Hong Kong medical workers use coronavirus to leverage xenophobia

Without a conventional union history in Hong Kong, unions are being used as a tool by right-wing opportunists to advance anti-China, xenophobic policies, exploiting fears about the coronavirus.

Christian Patterson
2020-02-05
Underground Mall

Hong Kong medical workers, comprised of “nonemergency personnel”, went on strike Monday morning (Monday Feb. 3rd). Their demand is that Hong Kong close the borders to China.

In the title of this post, I describe this as xenophobic. But I don’t want to rest on my laurels, throwing accusations out there. After all, shouldn’t we protect worker’s health at work? Especially if they’re “nonemergency”, and therefore probably not trained on handling virus infection, and likely make a lot less than physicians and medical experts.

However, there’s more going on underneath the surface here, and this medical union has associations with right-wing elements of the Hong Kong protests.

Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May write in the New York Times:

“Hong Kong’s government said Monday that it would close more border checkpoints, as some medical workers went on strike to demand a complete ban on entries from mainland China to limit the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

“Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, has faced increasing calls from hospital employees, the business community and even some pro-government lawmakers to further tighten border controls with mainland China, where the virus emerged in December.

More than 2,500 medical workers in Hong Kong — mostly those considered to be nonemergency personnel — went on strike Monday morning to pressure the authorities to bar entries from mainland China. The number of strikers was expected to grow if the government did not relent.

The medical workers, who are members of a newly formed union, said they were worried that hospitals would be overwhelmed by a surge of coronavirus cases, as mainland Chinese seek to use Hong Kong’s health care system.”

Here, we can see that the union is not orienting their demands from a labor perspective, they’re orienting it from a xenophobic perspective.

They don’t care about treating people with coronavirus, they care about keeping people with the coronavirus out. And it’s not that they want just anyone with the coronavirus out, they want mainland Chinese out.

The idea that mainland Chinese people are going to Hong Kong hospitals seems unfounded, from my research. I say it seems unfounded, because I googled for a long ass time and couldn’t find anything that even comments on that as a trend.

The only thing I could find is the phenomenon of Mainland Chinese parents going to Hong Kong to give birth to a quote-unquote “anchor baby”.

But, due to prohibitive fines against this, it’s much less common now. And that’s besides the point, because the union’s statement heavily implies people are going to Hong Kong hospitals strictly for superior medical care, for the coronavirus, not to give their children a certain immigration status.

When you contextualize their statements against western-style xenophobic propaganda, their message becomes more clear. They’re conflating the coronavirus with mainland Chinese people themselves, and are weaponizing it against mainland immigrants.

New York Times continues:

But [Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam] has resisted a complete prohibition on mainland arrivals, calling such a move “a discriminatory approach” and not in line with recommendations from the World Health Organization.

[…]

“If anyone thinks that extreme means could force the hand of the Hong Kong S.A.R. government and the Hospital Authority, threatening us into doing unreasonable things that would harm the public, they are wrong,” she said.

She also criticized the striking hospital workers. “To use extreme means in such a sensitive time would inevitably affect the rights of the patient and add immensely to the burdens of the already beleaguered Hospital Authority leaders,” Mrs. Lam said.

Carrie Lam’s actually right, it’s a discriminatory approach. Because if you listen to the grievance of the union, they’re complaining about Mainland Chinese taking their hospital beds. They’re not complaining about any material or economic issue.

She’s also right that it’s unreasonable, and would harm the public. Closing travel isn’t the optimal way of stopping the spread of a virus, and in some ways, makes it worse.

Stat News writes:

“Public health experts have warned that travel bans are not effective at stemming the spread of a virus and can make responding to an outbreak more challenging.

“From a public health perspective, there is limited effectiveness. And then there are a host of other reasons why they can actually be counterproductive,” said Catherine Worsnop, who studies international cooperation during global health emergencies at the University of Maryland.

The World Health Organization, which declared the outbreak a global health emergency this week, has recommended against any travel or trade restrictions in response to the outbreak. Member countries, however, do not have to comply with that guidance.

“Although travel restrictions may intuitively seem like the right thing to do, this is not something that WHO usually recommends,” said Tarik Jašarević, a WHO spokesperson. “This is because of the social disruption they cause and the intensive use of resources required,” he added.”

What travel bans do is they restrict the ability to detect the coronavirus. It can cause the virus to spread in the native country more, undetected, because they weren’t being screened.

It can also cause undetected spread in the country that’s closing off travel. For a place like Hong Kong, that’s linked to Mainland China, politically and geographically, it would be possible for someone to get into Hong Kong easily. Then, there’s potentially people in an area that you don’t even know exist, who may be spreading the virus.

So let’s look at the intended ideological effects of a ban on Mainland China from going to Hong Kong:

  • it gives Hong Kongers who are anti-Chinese an excuse to keep Mainland Chinese out
  • it helps conflate Mainland Chinese people in general with disease, an age-old xenophobic, and teetering towards fascistic, ideological gesture

Now let’s look at the effects of a ban of Mainland China from going to Hong Kong:

  • it becomes harder to stop and contain the disease, due to lack of screening
  • it becomes more likely someone with the virus gets in, due to lack of screening

The thing that complicates the situation for the left, is that a union is the one pushing for the closed border. We’re supposed to support unions right?

One thing to keep in mind, however, is not all unions are created equally. Unions represent groups of people with interests, and they use their collective power to achieve more of their interests.

