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Globalize Hope: Derailing the WTO in Hong Kong

December 11, 2005

by David Solnit and Becky Tarbotton

Thousands of local migrant workers from Indonesia, Philippines and elsewhere together with farmers and peasants from Via Campesina, workers, students, women’s organizations and allies from across East Asia, India, Europe and the world gathered yesterday in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to protest the World Trade Organization’s 6th Ministerial meeting to be held here from December 13th –18th. The field that served as a staging area was a sea of brightly coloured banners and flags, punctuated by giant puppets and swimming in a sea of coordinated headbands and hats- a far cry from the fear and hysteria speculated on by the corporate media. The festival-like march of local and global social movements wound through packed crowds of onlookers in Hong Kong’s bustling streets.

Ten years after is was spawned, the World Trade Organization is gathering thousands of politicians, corporate executives, bureaucrats, and corporate media behind walls of barricades in another attempt to hammer out agreements to liberalize global trade. The delegates are protected by legions of police who are prepared to deal roughly with the anticipated groundswell of resistance that has become the norm at WTO meetings in the past ten years. The familiar irony of the decision-makers being protected from those they ostensibly represent is not lost on the thousands of demonstrators who are massing to voice their opposition to the WTO and the economic system it is promoting.

The last meeting of the WTO, held in the resort town of Cancun, Mexico September 2003 was a similar scene. Mexican campesinos and Korean farmers led street confrontations, tearing down the metal fence guarding the conference and as the world watched, Korean farmer-activist Lee Kyeong-Hae took his own life, yelling, "WTO kills farmers". This immediate heat from the streets, together with pressure from movements around the world on their governments, and NGO actions inside the WTO meeting led to the collapse of the talks—a major setback for the corporate globalizers and a major victory for social movements.

To date, the WTO has made little headway towards the “Doha Round,” a framework that was pushed on the developed nations in November 2001 when the institution met in the isolated Middle East dictatorship of Doha, Qatar. The WTO had chosen to meet at a remote location nearly impossible for social movements to mobilize to, after it’s previous meeting in Seattle in ’99 had been disrupted by direct action blockades which, together with dissent from developing countries inside the ministerial, led to the collapse of the talks and a victory for the global justice movement.

At the time of Cancun, Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos described the conflict, “two projects of globalization are in dispute. The one from above globalizes conformity, cynicism, stupidity, war destruction, death and amnesia. And the one from below globalizes rebellion, hope, creativity, intelligence, imagination, life, memory and building a world where many worlds fit.”

East Asian together with global social movements have already shown that they will fight back in Hong Kong, telling their very real stories of how the WTO is leading to the economic, cultural and political devastation of farmers, workers, women, indigenous people and ecosystems.

What is the WTO and where does it come from?

The globalized economic system promoted and enforced by the WTO in the past ten years is part of a process that has been advancing for several centuries, beginning with conquest and colonialism, continuing under the guise of ‘development’ and now as the era of corporate-led globalization. Beginning more than four hundred years ago, colonial powers began to force colonies to abandon their local food economies and produce mono-crops for export markets. Colonialism provided vast riches for the privileged classes in Europe, but systematically destroyed the relatively self-sufficient, local economies of the South.

After World War II, the victorious US and Britain sought to establish a ‘so-called’ stable, multilateral economic system, ostensibly to prevent the outbreak of another World War. At a meeting in Bretton Woods, they created a set of international institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to govern the global economy ‘for the benefit of all’. In practice, these three institutions acted in concert to push developing countries along the road to production for export markets through trade liberalization ‘to the benefit of a very few’.

Increased trade liberalization (commonly called ‘free trade’) was promoted under the pretense (and in some cases, misguided belief) that economic growth and increased trade would lead to increase standards of living and reduce poverty. In reality, most of developing countries export earnings did and continue to go to paying off huge debts incurred from loans obtained to build the industrial infrastructures required to participate in global trade in the first place.

