Today is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and protesters in Hong Kong intend to upstage Beijing’s celebrations. They will build on the global solidarity protests from the past weekend, staged in 60 cities across the world, including in Australia.
On Sunday in Hong Kong, tens of thousands took to the streets even though no protest permits were granted by the police. Riot control weapons were deployed against the protesters and those near the protests were subject to random searches.
While it might look like these are the same kind of protests that have dominated global headlines for months, Hong Kong is changing. It is moving closer towards crisis. The local government’s previous strategy of “wait them out” is failing, and advised by mainland Chinese officials, the government is exploring legal tools – like the state of emergency provisions – as a response.
Over the past 100 days, the violence between police and students has escalated. Always an asymmetric war, students initially responded in self-defence – using umbrellas, helmets and masks to hold their position on the streets.
As the police’s weapons have become more excessive – tear gas fired in train stations, rubber bullets shot into faces, sponge grenades, water cannons – the students’ responses have become increasingly indignant. They have engaged in targeted actions like street fires, petrol bombs and vandalism to public infrastructure and government sites, like the city’s mass transit system.
Two weeks ago, police representatives argued that live ammunition was justified in response to Molotov cocktails. About the same time, the protesters collectively decided to fight back against police, and not just use self-defence.
It is spiralling. So, where does this end?
Maintaining local support
The Hong Kong police have tried to turn off the tap of mass support to the young protesters, who are called the Braves. Initially they used images of property damage or acts of aggression on television and social media to try to sway public opinion against the younger members of the movement.
More recently, they’ve shut down the right to mass protest. The police have been increasingly denying permits to protest, limiting the space where people can protest, or revoking permission within hours of a march starting.
None of these tactics has worked. Most Hong Kongers continue to support the “five demands” and the protest movement, while disapproving of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s handling of the situation. (Her approval rating now sits at just 24.9%).
Most older residents feel they have let the young generation down. They not only support the Braves, many are also part of growing support networks providing them with assistance. For example, drivers pick up stranded protesters around the city and volunteers set up makeshift underground hospitals for students afraid to use state-run services.
The perils of self-righteousness
But there is a problem. The rest of the world is turning away from the weekly battles. The thing that made the protests initially so captivating was their novelty and bravery. But what began as original is now predictable. And this brings danger.
The first danger is increasing violence. The need to hold the world’s attention brings the risk of spiralling into greater violence. There is also a dark recognition that if lethal violence was to occur during a protest – if a protester was shot by live ammunition, for instance, or a brick killed a police officer – it would utterly change the dynamics.
The second, less obvious danger lies in self-righteousness. For most protest movements, there is an inherent tension between the ideals and commitment to the ambitious goals that brought people to the streets en masse and the capacity to negotiate with the powerful to achieve them.
This tension is a universal frustration. Protesters are loathe to be considered “sell outs,” but not making a deal risks not winning anything.
The social movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the US, for instance, didn’t achieve civil rights in a single boycott. Waves of different movements over decades, using varied protest tactics, and the art of compromise, brought change incrementally. Push, negotiate, make a deal – repeated as a pattern for victory.
Every night, Hong Kong protesters shout their motto, “Five demands, not one less”, referring to the five concessions they are demanding from the government.
But this righteous ritual conceals a growing fear. Hong Kongers, including leaders I interviewed, worry that all they could win from this movement is the permanent withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill that sparked the unrest, which they’ve already achieved.
With the end of “one country, two systems” model in sight in 2047, the stakes are high. Locals are terrified they might not get closer to universal suffrage and that Beijing will continue to encroach on their political freedoms.
That said, this isn’t a simple battle – and winning a “deal” that doesn’t provide a pathway to democracy won’t be good enough. It’s all well and good for distant observers to casually comment that Hong Kongers need to do a deal, but the “five demands” are not an ambit. This was a “joint consensus.”
In contrast to the authoritarianism in China (not to mention elsewhere), Hong Kongers hope they can be a beacon for democracy and enlightenment. Taiwan, for one, is certainly seeing Hong Kong as a source of inspiration in their its battle against Beijing’s push for reunification.
The Braves see it as nothing short of a life or death battle for their identity, and unless they believe they are moving towards a more independent future, they plan to keep fighting.
What Hong Kongers can learn from the French Revolution
So how do you push and negotiate in this context?
Perhaps history can provide some inspiration. In the battle to win democracy in the French Revolution, for example, two important strategies were prosecuted simultaneously.
