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Hong Kong: Korean militants lead onslaught on WTO fortress

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On the first day of the WTO meeting, demonstrators from all over South East Asia marched from Victoria Park to the prescribed demonstration strip. There were about five or six thousand demonstrators.

Groups included peasants, women, workers (in various trade union federations and confedrations), Taiwanese sex workers, and fisherfolks from S Korea, Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Taiwan and even Mongolia!

Popular slogans were “Junk the WTO”, “Down with neoliberal economic policies” (quite a mouthful in any language), “Against liberalisation of trade”, alongside a few anti-Bush and anti-war chants. Others taken up enthusiastically included “Right to food”, “Fishing rights”, “WTO kills farmers”, “Our world is not for sale”, and “Education is a right, not a commodity” – there were several teachers unions with this same slogan.

The Koreans, Filipinos and Japanese were the most organised; they had a separate rallying point, where different sections were lined up in formation each with their group uniform (e.g. farmers’ union, peasants’ league, fisherfolks, teachers (who wore flowers in their hats), service sector, manufacturing sector, etc.) Each contingent had their hats, headbands, jerkins and banners, and a small drum and cymbal band. The significance of these uniforms became clearer as the afternoon wore on.

Other contingents includes Oxfam, Greenpeace, the Committee for a Workers International (mainly Australian, but a smattering of Hong Kong and Taiwanese Chinese), Japanese Attac and Guy Taylor from Globalise Resistance (he stood out a mile as he is very tall amongst us little people). Jubilee South, the more radical breakaway from Jubilee 2000, was also there from South Africa.

Back to the Koreans, their contingents were very impressive, entirely disciplined and acted totally as one. They marched (literally) to the order of their marshals, assisted by drum and cymbals. They chanted slogans with one voice and with conviction. At various stages on the way, a single command brought the whole contingent to lie down on the road immediately.

They also demonstrated a sense of humour. Hong Kong media prattle on about the security of the conference centre, which is built out into the harbour, and the chief of security mentioned in a press conference that there will be patrol boats in the harbour, just in case people attempt to swim to the centre. And they did! The fishermen contingent came with life jackets and a hundred demonstrators jumped into the harvour and started to swim across. You should have heard the cheer that went up.

There have been skimishes near the entrance of the conference centre both yesterday and today. A contingent of Korean farmers, carrying a mock coffin (in memory of a farmer who set himself on fire at the last WTO) on a wooden frame twice the size of a minibus, marched towards the police line, and used the frame systematically to batter the police line. And when they couldn’t get through, they set the coffin on fire, and marched with the flaming frame to scatter the police. But firemen put it out.

The Korean contingents systematically charged the police line, orchestrated by drum beats, and, as each wave got beaten back by the police and pepper spray, a fresh contingent was brought up from the rear. Some contingents tied cling film over their eyes and used their hats and neckerchieves for protection against pepper spray. A small group carried water for washing eyes, and some, standing behind the front line, held long bamboo sticks to bash the police shields.

They didn’t break through, but managed to take a number of police shields, which their leaders later returned to the police saying that they had respect for the Hong Kong police as they were not as nasty as the Korean police.

Smash the WTO

In 2003 the 5th ministerial Cancún conference ended in disarray as the G20 bloc of counties from the global south, led by Brazil and India, stymied attempts by the USA and EU to approve a package of measures, designed to open up third world markets to western businesses in return for unspecified promises to lower western government export subsidies to their own multinationals.

After the failure in Canún, the USA worked hard to divide Brazil and India from the much poorer Less Developed Countries (LDCs).

This manoeuvre led to a July 2004 agreement to phase out export subsidies and some export credits. The big winner was to be Brazil, with some estimates placing its gains from access to EU and US markets as high as $10 billion. It seemed that the so-called Doha round, which began in 2001, was back on track.

But in recent months the wheels have come off the Doha train over the question of farm tariffs. The EU’s latest offer would see an average reduction of just 39 per cent, with some products being designated as “sensitive” (e.g. poultry and beef) and subject to even less cuts. The G20 group, headed by Brazil, China and India, insists on a 54 per cent reduction and refuses to discuss these areas seriously until the EU relents on agriculture.

There is no doubt that in the last five years the ability of Washington trade officials, Eurocrats and big business leaders to bribe and bully the governments of the global south to surrender their markets to western multinationals cheaply has waned.

Also many of the global south countries have had time to reflect on the negative experience of ten or more years of globalisation and free trade on the social fabric of their countries. Memories of economic meltdown in Argentina and revolts against privatisation in Bolivia are vivid and raw.

Socialists should welcome the impending failure of the Hong Kong meeting and work for the derailment of the Doha round itself. The WTO’s raison d’être is to promote export growth in all countries and by removing barriers to international trade allow the biggest, most capital intensive monopolies from the richest countries to find ever larger markets and profits.

The aim of the WTO talks is not to “develop” the global south. As EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson said in February this year: “The aims of our trade policy should be to achieve better market access for European goods and services worldwide.” As the world’s biggest exporter and foreign investor, the EU has to knock down barriers to both if it is to stay number one.

The governments of the global south have the right to protect their domestic producers and markets from exploitation and ruination by the Wal-Marts and Tescos of this world.

The anticapitalist movement can and must unite the courageous and determined forces represented outside the conference centre this week with the workers and youth in the West. Unlike the third world governments, which at the end of the day will protect the profit system from its most oppressed and exploited victims, this alliance is both capable and has the direct interest in smashing the WTO and the capitalist system it defends.

It is the urgent task of socialists to ensure that the anticapitalist movement finds the leadership its militants deserves: fighting democratic workers’ unions and peasants’ leagues, new working class parties to replace the social democratic and Stalinist collaborators, and a new world party of socialist revolution – a Fifth International.