Hong Kong’s recent anti-extradition protests have taken on the air of the last stand against the erosion of the territory’s freedoms. In addition to repeated millions-strong peaceful marches through Hong Kong’s business districts, several hundreds of university and secondary-school students stormed the Legislative Council on the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China on 1st July.
The world is still trying to make sense of what the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam calls an “extremely violent” act. International observers are puzzled: why would the same young activists who self-organize to clean up streets and recycle garbage at every protest, have vandalized the Legislative Council (LegCo) building? How should we comprehend the seeming turn to violence – the damage to physical property, if not human life?
Protestors take pride in that the recent anti-extradition protests are leaderless in contrast to the Umbrella Movement of 2014. The last episode had a joint leadership of the Occupy trio (Professors Benny Tai and Chan Kin-ming along with Rev. Chu Yiu-ming), the Hong Kong Federation of Students composed of university students, and Scholarism formed of secondary students. At the time, some of the “rowdies” (as the last Governor and current Oxford university dean, Christopher Patten calls them) complained that this leadership structure did not represent all the protestors. The putative leaders tried to achieve consensus on what to do beyond staying at the Occupy sites, but were unsuccessful.
The current wave of protests has taken on a decentralized decision-making structure. Official student unions and various civil society groups coordinate protest acts, but no one takes leadership. One reason is to avoid arrests as the Umbrella leaders were sentenced to jail. Another reason is to transcend internal differences over strategies and tactics that could paralyze the movement again. Individual protestors and different groups are left to decide for themselves if they want to legally follow marching routes or to illegally gather outside government offices; actions are coordinated on Telegram chat groups and other social media platforms, and by protestors on the spot.
The decision to storm the LegCo building was made by a vote among masked protestors who had gathered there. In the immediate aftermath, televised scenes of vandalism led some fellow-protestors to agree with the government’s condemnation of violence. Yet, it is remarkable that the division is not as widespread as originally feared. Even moderate protestors, who disagree with the extensive physical damages, are generally sympathetic.
This is especially so after it emerged that four of the young protestors were prepared to take the ultimate form of protest – suicide. By 1st July, three young people had committed suicide. (A fourth person killed herself on 3rd July.) When pro-democracy legislators advised protestors that breaking into the building could land them a 10-year jail sentence, they expressed their wish for a symbolic suicide; they could make a bigger statement if they died from storming into the Legislative Council than jumping from the top of a high-rise building. They were saved when fellow-protestors dragged them out shortly before the police arrived to clear the site.
The more important question is thus, not why otherwise self-disciplined student activists would resort to vandalism, but why they are willing to risk their careers, even their lives? Government voices blame liberal arts education for turning universities and secondary schools into hotbeds of dissent. They should instead examine why Hong Kong’s young people are convinced that the government has robbed them of their future and the meaning of life.
Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” model by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. In reality, Beijing has been eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms since the handover in 1997. The Chief Executive is hand-picked by Beijing through a 1200-person committee dominated by pro-Beijing sectors; the Legislative Council is designed to keep democratically elected legislators in a perpetual minority; the bureaucracy is headed by appointees who are chosen for their loyalty; the media are bought up by pro-Beijing businesses and university councils are packed with pro-establishment luminaries.
It was under this increasing onslaught on freedoms that the Umbrella Movement broke out in 2014. The city’s citizens called for genuine universal suffrage to ensure that top officials and legislators would be accountable to Hong Kong people rather than to Beijing. Despite 79 days of street occupation, the movement did not achieve its goal. Indeed, Beijing only redoubled its efforts to rein in Hong Kong to avoid Umbrella 2.0 in the aftermath.
The proposed extradition law, which would send `fugitives’ in Hong Kong across the border to China, would completely tear down the last firewall between the two systems. It would also legalize kidnapping of Beijing’s wanted enemies such as the owners of the Causeway Bay Bookstore.
