The designated area had already been sealed off by the time the large march hit the streets, so it was unclear where we would go.

We marched along a route through downtown that had become familiar over the week. Hong Kong residents, increasingly supportive of anti-WTO demonstrations throughout this week, lined the streets, some cheering, giving thumbs-ups, and even handing out snacks and water to demonstrators. After about half an hour, as we approached an intersection between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai districts, the march slowed and eventually came to a standstill. The migrant workers had a mobile sound system and alternately led chants and songs in Bahasa Indonesia, English, and Cantonese, making short speeches to the people of Hong Kong, and keeping the energy of the group spirited. We remained at the intersection rallying on one half of the two lane street, the second half of which was closed, and it was unclear what would happen.

Suddenly, and seemingly from out of nowhere, hundreds of demonstrators from the Korean Peasants League (KPL) came running down the other lane of the intersection, back from the opposite direction the march had been heading. Soon, another large group from the KPL came from behind us and overtook us, sprinting down the second lane in the direction we were walking, to loud cheers and chants from other groups in the crowd. Even in running through the streets they remained incredibly organized and calm.
Police vans moved in to seal the route of the demonstration. Police had also sealed off two of the remaining streets in the intersection, and moved in behind the march as well, such that we could not go anywhere. Then, one contingent of perhaps 75 Koreans confronted a police line and fought their way through it, leading a breakaway march onto the main thoroughfare of Hennessy Road—within five minutes the police had already been defeated.

As the police regrouped their lines and faced the streets bracing for another battle with the KPL contingent, a group of about two hundred Korean, local, and international activists came running and cheering from behind them, down the bridge leading to the designated protest zone. A whole generation of Hong Kong police has never had to deal with any militant or disobedient street protests, were unprepared, and by US standards not very aggressive—though of course, they had been pepper spraying people all week. Caught off guard and flanked by a large group sprinting towards them, the police were ordered to disperse by their commanders, giving up the intersection to the demonstrators.

Compared to the police, the Koreans were tight units of seasoned activists, who had been involved in the fiercest and most militant workers, student and farmers struggles in the world over many decades. They were both intensely organized, like an army without the rigidity, and very politically focused—chanting and singing their message and wearing clear messages on their matching “WTO Kills Farmers” vests, hats, headbands, and many with red signs attached the their front and back.

In a speech made at Victoria Park earlier in the week, a representative from the KPL told of how most of his contingent was made up of small farmers, some of whom had spent their life savings to get on a plane to Hong Kong and defend their lives and livelihood. In an attempt to bring to Hong Kong residents an idea of their situation and the issues that they face, a free broadsheet newspaper was printed in English and Chinese, and handed out to passers-by in many districts of Hong Kong during the week. The document did not mince any words:

WTO kills not only peasants but all people. Smashing the WTO into rubble is the only path to safeguarding our future and our lives.

Korean peasants have been pushed to the brink. Peasants have been driven to the deathbed: in just the month of November, 4 peasants took their own lives or departed this world at the hands of violent police repression. This is the bitter fruit of neoliberal globalization under the WTO.

After the 1994 Uruguay Round, the reality of the Korean agricultural community has been to bleak to express in words. The ranks of peasants shrunk form 10 million to 3.5 million and farm debt exceeds 27 million won (about US$ 27,00) per farming household. Since 2004, under the pressure of the transnational grain corporations and the USA government, Korea has had to participate negotiations over the opening of the domestic rice market despite the enormous damage this would cause to the agricultural sector. The resulting sentiment of crisis around the opening of the domestic rice market to imports and the failure of the government rice policy led to plummeting rice prices for rural communities harvesting this year’s crop and set off a rice crisis.

The WTO is behind these events to pave the way for food “occupation” by transnational grain corporations and dispossession of food sovereignty to treat food, as staple which the people of the world need to survive, as an object of business dealings.

The struggle of the world’s peoples in Cancun in 2003 felled the WTO and sent it to the emergency room; the Korean farmers are here to fight the anti-WTO struggle to choke off it’s last breath. We will keeping our hearts the words of LEE, Kyung-Hae as he ended his own life in protest” WTO Kills Peasants.”

Citizens of Hong Kong! Food is not a commodity. Agriculture is not a business opportunity. . If agriculture is liberalized, we will be pushed down the slippery slope of liberalizing education, medicine, services and everything people need to enjoy as basic rights will be taken away and provided only to the wealthy. We must all stand to protect agriculture as the first gateway. There is no country in the world that has completely entrusted its staple foods to the hands of overseas companies and survived. Defending agriculture is the way to defend our collective future.

