United States officials claim to be deeply concerned about the freedom of Hong Kong after it returns to the Peoples Republic of China on July 1, after 155 years as a British colony. What freedom are Washington and Wall Street concerned about?
The Heritage Foundation, an extremely right-wing capitalist think tank, ranks Hong Kong first on its annual 142-nation Index of Economic Freedom. That's because Hong Kong is a model of unfettered capitalism.
Hong Kong--399 square miles at the mouth of the Pearl River, the commercial center of Southeast China--has the world's busiest container port. It is an international air hub. Its stock market ranks with New York, London, Tokyo and Berlin.
Britain stole Hong Kong from China in three expropriations between 1842 and 1898. Since then, its function has been to enrich big capitalists.
What does all this "economic freedom" mean for the workers of Hong Kong?
Hong Kong lacks any health, safety or environmental standards. It does boast strong protection for capitalist property rights.
Taxes on the wealthy and corporations are the lowest in the world, according to an Oct. 26, 1995, report in Far Eastern Economic Review. Public-relations brochures and travel books brag that Hong Kong has the most Rolls Royce cars--600--and the most millionaires in the world.
Hong Kong also has the greatest gulf between rich and poor in Asia. Capitalist economic freedom means no guaranteed pensions or social security, no Medicare-type program, no disability compensation or unemployment insurance plan.
Instead, there's only a dole from private charities that does not cover the cost of food, according to the same 1995 report in Far Eastern Economic Review. For hundreds of thousands of poor workers, life just means working until you drop dead.
The low-paying textile and clothing industry employs most people. Next are electronics and toy assembly. Many thousands of skilled workers are employed by banking and financial institutions.
The workers do not have the right to union representation of their choice.
Housing is crowded and unsafe. Rents are the highest in the world. More than a million people live crowded in places with more than seven people per room.
Over half a million are homeless or live as squatters in shacks on mountainsides, shores or highway underpasses.
Thousands even live in tiny wire cages five feet high and seven feet long.
On July 14, 1996, the New York Times wrote about the "cage people" who live packed into steel-mesh boxes big enough for only a mattress. The cages are stacked three high, 25 to a room, in decaying tenements where everyone shares a single bathroom.
Seventy percent of Hong Kong's approximately 10,000 "cage people" are elderly and barely able to pay $40 a month for rent.
Hong Kong grew prosperous, in capitalist terms, as a banking center--not because of any fictitious democratic institutions but because, as a direct colony, it was a secure base of British capitalism. All the wealth of British imperialism in Asia moved through this city because British administrators totally controlled the whole political and economic structure.
After the 1949 Chinese Revolution broke the imperialist powers' hold on mainland China, Hong Kong's importance grew. Thousands of corporations that extract profits from the low wages and super-exploitation of workers throughout Asia were registered in Hong Kong.
This was a way to take control away from the newly emerging anti-colonial nationalist governments from India to Malaysia, Thailand and Burma where capitalist relations were not yet stabilized. Hong Kong was a safe vault to stash the imperialists' stolen wealth.
For China, Hong Kong is a major source of foreign exchange and an important commercial link to capitalist investors worldwide. Two-thirds of the 207,000 investors in China are corporations that are registered in Hong Kong. (New York Times, July 5, 1995)
Now, anticipating the end of colonial rule, more than half the companies listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange have moved their official domicile abroad. (New York Times, May 18, 1996)
For the past 20 years, the Chinese government has pursued a policy of embracing the capitalist market, breaking up the great agricultural communes into individual plots and allowing increasing capitalist investments.
This has proved to be a dangerous course. Within China today, there is a small but growing capitalist class. Its profits give it more in common with imperialism than with the mass of the Chinese people.
However, China's government is still based on the Revolution. The Chinese Communist Party still holds the reigns of power. To the imperialists, this is still the party that broke the hold of imperialist domination in China and began the socialist planned development of China.
The market's rapid inroads into a socialist country that once ended all capitalist exploitation has not satisfied the international capitalist class. It has only whetted the exploiters' appetite.
It reminds them that control of China was once the prize of Asia--the Pacific goal in two world wars, in fact.
The Chinese government is attempting a form of controlled capitalist development. But what imperialism wants in China is not capitalist development on Chinese terms.
Nor is imperialism interested in China developing too far as a capitalist competitor. The imperialists want unrestrained access. They want outright ownership of all the wealth by a handful of multinational corporations.
The capitalist corporations of today are bigger, far more powerful and more aggressive than the British trading merchants who came with gunboats and opium 150 years ago. These corporate giants control much of the world's wealth and labor--and they're desperate to expand, regardless of the consequences.
Their very survival depends on their ability to expand into and control new markets.
What these corporations want for China is what they also wanted for the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. They want to completely end socialist planning based on human need and workers' ownership of industrial production and resources.
In the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, the multinational corporations are not interested in capitalist competition. They are interested in looting publicly owned industries, and obtaining cheap labor and cheap sources of raw material.
With regard to Hong Kong today, the imperialists are debating how to use their power in that capitalist enclave as a battering ram against the last restrictions to capitalist control in the Peoples Republic of China.
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