Global Policy Forum

A Preview of the WTO Talks in Hong Kong


By Joshua Holland

December 13, 2005

Organizers of a series of grass-roots protests against the World Trade Organization negotiations here say that weeks of relentless media focus on supposedly violent "radicals" have created a dangerous atmosphere and distracted from the issues. "The South China Morning Post -- the English-language paper -- has run story after story about violent anarchists," said Jere Locke, an American labor organizer volunteering with the local organizing committee. "It's radical this and dangerous that. And they never report on the issues. What is it that's making all these people mad at the WTO?"

Yesterday's South China Morning Post featured a story under the headline "Police on Alert for Radical Activists," which reported that there was no violence whatsoever during the first large-scale demonstration on Sunday. But the reporters' tone was one of surprise, and the story noted that more "militant South Korean farmers" were expected to arrive ahead of the trade talks' opening on Tuesday. The article quoted security forces' concerns about a sale of gas masks in Mong Kok last week.

In a statement on its website, the Hong Kong People's Alliance -- the group coordinating the week's civil society events -- condemned the local Eastweek magazine for its "exaggerated" and "intentional misrepresentation" of the anticipated protests after it ran a story claiming that a group of Korean peasants who traveled to Hong Kong to express their frustration with the WTO were planning to "attack" the Convention Center with a "suicide protest." The magazine described the Koreans as preparing for an act of "war." In 2003, a South Korean farmer protesting the Fifth WTO Ministerial in Cancun, Mexico, committed suicide. Recent student protests in South Korea have reportedly turned violent, and early indications are that the South Koreans are being portrayed as the violent "bogey-men" for this particular meeting.

Representatives of the Korean delegation insist that they plan to protest peacefully. During a press conference yesterday afternoon, Korean unionist leader Yang Kyeong-Kyoo was asked about the persistent "suicide attack" meme. He told the gaggle of reporters, "We have had many questions like that, but we don't have any [idea] that this kind of thing will happen." When pressed, he said the organizers could "never know" what a member of the group might do. In this morning's South China Morning Post, his statement was reported under the headline "Radical moves 'not ruled out.'"

The kind of overdramatic pre-protest coverage seen in the Morning Post is commonplace where ever major trade negotiations are scheduled -- it's been that way ever since the "battle of Seattle" in 1999. The Seattle protests are often portrayed as the beginning of an age of violent opposition to global economic arrangements. But according to witnesses who were present, the Seattle protesters were for the most part engaged in acts of non-violent civil disobedience when police forces essentially rioted.

The witness' claims were confirmed by the City of Seattle, which issued a report following the incident. It found that with few exceptions "demonstrations were overwhelmingly lawful." It was also concluded in the report that the "number of demonstrators who engaged in property crimes or acts of violence was a very small fraction of the entire group," estimating the figure at "well under one percent."

The City of Seattle report was not so sparing in the description of the police response, which the report describes as marked by "troubling examples of seemingly gratuitous assaults on citizens, including use of less-lethal weapons like tear gas, pepper gas, rubber bullets, and 'beanbag guns,' by officers who seemed motivated more by anger or fear than professional law enforcement."

There was additional violence during the 2003 meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Miami, Florida. Like Seattle, it was commonly reported that it was the protesters who conducted the violence. But the Miami city Independent Review Panel months later found "unrestrained and disproportionate use of force by various police departments in Miami during the FTAA." The panel found that in Miami, as in Hong Kong, "Media coverage and police preparation emphasized 'anarchists, anarchists, anarchists,'" and that the "emphasis on anarchists contributed to a police mindset to err, when in doubt, on the side of dramatic show of force ...."

Hong Kong's unique status as a hub of transnational capitalism policed by a "communist" Chinese government puts local security forces in a delicate position. As one Hong Kong-based activist put it, "we're supposed to be a democracy," a notion authorities are eager to prove. On the other hand, host-country officials at all recent trade meetings have taken pains to prove that they're firmly in control of the streets.

All this is occurring against the backdrop of protests turning deadly on the mainland, after Chinese police opened fire on a demonstration in a small village in Guangdong province. Three demonstrators were killed. The police commander who ordered the shootings was arrested, according to the Xinhua News Agency, but unrest in the village continues. The story of the Guangdong protests has gotten prominent play here in Hong Kong.

Inside the talks

Analysts on both sides of the trade debate expect at best a watered-down agreement to come out of the five-day Ministerial Meeting ending this Sunday. Observers are divided on what that document will look like, and what it will mean for the WTO process moving forward.

Aftab Khan, Director of Action Aid's trade justice campaign, expects the wealthy countries to offer a "development package" for poorer countries in response to criticism that the so-called Doha "development agenda" hasn't produced the poverty reduction advocates promised. "It's political cover," says Khan. "It remains unclear what the offer will entail precisely, but we expect it to give them the ability to claim some success in the negotiations rather than to be a substantive movement on the issues. Part of the problem is that the promise of Doha was that development would be an integrated part of every negotiation. Now we're seeing it as an aside in what might be called the anti-development round."

The first offer for a "development package" came from the United States' delegation. Trade negotiator Rob Portman -- formerly a Republican member of Congress and the son of a wealthy manufacturing family -- said that the United States would offer poor cotton-producers increased market access, but didn't offer to reduce subsidies. Portman called on the EU to "step up" its own development offers. Meanwhile, Gary Adams, the vice president for Policy Analysis for the U.S. National Cotton Council, told Reuters his group would "fight efforts to single out cotton in the [farm trade] negotiations."

Chris Slevin, Deputy Director of the watchdog group Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch expects significant arm-twisting as the wealthy countries work towards a consensus on the stickier issues. "There's what are called 'green rooms,' in which the powerful countries try to pick off developing country ministers one by one. They use threats like pulling aid or pulling support. Sometimes they make explicit geo-political threats." When I asked him if they sometimes used "carrots" as well as "sticks," he told me that would be a generous characterization. "Sure there are carrots. But the sticks are bigger," he said.

There is the prospect of a collapse similar to that which occurred in Cancun in 2003. Ministers failed to produce a consensus agreement after a group of developing nations led by powerhouses Brazil, South Africa, India and China balked at moving ahead with controversial requests made by the developed states before wealthy countries' reduced their agricultural tariffs -- a promise made decades ago in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor to the WTO.

Free trade advocates began placing blame for an anticipated deadlock before the conference even commenced. Alan Oxley, Chairman of World Growth, a new pro-business "NGO," said that the problem was that "anti-globalization politics have seeped inside the tent." He didn't clarify to whom the tent belongs. Advocates of the global trading system warn that a Cancun-like collapse would prove disastrous. The US and EU, along with Pascal Lamy, newly appointed Secretary-General of the WTO, are expected to do everything possible to avoid it.

There has been discussion of ministers agreeing to meet again in early 2006 -- "kicking it down the field a bit" in the words of one analyst interviewed by the BBC. However, in the United States, the administration's negotiating authority expires in 2007, meaning that further delays could complicate the issue for the world's largest economy.

Fair trade activists also fear that a collapse in the WTO talks, where poorer countries have the ability to work together and form negotiating blocks, might lead the US, the EU and Japan to give greater attention to regional and bilateral deals where developing countries have even less leverage. Even as discussions are beginning in Hong Kong, Public Citizen released a statement condemning the Bush administration for continuing to press for an Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) based on the controversial NAFTA model. In late July, the House approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) by two votes, and efforts continue on creating a 34-member Free Trade Area of the Americas and the Caribbean. Inside and outside, the trade talks are heated. It remains to be seen how the Hong Kong round will end up.

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