This means that unions are constantly making political and economic alliances. We see this in the US by the number of toothless, corporate suck-up unions.

That’s not to fault unions, because sometimes – like the US post-1970s – the political-economic conditions only allow unions to exist if they are corporate ass-kissers.

Considering all that, I pulled up an interesting Reuters article from last month, January 2020, about the relationship between the Hong Kong “”””pro-democracy”””” movement and Hong Kongese unions.

Sarah Wu writes for Reuters:

“Before the Hong Kong protests began in June, Chris Ngai spent most of his free time playing World of Warcraft and finding new cocktail recipes. Now the bespectacled 24-year-old junior engineer is launching a trade union.

“His aim is to ramp up pressure on Hong Kong’s government, which has so far made no political concessions to protesters’ demands for greater democracy in the Chinese-ruled city, despite millions of people marching in the street.”

Okay, before I go further with this piece, I want to comment on this.

I say this as someone who has played more WoW than any other game in my life. It’s probably my favorite game of all time. But, how utterly puerile is this shit?

I’ve never seen a more quintessential example of the middle class mentality than this. (Check out the blog post “The Middle Class as a consumer class” from last year for a much more in-depth look into what the middle class mentality entails)

Continuing:

“As violent clashes with police become more common, the pro-democracy movement has reached a point of ‘anger and hopelessness,’ said Ngai, and needs new tactics.

“Ngai said he and his team persuaded about 90 engineers, architects and construction workers to join his Hong Kong Construction and Engineering Employees General Union in the past month.

“His booth was only one of dozens along the 4 km (2.5 mile) route of the New Year’s Day march, each with a distinct flag and logo, attracting queues of hundreds of people to join new unions for civil servants, hotel staff, theater professionals and others.

“Ngai and his fellow organizers are spearheading the biggest push to unionize the laissez-faire, ultra-capitalist finance mecca – where collective bargaining rights are not even recognized – since Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.”

The last part is interesting. If collective bargaining rights are not recognized in Hong Kong, then it means unions in Hong Kong don’t function the way we understand them.

The function of a union is to say “we, collectively, won’t work, unless you meet our demands.” Any sort of political or economic power that a union has is rooted in the fact that they have leverage over the workforce. The reason politicians need to form alliances with unions is because politicians want to be more directly linked to an organization that ultimately can control some of the flow of labor.

But if a union doesn’t have collective bargaining rights, then they have limited political and economic power. At that point, a union is more an organ of social and cultural power.

And social and cultural issues are where latent (or overt) reactionaryism lives. The right-wing perspective thrives in culture war issues — socialism doesn’t. This means that unions in Hong Kong may or may not be left-wing, but the way they’re structurally oriented in terms of power, means they have more power as a social club than a labor organization, which means they’re more likely to focus on social issues than labor issues.

Reuters continues:

“About 40 pro-democracy unions, including Ngai’s, have formed in recent months or are in the process of registering with the government, with dozens more starting to organize, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU).

[…]

“Traditional unions in Hong Kong are seen by citizens primarily as clubs for hobby classes, banquets and retail discounts. The new unions are motivated more by protecting workers from being punished by employers for expressing their views.

“About two months after protests began in June over a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions of suspected criminals to China, protesters got a wake-up call on Beijing’s powers of coercion. The mainland’s aviation regulator demanded Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific suspend staff involved in or supporting demonstrations.

“Many new unionists say the problem is widespread, especially where bosses are keen to avoid conflict with China for fear of damaging business.”

This offers a dark vision of the future of unions, especially if neoliberalism, somehow, continues to get worse than it currently is. If unions continue to be legislated against, they will continue to be weakened in the political economy.

But unions will always be useful, and they’ll never go away, at least under capitalism. Even if they “go away”, similar things will exist with different names.

Since these Hong Kong unions aren’t labor organizations, they’re “clubs for hobby classes, banquets and retail discounts”, the only way they can express their power is through consumerist, middle class oriented spheres of life.

Let me present a wider picture, before I wrap up:

When the capitalist system is wavering, as it is in Hong Kong and much of the world, the ruling class needs to make concessions to different classes. Usually, the concessions are to the middle class, because the middle class wants to feel aligned with the capitalist class.

When labor-oriented unions have power, and exert that power, they do so by forcing the capitalist class into making concessions to the working class.

But if unions aren’t labor-oriented, they still exist to get concessions from the capitalist class.

Once capitalism is failing, the capitalist and ruling class, indeed, need to make concessions to stabilize capitalism. They can do many things: give better healthcare, higher wages, vacation time – the options are limitless.

However, as the great Marxist Nicos Poulantzas points out, even if there’s not pressure from labor – if there’s no avenue to make labor concessions – the capitalist class is still compelled to make concessions, in order to preserve capitalism.

When the working class is being shepherded into xenophobic, right-wing reactionaryism by middle class movements, the working class can’t be conceded to. Any concession to the working class will cause resentment in the middle class, but more importantly, resentment within different factions of the working class.

This is why the unions in Hong Kong are opportunistically using their power to advance reactionary policies.

Unions in Hong Kong don’t have power backed by a labor movement, they have power backed by the “”””pro-Democracy”””” movement. So when the Hong Kong government wants, needs, to make concessions to working class movements, the only movement they can find is an opportunistic, xenophobic one.

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