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days – formed the core of a movement that superseded the chaos of Seattle and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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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.
"The government is supporting and helping the farmers." (Translation:
"We've got a boot on their necks.")
"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,
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:
farmers don't know about the WTO" and "They have no money."
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
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
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…