In 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO) was set up to administer the GATT Uruguay Round agreements that governed and regulated world trade in manufactured goods, agricultural goods, services and intellectual property rights, as well as to provide a forum for further negotiations, to review member countries’ performance on trade liberalization, and to administer dispute settlement. Agreements signed onto within the WTO are legally binding, in effect making a non-democratically elected institution more powerful than elected governments.

The WTO as an instrument of global governance, was designed to negotiate and enforce an economic system that would keep power in the hands of the world’s largest corporations acting in concert with the most powerful nations, but in areas where it doesn’t reach, US military force has been used to impose the same model. The most recent example of this is the war in Iraq, which is imposing the same agendas of privatization and free trade as the WTO imposes through economic policies . It is no mystery why militarism is a necessary fall-back position – the WTO has struggled since it’s inception to maintain a façade of cohesion and collaboration between it’s (now) 148 members, but in reality the original timeline for finalizing agreements has been constantly extended, and ministerial after ministerial has been derailed or stalled due to growing resistance within from the majority world countries, and without from an increasingly vocal civil society.

At this sixth ministerial of the WTO the institution is facing it’s greatest challenge ever – to secure agreement in three main areas: the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and Non-Agricultural Market Access (NAMA).

1. Food And Agriculture – the Agreement on Agriculture
To better understand the impact of the WTO on lives around the world we asked Anuradha Mittal, activist thinker and executive director of The Oakland Institute how the institution is a threat to agriculture and farming. She said:

“The WTO is structured to protect the interests of politically influential corporate agriculture in rich countries like the U.S. at the expense of millions of poor farmers across the Third World. Using its powerful influence on the World Bank, IMF, and international trade agreements, the U.S. has pressured poor countries into removing subsidies that favor local producers, and lowering tariff charges on foreign imports. With its own subsidies intact, the U.S. dumps cheap subsidized food into developing nations, ravaging the livelihoods of small farmers.

The numbers are alarming: The U.S. and the E.U. subsidize their agriculture to the tune of almost $1 billion a day; the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill continues this trend, with tax payers coughing up another $180 billion in new money over the next 10 years; U.S. farm subsidies cost poor countries about $50 billion a year in lost agricultural exports - that's the same as total of rich countries aid to poor countries.

In effect, the WTO pulls a reverse Robin Hood: robbing the world's poor to enrich American and European agribusiness. Whenever Third World governments have balked at U.S. and E.U.'s agricultural proposals, they have been shown into a darkened room where they are bludgeoned with threats to cut off preferential market access, suspend aid, or otherwise have their arms twisted.”

2. Services and Migration – the General Agreement on Trade in Services
The General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS, is a four ‘mode’ series of agreements focussed on liberalizing trade in 160 services, including everything from healthcare, education and water to travel and tourism, from migrant workers to foreign direct investment. According to the WTO itself, the GATS is “perhaps the most important single development in the multilateral trading system” The element of the GATS that promises to be the most contentious during the 6th ministerial is Mode 4, or the ‘guest worker program’ agreement that seeks to establish a global program tying the rights and immigrant status of temporary workers to their employers and dictating the flow of temporary workers around the globe.

According to Colin Rajah, of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Mode 4 of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) could increase the abuses by employers of workers. “Through its “Mode 4” deal, the WTO is proposing to create a global guest worker program that will expose workers to significant abuse, with no possibility of permanent residency. Trade agreements struck by the WTO have caused communities to lose their livelihoods and forced people to migrate, while using immigrants as cheap, disposable labour for corporations,” said Rajah.

3. Non-Agricultural Market Access
The third agreement being focussed on during the Hong Kong Ministerial is the NAMA agreement, which seeks to increase market access in non-agricultural products so that these products could be freely traded without importing or exporting restrictions such as tariffs. Like GATS and the AoA, NAMA denies nations the ability to protect their emerging industrial sectors by limiting the influx of imported products.

Hong Kong Prepares: Brainwashing at Home and Keeping Out the Riff-Raff

In the past weeks and months, Hong Kong has been preparing for the WTO by inundating citizens with TV ads and press coverage that simultaneously trumpets the benefits of trade liberalization and works to generate a climate of fear around the anticipated grassroots resistance to the conference. Popular Chinese actors and singers have been featured wandering around malls exclaiming how cheap the oranges or DVD players are in an effort to the propaganda that “WTO = Trade Liberalization = Economic Growth and jobs”. One Hong Kong activist said that: “This is brainwashing, pure and simple” going on to explain how unrelenting the government’s campaign to sell trade liberalization has been in the past months.

