As Hong Kong’s protesters keep taking to the streets, observers have remarked that their movement is nimble, messy – and leaderless.
But there are diffuse pockets of quiet influence (and sometimes not so quiet), with a handful of young people sometimes stepping to the forefront. The pro-democracy campaign’s fluidity has helped to limit arrests and public censure, and the big-tent approach allows for greater input. Sometimes, though, it means rule by the masses – creating challenges for both day-to-day activities and the movement’s future.
Even participants can be bewildered as to what’s happening as it’s happening. And after an intense month of multiple meetings, rallies, or marches each week, many protesters say they are tired and unsure of the direction.
With consensus decisions, “it’s hard to strategize and innovate,” says David S. Meyer, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and an expert on social movements. “Usually the easiest thing to agree on is what they’ve already been doing. You always have the risk that a breakaway coalition opts out and does what it wants to do. When there’s nobody in charge with continuing on after the peak enthusiasm has passed, it falls apart.”
On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers filled city streets demanding, yet again, that the government grant them democracy and withdraw an extradition bill. A smaller group of young people, meanwhile, had a different plan: to impede the government’s flag-raising ceremony that would commemorate the day.
Police batons and pepper spray swiftly ended that idea. Standing by the city’s legislative complex, a dozen or so people assembled a crowd of a few hundred to discuss their next move. Replace the Chinese flag at the exposition center with a new protest emblem? Most people didn’t see the point, since the ceremony had ended. March to the residence of the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam? Police could easily surround protesters on the narrow road. The third choice was even riskier: Break into the city’s sleek glass and steel government center. The complex had been the site of legislators’ debates over the controversial bill to allow extraditions to China, until Mrs. Lam shelved the bill in mid-June in the face of public uproar – but did not formally withdraw it.
After almost an hour of debate, the crowd voted. About three-quarters chose Option 3.
For hours, young people rammed metal carts and street signposts into the tempered glass doors and windows of the territory’s lawmaking chamber as police stood by and then retreated. Once inside, the protesters covered walls with political slogans. They blacked out the faces on official portraits, smashed the members’ electronic voting system, and spray-painted over the city emblem. One protester, decked in the day’s unofficial uniform of a yellow construction helmet, black clothes, and face mask, dramatically ripped apart a copy of the city’s constitution.
When it appeared that many protesters intended to leave, one young man jumped atop a lawmaker’s desk. With TV cameras recording, Brian Kai-ping Leung, a graduate student in the United States, removed his mask, risking future prosecution.
“I took off my mask because I want to let everyone know that we Hong Kongers have nothing more to lose,” he said. If they left, he warned, “Hong Kong’s civil society will go backwards 10 years, and we will never be back here.”
For those few hours, Hong Kong’s tenacious tribe of demonstrators had a chief.
Observers have remarked for weeks that this protest movement – which has expanded its mission from axing the extradition legislation to demanding direct elections for chief executive – is a leaderless movement, creative, nimble, messy, and shrewd. Participants use online forums and encrypted Telegram channels to propose actions, swap tactics, and vote on strategies. They have been unafraid to confront the police, but will sometimes do so and then suddenly retreat.
Participants had learned from the 2014 democracy campaign, nicknamed the Umbrella Movement, that sitting on roads and confronting the police night after night produced little more than injured people and public bitterness. Instead, the new movement has taken inspiration from the words of hometown son and martial artist Bruce Lee, as one video declares:
We are formless.
We are shapeless.
We can flow.
We can crash.
We are like water.
While the democracy campaign does not have official leaders, it is not leaderless. There are diffuse pockets of quiet influence that sometimes make their presence known loudly. For now, that organic nature and fluidity have limited the number of arrests and public censure. The big-tent approach has allowed for greater input.
But sometimes it means rule by the masses. That creates challenges for day-to-day operations and, perhaps, the movement’s future.
“Hong Kong might be construed as a leaderless movement, … and yet there is leadership and coordination,” says Paul Chang, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who studies social movements. “It’s a leaderless movement where people still take the lead.”
Several key actions have been suggested or organized by some young people active in an ardent campaign to foster pride in Hong Kong’s history, language, and culture. The belief in Hong Kong’s separate identity and sovereignty has intensified as concerns mount that Beijing is eroding the “one country, two systems” arrangement, which was supposed to keep Hong Kong relatively autonomous until 2047.
