2019 was without question the year of the pro-democracy protest. In Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Lebanon, India, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, masses of people were in the streets demanding accountability, fundamental reform and protection of their democratic rights. In Hong Kong, trade unions, students, human rights groups and other civil society organizations have worked together to sustain protests for more than six months, with up to 25% of the total population in the streets at one point in time. The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), an organization founded in 2002, provides a broad platform for unions and civil and human rights and allied organizations to coordinate and advance a human rights agenda in Hong Kong. CHRF, working with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and many other pro-democracy allies, has been critical in sustaining the calls for democracy.
CHRF led the massive protests in December 2019, the first mobilization that received approval from the authorities since its annual march in July 2019. CHRF also was instrumental in protests in 2014, known as the “umbrella revolution,” that advocated for greater political freedom, including universal suffrage and the ability for Hong Kong to directly elect its chief executive.
A key member of CHRF is the HKCTU. As the only autonomous democratic union federation in China, the HKCTU is one of the leading civil society advocates for democracy, rule of law and more inclusive economic policies. It plays an essential role in promoting participation among low-income residents and raising awareness of worker rights issues among the general public. It has been pushing for laws and policies that enshrine basic international labor standards, such as minimum wage standards, legislation on working hours and collective bargaining rights. Its work exemplifies the important link between the fight for workplace democracy and larger democratic rights throughout the society. Being a unifying force in the biggest political conflict in the history of Hong Kong, the HKCTU called for two general strikes, including the one on Aug. 5, 2019, that brought the city to a standstill.
The demonstrations represent widespread discontent among the public over the erosion of Hong Kong’s rule of law and fundamental freedoms, and the deep-rooted inequality in the society that has only widened since the handover. A proposed extradition bill, which would have further eroded Hong Kong’s sovereignty, sparked the recent waves of mass action, but the roots of the protests stretch back decades. In 1997, control of Hong Kong was transferred to China with a commitment to permit universal suffrage—a promise that China has refused to fulfill. Today, the chief executive is elected from a limited pool of candidates by a 1,200-member committee and the chosen candidate is appointed by the central government in Beijing. CHRF has called repeatedly for a change to the election system through peaceful protest. The government’s response to the protesters has been harsh, with two deaths, 5,800 arrests, 10,000 rounds of tear gas and restrictions on the right to protest.
While the protests mobilized large numbers of participants and gained public support, there has been little sign that the government is willing to even consider the protesters’ five major demands except for the withdrawal of the extradition bill. Hundreds of employees have been reprimanded or even dismissed by their employers for expressing their political views. To protect workers from being punished and to build a more organized base to sustain the pro-democracy movement, thousands of people have joined new unions for civil servants, hotel staff, theater professionals and others. Some 40 pro-democracy unions have formed in recent months and dozens more are in the process of organizing.
Protesters also have translated their demands into votes at the ballot box. In November 2019, an unprecedented 71% of voters turned out for local elections, sending a wave of pro-democracy representatives into office. The protesters and voters clearly reflected their determination to insist that Hong Kong remain a democracy and a separate system from mainland China.
The AFL-CIO recognizes and honors the sacrifices, bravery and courage demonstrated by the people of Hong Kong in the pursuit of democracy and fundamental liberties. Unions and our allies are key to building and sustaining a robust democracy. We grant this award to the Civil Human Rights Front and all of its member organizations for their role in building a strong democratic movement. We pledge our solidarity with them as they fight to create a world that can deliver freedom, justice, equality and dignity.