Kwai Tsing dock workers strike

Port workers' strike only reflects growing discontent in Hong Kong

Stephen Vines says public support of striking workers carries a warning

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 3:21am

What is fascinating about the port workers' strike is the way in which it has escalated and the public response to it. Strikes are a rarity in Hong Kong. Usually, they are quickly settled and only involve the parties to the dispute. This one is different.

From the outset Li Ka-shing, one of Hong Kong's most prominent tycoons, became a focus of the strike. His company owns the port but it claims not to be party to the dispute as sub-contractors are responsible for hiring dockers.

It was not that long ago that Li occupied an admired place in Hong Kong society and was dubbed "Superman", the rags-to-riches tycoon with a Midas touch. Today, we hear a lot less of this talk, a reflection of growing discontent with the tycoon class. This partly explains why the strikers have been able to garner considerable public sympathy and material support.

Its cause is clear. Many people see a strong level of collusion between the tycoons and government; this breeds resentment even though it is arguable that collusion was even more prevalent during colonial times. Yet people accepted things then that they do not accept now. This surely reflects the growing maturity of civil society in Hong Kong, which, in turn, has political ramifications.

Hong Kong people clearly remember how the tycoon class moved seamlessly from being the chief cronies and apologists for the old regime to occupying exactly the same role for the new regime.

Meanwhile, the so-called leftist out-crowd from the old days has become the in-crowd. In the labour sector, this means that the traditionally stronger leftist unions are part of the establishment and more selective about supporting labour disputes, including the dockers' strike, even though the government has invited them to negotiations aimed at ending it.

This, in itself, conveys an impression of a union with special privileges. The pro-democracy Confederation of Trade Unions, which is actively involved in the strike, has filled the vacuum created by the leftist unions, which increasingly identify with the establishment.

In some ways, Hong Kong is unwittingly moving towards a dangerous situation where power and influence is increasingly concentrated, producing a sense of frustration and anger among those who have no access to this charmed circle. This brings protest increasingly onto the streets and means that things like labour disputes rapidly become politicised.

Underlying this mood of discontent is a growing underclass on the poverty line while Hong Kong's officials go around flaunting statistics attesting to our prosperity.

Yet it is not so much the vast chasm separating the rich and poor that stokes this discontent, but the feeling that it is unbridgeable in ways that it was not when Li started accumulating his fortune.

So we are left with a situation where people believe that street protests, striking and other forms of civic action are the only means available to those who want to change the status quo. On top of this is the ever-watchful eye in Beijing, which is deeply suspicious of collective action and wants it curbed.

In the meantime, those who benefit from the status quo are questioning the very legitimacy of such action. And they have a band of dim-witted supporters who echo the mantra of stability without understanding that stability is more undermined by the narrowing of the closed circle of power than it is by citizens taking to the streets in search of change.

Over at the port, the management appeared to have gambled that this strike could quickly be crushed in the way that other disputes have fizzled. They have been forced to the negotiating table, and even if the strike ends with losses for the workers, it does not mean that further discontent will be headed off.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur