The Limit of 'Leaderlessness' and Need for Sustainable Protest Tactics

Author: Victoria Tin-bor Hui

The storming of the Legislative Council on July 1 suggests both the strength and the limit of the self-consciously leaderless anti-extradition protests.

The unprecedented vandalization of the Legco building won international attention, but some supporters are disappointed by the focus on violence. In contrast to pictures of disciplined peaceful protests on June 9 and 16, what made it to headlines in print and broadcast media on July 1 were images of protestors breaking into and vandalizing the legislature. 

When interviewed by the New York Times, Bloomberg, BBC, and Al Jazeera, I suggested that Hong Kong's young people were imitating the Sunflower Movement of Taiwan, where all charges against protestors for breaking into the legislature were ultimately dropped. I also explained that the police had set a trap to lure protestors by withdrawing from the building at around 9pm. Nevertheless, it was not easy for protesters to counter the Chief Executive Carrie Lam's well-planned media strategy. She held a press conference at 4am Hong Kong time so that her condemnation of this "extremely violent" act could make it to international evening news. 

The introduction of violence, even though it was limited to physical properties rather than human lives, also risks dividing the opposition. The anti-extradition protests had drawn 1 million to swamp Hong Kong's business districts on June 9, 2 millions on June 16, and another half a million on July 1. This danger is captured by the New York Times' July 1st story entitled "Hong Kong Protestors Storm the Legislature, Dividing the Movement."

It emerged a day later that the dramatic storming act was not as divisive as some had feared. A commentary in the Stand News explains this best: "Even if the movement has not splintered, it still faces condemnation by the mainstream and runs the risk of hollowing out support." If popular opinion has not turned against the protestors, half of the credit should be attributed to an interview by a Stand News reporter. "(但縱使運動沒有分裂,依然要面對主流的責難,式微的危險。 結果輿論不至逆轉,一半可歸於一個原因──立場姐姐的訪問。)This opinion piece tells of the chaotic process that produced the decision to storm the Legco building by protestors who were on site overnight. It also refers to an interview of a young girl among those who had retreated from the building but decided to return to drag out four protestors who had insisted on staying behind in an act of martyrdom. Her statement that "we are all very scared, but we are more scared that we may lose them tomorrow" brought tears to even conservative supporters. 

If the storming of the Legco building has not recreated the rifts that had paralyzed the Umbrella Movement of 2014, it is partly because activists, from moderate to radical, have learned the lesson and are self-conscious of the need to stay united. It is also because Carrie Lam's deafness to the millions-strong peaceful protests made the youngsters' escalation seem justifiable. Media interviews in the past week suggest that even those who disagree with any use of violence are sympathetic to the young people.

This sympathy, however, should not be taken for granted. There is no guarantee that opposition unity could survive another violent act.

Studies of movements around the world show that nonviolence is more forceful than violence because violence always backfires on those who wield it. The daring storming has rather limited backfire on the opposition this time only because the police's firing of rubber bullets and beating of protestors, especially on June 12, are far more overwhelming. 

It is noticeable that Carrie Lam learned her lesson too. When young protestors were storming into the Legco building, many observers saw a trap to catch all of the radicals in one act. Yet, the police refrained from on-site mass arrests, choosing instead to set up blockades around town to detain suspects. The Lam government seemed to understand that any mass police arrests at Legco would override the optic of protestors breaking into the building with metal bars. 

Protestors took the bait not because they were stupid, but because they wanted to make a symbolic statement when peaceful protests seemed to have failed to move Carrie Lam to completely withdraw the bill. The youngsters wanted to tell the world that the Legislative Council is not at all a democratic institution; rather, it is designed to put democratically electors in perpetual minority so that the government can push through any bills. 

But the risks of such a high-stake act are simply too much. Future actions should not be left to luck.  

Protestors are proud of following Bruce Lee's wisdom to "be water." This idea comes from the Sunzi Art of War's advice to use formlessless(無形)to overcome the strong. Breaking into the Legco building clearly violates the principle of being water/formless by entering into a "death trap" (死地) from which retreat would not be easy. 

More importantly, Sunzi would advise a strategic plan: "Know yourself and know your enemy"(知己知彼). However, the decision to smash the doors of the Legco building was made in an impromptu manner given the leaderless nature of the anti-extradition protests. In contrast, the Carrie Lam government does have a strategy to paint protestors as "violent rioters." 

Maintaining nonviolent discipline in future actions should be the best counter-strategy.

And given that any Chief Executive, Carrie Lam or otherwise, is only doing Beijing's bidding, the struggle to defend Hong Kong's freedoms will be a prolonged one. As Nelson Mandela's autobiography suggests, any "long walk to freedom" could take generations. 

The anti-extradition protests have taken on the air of the "last stand" against the complete erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy. A few have taken the ultimate form of protest: suicide. 

However, if the fight is a "long walk" rather than a one-off "last stand," then protestors should reconsider their protest tactics. Protestors have to be less reliant on dramatic but costly methods such as the storming of the Legco, and adopt less costly but more sustainable methods.

Protestors are mistaken to think that their efforts in the past weeks were all futile. The flash protests that gathered and dispersed at will outside government offices achieved the unprecedented feat of paralyzing government operations. 

In addition to such "methods of concentration" that call for large gatherings at specific sites, protestors are also diversifying to "methods of dispersal" such as targeted boycott against pro-establishment businesses and targeted support for pro-democracy supporters. 

Protestors have so far focused on strength in numbers, but there is strength in the reach and depth of diversified and dispersed methods too.

Fluid protests are more suitable in the long fight because they minimize both the risk of arrest and the need to miss work or school. This is not to mention that young activists have to defend freedoms both on campuses/at work and in the streets.

To keep up the momentum, it is just as important to focus on achievements, however small they are. In "long walks," success and failure are never easily defined. Beyond hardcore protestors who are willing to risk everything, including their own lives, most ordinary citizens take part when they believe that their actions matter. The Umbrella Movement was demobilized very quickly no less because supporters concluded that their efforts were futile. Protestors are right to press Carrie Lam to completely withdraw the bill, but they should claim a small victory in forcing her to suspend the bill on June 15 – an outcome that was unimaginable only days ago on June 9 and June 12. There is a simple logic to why the number of demonstrators doubled from 1 million on June 9 to 2 millions on June 16, after Lam had announced to suspend the bill. Protestors on June 9 were primarily driven by the fear of extradition, those on June 16 were motivated by the hope of people power as well.

All successful movements have sustained leadership, unity and strategy planning. The Legco storming illustrates the limit of leaderless actions. The movement can maintain its decentralized structure, but it needs better coordination and strategic planning for the long game.