In Paris, the protesters fought street battles and built barricades, but the leaders also built for themselves the kind of state they envisioned living in. They constructed their own National Assembly, which advanced the idea of universal male suffrage.
This idea of crafting what is known as a “pre-figurative form” might be useful for Hong Kong. Imagine if Hong Kongers, crippled with an undemocratic Legislative Council, created their own Legislative Assembly – a model for their goal of a parliament elected by everyone. The idea has been tried in Hong Kong before; the Occupy Trio who helped lead the Umbrella movement held a people’s referendum calling for universal suffrage in 2014.
The natural inertia of any movement means that a continuation of street battles is likely, which ultimately leads to an escalation of violence. However, if the protesters can channel their energy in a more lasting, organised way, they may be able to achieve even more than the “five demands”.
As well as singing their protest anthem, “Do you hear the people sing?”, the protesters should borrow more ideas from successful democracy movements of the past. This may provide new energy to surprise Beijing and sustain the momentum of frustrated Hong Kongers.
Author Amanda Tattersall hosts the ChangeMakers podcast series which explores the long history of Hong Kong and its protests. The first episode is available here:
Three months on, there’s still no end in sight for the Hong Kong protest movement. What started as a demonstration against a bill to amend the city’s extradition laws has now morphed into a broader movement challenging the legitimacy of the government and seeking fundamental political reforms.
Every weekend, hundreds of thousands of protesters – sometimes more than a million – are still taking to the streets. The protests draw Hong Kongers from all walks of life: students, doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, civil servants, and, most recently, family members of police officers. The discussions on internet forums and encrypted messaging apps remain vibrant, with innovative ideas for new protest actions emerging frequently.
To better understand who the protesters are, as well as why and how they are protesting, I’ve conducted a series of large onsite surveys at 19 demonstrations since June 9, with the help of researchers from other universities. We have so far surveyed more than 8,000 protesters with a response rate of over 85%.
What the protesters are angry about
Our data show protesters tend to be young and highly educated. On average, half of our respondents are aged between 20 and 30. Around 77% said they had a tertiary (higher) education.
Most respondents identified themselves as either democrats or localists. However, in the early stages of the protests, it is also notable that nearly 30% of respondents said that they were centrists or had no political affiliations. This dropped to around 15% by early August.
When asked why they were protesting, the vast majority of respondents (more than 90%) cited two main motivations: the complete withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill and an independent inquiry into excessive use of force by police against the protesters.
Interestingly, from July onwards, police violence has become a more pressing concern for respondents, with those who see it as “very important” rising from 85% to over 95%. Protesters have also increasingly said they are fighting for Hong Kong’s democracy, with those who see it as “very important” rising from 83% to 88%.
The resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other major officials was considered the least important reason for protesting. This suggests that a change in leadership is not viewed as a solution to the political crisis – unlike in 2003, when half a million people marched against changes to Hong Kong’s national security laws and demanded the resignation of then-leader C.H. Tung.
Instead, the protesters are seeking a fundamental reform of the entire political system.
For many of them, the extradition bill is just the surface of a rotting system. It merely exposes the underlying problems that have been swept under the carpet for many years: the lack of democratic representation in the policy-making and legislative process, the declining accountability of the government, the blatant domination by a small clique of business and pro-Beijing elites, the increasing unimportance of public opinion, and the steady encroachment on people’s political rights and civil liberties.
Strong solidarity and acceptance of radical tactics
These same long-standing problems are what prompted the Umbrella Movement in 2014. But unlike the Umbrella protesters, who were intensely split over protest tactics, the current protest movement is exhibiting much stronger solidarity and resolution in achieving their demands.
The majority of respondents see themselves as “in the same boat” (that is, sharing the same fate) with one another. More 80% believe the protests should go on if the government refuses to offer anything other than the suspension of the bill. Among them, more than half support escalating the protests.
This extraordinary level of solidarity is striking. Part of this is because people have learned from the mistakes of the Umbrella Movement. Instead of pointing fingers at each another, protesters are this time using the phrase “do not split, do not sever our ties” to deal with conflicts. Misdeeds and transgressions are not condemned, but are now dealt with through collective reflection and friendly reminders.
Fuelling protesters’ solidarity is their strong feeling of desperation. Our survey results show the majority of respondents do not expect any concessions from the government. This has remained steady from early on in the protests, and explains the emergence of slogans like “I want to perish together”.
