The 6th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization had concluded with, as the Chinese newspapers say, “modest gains.” The parallel actions by people’s organizations in the streets of Hong Kong, however, were a resounding success.
From December 11 to 18, the mood in Victoria Park, and in the streets where demonstrations were held, was festive. It almost looked like a celebration of sorts. A victory, perhaps, for thousands of activists, farmers, trade unionists, women and youth from around the world who managed to get by the paranoid Hong Kong immigration to participate in the People’s Action Week (PAW) against WTO organized by the Hong Kong People’s Alliance (HKPA).
It was a feat in itself to have reached Hong Kong. The holiday rush was gaining momentum, and tourists from curious mainlanders to Mike Arroyo were trooping to the former British colony to get a glimpse of the newly-opened Disneyland. On top of it, the WTO was holding its ministerial meet in Hong Kong, which was being dubbed as the supreme model of the success of neoliberal economics. Of course, wherever the WTO goes so does the protests of activists who take such opportunities to loudly condemn WTO for favoring rich countries at the expense of poor ones.
HK immigration had reason to be paranoid. Previous ministerial meets in Seattle in 1999 and Cancun in 2003 were hounded by noisy, often violent, demonstrations. In Seattle, American activists battled police in what is now called “Battle of Seattle.” In Cancun, a South Korean peasant leader stabbed himself to death to dramatize how the WTO kills farmers in his country.
At the onset of preparations to the latest ministerial meet, talk was rife that the HK government had compiled a “blacklist” of international activists who would be barred from entering HK. This was later confirmed by the huge number of would-be protesters who were denied visa. HKPA’s Apo Leung said around 25 to 30 PAW participants from Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Iraq were denied visa on spurious grounds.
Filipino participants, meanwhile, got a taste of Hong Kong government’s hospitality when we arrived last December 8. I was with the same Cebu Pacific flight from Manila as many of the militant leaders from Bayan (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan), ILPS (International League of Peoples’ Struggle)-Philippines, and KMU (Kilusang Mayo Uno).
While I managed to pass by HK immigration as a journalist “on vacation,” (I wasn’t an officially accredited member of the press covering the WTO) Carol Araullo of Bayan, Elisa Tita Lubi of ILPS Philippines, and Norma Biñas of KMU were not so lucky. Upon arrival, they were rounded up by burly SWAT-type men with high-powered rifles as one would with terrorists.
Indeed, Norma would later recount it as such, being treated by the cops as though they were terrorists out to create trouble in Hong Kong. HK government later denied they were after anti-WTO activists, but the three women’s accounts belied this. They were rounded up only after immigration officials checked with their computers. During interrogation, the activists were incessantly asked why were they in HK and if they were participating in the demonstrations.
The three women were interrogated for six long hours. They were not allowed to converse with each other, while the police and immigration refused to say why they were being interrogated in the first place. The next day, Danilo Ramos of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) went through the same ordeal for four hours. The HK government said it was a routine and random interrogation. It was such a stroke of luck, then, that immigration managed to “randomly” pick four anti-WTO activists amid thousands of arriving tourists.
In a press conference condemning the incidents, HKPA’s Leung said, “Hong Kong must not just be a society where only rich people are welcome.” This statement seems to be most fitting. HK, indeed, was founded upon the principle of personal ambition and “corporate individualism.” It is not exactly known as a center of cultural exchange and expression or of liberalism. Since the British came to the place, it had been tailor-made for can-do capitalists, i.e. rich people.
It is a rich country (or at least a “special administrative region”) with rich people, but inequality nevertheless persists. Walking along its streets, one can easily spot vagrants, usually old people. And of course, there are the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, a sizeable number of them Filipino.
Ironically, it is due to policies like those pushed by the WTO upon the throats of governments that Filipinos are forced to work abroad. Unfair competition has driven millions of farmers out of their lands and workers out of their work. Many are forced to find work abroad, sometimes through legal means, but often through the cheaper, illegal channels. Undocumented workers abroad often almost equal the number of officially registered number of overseas workers. This is true in Hong Kong as with anywhere else there are Pinoys.
It does not surprise me, then, that a big number of protesters in Hong Kong from December 12 to 18 were migrant workers. For the Filipinos, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Thais, Malays, and other nationalities who were there, the effects of the WTO were clearly felt. And despite the threats to their jobs by the HK government, the migrants came out in droves to denounce WTO.
What made the loudest noise, though, was the South Korean contingent. Numbering in the thousands, the Koreans formed only one part of the broad mulitnational, anti-WTO movement, but actually geared the direction of the protests. What started out as a peaceful (some critics say, almost obedient) and festive demonstration last December 13 ended with violent skirmishes between Korean militants and the HK police. The next day, the Koreans were all over the news, their exploits never before seen in Hong Kong were the topic of conversations everywhere. Hong Kong people rarely witnessed demonstrations in its streets, much less violent clashes and dispersals. The rallies in the next days were characterized as much by confrontations as by the large number of local onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse at the latest Korean stunt. Bystanders lined up the streets with their digital cameras and mobile phones, capturing images of Korean protesters who were gamely posing for the curious locals.
The night of the 17th saw the confrontations coming to a head, with police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the mostly Korean protesters, and cordoning off and arresting at least a thousand protesters. This was met with condemnation from the Hong Kong people, who saw the dispersal as brutally unnecessary. By the 18th, the bystanders had become loyal fans of the protesters, especially the Koreans, who were applauded by the locals everytime their contingent passed by.
The locals’ reception, meanwhile, was similarly warm among the other protesters, who marched in their colorful dresses and costumes, brought huge, bright flags of their various organizations, and sang indigenous songs.
During the 13th, SinagBayan, a Filipino progressive art group, joined the march wearing weird outfits symbolizing GATS (General Agreement of Trade in Services), NAMA (Non-Agricultural Market Access), and AoA (Agreement in Agriculture), three supposed agenda during the ministerial meet. The Hong Kong newspaper The Standard took notice, mistakenly calling SinagBayan an “Indonesian group”, and commenting that the bystanders were a little confused as to what it all meant, as it “looked like a cross between a passion play and an economist’s version of S&M.”
Journalists also took notice of the Filipino protesters, who had virtually the largest number of participating organizations during the entire PAW. During the PAW, while other groups in Victoria Park staged almost nightly concerts and Woodstock-like celebrations, the Bayan and ILPS tents were abuzz with fora and conferences discussing various facets of WTO. Braving the chill of Hong Kong winter were hundreds of participants who discussed the effects of WTO on peasants, workers, women, youth, as well as its connection to war policies of imperialist countries like the US.
Protesters from different parts of the world came back to their respective countries claiming success despite “failing” to altogether shut down WTO. They made their statement clear and inequivocal: they want to junk WTO and all that it stands for. They want trade based on the principles of fairness, mutual cooperation and advantage. They want a freer, more democratic, better world.