Both local and international media have hailed the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong as being leaderless. There seems to be a confusion over being leaderless and having a decentralized network of leaders.
The world is impressed that a leaderless movement could mobilize 1 million to take to the streets on June 9, tens of thousands to blockade the legislative council on June 12, and 2 millions on June 16.
The more radical among the young protestors are cheering the seemingly leaderless nature of this massive show of people power.
During the umbrella movement of 2014, the rowdies criticized the then multigenerational leadership. It was composed of the Occupy Central trio, the HK federation of college students, and Scholarism formed of secondary school students. The joint leadership set up a center stage at the main occupy site in Admiralty. As the occupation dragged on without any results, the movement splintered. Impatient radicals championed the slogan that "there is no big stage; there are only the people."
This time around, protestors are self-consciously leaderless. This is not just because they carried over their sentiments from the umbrella movement, but also because any leaders would surely be subject to arrests. All the leaders of the Umbrella movement were convicted with sentences ranging from a couple of months to 16 months.
Appearing leaderless has a sound logic. Advocates of nonviolence do suggest that a successful movement does not need a single leader like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, they warn that any iconic leaders are sure to be jailed or assassinated.
This does not mean that there should be no leaders. The most sustainable movements have a network of smaller groups and layers of leaders. Local leaders are known only to activists but not to the authorities. Even when some leaders are arrested, there are simply too many leaders for the police to identify and imprison all of them.
In the last phase of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, black Africans evaded martial law by organizing in a cell-like structure. Each neighborhood and unit formed a small committee. The struggle eventually succeeded because the various decentralized groups coordinated and strategized their economic boycott against white businesses.
In Serbia, the student body Otpor was instrumental in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. During the struggle, Otpor would tell visitors and observers that they did not have a leader. In fact, the then little known Srdja Popovic was the leader coordinating a decentralized network of smaller groups formed at every school around the country.
In Eygpt during the Arab Uprisings, the young liberals really did not have leaders and did not build networks outside of the capital, Cairo. Thus, when elections happened, the Muslim Brotherhood won in a landslide and reconstituted a dictatorship. The military, in turn, took over and suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the young liberals.
HK protestors confuse decentralized leadership with leaderlessness. They are right that the movement should appear to be leaderless so that it can minimize the impact of repression. But the movement has managed to mobilize 2 million people because it nevertheless has a decentralized leadership composed of the Civil Human Rights Front, student unions, labor unions, neighborhood groups, Telegram chat groups and many more. As a legislator Kwong Chun-yu remarks, "while there is no center stage, there are many small stages." The protestors have succeeded so far because they have coordinated their efforts. This is why participants and journalists are impressed by how organized the protests have been.
Now the worry is that this leaderless movement does not know what to do next and can easily fracture -- as what happened to the umbrella movement in 2014. The protest on Wednesday, June 12 succeeded in blocking the scheduled legislative council meeting by 11am, but protestors got agitated in the afternoon partly because there were conflicting messages about the next move.
Serbia's Popovic tells activists around the world that the elements of any successful movements are unity, planning, and organization.
While the "small stages" should continue to be decentralized, they should deepen their coordination, planning the next moves together and maintaining unity.