Dock strike: Hong Kongers come together in calls for "class war"

On Friday night, the streets of Central were wet from the muggy showers that herald summer in Hong Kong. The air was heavy with humidity and rhetoric.

At Cheung Kong Centre, squares of blazing lights showed its white-collared workers - the trophy skyscraper’s tenants include boldface names such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey - still plugging away in offices that stacked 65 storeys into the sky.

Down at the building’s foot, a group of angry people was calling for a “class war”.

Among the 500 or so, many were the sinewy dock workers who have been striking for the past three weeks, and who have taken their industrial action right to Mr Li Ka Shing’s doorstep earlier in the week. Asia’s richest man owns the building and his own office is ensconced at its very top floor.

But there were others present that Friday night too. There were students - a group turned up with a banner emblazoned with the words: “Say no to exploitation!”, professionals in office wear, housewives, the elderly.

Present too, were politicians Emily Lau Wai Hing of the moderate Democratic Party and Ray Chan Chi Chuen of the radical People Power.

A sudden torrent of rain at around 7.30pm scattered a few, but not many.

It was a show of solidarity from various segments of Hong Kong society, who wanted to drive home the point that the dock workers’ fight was theirs too.

For the past three weeks, the workers had gone on strike to protest stagnant wages and poor working conditions including 24-hour shifts for some. Three rounds of talks with their employers - contractors for Hongkong International Terminals, a unit of Mr Li’s Hutchison Whampoa - had come and gone with no progress, despite improved wage offers on the table.

The companies unfortunately did not help their own case in the court of public opinion when they said - rather blithely: “If some feel that 24 hours (of working) is too long, we will consider changing it.”

While the dock workers’ conditions were extreme, they resonated among ordinary Hong Kongers who found in their plight reflections of their own difficulty.

Public relations executive Zenus Chan, 31, graduated in psychology 10 years ago. Till today, she says, “I cannot earn enough to afford a home, to have my own place.”

Inflation has galloped in recent years, rising 4.4 per cent in February. Inequality continues to yawn apace - the gini coeficient last year was 0.537. The majority middle class are hanging on to their entitlements with a white-knuckled grip - never mind any hope of moving up the ladder.

The resulting corrosive anger find an easy target in Mr Li. His Cheung Kong conglomerate’s presence is seen in almost every part of Hong Kongers’ lives - when they buy property, shop at supermarkets, sign up for phone services or cable tv subscriptions.

Says Mr Steven Ho, 32, a civil servant: “Li Ka Shing controls 60 to 70 per cent of our lives. He earns too much, and the rest of us are underpaid.”

In a show of spiteful vitriol, some at the rally took to kicking a poster of the 84-year-old, made to look like a disfigured devil.

It is thus little wonder that some discern in the Cheung Kong movement a significance wider than just about the dock workers’ welfare.

Pro-Beijing paper Ta Kung Pao sees it as a dress rehearsal for the pan-Democrat camp’s civil disobedience campaign - Occupy Central - to agitate for universal suffrage.

In an editorial published on April 18, it frets that this is “scaled-down test run of the ‘Occupy Central’ movement the opposition camp plans to launch later this year”.

Clearly, the establishment is jittery. The call for a “class war” plus an impassioned appeal to democratic ideals together make for a seductively potent cocktail.

For now, it’s still largely rhetoric. Those who showed up on Friday are still very much in the minority. But the sentiment they express are unhardly uncommon across Hong Kong. And that is what’s worrying.