The 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was supposed to showcase the post-pandemic recovery and resurgence of the economy but it only put into spotlight its notorious legacy amid the raging crisis in the multipolar world and genocidal occupation in Palestine.
News narratives hyped the United States – China rivalry without calling out the complicity of the two global powers in fanning proxy wars, enabling military dictatorships, and supporting acts of aggression.
The historic meeting of Joe Biden and Xi Jinping should not obscure the epic failure of APEC, which was established in 1989, in transforming the world for the better. The focus should be on the role of APEC in making precarity the absurd new normal by facilitating unequal trade agreements, anti-labor legislations, and neocolonial plunder of resources in developing nations.
Choosing San Francisco in California as the APEC host reflected the surreal hegemony of the US. A city of extremes populated by Silicon Valley billionaires on one hand and homeless workers on the other. Despite the dystopian reality plaguing the city, it gets to preach the potential of digital technology, and AI in particular, in solving the world’s problems.
How ironic that a gathering of free-market fundamentalists would require the strong fascist arm of the state to make the homeless invisible and drive away protesters.
It is under this backdrop that ‘shutdown APEC’ protests were held from November 11 to 17. There were numerous small and centralized direct action assemblies but the major events included the people’s summit on November 11, the mass mobilization on November 12, and shutdown actions on November 15.
The summit gathered more than a thousand people who shared testimonies about how APEC impoverished a generation, displaced Indigenous peoples and undermined the rights of workers. A powerful keynote address by Chinese-American activist Brandon Lee linked the dehumanizing impact of APEC with the rise of brutal authoritarian governments. As an activist living in the Cordillera region in the Philippines who survived an assassination attempt, he embodies what it means to confront the beast that inflicts suffering in grassroots communities. His story resonated with a crowd of migrants and local organizers who led workshops and group sessions about the campaigns and struggles they are waging from Myanmar to the Pasifika.
The summit energized the delegates ahead of the big mobilization in downtown San Francisco. The march drew a crowd that countered the feel-good and deceptive messaging of APEC organizers. The truth about APEC was seen and heard that day as protesters assembled and walked towards the main conference center. Community leaders highlighted the colonial crimes of imperialist powers, the collusion of multinational corporations and despotic regimes, and the systematic attack on the working classes.
The protest was a massive educational event about APEC and its discontents and how it disrupted lives from Haiti and Peru to India and Korea. The issues seemed overwhelming but the crowd knew there was a common enemy to be defeated: the evil empire behind APEC and the mass slaughter of innocent civilians in Palestine. No participant that day went home without understanding the evil link between the mass pauperization in the world and the genocidal war in Palestine. One cannot stand up for labor rights and climate justice while remaining quiet about the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Israel and its powerful backers.
Thus, the need to protest and to articulate the demands loud and clear. And for activists opposed to APEC and the ongoing attacks in Gaza, the message was delivered when they shut down the streets leading to the conference center on November 15. The daring protest involved activists chaining themselves to gated barricades while being surrounded by fellow activists. A youth leader said it was her act of love for the community. Brandon Lee himself was chained to the entrance even if he was in a wheelchair. Several streets were blocked for a few hours which showed the successful coordination among various groups and their meticulous planning in symbolically shutting down the APEC behemoth.
The shutdown took place while sizeable pockets of protests were held in consulates and hotels to protest the arrival of infamous heads of state. For example, protests hounded Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong’ Marcos Jr and his delegation when they first arrived in South San Francisco and throughout their stay at the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel. Marcos Jr had the gall to talk about peace and development when he allowed the expansion of US military facilities in the Philippines over the past year while continuing to endorse the export of his own people under the neoliberal framework that underpins the doctrine of APEC.
When APEC leaders posed for their traditional group photo, it became clearer that the “resilient and sustainable future” promised by this year’s conference theme is only for the narrow elite interest and not for the benefit of ordinary people. How can the future become sustainable and resilient when governments continue to support a system that cannibalizes the planet in the service of corporate profit and imperialist plunder?
Hope lies in the resistance to APEC and the war machine that perpetuates the exploitation of the oppressed. And the resistance is relentless. This relentlessness was on display in the streets of San Francisco last week which echoes the voices of solidarity from all places where people are fiercely organizing and building a new, progressive, and just future.
Mong Palatino is an activist and former two-term member of the Philippine House of Representatives. Blogging since 2004 at mongster’s nest. He is the secretary general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan.
This article was first published by BULATLAT.COM