We also found a high tolerance for the more radical and militant tactics of some of the younger protesters, even among those who consider themselves moderates.
Consistently, over 80% agree that peaceful assembly should combine with confrontational actions to maximize the impact of protests. In June, slightly less than 70% agreed that radical tactics were understandable when the government refuses to listen. That percentage rose to over 90% in the August 4 protests.
Where the protests are heading
No one knows what the “endgame” of the Hong Kong protests will be. The government is now hoping that mass arrests, coupled with the new start of the school year and the possible introduction of emergency regulations, may clear out the streets in the next few weeks, ideally before China’s National Day celebrations on October 1.
The strategy may work, but likely only in the short run. If the Hong Kong government continues to refuse to heed what people are legitimately asking for, the people will undoubtedly return to the streets.
As research from other social movement studies has taught us, protests take place in cycles. The current protest movement in Hong Kong may eventually quiet down after a while, but another one may be brewing on the horizon.
The other researchers in the team include Francis Lee from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Gary Tang from Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, and Edmund Cheng from the City University of Hong Kong.
The protests in Hong Kong have led to some open clashes here in Australia between students from mainland China and others from Hong Kong.
These clashes are troubling for the Australian university sector, which enrols 182,555 mainland Chinese and 11,822 Hong Kongers as international students at various education institutions.
Our current research suggests differences in the curriculum studied by mainland Chinese and Hong Kong students may help to explain the beliefs underpinning the protest movements.
Our research involved in-depth interviews of a random sample of more than a dozen international postgraduate students from mainland China who are studying, or very recently have been, at Western Australian universities.
The interviews took place in late 2018 – before the recent Hong Kong protests. We asked the participants about their experiences studying in Chinese schools where Moral Education is a compulsory subject.
Lessons in China
The Moral Education curriculum teaches Chinese children to be politically proud of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and loyal to the ideals of a One-China worldview.
Moral Education is a stand-alone subject and also embedded within other subjects, such as history and Chinese literacy studies. Moral Education starts being taught in the early years of schooling and continues throughout high school and during undergraduate university studies.
In primary school, all Chinese children are supposed to join the Young Pioneers, a 130 million-strong youth organisation controlled by the CCP.
In high school, teachers invites students who achieve highly academically and morally to join the Communist Youth League. In university, excellent students are invited to join the Communist Party.
In contrast, Hong Kong students do not study Moral Education and cannot join the Young Pioneers, Youth League or the Communist Party.
When East meets West
Preliminary indications from our interviews suggest that when mainland Chinese students arrive in Western countries for postgraduate studies they carry with them a moral duty to uphold their national identity. This identity is arguably constructed through the Moral Education lessons.
The following are translated Mandarin quotes from participants in our study. Each quote comes from a different student, but we have de-identified them to protect their identity. They are talking about their experiences of studying Moral Education in their primary and high school years:
I was taught to love our motherland and love our country. It’s the right thing to do.
We were taught many slogans that were inspirational, positive and patriotic. It taught us to love our country, our family and our society.
In secondary school Moral Education made us all feel we are part of one China and what the government is doing is to give us a better life.
We are also learning from our interviews that even after mainland Chinese students study in Western universities for several years, they are unlikely to change their previously learnt ideological positions.
I think although the Communist Party is a one-party dictatorship, because in a big country like China it is very difficult to apply democracy and maintain the sustainability otherwise it will be too chaotic.
When I was standing under the party flag and sworn in to join our Communist Party it was so exciting. After so many years of ideological and political education, I believe that the Communist Party is the most advanced organisation of our society.
Now, especially when we are living overseas, if you hear the Chinese national anthem it brings me to tears of pride, belonging and identity.
Sympathy for the Communist Party
Another phenomenon our interviews revealed is that many of our participants expressed strong sympathy towards the CCP government.
That holds even after they learn about facts and events that have been censored in China, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
I will most likely participate (in) rallies like welcoming President Xi’s visit to Australia because I am […] Chinese and I have a sense of belonging and responsibility attached to this Chinese identity. I also will be vocal about protecting China’s sovereignty.
China is a big country with a large population and there are still many people who are not well educated, therefore they are easy to be incited by others. Although the one party is never 100% perfect, it at least proved itself that most people in China have a good life under its leadership.
Isolated in Australia
Over the course of three interviews with each participant in our study, we discovered many Chinese international students feel isolated from Australian friendship circles.
