Jonathan Watts in Hong Kong – Friday December 16, 2005
It was billed as a capitalist counterbalance to the anti-free trade protests that grabbed the headlines at this week’s WTO talks in Hong Kong. Fed up by the attention given to Korean farmers, Filipina Marxists and the rest of the motley crew who want to derail negotiations, an equally strange – but considerably greyer and smaller – coalition of free marketeers took to the streets yesterday calling for the liberalisation process to be accelerated.
No more than a dozen strong – half of whom were in suits and ties – the members of the Freedom to Trade coalition were outnumbered by journalists as they staged a 20-minute demonstration on the Kowloon waterfront, on the other side of the harbour from their ideological opponents. Compared with the furious and sometimes violent denunciations of the WTO across the waterway, their brief campaign was as peaceful as it was passionless. There were speeches, there was a five-second chant – “We love Hong Kong, We love Free Trade” – and there was a photo-opportunity as the libertarian academics, businessmen and politicians pushed down a stack of empty cardboard boxes symbolising global trade barriers.
“This is not a mass protest. We don’t pretend to represent anyone. We just want to denounce the huge trade barriers that are detrimental to everyone,” said Julian Morris, the director of the London-based International Policy Network.
Like several of the speakers, he took aim at the protesters who clashed with police and jumped into the harbour to highlight their cause. “The Korean farmers are a vocal minority who don’t represent the Korean people. They are doing a disservice to them and everyone by preventing people in Korea from getting cheaper rice. It’s offensive.”
But such criticism was expressed at a safe distance. Although some cited their inspiration as Richard Cobden – the Victorian free-trader who was the intellectual head of the mass movement against the Corn laws in the 19th century – none seemed ready to accept that similar risks were necessary to promote their message.
“I value my life very much,” said Simon Patkin, an Australian expatriate who has set up his own network, Capitalist Solutions. “I wanted to stay away from the anti-free traders. They have a history of violence.”
Mr Patkin also staged a one-man pro-trade demonstration on Sunday for which he requested police protection, even though it took place at dawn – long before any anti-globalisation radical was likely to have woken up. One thing the free traders had in common with the protesters on the other side of the harbour was a feeling of frustration with the WTO.
Daniel Griswold, director of the libertarian Cato institute in the US, said America was hypocritical in protecting its textiles and agricultural industries. But he blamed Europe for holding up the talks.
“The EU has failed to respond in a way worthy of its economic weight in the world. That is because it is divided. The UK wants to push for free trade, but France remains the single biggest impediment to progress at this free-trade round,” he said. “I see trade liberalisation fatigue. We’ve picked the low-lying fruit and now we are left with the difficult issues of agriculture, dumping and textiles.”
Other members of the network had travelled from India and Africa. Barun Mitra of the New Delhi based Liberty Institute, said: “The poor of the world have nothing to lose but their poverty if we can tear down the barrier blocking free trade.” Hong Kong represents the benefits from unilateral free trade. Fifty years ago, India and Hong Kong were at roughly the same level, but Hong Kong opened up and India closed up. The result is that India’s share of world trade has more than halved from 1.5% to 0.6%.”
But although all of the speakers claimed that free trade would benefit the poor, few appeared to be in an economic position to empathise. When Mr Patkin was asked about his income – a question put to many of the anti-WTO protesters – he was unusually silent.
“It’s OK,” he said eventually. “I don’t like to brag.”