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December 24, 2005

Drums in the Streets


by Sascha Matuszak

The Protests

The protests last Saturday that resulted in the jailing of 944 activists were breathtaking to behold and a breakthrough for the anti-WTO movement and the South Koreans in particular.

All week the Koreans had been subjected to media scrutiny: Who are these fanatic militants marching in military formation, chanting and singing with a vast contingent of students, labor activists, wives and girlfriends, daughters and sisters? Why are they here? How did they become so serious, so devoted?

During the week the Koreans managed to capture the hearts of the locals and the admiration and loyalty of all of the activists. They led the movement, pure and simple. Their discipline, determination, organization, and unconquerable spirit – fed with a fearlessness that is hard to find in any movement these days – formed the core of a movement that superseded the chaos of Seattle and succeeded where Cancun failed. A true symbolic moment for the Koreans, who lost a soldier and gained a martyr in Cancun.

Witnessing them march in unison toward the police lines, with the swaying, swirling women beating the drums and infusing the entire protest with a sense of purpose and fate, made the media wild with frenzy and brought locals to tears.

In the days leading up to this last all-important rally, the Koreans had staged marches in which they bowed every three steps, which will stay with the local Hong Kong people forever. Girls cried openly when describing the scene, and men's eyes glowed. The impact of this soldier-activist army on the locals looks to be immeasurable and everlasting.

The police had dealt with the Koreans earlier, but were woefully undermanned at the front lines. With no experience dealing with a group of trained professional rioters on a mission, they were quickly embarrassed.

Not two minutes into the central battle between the 100-odd group of hardcore farmer-workers and the 1,000-odd front-line police, the barricades had been seized by the Koreans, dragged 10 meters away and held there as a trophy for a few minutes, while the farmers smoked and the police quaked, naked in the sun.

The cameras flashed and rolled, the media getting in everybody's way. The Koreans methodically probed the lines left and right of the center, built a battering ram out of the barricades they had commandeered, and rotated groups in and out – the former receiving instructions from a cadre of leaders and the latter receiving first aid and water from the women.

All this to the unceasing, soul-thumping beat of the drums.

Activists from all over the world joined in with chants and songs and threw their bodies into the fray, especially on the flanks of the Koreans.

The organization paid off and the police lines broke on the far left side long enough for flags to reach the Exhibition Center – suits were seen running for their lives on the second and third floors.

A victory indeed, as the delegates were in the Green Room that very minute, besieged outside and inside as the talks were breaking down on agricultural dumping and subsidies, liberalization of services and market access for less-developed countries (LDCs).

It was then that the tear gas hit and everybody coughed their way back to Gloucester Street to regroup. Again, the discipline and experience of the Koreans paid off. The rally continued on the street, water was passed out, chants went out through the crowd, a loudspeaker was set up, and the drums continued. It was heartening to all of the activists to know that the Koreans were still there, still ready, still leading.

Everybody learned that day. Activists from around the globe learned what is possible, police from Hong Kong learned what is possible, the Hong Kong people learned what is possible… the impact on the psyche of the people involved in this protest, many of them participating for the first time – having never seen anything like this before – cannot be underestimated.

Chinese from around the sphere of influence – Taiwan, mainland, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada, the U.S. – all witnessed the might of a dedicated group of farmers – farmers with calloused thick hands, scarred faces; farmers who return back to Chongqing Mansions and Victoria Park every night to drink soju and sing songs; farmers who took on the police – and the fear felt did not emanate from them.

Hong Kong's famous Long Hair led a chant – "Police go!" – that had every Cantonese speaker in the house hollering. Jose Bove and a slew of activists from around the spectrum – Indonesian migrant workers, Thai farmers, Taiwanese students unions, Via Campesina – all took their turn at the mike. And the drums never stopped, all night long, from afternoon till early morning, the drums kept the activists warm and lent a feeling of security in the face of massive police presence following the Exhibition Center debacle.

