Setting the Stage

Editor’s note: For the next week, will be on the spot in Hong Kong for the Sixth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. This is the first in a series about the issues surrounding the conference, the people involved, and the roles played by the U.S. and China in this debate.

On paper, the Sixth WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong promises to be exciting for viewers back home, harrowing for bystanders in Hong Kong, and hazardous for cops and protesters alike.

Consider the flammables:

The infamous South Koreans are here in force, roughly 1,500 chanting, marching workers and farmers who have demonstrated their willingness to go to any length to have their voices heard. Hong Kong has been wracked by native pro-democracy marches with demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands for the past two years – one less than two weeks ago. The city is home to thousands of migrant workers – mostly Indonesian, Filipino, and Indian – who have grievances of their own concerning “new-age indentured servitude” in one of Asia’s wealthiest cities. Victoria Park, the provisional base camp for the protesters, becomes little Jakarta each Sunday as hundreds of young Indonesian girls in skirts and tight jeans, head scarves and long dresses, eat, drink, dance, and play music. Last Sunday, they lent their voices to the protest movement.

Many compatriots from South Asia have made the trip to Hong Kong for the conference, groups such as the International League of Peoples’ Struggle, BAYAN, and Resist – linked, but each with their own agenda.

This Sunday after the march to the Exhibition Center, the Koreans entered the park chanting and waving flags while the Indonesians drummed and the Indians spoke of food security.

Next Sunday, the Hong Kong People’s Alliance on WTO will hold a mass rally – drawing on the combined strength of pro-democracy sympathizers, migrant workers, protesters who have arrived during the week, and the serious-looking Koreans.

International Risk’s chief, Steve Vickers, also Hong Kong’s former police superintendent, publicly reprimanded the city for inadequate preparations and questioned the wisdom of choosing this city as the site for the conference. Holding the meeting opposite vital government buildings in Wan Chai is in his words, “dumb.”

Friendly neighborhood mainland China has been trying since 1997 to tighten its grip on the former city-state-colony and will be judging from the sidelines. The Chinese have been conspicuously quiet on the matter, with English language dailies Xinhua and China Daily running the WTO story way down on the page in favor of ASEAN’s recent conference in Kuala Lampur and various screeds against Japan and the U.S.

This is indeed curious, considering the massive media blitz around China’s admission into the WTO but five years ago. China’s role in Hong Kong remains to be seen.

There is not a block in Hong Kong with less than a thousand people in it at any one time. The conference and accompanying protests will be held in the center of Hong Kong island – a very high-density area.

Taking all this into account, the people here do not seem intent on violence – recall that Hong Kong has had several protests since Beijing began flexing its muscles, and none of them became violent. Video footage of Korean protestors in melees with the cops and burning themselves to death stand in stark contrast to the festival floats, drumming and spinning, and tiny, laughing Indonesian and Filipina maids that made up a large proportion of Sunday’s march.

During the week, none of the migrant workers will be allowed out of their jobs, and the Koreans and assorted Western protesters that made it through immigration will be left to fend for themselves in a city devoted to commerce and the fruits of free trade and capitalist philosophies.

Violence or no, the talks will be a headache for those involved.

The Ministerial in Hong Kong has drawn pessimistic descriptions in advance. The issues are manifold and complex: EU farm subsidies and tariffs that keep out developing and least-developed countries’ (LDC) goods; U.S. and European insistence on a trade-off: tariff cuts in exchange for market access; poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability; wages for workers from developing countries; liberalization in LDCs – all basically stemming from the unequal distribution of opportunity and wealth between the North and the South and the political and economic domination of a few over the many.

The debate on agriculture is the crux upon which most other solutions depend. Food security and economic growth are bywords of both the WTO and the organizations that oppose WTO policies – the means through which both can be realized are bones of contention. The WTO is dedicated to promoting free trade and liberalization of markets, but when the largest and richest nations in the world – proponents of free trade and the first members of what is now the WTO – refuse to abide by these rules, then the whole system invites criticism from all sides.

With agriculture, the developed nations are protecting a minority ( percent in the U.S.) with subsidies in the billions per year while farmers in the developing world, who make up 70-80 percent of the population in China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil, etc., are unable to compete freely.

When farmers and fisherman go out of business, they have to migrate to the cities and do what they can (e.g., Indonesian and Filipino maids, Mexican cooks, etc.) because their food security is at risk. It is no coincidence that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization published their views on the matter just days before the Ministerial.

With all of the conflicting and unresolved issues at hand, all the conference can hope for is a violence-free meeting in which a roadmap toward completion of the Doha Agenda can be agreed upon.