They expressed concern at the lack of opportunities to truly engage with Australian students during their time living here. Many worry that local Australian students just aren’t interested in them.
Actually I have little knowledge about how Australian society works – aside from the common social norms. I don’t know where I can access such knowledge. Some locals take it for granted that we should have known this, but we really don’t as we grew up in a totally different place.
For me I tend to have the impression that the local students believe we Chinese students are not interested in talking to them, so they would not take the initiative and talk to us either. I suggest that our university can do more about it like organising activities so we could access local friendships.
International education should be a two-way transaction, deep in its engagement and fluid in its ability to change as we change.
But what these interviews show is the strong feelings many students from mainland China have about their country and government, which perhaps explains why they feel anger towards those who protest against that way of life.
The growing trend of these Chinese graduates returning to their homeland for work opportunities also has a bearing on their continuing patriotism and sense of national identity.
Christine Cunningham, Senior Lecturer in Educational Leadership, Edith Cowan University; Clive Barstow, Professor of Creative Arts / Executive Dean Arts & Humanities, Edith Cowan University, and Wei Zhang, PhD candidate, Edith Cowan University
Since the start of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong in early June, there has been a significant escalation of Beijing’s rhetoric and tactics. Instead of addressing the root causes of the public anger, Beijing has demonised the protesters and threatened to suppress them with its military.
Beijing’s shrill rhetoric, misinformation campaigns, and blatant threats have galvanised resistance in what has fast become a volatile situation. The crisis doesn’t appear to be dissipating. And things are going to come to a head very soon.
The mass protests started in response to a controversial extradition bill that was widely seen as another step in the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The demonstrations quickly escalated due to public anger over police violence and an unresponsive Hong Kong government.
But deeper down at the heart of this crisis is a conflict over the longer-term vision for the city – over its soul.
Beijing’s goal is to gradually tighten its grip on Hong Kong. It aims to assimilate the city into China’s authoritarian political system, and rule over its people in the same way it does in rest of the country. Many Hong Kongers, meanwhile, are desperate to resist any further encroachment by Beijing on their freedoms and way of life. These goals are fundamentally incompatible.
In many ways, this is a problem of Beijing’s own making. It created the conditions for the current crisis by systematically undermining the “one country, two systems” framework.
Beijing has effectively torn up its promises, made before the British handover, to keep Hong Kong’s political system intact until 2047. In recent years, it has undermined the “one country, two systems” framework through political interference, the changing of electoral and other laws, and the penetration of Hong Kong’s social institutions.
In doing so, it has provoked local resentment, a stronger Hong Kong identity, and a culture of resistance. According to a recent poll, the percentage of Hong Kongers identifying as Chinese is now at its lowest point since the handover in 1997.
For the ruling Chinese Communist Party, this is worrisome. And the longer the protests continue, the more it sees its authority challenged. Such resistance, in Beijing’s view, cannot be tolerated.
Beijing’s multi-pronged strategy
In the early days of the protests, Beijing adopted a low-profile approach that focused on censoring news of the demonstrations from filtering into mainland China. This approach, however, changed quickly when the Chinese government realised the protests would likely continue and it needed to mobilise public opinion.
What is Beijing’s aim now? In the short-term, it wants to end the unrest by shutting down the protests completely. It has repeatedly signalled its willingness to use force if necessary.
Beyond that, given what has transpired over the last ten weeks of demonstrations, Beijing will seek to tighten its political control over Hong Kong even further to check continued resistance.
In order to achieve its immediate and long-term goals in Hong Kong, Beijing has put in place a multi-pronged strategy. A full picture of this strategy has emerged in recent weeks:
1) First, Beijing is firmly backing the embattled Hong Kong authorities. Chinese officials have repeatedly urged the Hong Kong police to adopt tougher tactics against protesters who they see as criminals.
And in the last week, we have seen an alarming escalation in police violence, with tear gas and rubber bullets being used with increasing frequency.
2) Beijing is also ramping up its influence operations in Hong Kong to solidify support among pro-establishment elites, businesses, and other “patriotic forces”.
Last week, the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong held a consultation forum with about 500 pro-establishment figures in Shenzhen, just across the border.
The key message was that the Chinese government was fully behind them and that their fate was tied to Beijing. This has had an immediate impact on the ground in Hong Kong, with the city’s billionaires “breaking their silence” this week and calling for the protesters to stand down.