Bonds Forged Behind Bars

Eventually, the police surrounded the protest and kept everyone in – everyone but HK ID cardholders and press cardholders. A long standoff ensued, and the Koreans dug in, leading dances and mass massage and chanting sessions to keep everybody warm. During the standoff, news arrived from Korea that a female activist involved in protests in South Korea had died of injuries suffered at the hands of the South Korean police. A moment of silence followed.

When the news came that all were to be arrested, the Koreans informed us all that we would be going quietly. And we did.

The police took a long time to get their act together, lacking buses and cells for all the people they meant to intern, and tempers flared around 8 a.m. when the HK people were allowed to leave and bathroom facilities were still not available. It was cold all night long, and there was neither food nor water enough for everybody.

Eventually, everybody was carted away and sent to warehouses, then to processing centers, then eventually to four-man cells. Here the impact of the protest and the leadership of the Korean contingent was as visible as on the outside.

Each cell held a motley crew of activists and hangers-on: Taiwanese pro-democracy, anti-globalization militants wanted back home; Japanese labor-activist-computer hacks; Thai garlic-and-marijuana farmers; East Timorese land-activist rice farmers; Via Campesina leadership from Europe and their Filipino and Indonesian soldiers; Scottish tourists; American geography professors; mainland "tourists"; Turkish-German journalists with no credentials; and, of course, the Korean "farmer Mafia."

Everybody learned how to say "struggle" in Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Chinese, English, French, etc. Everybody chanted "Down, Down WTO" and the popular Korean: "WTO Pak san ha cha!!!" (Crash the WTO!)

The police were cool. They admired the Koreans and admitted openly that they had not been prepared. The spoke just as openly about the WTO being a "tool of the rich and the transnational corporations to enslave the poor of the world and create and empire of GMO crops and private water bills," showing the thin line between "cop and criminal."

The Message

It became clear during the protest and the 48 hours in jail that priority number one for all of the activists was not fighting the police, vandalizing stuff, or ending up in jail.

The main objectives were to get the message out, get the media involved, promote the movement, and get publicity – which, unfortunately, requires the involvement of the police, in one way or another.

Another priority was to disrupt the talks. Both were achieved.

The message that the movement sent out is quite simple:

"Our lives are being sacrificed in the name of Progress."

Progress here means relatively rich, kind of rich, and downright broke countries turning food sovereignty and public services over to massive corporations in return for market access and aid from the truly rich countries.

The agriculture industry in the U.S. is ruled by the likes of Cargill and Monsanto, who are the sole market for small and medium farmers. The farmers buy everything they need from these corporations and sell them their crops at a fraction of the production cost. The corporations then "dump" their cheap rice from Arkansas and California on the Korean market. U.S. farmers live off subsidies that make up for the money they lose selling their crops super cheap to Cargill.

So in actuality, it is U.S. dumping that is killing the poor Asian farmer, not subsidies, says longtime WTO researcher Prof. Joel Wainwright of Ohio University. The second subsidies are abolished, the corporations have the option to buy the land, which they have not done yet because the risks involved – weather and such – are unattractive.

"There are always farmers with bad years and good years," said Wainwright. "But the corporations, in effect, never have a bad year."

And it's not just the U.S. – many countries do the same thing, countries such as India, Australia, Canada, and the EU – the same countries lobbying with the U.S. against, basically, the rest of the world.

So in all this, the Korean farmers are screwed.

The Korean government believes this is the right thing because sacrificing farmers in return for access to the U.S. market and technology benefits their big corporations, the chaebol like Hyundai who, after years trying, have managed to make it in the U.S. The economic model for the U.S. described in Blowback – which all the Asian Tigers have adopted – requires sacrificing the farmers and the public services.

Hence the chants of "Down, Down USA!" and "Down, Down George Bush," although Bush had little to do with NAFTA, the WTO, or anything economic for that matter – he's too busy with other problems.

Impact on the WTO

Progress here means nation-states turning their economies over to the WTO, an extremely undemocratic collection of delegates, businessmen, NGOs – countless groups and .orgs fighting against TRIPS in public health, providing online learning programs, supporting free-trade sustainable businesses, lobbying for farmers and/or fishermen and/or sex workers and/or sweatshop factory workers, etc. (I cannot, in good conscience, fail to mention the shameless schmoozers.)