A group of about 100 farmers and others from movements in Thailand had also made the trip to Hong Kong from Thailand. Most of them were also with a Thai network called Assembly of the Poor. A similar appeal was made to Hong Kong people to understand the situation of the farmers and to put themselves in their shoes:

To Hong Kong People,
We are Assembly of the poor an alliance from Thailand representing 19 networks of struggling poor and urban people, farmers, fisherfolk, people living with HIV/AIDS, workers, and landless peasants. We are affected by the trade liberalization and are made losers in the unfair game of that those people in the convention center are trying to make even worse. We are here in Hong Kong to make our voice heard and call for a fair world.

In the WTO conference, Thailand’s negotiators have been calling for a more liberalized market worldwide for agricultural products. We disagree. The delegation do not represent the best interests of small farmers. We knowthat this negotiation will not bring us benefits; only the rich would get richer from exports, while the poor poorer.

Our voice has never been heard. Our plight has never been heeded. That is why we are here, with support form the public who are concerned and aware of the consequences of the WTO negotiation. It is not easy for us to have been here in Hong Kong; in a different climate, with a different language, leaving our families behind. We have no choice. If we let the WTO have it’s way, our domestic market would be flooded by agricultural products from other countries. Thai farmers would be forced to produce more, but only for the benefit of exporting corporations.

Thailand’s Minister of Commerce and Thai delegate have not legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of Thai farmers. They do not represent us. They do not listen to us.

Governments propagandize the advantages of trade liberalization, despite the fact that the liberalized trade and agreements under the WTO would only worsen the sufferings of the poor all over the world, and push them to flee, migrating to be laborers in other countries, including Hong Kong, or into prostitution. A better world is possible. Hong Kong people can live happy lives, while farmers all over the world still maintain their livelihoods, by supporting our cause for a fair trade and the just and peaceful world.
We hope Hong Kong People who have greeted us with warmth and hospitality during the past week, understand our grievances and support our struggle. Despite obstacles, we vow to move forward. We, Assembly of the Poor, will work together with La Via Campesina, to stop this unfair negotiation until the very end.

Assembly of the Poor, Thailand

At this point we got separated into two groups. Two of us stayed with the migrant workers’ march, while others ended up with a group of about fifty Koreans from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), facing a line of riot police at the intersection of Lockhart Road and Tonnochy Road. After initial clashes during which several Korean activists were doused in pepper spray and beaten with batons, one being hit quite severely on the head, the demonstrators decided to regroup. In an amazing display of coordination, organization, and solidarity, an announcement was made that the group was going to take a rest and gather its strength. Twenty Korean activists and their supporters formed a cordon around the area of confrontation, keeping press and onlookers behind the human wall, and only letting in those who were prepared to join the confrontation. Individuals were angrily ordered not to throw things at the police, as if the group had no time for such small, futile acts of frustration. Inside the cordon, as KCTU members and a few international supporters sat in rows, bags of cookies and small cakes were handed out, along with boxes full of water bottles. Six or seven of the older KCTU members sat at the front, leaning with their backs against the police riot shields and sharing cigarettes as they discussed tactics. It felt like the calm before the next storm, and while there was still tension in the air, people seemed genuinely relaxed. Yet the forcefulness with which KCTU members urged us to eat cakes, drink water, and rest, suggested that we were gearing up for something big.

After about forty-five minutes, we were told to stand, and people were talking all around us in Korean. Not understanding what was about to happen and potentially heading for a major clash, I asked an activist around me for a translation. It turned out that another unit led by Korean groups had broken through police lines at another intersection, that other units were breaking police lines throughout the district, and that the police had essentially retreated to within a block of the Convention Center where a large mass of people were now gathering. Though there were still police at the intersection and dispersed along the streets, they made no attempt to stop us as we marched towards the Convention Center, ecstatic, cheering, chanting, and picking up many, many local supporters along the way. When we arrived at the top of the bridge with the spectre of the Convention Center looming so closely in front of us, we were at least one hundred and fifty people. There was already a crowd of at least two thousand at the scene.