Not with a small degree of irony, Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong have a close relationship with the city’s organised crime groups. On several occasions in the last two months, these groups have assaulted protesters on Beijing’s behalf in an attempt to instill fear in the local population.
3) Beijing has stepped up its propaganda and misinformation efforts against the protesters in an attempt to cast them as villains in the unfolding drama. Criminal elements are also working with nefarious foreign agents to foment turmoil and undermine China, the official line goes.
Within mainland China, such blatant twists of truth are widely believed. And because Beijing has successfully mobilised public opinion there, that makes it harder for the government to back down and make compromises (not that we are seeing signs of that).
In any case, Beijing’s relentless war for hearts and minds continues.
4) Beijing is using punitive measures to cut off support for the protesters. For instance, the Chinese government ordered the Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific to block staffers who took part in the protests from working on flights to the mainland.
It did this to deliver an unequivocal message: support the protesters and we will hit your bottom line. Beijing will likely continue to target Hong Kong and international companies that it sees as being on the wrong side of the political crisis.
5) Beijing is trying to deter escalating protests by signalling its strong determination to intervene with force if necessary.
The Chinese government has repeatedly threatened the use of armed forces as a backstop measure if the unrest spins out of control. Indeed, it may at some point make the judgement the situation warrants military intervention, regardless of the high cost involved.
Beijing’s posturing is intended to send a deterrent message and is part of a wider psychological campaign against the protesters. But we are not at the point of imminent military intervention yet.
6) Despite the unrest, Beijing will likely accelerate its efforts to integrate Hong Kong into the mainland economically and through infrastructure projects. High-speed trains, new bridges, and economic cooperation are all part of this long-term effort. We are also likely to see a further tightening of control over the city’s political institutions, judicial system, and media.
A festering long-term problem
For Chinese leaders, the protest movement has reinforced an important lesson: insufficient government power, civil liberties, and perceived weakness leads to the loss of control, resistance, and social instability.
This will only serve to strengthen Beijing’s resolve to assert its control over Hong Kong more forcefully, which will, in turn, provoke further resentment and resistance from locals.
To be sure, Beijing has a long-term Hong Kong challenge on its hands. If it wants to resolve the current impasse, hardline tactics are not sufficient. As unpalatable as it is to both sides, Beijing and the protesters must compromise. But there is little prospect of that in the current environment of escalating violence, inflamed passions, frayed nerves, and hardening attitudes on both sides.
But Beijing must recognise that its actions are sowing the seeds of future conflict, just as its past broken promises led directly to what we are witnessing today. As Hong Kong gallops towards tragedy, it is both mesmerising and heartbreaking to watch.
What’s happening in Hong Kong right now has direct bearings on Australia. It goes to an issue crucial to our position in a world economic order that is likely to be shaped less by the United States, still our most important ally, and more by China, our ever more valuable trading partner.
At the heart of the Hong Kong protests is the same issue that causes concern about China’s ambitions from the South China Sea to the South Pacific. It’s about the Chinese government’s commitment to an idiosyncratic idea of the rule of law.
Hong Kong has something like a constitution or bill of rights, called the Hong Kong Basic Law. It’s a legacy of British colonial rule, which the Chinese government agreed to preserve because there was value in keeping Hong Kong the prosperous city it had become.
China has a very different approach to law. Its constitution can and has been changed at the whim of the ruling party. There is no separation of powers, and no such thing as an independent judiciary.
Removing the judicial firewall
The trigger for the Hong Kong protests was a proposed law enabling China to extradite Hong Kong residents and visitors. Protesters foresaw democrats and dissidents disappearing into China’s prison system. The judicial “firewall” giving meaning to the notion of “one country, two systems” would be fatally undermined. Hong Kong’s distinctive culture and economy would be destroyed with it.
The idea of law as an instrument of the Chinese Communist Party shapes the Chinese government’s domestic policies, and also its approach to international law. It respects international conventions when it has to, and when it is in the national interest. But there’s a point where it is quite willing to thumb its nose at the whole idea.
This willingness has stiffened under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who has reaffirmed in word and deed that the Chinese Communist Party “is the highest force for political leadership”.
Law of the sea
An example is China’s view of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in its dispute with the Philippines over island territory in the South China Sea.
