Hong Kong Workers toward 1997: Unionisation, Labour Activism and Political Participation under the China Factor

By Chan, Ming K. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Hong Kong Workers toward 1997: Unionisation, Labour Activism and Political Participation under the China Factor


Chan, Ming K., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The end of British colonial rule and sovereignty transfer to the PRC in 1997 constituted an unprecedented sea change that reshaped Hong Kong's constitutional framework and opened up the political arena for popular participation and party politics. Parallel to this decolonisation-retrocession transition was an equally significant, still on-going economic restructuring of tertiarisation, manufacturing relocation, regionalisation and globalisation. Both processes, which have directly impacted upon the life and work, hopes and fears of Hong Kong workers, can be attributed to the "China factor."

The Hong Kong labour movement has been closely linked to mainland China in both political and socio-economic realms. From the 1850s to the 1920s, the repertoire of Hong Kong labour activism was punctuated by noted cases of pro-China patriotic outbursts, anti-colonial struggles and nationalistic mobilisation. In the post-war era, partisan and ideological hostility from the Chinese Civil War divided Hong Kong labour into the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and the pro-Taipei Hong Kong and Kowloon Trade Union Congress (TUC) camps. Another China factor in the Cold War context -- the UN embargo against mainland China in 1951 -- forced a basic economic reorientation of Hong Kong from a trading port servicing China trade into an industrial city with manufacturing for exports. The regime change in China unleashed an exodus of refugees into the British colony which provided the manpower and skills for the "Hong Kong economic miracle" of the past half century.

The 1997 sovereignty transfer China factor ushered in a new politicisation of Hong Kong labour, from Chinese politics on Hong Kong soil to local politics by Hong Kong Chinese. Of great significance is the concurrent process of Hong Kong-mainland China economic integration. Stemming from the PRC's reform and opening up, Hong Kong has gradually regained its pivotal entrepot functions for the flourishing China trade. This added much impetus to Hong Kong's transformation from an export-oriented industrial economy into a regional commercial, financial, transport and communication service hub closely linked to the China market. The economic China factor also led to the investment in, and relocation of manufacturing from Hong Kong to the PRC. The influx of legal and illegal immigrants and imported labourers from mainland China are manifestations of the economic China factor, with direct bearings on Hong Kong's labour market, wage level and social service capacities. Indeed, the world of Hong Kong workers has been extensively reshaped by a new China factor in the past two decades.

This essay will focus on the three related areas of change in Hong Kong's labour scene promoted and provoked by the China factor, namely, unionisation, labour activism and political participation. Hopefully, such analytical delineation of Hong Kong workers' collective experience at this critical juncture of political and economic transformation can be of relevance to the larger discourse on Asian industrial relations with particular reference to such common labour concerns as regime change, decolonisation and democratisation against the dynamics of political versus socio-economic unionism.

Dimensions of Hong Kong Unionisation

The 1984 Baseline and Historical Legacy

According to official data, at the end of 1984 there were 383 employees' unions with a total membership of 351,820 in Hong Kong. The number of unions seemed impressive yet the average enrolment, less than 1,000 members per union, is rather low, and the union membership density of 15 per cent among a total workforce of 2.54 million is not a sign of strong unionisation.(1) In fact, political division, fragmentation, and proliferation of a large number of small-sized unions have characterised Hong Kong's labour unionism in the post-war era.

Nearly half of these 383 labour unions were affiliated with one of the two politically rival federations, the FTU on the left and the TUC on the right. …

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