The climate in the city is tense, with signs on public transport announcing the expected ‘transportation disruptions’. The area around the convention centre itself where the Ministerial will take place has already been shut down and security is tightened. The repressive preparations follow precisely the same pattern as those for similar mobilizations against global elite economic forums in the US, Europe and elsewhere. Large sections of the densely populated Wanchai area, where the meeting will be held, are to be cordoned off two nights before the opening of the conference, and the public has been warned to avoid the area unless absolutely necessary. In the nearby Central district, the heart of the city, police have cleared out an historic prison to make room for protesters and zones have been designated for demonstrators.

Hong Kong is also making efforts to keep out the ‘riff raff’. On Thursday December 9, three Philippina organizers-- BAYAN chairwoman Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, Elisa Lubi of women's group Gabriela and Norma Biñas of the labour organization Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).-- were held and interrogated for six hours and released only after protests from their organizations. Carol Pagaduan-Araullo said. "What they are doing to us is pure harassment. We have not broken any laws in Hong Kong or in the Philippines. We should not be treated this way. We are here to speak on the ill effects of the WTO on poor. "The real troublemakers are the big transnational corporations and foreign government that have bled the third world dry,"”

Up to 25 other movement delegates from Pakistan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka have still not received their visas, a month after filling out their applications and even Jose Bove, the French farmer activist best known for dismantling a McDonalds to protest the destruction of local food and farming systems was detained by Hong Kong immigration for several hours before being released. Colin Raja, the international project coordinator at the San Francisco Bay Area based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights was also detained for several hours and only allowed entry after an international emergency phone and fax campaign. The media has reported that Hong Kong authorities in cooperation with Inerpol have a blacklist of 300 social movement delegates that they will harass or forbid.

Migrant Workers Taking the Lead

Hong Kong is home to well over 250,000 migrant workers, most of them domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, and most of them women. The situation here is a familiar tale of high agency rates, low pay and few rights. Rafi, an Indonesian organizer in Hong Kong for the ministerial is clear about the connections between the WTO and the plight of migrant workers in Hong Kong. He says “ The farmers are forced off their land and so they move to the cities to find jobs. They can’t find work, so they sign up with an agency that will find them a job overseas – but they usually have to pay the agency seven months worth of wages which leaves them with huge debts and no choice but to stay even if the work is very bad.”

But in spite of this, the migrant workers here are a vocal group, dedicated to standing up for their rights with passion and creativity – many of them spending their one day off a week volunteering with one of the four grassroots groups that they have created to advocate for better working conditions and protest the system that undermines their livelihoods at home and their rights in this country. This in spite of the fact that employment agencies have encouraged employers not to allow domestic workers to take off their normal Sunday, so they would not be able to attend the protests or educational forums.

Leading up to the Hong Kong ministerial, 1200 domestic workers, from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Nepal working in Hong Kong protested on October 27 against the World Trade Organization, denouncing it as favoring big business over rank-and-file workers. The Asian Migrant Coordinating Body (AMCB), known for consistently leading the biggest and most organized protest actions against wage cuts, tax levies and other anti-migrant policies of the Hong Kong government, is a member of the Hong Kong Peoples Alliance on WTO (HKPA), the organization responsible for the People’s Action Week in coordination with other international global justice movements and groups. Since last August, AMCB has been organizing monthly seminars to train “Migrant Educators on WTO” for three consecutive months. Already, more than 65 educators have been trained and are doing their rounds in different places in Hong Kong where migrant workers congregate. Every Sunday public forums, cultural events, public information drive, distribution of flyers, walking billboards, volunteer sign-up campaign and formal and informal public gatherings are held to rally domestic workers to contribute significantly to the overall success of the anti-WTO protests.