In 2016 a UN tribunal unanimously found in favour of the Philippines. China refused to accept the verdict. It declared it “would continue to abide by international law and basic norms governing international relations”, but also added:
The Chinese government reiterates that, regarding territorial issues and maritime delimitation disputes, China does not accept any means of third party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China.
It therefore continues to claim the South China Sea as an “inalienable” part of its territory. In direct defiance of the ruling, it has also built artificial islands within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and built military bases on those islands.
China’s official narrative is that it doesn’t reject international law per se, but simply wants law that accommodates “Chinese characteristics”, including China’s preference for resolving disputes one on one.
Given that the point of establishing the United Nations and other multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation was to replace “might makes right” with something like an international rule of law, this is likely to prove cold comfort for smaller nations.
As Xi told the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017:
the overall goal of “comprehensively advancing law-based governance” is to “establish a system of socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics and build a country of socialist rule of law”
“major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics aims to foster a new type of international relations and build a community with a shared future for mankind”
the defining feature of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is “the leadership of the Communist Party of China”.
Beijing’s view of the rule of law is thus very different to what most of the rest of the world understands. The potential consequences are not lost on the citizens of Hong Kong, and they should not be lost on China’s neighbours and trading partners.
The past few weeks has seen a drastic escalation in violence on the streets of Hong Kong. On Tuesday night, a police officer aimed a shotgun at protesters who had gathered outside a police station, while a car launched fireworks into the crowd.
Days earlier, the police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters trying to reach the Chinese government’s office.
And the week before, following a protest of 430,000 people, vigilante thugs, dressed in white and carrying bamboo sticks, beat up democracy protesters at a train station.
This long summer of protests began in response to a proposed extradition bill just days after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But now, over eight weeks on, the protesters continue to take to the streets with a broader set of demands – and the confrontations with police are threatening to spiral out of control.
With reports of a build-up of Chinese forces on the Hong Kong border, and no end in sight to the demonstrations, many are now asking – how will this end?
Conflict arising from the Umbrella movement
Protest is a familiar tactic in Hong Kong, but this movement has adopted a series of new approaches from the lessons of other protests over the last 30 years – in particular the failures of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
In doing so, they are building something that is – at least until now – showing resilience to Beijing’s authoritarianism.
The current protest movement isn’t a single movement. It has two dominant wings – one is passive, the other more militant. These wings accept and recognise each other’s role.
This is new. In 2014, Hong Kong democracy leaders staged a 79-day occupation to fight for universal suffrage. Called the Umbrella Movement, the occupation had two sets of leaders – older democracy leaders (known as the Occupy Trio) and younger student leaders (notably Joshua Wong and Nathan Law).
Originally, the Occupy Trio had planned a multi-year campaign to build public and political pressure for universal suffrage, but the students were more confrontational. They staged a sit-in at Civic Square on Hong Kong Island and the occupation was off and running.
During the occupation, these different views led to irreconcilable conflict, making it impossible to talk about overall strategy. When the occupation finally ended – without achieving universal suffrage – there was great acrimony between the groups that lasted for years.
A new set of principles
Realising how counter-productive this split was, the protesters were keen not to let strategic differences get in the way this time around.
As organisers made plans for the June 9 rally against the extradition bill, several new principles emerged to define how the different groups could work together and avoid falling into the deep conflict of the past.
They included such maxims as “respect the role of the different groups”, “we all lead”, “no one is left behind” and “be water” (as in, to flow from place to place, building continuous pressure). More than the power of any individual leader, these principles came to define how the movement would function and grow.
The principles reinforced one another. The decision not to have a single leader was born from the experience of the Umbrella movement. Every visible leader of that movement was jailed or threatened with jail following the occupation. (Two of the Occupy Trio received 16-month jail sentences this year).
The Extradition movement learned it was too dangerous to have figurehead leaders. If everyone led, what could Beijing do? They couldn’t jail everyone.
And when it came to respecting the role of different groups, this principle allowed those who wanted to pursue a more militant strategy to do so without fear of rebuke. Everyone was encouraged to do what they thought was needed.
On June 9, two movements launched: a peaceful protest of more than one million people, as well as a more militant movement of young people.
The confrontational wing was battle-ready. They had re-purposed everyday items like medical masks, plastic wrap, helmets, goggles, umbrellas and towels into tools of protest. The Umbrella occupation had taught them the police would likely use excessive force – so they dressed accordingly.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam was unmoved by a million-person march, but did shift her position and suspend the extradition bill when faced with a street confrontation. This sent a loud message to the protesters about what it will take to win under her authoritarian government – militancy was more potent than passive protest.
