Livelihoods at Stake

Editor’s note: This week, is on the spot in Hong Kong for the Sixth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. This is the third 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.

Since Tuesday, the Sixth Ministerial has proceeded more or less according to plan – the delegates remain holed up in the Exhibition Center facing the harbor, and the protesters remain entrenched at Victoria Park. No real altercations have occurred involving the infamous Koreans, and, as of yet, no breakthroughs have been recorded. Another productive round…

The trade symposium carries on, ponderously informing journalists, students, and interested citizens of the intricacies of trade policy, economic growth, tariffs and subsidies, etc., ad nauseam, and one begins to understand the wrath of the poor and destitute who view the WTO as naught but a convoluted mechanism through which the rich continue subjugating the poor.

The argument then becomes: reform or abolish? And that this question is on the table, regardless of whom one asks – a Korean labor activist, Indonesian farmer, European Parliament member, or an American delegate – speaks volumes on the successes of the WTO thus far.

The Koreans are all that keep this conference exciting, it seems, with rumors flying of suicide and a massive rally against the Conference planned for this Sunday, when the whole city has a day off and migrant workers from the very countries most heavily represented by the protesters flood the streets.

The Koreans themselves are holed up in Chungking and Mirador Mansions, when not at Victoria Park demonstrating. These two “mansions” are infamous havens of destitute and desperate travelers, thieves, and hustlers, and have the cheapest, funkiest rooms in the city.

The mansions are run by Indians, Pakistanis, and avaricious Hong Kong landlords with African fiefdoms dotted throughout the 16 floors of each house. It is one center of the vast Hong Kong underworld, and the Koreans are posted up into the early hours of the morning. There are Democratic Labor Party representatives, students who should be taking exams, trade union and peasant movement representatives, and a large number of farmers as well.

They realized that the image of all protesters was being tarnished by the violent nature of Korean protests, and the Korean movement moved across the harbor from the Exhibition Center and Victoria Park itself. Activists in “WTO Kills Farmers” uniform and face paint sat on Nathan Road in front of the mansions and attracted crowds, as always, and were shadowed by the police, as always. The Korean activists made a concerted effort to hand out leaflets on one of Hong Kong’s busiest thoroughfares, Nathan Road, which runs from the pier clear through to the New Territories. Activists also changed their habit of broadcasting all speeches in Korean and translated their policies and views on the WTO for a crowd of several hundred locals just outside of Victoria Park.

They aim to improve the image of the Korean delegation in particular and the protests in general, informing the public of the woeful successes of the WTO and reassuring the police that murder and mayhem are not on the agenda.

“We haven’t had any problems since Tuesday,” said one police officer with a calming smile. “And we don’t expect any problems for Sunday. Everything’s fine.”

Nearer to the Exhibition Center across the harbor, the police are dressed like paratroopers, with bags and pouches dangling, Kevlar armor bulging out from under their military green uniforms.

“We are in this position in case the Korean activists decide to disrupt the meeting,” said one stalwart young recruit. “We will move forward and secure the area if they do.”

The Koreans are arguing specifically against the privatization of public services and the destruction of the domestic rice industry through cheap imports, something any European can understand. The difference between the plight of the Korean farmer and the French farmer lies in the social security net existing throughout Europe and the extent to which the Korean and EU governments implement and adhere to their agreements.

Korea, unfortunately for the locals, has kept its word. The EU has not yet given its word, staunchly defending its interests to the point of dragging down this meeting in Hong Kong into a free-for-all slugging match involving Latin American, Caribbean, and African banana, sugar, and cotton growers and the EU.

“If you look at the men charging the barricades, at the men jumping into the sea, they are not young men. They are old men,” explained Jens Galschiot, artist and activist. “I think the attitude of the Koreans is OK, it is understandable. For them, this meeting decides their lives, will determine their bread and butter. For me, as a European, I am not personally affected. I can go home and continue my life.”

Bae Joon Beom, a member of Korea’s Democratic Labor Party, passes out informational leaflets outside of Chungking Mansions with his fellow activists and party members. He fields questions from confused Westerners every five minutes or so.

“We are fighting for the lives of the farmers here, and this is something that most protesters, most people cannot understand – the organization you see [with the Korean protest movement], the determination and anger – these are all reflections of the situation in which Korean farmers find themselves,” he said. “There is a role for the WTO, but not like this, not at the expense of the poor and the gain of the rich.”

As Bae informs and fumes, suits discuss the legal framework for admission into the WTO, compliance and economic growth vs. environmental degradation, afterwards schmoozing and chatting. The frustration and anger people feel toward the only multilateral framework to date with the potential to put a legal fence around rampant 21st century globalization will most likely explode into destructive rage. If this round proceeds as predicted, expect ample talk, little outcome.

If this is the case, beware of media and police there to make sure the world witnesses the insanity of the protester in the face of reasonable WTO horse-trading: livelihoods are at stake.


As of 9 p.m. Friday, rumors floated about that the Ministerial will be preparing a revised and updated version of the previous agreements with progress in a few fields, if not in the all-important sector of agricultural subsidies, for presentation at noon Saturday…