The events at the Convention Center were much the same as the actions throughout the week. Periods of calm during which tactics were discussed and units divided up, followed by action. As we reached the intersection, however, the air of urgency and imminence was far more prominent than at any other time this week. Ahead of us we saw a line of riot police three people thick, to the side was another line of police guarding the road leading to the massive Central Plaza building, which is connected to the Convention Center by overhead walkways. Beyond them all, in front of the Center were police vans and pockets of riot police scrambling to regroup. Though a fairly formidable force, this was all that stood between us and the Convention Center. As people played drums, wrapped saran wrap around their eyes, put bandanas up to their mouths and noses, cheered, or just watched from the side, there was a palpable sense that we could actually do this, we could get to the gates of the Convention Center and shut this meeting down.

The police were preparing for the Korean groups to attack them head on. They had a huge spotlight behind their lines and were moving it around, trying to disorient the crowd. When the action came, however, it was not head on, but from the side, as a large group of demonstrators tried to break through the police line guarding Central Plaza. Demonstrators took apart wooden Christmas decorations to use against police and use bamboo poles to break the lines, and snatched row after row of metal barricades that stood in front of the police. The police were frightened, shouting ineffectually for demonstrators to stop, showering people with pepper spray, and beating them back with their batons. On the far side, the police line broke and officers retreated as demonstrators moved forward. A group of demonstrators ran with the final metal barricade, using it to charge the police line, which was now, for all intents and purposes, completely dissolved. At this point the police fired the first canister of tear gas.
To use gas in this small plaza, essentially a confined space except for above, was an incredibly stupid thing to do. The gas spread and lingered in the air for a long time, concentrated in the narrow streets walled by buildings and bridges. One woman collapsed and went unconscious, and demonstrators ran, vomiting, holding their chests, gasping for breath into the highway one block away. Amazingly, groups of Korean women continued to play their drums as people ran for open air, and isolated pockets of demonstrators could still be seen confronting police inside the thick gas clouds.

The use of tear gas in such a confined space was an admission of defeat by the Hong Kong police. They had been completely outplayed tactically, were about to give up the intersection leading directly to the Convention Center, and were desperate.

We were forced by the gas onto a four lane highway just down the road. The police had sealed off the exits on three sides, leaving one road open, which led to a block where police were stationed in fewer numbers. Demonstrators largely stayed in the middle of the highway, recovering from the effects of the tear gas, playing drums, dancing, with some attempting to uproot separation barriers that were bolted into concrete. The police lifted up large orange banners warning people that they were participating in an illegal gathering, and played pre-recorded announcements advising us to disperse immediately. Unfortunately, as several people found out, we were not being allowed to leave.

It was at this point that we came together as a group again, and decided to find the Indonesian migrant workers’ contingent. Due to their immigration and employment status, the migrant workers were in an extremely vulnerable situation, and had taken a significant risk in coming out at all that day. Arrest was out of the question, as this would almost certainly mean deportation, and loss of livelihood for them and their families back home. Several of them told us that they were frightened, and wanted to disperse. We decided to break into small groups and attempt to go through the police lines in different locations, particularly the lines further away from the highway where the police seemed less discerning about who was passing through their ranks.

We managed to shuttle most of the migrant workers out of the sealed area in this way, but some ran into trouble. Some were asked upon reaching the police lines if they were Indonesians, and when they replied, their bags were searched and identity cards checked. Moreover, when WTO-related pamphlets were found in one of their bags, the person was told they had to stay in the area and could not leave. After moving around different police lines and some frantic negotiation, however, everyone in our contingent was able to leave the area and regroup once again in Victoria Park.

We skirted police lines to get back to Victoria Park as much of downtown was sealed off with police lines and police vans and motorcycles- lights flashing- were speeding all over. As we neared Victoria Park we joined march of a couple hundred people led by the Philipine group. We marched with it for a few blocks as it grew in size. Then the march stopped and we continued. Victoria Park was surrounded by police lines and we could not see anyone going in or out. We negotiated our way through: “We are artists and left our supplies in the park” and walked through a gauntlet of cops. The usually vibrant bustling-with-people massive concrete open space in the park was completely abandoned with only police gaurding under military style police occupation. We went back to the migrant workers tent where the well publicized music concert with about thirty audience members and the park officials were trying to shut it down and demanding to see the permit.

As hundreds of people were still surrounded by police and being arrested our friend text messaged to us:
“OK starting arresting. very slow process. We sing and chant and sleep. All is the color solidarity. Peace.”

* Pranjal is a journalist, editor of In the Water blog ( and Hong Kong activist. David is a San Francisco Bay Area activist and editor of Globalize Liberation.

Pranjal Tiwari and David Solnit