2020 has been a year of massive and sustained worldwide protests defending democracy and human rights. In Chile, Colombia, Haiti, Lebanon, India, Zimbabwe and the United States, people have taken to the streets. To demand accountability for people in positions of power. To reform unjust systems. To change the course of history. It’s been powerful to witness.
And as we just heard from our panelists, the Hong Kong democracy movement and its leading coalition, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), stands out for its courage and persistence. They have resisted increasing pressure from the Chinese government to cede fundamental rights to speech, assembly and association and to abandon aspirations for democratic governance.
In the most recent chapter, Hong Kong’s democracy movement has once again brought together trade unions, students, human rights groups and other civil society organizations. After last June’s incredible million-person rally against legislation that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to face mainland China’s judicial system, the CHRF has sustained protests through most of this past year. At times, this movement brought 25 percent of Hong Kong's population to the streets at the same time. Talk about power in numbers.
Since 2002, the CHRF, working with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and many other pro-democracy allies, has been critical in sustaining the call for democracy. And they have paid the price. In October of 2019, the peaceful protests were met by violence when Jimmy Sham, the leader of CHRF who is with us today, was attacked by a group wielding hammers. Despite the attack, CHRF and Mr. Sham remain dedicated to non-violence.
This May, Hong Kong’s authorities followed Beijing’s direction. They arrested and charged fifteen activists who organized and led street protests in 2019. Those individuals now face the possibility of long prison sentences. Some—including our union brother and someone who I have had the privilege of knowing for many years, Lee Chueck Yan—have been arrested and charged three separate times in the past couple of months.
But these fighters for democracy have been here many times before. They were central to the 2014 “umbrella revolution” that advocated for greater political freedom, including universal suffrage and the ability for Hong Kong to directly elect its chief executive. And we know that the national Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and local unions are a driving force to the CHRF.
As the only autonomous democratic union federation in China, the HKCTU is a leading civil society advocate for democracy. For the rule of law. And for more inclusive economic policies.They play an essential role in promoting participation among low-income residents and raising broad awareness of worker rights. The HKCTU has pushed for laws and policies that enshrine international labor standards—such as a minimum wage—as well as legislation on working hours and collective bargaining rights. With freedom of association as its guiding principle, the HKCTU’s work exemplifies the vital link between the fight for workplace democracy and broad democratic rights. They were at the center of the biggest political conflict in the history of Hong Kong, calling for two general strikes, including the one on August 5, 2019. It brought the city to a standstill.
This high participation shows the widespread discontent over the erosion of Hong Kong’s rule of law and fundamental freedoms, and the deep-rooted inequality that has only widened since the 1997 handover. The proposed extradition bill would have further eroded Hong Kong’s sovereignty, and sparked the recent waves of mass action, but the roots of the protests stretch back decades. China has refused to keep promises made to Hong Kong’s people to respect their democratic rights.
Today, the central government in Beijing determines who is eligible to lead the local government. Through peaceful protest, the CHRF has called repeatedly for changes to this rigged election system. The government’s response has been harsh. Nearly 9,000 arrests. Tens of thousands of rounds of tear gas used. And restrictions on the right to protest.
But none of that prevented massive participation and growing public support. While the government withdrew the extradition bill, there is little sign that it will consider the protesters’ five major democratic demands. Hundreds of working people have been reprimanded or fired by their employers for expressing political views.
To protect working people from being punished and to build a more organized base to sustain the pro-democracy movement, thousands of people have joined new unions that represent civil servants, hotel staff, theater professionals and others. Between June 2019—when the protests began—and March 2020, more than 1,700 applications to establish unions were submitted to the Hong Kong Labor Department. Protesters have also brought their demands to the ballot box. In November 2019, an unprecedented 71 percent of voters turned out for local elections, sending a wave of pro-democracy representatives into positions of power. Protesters and voters have clearly insisted that Hong Kong remain a separate system from mainland China. Nevertheless, China appears poised to end the “One Country, Two Systems” framework guaranteed in the 1997 Basic Law.
In May, the Chinese central government voted to directly impose a national security law on Hong Kong, bypassing the Hong Kong legislature. We just learned that it will go into effect tomorrow. The move will make protests and criticism of the Chinese government a serious crime, carrying stiff sentences. Collusion with foreign forces will also violate the law. The details of exactly what this will mean are still emerging.
We do know that the courageous representatives who are with us today are on the frontlines of testing this new law and could face enormous consequences. The elimination of Hong Kong’s civil society and autonomous trade unions would now be easier to impose from Beijing.
For over a year now, the CHRF has been on the frontlines, facing the greatest threat yet to Hong Kong’s civil society and democracy over the past twenty years. The AFL-CIO recognizes and honors the sacrifices, bravery and courage demonstrated by all of the participants who are with us today and 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. Courageous leaders like the ones who are with us today from CHRF inspire us with their courage and dedication. That is why we are honoring the Civil Human Rights Front and associated member organizations with the 2020 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.
But this award is about more than recognition. As a federation, we join you in solidarity as you fight to create a world that upholds the tenants of freedom, justice, equality and dignity for all. We stand in solidarity with you tomorrow as you take to the streets peacefully tomorrow.And the AFL-CIO renews our call for the government of Hong Kong to immediately drop the charges against the 15 democracy activists who have been criminally charged for their participation in peaceful protests in 2019. We also strongly oppose the imposition of the national security law. The government must refrain from charging others for their participation in these demonstrations.
This award represents our steadfast commitment to every movement around the world committed to advancing the pursuit of democracy and fundamental liberties. Each of these movements has been made stronger by the heroic actions and perseverance of working people in Hong Kong. Thank you and congratulations.