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HONG KONG has always been a city of divided loyalties. Complex strands of class and national identities run through its labour movement just as they do elsewhere in Hong Kong society. In turn, these divisions have invariably reflected broader conflicts within the rest of China and between China and the outside world.
Today the two largest labour organisations in the city are the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and the Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU).
The FTU was formed in 1948 under recently re-established British colonial rule, three years after the end of Japanese occupation and just one year before the triumph of the Chinese Revolution. It is the older and larger of the two groups, with more than 200 affiliated unions and about 400,000 individual members.
Some of its constituent unions, such as the Hong Kong Seamen’s Union, have histories that stretch back to the great Hong Kong-Guangdong workers’ strikes of 1925-26. This rocked the then-British colony and almost brought it to its knees. The strike was in response to British army killings of anti-imperialist demonstrators in the Foreign Settlement in Shanghai, then a neo-colony of multiple foreign powers.
The strike was part of a wider upsurge of the Chinese anti-imperialist revolution of the 1920s. At that point, communists and the nationalist Kuomintang were still in alliance. This event condenses the historic interconnection between labour battles and China’s assertion of sovereignty over its national territory.
In the words of Alice Mak, the FTU’s most prominent contemporary leader and an elected Hong Kong Legislative Council representative, the FTU remains a proudly “patriotic” federation, which has always supported Hong Kong’s reunification with the rest of China.
“The FTU is a patriotic union, we have always embraced out motherland and during the colonial period we faced serious suppression by the colonial government. Today we have more than 200 unions, and some of our affiliated unions like the seamen’s union, were formed back in the 1920s. Those old trade unions experienced the repressions from the British and also during the Japanese occupation.”
After the FTU was formed, Mak says: “Our biggest challenge was to help the underprivileged. Many people lived a very poor life. The FTU’s aim was to improve their living standards. Grassroots workers had no opportunity to receive an education in normal schools. Many were illiterate and unable even to write their own names. Over the years, the FTU’s education network also became less primitive. We eventually established a secondary school for our members’ children in Mongkok [a district of Kowloon].
“At the same time we organised rather primitive clinics, but today we provide higher-quality healthcare services through modern clinics.”
Trade-union work, in the sense that it would have been understood in Britain at the time, was virtually impossible, and FTU affiliates in the colonial period often used the legal form of “friendly societies” to organise their membership throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
However, in 1967, a series of major labour disputes erupted across Hong Kong. A straightforward set of industrial disputes over layoffs and wage cuts, in which the FTU was heavily involved, exploded into a popular rising of resentment against British colonial rule. This took place against the backdrop of China’s ultra-radical Cultural Revolution. Scores of people were killed on both sides.
One result of the clashes was that, for the first time, the British colonial government conceded some positive labour reforms in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Hong Kong’s intimate relationship the mainland was about to shift again. During the 1980s, when China’s economic reforms began to take root, many Hong Kong manufacturers shifted their factories into the mainland.
Mak says of the period: “We experienced an economic transformation in that time. Before then, many of our unions had been in the industrial sector. The manufacturing sector saw grassroots workers lose their jobs. We had to face many new challenges.”
Even so, the FTU welcomed Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty and the end of colonial rule. The FTU has seen its role as playing a positive force in reunification, while at the same time promoting labour interests in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It has recognised Hong Kong’s pro-capitalist majority as a reality and therefore focused on a long-term strategy.
This stand made the FTU’s members, offices and centres a particular target of anti-communist rioters last year.
Mak, who was also a district councillor until the 2019 elections, saw her district council office vandalised on three occasions, including one attack in which rioters stormed her office and destroyed computers and office equipment. This included destroying her constituents’ application forms for the HK government’s Caring and Sharing scheme, which provides low-income households with £400 payment.
By contrast, the HKCTU, which was founded in the early 1990s by a coalition of labour groups linked to local Protestant churches, has enjoyed a generous subsidy from the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In 2014, documents leaked to the Hong Kong media forced the HKCTU to admit that it had received more than £500,000 from the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity over the previous seven years. The Solidarity Centre is a core part of the NED.
Other leaked files showed that HKCTU leader Lee Cheuk-ya’s political front, the Hong Kong Labour Party, also received funding from the city’s very own Rupert Murdoch, media mogul Jimmy Lai. The media multimillionaire had stashed cash directly into Lee’s personal bank account. When the story broke, Lee hurriedly transferred these funds to the HKLP account.
Early last year, the confederation’s Lee joined a delegation to Washington to support US legislation directed against China and Hong Kong drafted by right-wing Republican Marco Rubio. This has recently been repackaged, with bipartisan support, as the Hong Kong Autonomy Act.
Mak is dismissive of the possibility of finding common ground with the HKCTU. She says unequivocally that the confederation is working against the interests of Hong Kong and its people.
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