Many of the actions, though, are decided on the fly. After an intense month of multiple meetings, rallies, or marches each week, many protesters say they are tired and unsure of the direction.
When you’re “making consensus decisions, it’s hard to strategize and innovate,” says David S. Meyer, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine and an expert on social movements. “Usually the easiest thing to agree on is what they’ve already been doing. You always have the risk that a breakaway coalition opts out and does what it wants to do. When there’s nobody in charge with continuing on after the peak enthusiasm has passed, it falls apart.”
On most protest days, a loyal army of volunteers tackles the unglamorous work of setting up first-aid stations and resource tents stocked with water, goggles, and masks. Even those arrangements can be last-minute and ad hoc.
“The protesting stuff happens with limited time for announcements, for coordination. The best we can do is to coordinate the colleagues in our own hospital and try to get material down there and nursing stations down there,” says nurse Jason Siu, a frequent volunteer at protests. “There are times when we’re overwhelmed, when police try to clear the road and fire tear gas.”
Several times, patient lawmakers have intervened between protesters and police. Twice when strikers surrounded the police headquarters in June, several lawmakers convinced members of the crowd to calm themselves, and not invade. Yet protesters have declined help from more experienced activists. On June 26, when legislator Eddie Chu and student activist Joshua Wong called a group vote to decide if a siege on the police building should end, the crowd refused to take part. Similarly, on July 1, protesters pulled away lawmakers who tried to stop people from breaking the legislature’s windows.
Edmund Cheng, an assistant professor of governance at Hong Kong Baptist University, says he’s not sure if the people who voted on the break-in at the legislature were the same people who vandalized the building. “A small number of people can in a way jeopardize the entire movement,’’ he says. “Nobody can call someone off. It is not that easy.”
Even participants can be bewildered as to what’s happening as it’s happening. As tensions mounted one night at the police headquarters, Tobey, an undergraduate who declined to give his last name, reluctantly left to catch a bus home. “I’m confused,” he said. “We’re not sure we can achieve anything. The things we have achieved were by accident.”
On the front line
Though the protests remain diffuse, without a visible leader, a few young activists have stepped to the forefront of some actions. Thousands of young people besieged the police headquarters for a second night in June after young activists Baggio Leung, Tony Chung, and Joe Yeung urged them to do so. All three have been active for years in a small campaign demanding Hong Kong’s independence from China. (Mr. Leung was elected to the legislature in 2016, but was disqualified for insulting China during his oath of office.) With police barricaded inside by the protesters’ blockades, Mr. Yeung sat atop a street sign and led the crowd in loud chants. He was later arrested.
Another person playing a leadership role has been Ventus Lau, a young politician who once backed Hong Kong independence and was then barred from seeking a legislative seat. He organized a one-day demonstration marathon outside international consulates on June 26, urging leaders at the Group of 20 conference in Japan to support their demands. On Sunday, he arranged a peaceful march in a bustling shopping area. Tourists from mainland China snapped photos, and some accepted leaflets, as they watched a mass social effort that would be prohibited where they live.
“I’m a bit worried if too many people recognize me as the organizer of a rally,” he says. “I think I worry that some people will think that I want to make myself more popular or my name big. I’m rather worried I will get some criticism. I’m not worried about my safety or responsibility.”
Mr. Lau emphasized that he had a great deal of help. “You can say I’m one of the organizers, but I can’t know everything,” he says. “People are doing their thing and throwing it out to the Telegram group – ‘I’ve done this.’ … I’m inside the circle, and [even] I can’t have a full picture.”
Operations can be “very confusing, very very confusing,” says Bud Lau, an insurance agent in his 20s. (He is a friend, but not a relation, to Ventus Lau.) To pull off Sunday’s march – which organizers said drew more than 200,000 people, and police pegged at 56,000 – he continuously chatted through Telegram with about 20 administrative volunteers who ran their own volunteer groups on the app. That included channels for transport, resources, promotions, first aid, and marshals.
His job that day was to be the emcee, but things went awry, including a spam attack on one of the Telegram groups.
“Every one of us is a volunteer,” Bud Lau says. “If there is no physical group or teams we cannot make things very organized, and we cannot give orders.”
His friend Ventus Lau says he will happily join next week’s rallies, now in the planning stages, as a participant, not a leader. “Until some day when we don’t have a direction, and I will try to make up a new idea.”