Solidarity from the US

The largest delegation of US activists—as many as fifty people—are from a network of four groups of Asian-Pacific Islander community and global justice activists from different cities. One of these groups is WT-No, a Bay Area delegation of 10 –15 Asian-Pacific Islander organizers and activists. Diana Wu, A Bay Area organizer and cultural activist described the delegation; “WT-No is a collaboration between CJWP (Chin Jurn Wor Ping), Chinese Progressive Association, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and individuals. Folks in the delegation include artists, teachers, former garment workers, organizers, writers, videographers, policy advocates, and radio producers. Issues we work on include media justice, environmental justice, immigrant and refugee rights, worker rights, youth organizing, and prisoner support work.

Diana, a veteran of the ’99 Seattle WTO shutdown and protests, reflects back six years, “I was in Seattle in 1999 with a group that had studied up on indigenous people, forests and trade. We went dressed up as the Hall of Justice, in superhero costumes. With everyone else, we surrounded the conference center and took over the streets in downtown Seattle. This time, for my friends who are going to this type of mass mobilization for the first time, I've been helping them understand the different degrees of action they can take, and then we'll figure out as a group what we can do.”

She explains her and her groups goals for Hong Kong, “my goals for going to Hong Kong are to stop the negotiations and shut down the conference. We will be participating in the mass mobilizations, and in networking with other workers rights, environmental justice and immigrant and refugee rights organizations in Hong Kong. Since much of our group is part of Asian American movement in the US, we are going to be there to show global solidarity with working people from all over the world.

We are also going to celebrate: CJWP, one of the organizations that came together to form Bay Area WT-No, has been working on a case supporting elderly, poor Chinese immigrants who were evicted from their apartments over 2 years ago, in April 2003. The landlord is from Hong Kong. While we are still embroiled in the case, and organizing with the evicted tenants, we are also celebrating. April 15 2006 marks the three-year anniversary of the evictions, and the three-year anniversary of our community coming together and resisting, and we've seen the strength that comes from people coming together to support each other. So in a way we're also coming together to celebrate local struggles as part of global resistance, to be in solidarity, and to have fun!

Additionally, representatives from US farmers organization, from the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, Steelworkers, National Family Farm Coalition and non-profit organizations such as Public Citizen, Sierra Club, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Global Exchange, Oxfam, The Oakland Institute, and American Friends Service Committee.

Smoke and Mirrors – Busting the Mobilization Myth

Despite the media hype and the geared up police presence, the real battle of Hong Kong will be the battle of the story. Regardless of the outcome of the talks, the corporate globalizers will use smoke, mirrors and their compliant corporate media to spin failure into “progress” and concentration of corporate power and wealth as “development”. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz on the eve of the Hong Kong meeting foreshadowed this spin clearly when he said,” If Doha fails, it is the world’s poor who will suffer the most.”

"Another failure is unthinkable and would come pretty close to destroying the WTO's credibility for years to come," said John Tsang, Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce, industry and technology who will be chairing the WTO ministerial meeting. This WTO ministerial will likely strike another blow to the global economic and political system, already reeling from both the humiliating disintegration of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) at the Summit of the Americas in Plata Del Mar, Argentina last month.

If these other inspiring tales of the resistance and commitment of migrant workers, and farmers, thinkers and activists from East Asia and around the world gathered in Hong Kong for the WTO’s sixth ministerial can be shared and spread, we can start to tell a different story of rebellion and hope.

David Solnit and Becky Tarbotton, Fellows at the Oakland Institute, are in Hong Kong working with social movements and grassroots opposition to the WTO.



• Demonstrations are taking place around the world in conjunction with the Hong Kong actions. In the US Jobs with Justice and member groups of the Grassroots Global Justice network have called for a Week of Global Justice Action and Education from December 10-18th. For more information:

• An autonomous group of direct action activists from Hong Kong and around the world:

• Daily updates from inside and outside the Hong Kong Ministerial – Eye on Hong Kong:



• From APEC to WTO: trajectories of protest in Korea and East Asia by Jamie Doucette and Owen Miller, December 07, 2005 at: Zmag

• Derailers Guide to the WTO. 2005. Focus on the Global South.

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