Protesters got the message. Every mass protest since then has seen these two protest wings in operation. As an elected member of Hong Kong’s government explained to me, they are “codependent” – they need each other to exist.
The two wings initially unsettled Beijing. Every time there was militancy – most dramatically when the Legislative Council Building was vandalised on July 1 – Beijing thought it could be used to their advantage.
The government aired the violence on television, hoping it would turn public opinion against the protesters and split the movement. Yet, older democracy leaders did not criticise the students, instead reiterating that “everyone in the movement has their place.”
Popular opinion is still with the protesters, and the protests are still enormous.
Flowing from protest to protest
Another form of protest also emerged to supplement the two-wing approach – the movement turned “to water”.
The protests now have a flow they didn’t have during the Umbrella occupation. Protesters don’t simply show up for weekly mass marches and then go home; they have begun organising smaller protests in their districts on a daily basis.
“Lennon walls” featuring thousands of protest messages have emerged, for instance, in every one of Hong Kong’s districts. Random Airdrop notifications share details about impromptu protests, such as last week’s sit-in at the airport. With everyone leading and the action constantly flowing from one place to the next, this protest is hard to stop.
The Umbrella movement, in contrast, was physically fixed in three locations and maintained with tents and nightly sleep-outs. The rigidity of the occupation was exhausting and took a toll on the participants.
A government can wait out an occupation, but how do you capture something that is constantly moving?
Where will it end?
Its hard to predict where the current protest movement goes next. At the moment, there are no negotiations between the government and protest leaders. The protest movement has five key demands that continue to sit on the table, ranging from withdrawing the extradition bill completely to an independent investigation into police brutality to Lam’s resignation.
But it is unclear whether the protests would end even if the demands are agreed to. All the while, Beijing makes infrequent statements in support of Lam, but it also has thousands of troops already stationed in Hong Kong – and a build-up of more across the border.
What is certain is that a long-standing democracy movement has powerfully connected to the next generation. Young students are terrified about their future and feel they have to do everything they can to fight for their rights.
But the stakes are extremely high. Is it possible for water to move so quickly that it escapes the barrel of the gun?
The battle for domination of the physical and digital public realms has been crucial to the fortunes of the Hong Kong protesters. Their overwhelming numbers in the tense stand-off with the might of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has captured our attention over the past eight weeks.
However, there are less obvious dynamics at work as protesters use public space – both physical and digital – to maintain their advantage. An understanding of these public realms is critical to understanding why freedom of expression either flourishes or dies in particular urban contexts.
Hong Kong protesters have drawn the world’s attention to the fragile state of democratic rights in this Special Administrative Region of China. As many as 2 million people, out of a population of 7.5 million, have poured into the streets, protesting the erosion of their special status.
These protests have been remarkably effective in the face of a PRC-aligned Hong Kong leadership, which has for now backed down on a contentious proposal to make it easier to extradite Hong Kong residents to mainland China.
In physical terms the public realm means places to gather freely with diverse others with high visibility. This makes them a focus for expressions of democratic conviction. Many great cities of the world contain iconic public places, such as Taksim Square in Istanbul, the National Monument in Jakarta, Trafalgar Square in London and, of course, Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But with varying levels of surveillance and restriction, not all of these places qualify as functioning public realms.
Taking to the streets …
Hong Kong, one of the most densely built and populated cities in the world, has few recognisable public places. None is capable of holding even a fraction of the numbers of protesters that have mobilised.
For that reason, crowds have taken to the streets. These are usually a degraded form of public space, but protesters have turned them from thoroughfares for vehicles to a vibrant public realm, allowing an impressive show of willpower.
The protests have been well organised and until last week were free from violence. The involvement of alleged China-backed triad criminals escalated the risk for ongoing demonstrations and the fragile public realm in Hong Kong is now threatened.
… and digital space
The success of the protests is not entirely dependent on the use of physical space. The speed and coordination of the protests would not have been possible without access to a public realm in the abstract. We see it in an active and independent press and media, and in the ability of protesters to communicate with each other quickly and freely through the digital public realm provided by social media and encrypted messaging apps.
The sheer volume of people on the streets implied spontaneous anarchy. However, the use of social media, even in the presence of covert and overt surveillance by security forces and China-friendly media, enabled organisers and protesters to retain a tactical advantage.
