Organizational Health March 17, 2021

How tactics and structure informed the struggle in Hong Kong

Akwe Amosu
The Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights

In July 2020, Hong Kong’s decade-long pro-democracy movement reached a dramatic peak, as thousands of students flooded the streets in a dramatic attempt to prevent the passage of a National Security Law (NSL) that would legalize the trial of Hong Kong citizens under mainland China’s judicial system. For the protesters, such a move would degrade any remaining conditions for democracy or legitimate dissent in Hong Kong. They proved unable to stop the passage of the law. And six months on, the NSL is in force and multiple activists have been detained. There are other signs that personal liberties and critical elements of democratic practice are being eroded in the media, tech and education sectors as well. Organiser and pro-democracy activist Ching Yin Johnson Yeung reflects on the evolution of the pro-democracy struggle and how its tactics and decentralised structure served – or undermined – the movement.

Akwe Amosu: Can we start by talking about the building of the pro-democracy movement and the way it really caught fire in 2019-20, when you all were fighting to prevent the extradition bill and then the national security law? When you look back, what do you think were the critical ingredients for making the movement grow so effectively?

Johnson Yeung: Hong Kong people have been fighting for a democratic system for 13 years. And in the last decade, the confrontations and contact between the pro-democracy movement and the Chinese government have escalated: the repression from the Chinese government is enhanced; activists and human rights defenders are put in jails and harassed; and lawmakers who were pro-democracy have been ousted from the parliament, or disqualified and banned from running (for) election. So all of that repression and crackdown has embedded  a lot of conflict and also grievances from the general public. Now it’s important to know that the 2019 protests didn’t happen out of nowhere. They were the legacy of multiple social movements that started in 2010 or even earlier.

So we had in 2012, the Anti “Patriotic Education” campaign. And then in 2014, there was the Umbrella Movement.  In 2016. there was the Fishball Uprising. So with all those events added together, the democracy movement started to snowball.  A huge amount of people have lots of grievances, and have the skillset to make trouble. And all those built up in 2019, when the government, for the very first time since the handover  [of the territory of Hong Kong by the British Government to Beijing] , attempted to enact a law that would send Hong Kong people into the Chinese  judicial system.  People revolted, people fought against it because the Extradition Bill signified “one country, one system” and the collapse of judicial independence and the autonomy of Hong Kong.

AA: Was there a clear effort by a leadership to mobilise a movement or did it just coalesce by people with grievances coming together and saying ‘let’s do something’? Because one of the things that many people commented on was – it was hard to see where the leadership was coming from.

JY: Yeah. Like a lot of contemporary social movements the Hong Kong protests in 2019 was largely decentralized, but that doesn’t mean there was no leadership. Lots of media liked to claim that the protest was leaderless; I prefer another term –  leader-full – because the movement was full of leaders. Back in May, before the One Million march in June, there were a lot of all-night protests organized by alumni or students from the secondary schools and universities. I considered them to be leaders because they were the first who raised the alarm and started organizing people in their community to make a strong stand against the Extradition Bill. So that’s one example of how many community leaders we had. And when the One Million March began, and when the crackdown and police brutality occurred, a lot of professional groups and also social movement organizations emerged and mobilized to, first of all, try to de-escalate the violence and second, support those who were harmed by the police. Those efforts were also coordinated by organizations.  It’s important to note though, that those efforts and coordination,  weren’t reliant on hierarchy. [The mobilization was] flat – multiple organizations that created a web of social movements and supported each other.

AA: How about coordination though? It didn’t matter that there was no centre of the web giving direction – for some people to go here, some to go there, and coordinate action in concert with each other? You managed without that?

JY: Yeah, there are a lot of difficulties, bottlenecks and dynamics in coordination when protesters and organizers don’t belong to the same organization, or even don’t belong to the same network. Many organizers and community leaders who were protesting in their community – they were never activists before 2019. They didn’t know each other! We are quite fortunate that first of all, Hong Kong is small. So it’s very easy for activists to travel, from one side of Hong Kong to the other side, within a very short period of time.   That is one of the conditions that enabled coordination. And second, coordination is very much needed when resources are scarce, right? If you don’t have much resources then you need a more sophisticated coordination, so you can best use your resources efficiently. We were lucky back in the initial protest phase of the 2019 protests, where two million people showed up on the street, which is one-third of our population. Many were donating resources and, performing different duties in their own communities. There were people who were forming their own teams to do canvassing and sticking posters in their own communities, spreading the news of the protest. There were people who were very skillful programmers and they set up a website that showed police locations live on a Google map. So with so many people joining efforts together, it didn’t feel that we were lacking any tactics or resources. At least this is what happened in the initial phase of the protest, and it brewed a huge energy, that really scared the Hong Kong government and also the Chinese government and at the same time galvanized a lot of attention of the international community.