Fear of the extradition bill drove one million (out of a population of seven million) to the street on 9th June. Protestors sang Do You Hear the People Sing, but the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam apparently did not hear them. She announced that the bill would continue with its second reading on 12th June as scheduled. Tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the LegCo building to derail the legislative process. The police declared the protest a “riot” and fired rubber bullets as well as tear gas. After widespread denunciation of the police’s excessive use of violence, Lam finally suspended the bill on 15th June.
Yet, Hong Kong people want the bill completely withdrawn. They understand that the government has enough pro-establishment votes at the LegCo if it decides to push through the bill later. On the ensuing Sunday, 16th June, two millions swamped the streets again, demanding not just the full withdrawal of the bill, but also the dropping of the label “riot” and all charges against the arrested. Lam remained unmoved by the massive demonstration of popular sentiments.
Young protestors began to take more diverse actions to step up the pressure. They called for a picnic at Tamar Park outside the government offices building on 21st June. (Organizers did not seek a no-objection permit from the police, thus rendering protest technically illegal.) Interestingly, the government decided to paralyze itself by closing government offices. Protestors moved that night to blockade the police headquarters.
Protestors further seized on the upcoming G20 summit on 28th June to mobilize international attention. They launched a `marathon’ to present petitions at the consulates of all 19 countries (20 minus China) on 26th June. They crowd-sourced HK$6 million to place full-page ads in leading international newspapers on 27th and 28th June.
Carrie Lam, who is doing Beijing’s bidding, would not budge despite all these concerted efforts. A doomsday mood again took over, which was only momentarily broken by the million-strong marches. Not even suicide could move her or her backers. Moreover, given that the government had declared the protests on 12th June and 1st July “riots,” the arrests will be massive and the crackdown will be severe, most likely more than the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement.
International media have been analyzing how Hong Kong’s student activists can teachmovements elsewhere on how to organize a leaderless movement. It is time that Hong Kongers also learn lessons from other movements.
Hong Kong’s young people see their fight as a one-off last stand to preserve the freedoms that they have grown up with. But it is as much a prolonged struggle as epitomized in Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. Seen from this perspective, protestors should reconsider their protest tactics. They 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 achieved the unprecedented feat of paralyzing government operations. In addition to such methods of concentration that call for large gatherings at specific sites, other civil disobedience cases suggest that Hong Kong should diversify to include methods of dispersal such as targeted boycott against pro-establishment businesses and targeted support for pro-democracy supporters. Diversified and dispersed methods are more suitable to the long haul because they minimize both the risk of arrest and the need to miss school or work. They allow ordinary citizens to take everyday actions while carrying on with their lives.
Student activists also have to be self-sustaining by continuing with their liberal education, learning new skills, and making a living. Given that universities are now headed by pro-Beijing academics, it is important that young students fight for freedoms on campus as well as in the street.
Hong Kong’s youthful activists could also learn the lesson to focus on achievements, however small they are, in order to maintain the momentum. In long walks, success and failure are never easily defined. Beyond hardcore protestors who are willing to risk everything, most citizens come out when they believe that their participation can make a difference. The Umbrella Movement was demobilized very quickly 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 15th June – an outcome that was unimaginable only days ago on 9th June and 12th June. There is a simple logic to why the number of demonstrators doubled from one million on 9th June to two million on 16th June, after Lam had announced suspension of the bill. Protestors on 9th June were driven by the fear of extradition, those on 16th June were motivated by the hope of change as well.
Most importantly, all successful movements have leadership, unity and strategic planning. The LegCo storming illustrates the limits of impromptu, leaderless actions. Protestors are correct that clear leaders would be subject to prosecution, but a sustainable movement requires leadership. The movement can maintain its decentralized structure, but it needs better coordination and strategic planning for the long game. This Teenager Versus Superpower struggle (the title of a documentary on Joshua Wong) needs all the lessons that it can draw from the world even while it is adding to the global repertoire of dissent.