The WTO has been talking for 15 years. The Doha Round has been debated, with NO PROGRESS, for 15 years. This is fact.

Pascal Llamy made a brave face – along with delegates from the bloc of rich and relatively rich countries such as the EU, U.S., Brazil, and Canada – and stated that the talks had made a small but somehow significant step forward.

This, of course, must be seen in the light of the attention-stealing protests that occurred precisely during the Green Room talks that made this "small step forward."

What would you say if you were Llamy? "Man, them Koreans crashed our party!"?

How long can the WTO stage Ministerial Conferences in which nothing is resolved while protests are increasingly public, increasingly sophisticated, and therefore increasingly effective?

While the WTO extricates itself from another waste of time and money for the delegations, the Koreans return home to mass fanfare and a contact list a mile long for the next time the WTO wants to throw a party.

While livelihoods are at stake for the farmers, legitimacy is at stake for the WTO.

Impact on China

Now China must really be nervous. Notice the rash of announcements that followed the closing of the conference:

"GDP is actually much higher than we thought!"

"We will abolish taxes for the farmers next year!"

"The WTO is very important for us!"

Look to this report by WTO scholar Dale Wen for an idea of what is happening in China. Farmers across the nation are being sacrificed to the same god that has the Korean, Japanese, and Indian governments in thrall.

And with 40,000 protests announced officially, we can imagine what may happen if word gets around about the Koreans managed to do in Hong Kong.

What fool decided to hold this conference in Hong Kong anyway, the Chinese must be thinking to themselves. Bo Xilai didn't as much as open his mouth during the whole gig.

Professor Yu Wen You of Wuhan University's WTO Research Institute did manage to discuss the situation.

The main issue Prof. Yu has with the WTO agreement is the unbalanced, unfair deal China was forced to sign at the behest of the developed countries ruling the trade body. The WTO has no real definition for what is exactly a "developing nation" and therefore no real guidelines for how to deal with the addition of such a member. (Surprise, surprise.)

So when China was admitted as a developing nation with the potential to become an enormous world-dominating economic superpower, the current powers-that-be devoted much time to the strict timetable China was forced to adhere to concerning market access in sensitive industries such as insurance, automobiles, banking, telecommunications, and, of course, agriculture.

Farmers in Guangxi province would really like to know about WTO provisions considering this last industry, as Southeast Asian exports have been digging into their pockets, particularly sugar cane.

But thankfully, the "Four Safeguards" against a massive Chinese peasant uprising against the WTO keep China's protests down to a measly 40,000 a year.

Safeguard #1:

"The government is supporting and helping the farmers." (Translation: "We've got a boot on their necks.")

Safeguard #2:

"Chinese people, by nature, due to history and culturally are a passive people." (Translation: "We have had a boot on their necks for a long, long time.")

Consider that the "peasant tax" about to be abolished has been in place for an estimated 2,500 years.

But here are the two "safeguards" mentioned by Professor Yu that are of extreme relevance given recent events in Hong Kong:

"The farmers don't know about the WTO" and "They have no money."

Hmm…

As of last night, all but 11 (or 14 depending o the report you heard) of the activists had been released and were on their way home. Victoria Park is now home to the 40th Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo. The front page has nothing on the WTO. The TV reports on the Koreans and the Taiwanese ended last night.

But the last time anybody here saw anything like Saturday was in 1967, during the Maoist revolutions. And locals can rattle that date off, no sweat. Other prison riots and "random riots" that HK has dealt with in the past differ in that 1967 and 2005 were political…

How long before word filters through the borders to Shenzhen, down through Guangdong province, and into the hinterlands?

How long before locals forget the songs and raised fists of the Korean protesters, the feeling we all had when they bowed low every three steps to the beat of a solemn drum?

How long before the rhythm of those drums fades into the beat of shoppers' feet in Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui?

Chinese have a long, long memory…

 

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