AA: So I can see those would be big advantages. Were there also disadvantages to this sort of very distributed agency?

JY: Yeah. So there are two sides of the coin. The advantage of a very decentralized movement is everyone can take part without seeking permission from the hierarchy of an organization, so everyone can organize their own activities that will exert influence and pressure to the government.  For instance, my friend who has a projector and a projector screen; all he did in 2019 was to set up a projector in the, park near to his neighborhood and played a police brutality video, made by some other netizen. One of the scholars in the Chinese universities of Hong Kong, a journalism professor called this movement an open source movement, meaning everyone’s tactics can build on others’ effort and people are selflessly sharing the resources. So for instance, someone who is very good as a programmer, they stand up a web site, make it open source. Others can use it and build the timeline of their protest. And then people who are doing international advocacy, they can just use those resources. But there’s of course a downside. This kind of decentralized movement, if we want it to have a huge energy, then numbers are very critical. So when the government is employing delaying tactics and trying to drag out the progress of the protests, then some of the members of the protest movement,  they either withdraw or they go back to their life and fewer people participate. It’s getting more difficult to coordinate.

AA: So if I’ve understood correctly, while you had no obstacle to getting large numbers of people to come out and do their own thing and build on each other’s effort, when the police or the authorities slowed things down the movement lost momentum and you had trouble keeping everybody in the street and mobilized.

JY: Yeah, that’s accurate. Because social movement is not just about what you do as pro-democracy activists or protesters, you also need to react [to the other side]. And it’s like playing a chess game, with the government, right? They make a move; you initially react to exert the pressure; but without a certain level of coordination it’s really hard to react collectively and exert huge amounts of influence that can overpower the government.

AA: So was there a time when you realized that you’d lost an opportunity because you hadn’t been able to get everybody moving in the same direction?

JY:  The two months after the initial protest included a lot of tactics that were trial and error. People did all sorts of things. People tried occupations of the airport. People attempted to have a general strike which was, I think, largely successful in the Hong Kong context because there were more than 400,000 people participating in the general strike. But we are in a digital age and COVID 19 has already proved that if employees don’t show up to their workplace, it doesn’t cause too much trouble or disruption to daily operations. So there’s also a need to rethink what strategies or tactics would be useful. But two months after the initial protest, then we started to see – it’s really hard to coordinate a collective action, especially when you have the police starting to arrest people, arbitrarily and round up people just on the street, and they also target not only the really well-known activists, but also organizers who were just performing functions in their own community. So it was hard back then.

AA: And, and how did you all in the movement then react? Was your instinct to try and change the way that you were organizing the protests, or were you very committed to the decentralized of the movement?

JY: The protesters in 2019 were always committed to the decentralized model; part of that is a choice, part of it is a legacy of the social movements in 2014 and in 2016 mobilizations. [During that period] some people started to feel disappointed and disillusioned with a social movement led by a single organization or network because they felt the leadership was inflexible in responding (to) the government crackdown.

AA: Where was the inflexibility?

JY:  Like in 2014, the leading organisation was fairly committed to non-violent tactics; it meant people shouldn’t even throw an empty water bottle at the police to express their anger. Also, in 2014, the basic tactics that ran through the whole protest was occupation. So people were setting tents on the street for 87 days. And during those 87 days, the government was employing delaying tactics. And the leading organization was in a tactical freeze, where they could not employ other tactics to exert influence. And when other protesters suggested other kind of tactics, the leading organization would only respond, slowly because there was a lot of internal deliberation, and there are lots of stakeholders who were trying to influence the decision-making as well. So from the viewpoint of the ordinary participant or protester, they saw the organization as ineffective because they cannot react in a proper manner. So because of this legacy, people were more committed to a decentralized model that could give them more flexible strength. And I do think the decentralized model was largely successful in creating more trouble for the government and galvanized more international attention.  It’s just that it’s very hard to coordinate.

AA: That makes a lot of sense on the ground but I imagine that’s not necessarily true if you’re building solidarity?   So where is the role for solidarity? So who does that in a decentralized struggle?

JY: It needs people from all sides to build solidarity using their energies to build community themselves. So for instance, I can’t reach out to right-wing people, my language is totally different, my beliefs are totally different to theirs.  So my audience will be the progressive movement and the youth, and my message reaches them – our solidarity can reach each other.  We can’t rely on one single leader because everyone has flaws, no single person’s beliefs are the most popular. We cannot just rely on one representative to help us to build that kind of solidarity – there are lots of flaws in representative democracy as well. By engaging allies ourselves, we are implementing democratic values, and this is what it really means to be a full autonomous being… So it’s a long project.  It’s a bumpy journey, but as long as we act according to our beliefs and values, we’ll find our corresponding allies in other countries and in other civil societies.