I was curious to know how a so-called “leaderless” movement might go about building international support and Johnson reveals that they had a secret weapon – Hong Kong’s diaspora. He describes the critical role played by Hong Kongers abroad, showing that the trust in the movement that allowed grassroots activists to choose their own action was a trust that extended across oceans to diaspora communities too.
Johnson’s account shows that it is possible to build international support when your movement is highly decentralized, but less positively, it also suggests that the lack of a strong center to set and guide messaging or combat misinformation may make it easier for ‘bad actors’ to undercut and weaken support.
Interestingly, in conversation about the effectiveness of the decentralized activist movement on the ground in Hong Kong, Johnson acknowledges a similar dynamic . On the upside, a leaderless movement – he prefers the term “leaderful” – can be flexible, responsive, and prepared to tackle problems as they arise. On the downside, when police use ‘delaying tactics’ to slow a protest down, the lack of organized coordination risks becoming a disadvantage as protesters may start to lose energy and peel off. You can read Johnson’s full comments on the pro-democracy movement in our interview.
Regardless of the pros and cons of decentralization at home or abroad, Johnson believes that the problems associated with ‘leader-full movements’ are all preferable to the risks of giving too much power to a single leadership figure or body. All leaders have flaws, he says, and no leader can speak convincingly to multiple constituencies. By allowing multiple groupings to do their own outreach and engage movement allies directly, he told me, “we are implementing democratic values – this is what it means to be a full, autonomous being. It’s a long project, a bumpy journey, but as long as we act according to our beliefs and values, we’ll find corresponding allies in other countries and civil societies.” Listen to Episode 5 of the Strength and Solidarity podcast to hear Johnson’s remarks on efforts to build solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.