They have been using anonymous calls in encrypted chat applications like Telegram and Signal to coordinate efforts. These apps allow users to create public and anonymous channels to share information, as well as smaller, more private, group chats.
The protest was coordinated visibly on LIHKG, an online forum that ranks posts by popularity in a similar manner to Reddit. These forums allow protests to move fluidly and quickly, responding to changing conditions on the ground.
Protesters used social media to rapidly distribute photos to counter security authorities’ attempts to deliberately and drastically underestimate crowd numbers to downplay the strength and size of the opposition.
There was also a need to avoid particular technologies. China employs sophisticated surveillance of its citizens.
However, protesters have taken effective evasive measures. These included simple physical acts such as standing in huge queues at the Metro for paper tickets to avoid being tracked on transit smart cards. Protesters also used umbrellas, face and eye masks to prevent facial recognition and to shield themselves from teargas attacks and drone surveillance.
The digital public realm has been used successfully in other contexts as a potent intensification of physical protest. Digital spaces can amplify, broadcast and coordinate physical action.
For example, social media catalysed the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. In 2016 Philando Castile’s death was live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend after police shot him through the open window of his vehicle. Twitter was used extensively to publicise and coordinate the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.
Co-opting spaces as public
Urban protests in many cities, like Hong Kong, are defined by their limited access to sanctioned public space. The co-opting of other public commons like highways and inner-city roads becomes necessary. This has been particularly successful in the American context where public space is degraded or privatised, and roads are “neutral” space.
Public space does not always look the way we imagine it. When access to public space is untenable, protesters with sufficient will can turn privatised or commercial space into a new public realm.
The Hong Kong protests have turned the international airport terminal into a temporary public realm for this purpose. The “yellow shirt” protesters did the same in Bangkok in 2008. The continued visibility of these public sites and the desire by security forces to close down protest create an uneasy stand-off, testing authorities’ resolve to respond under international scrutiny.
There is now more to the public realm than just a place to gather. Protesters need to combine their determination with a sophisticated appreciation of the digital environment and the nature and limits of public and private space.
The latest protests in Hong Kong on Sunday, which organisers said brought some 2 million people to the streets, represented yet another striking show of “people power” in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s efforts to bring calm to Hong Kong included an uncharacteristic about-face on her position over the weekend, a rare apology and the indefinite suspension of the proposed changes to the city’s extradition laws, which sparked the initial protest against the government last weekend.
But laden with qualifications and a subtle rebuke of the protesters, Lam’s repositioning of the issue has had limited impact, suggesting that she may have seriously underestimated the anger and determination of her constituency. The protesters are now calling for nothing less than her resignation, making her the “lightening rod” for public anger in the face of growing resentment towards Chinese influence in Hong Kong.
As the people of Hong Kong continue to take to the streets, one wonders whether the real struggle has only just begun.
How the fight over the extradition bill mushroomed
For many, Lam’s controversial extradition bill represented the “thin edge of the wedge” of Chinese control. If passed, the proposed law could have seen local and foreign criminal suspects sent to mainland China to stand trial in a judicial system that is opaque and vastly uncompromising.
But there’s much more at stake for the people, identity and prospects of Hong Kong. For those concerned about China’s rising influence in the city, the legislation represented a dangerous break in the firewall that has preserved civil liberties for the people of Hong Kong within the “one country, two systems” framework.
While its proponents claim the bill has a narrow application, many fear it would enable China’s leadership to target political opponents, entrepreneurs and activists as part of its wider strategy for exercising control over the region. The implications for Hong Kong’s reputation as a vibrant global financial, business and transit hub would be significant.
Of course, the latest demonstrations cannot be viewed in isolation – they are the latest chapter in Hong Kong’s longstanding tradition of public dissent. And there have been some notable successes in the past, including the indefinite suspension of plans to implement a national security law in 2003 and the reversal of a proposed comprehensive national curriculum in 2012.
Yet, as the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests revealed, the mood in Hong Kong appears to be taking on a more sombre tone. Much of this reflects the changing mood within China.
Under President Xi Jinping, civil protests — even those organised in the special autonomous region of Hong Kong — are increasingly fraught. Xi himself set the tone with a particularly hard-line speech during his 2017 visit to the city for Lam’s swearing-in.
Flagging new levels of intolerance for activities that might be interpreted as encouraging Hong Kong independence from China, Xi noted:
Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.
Despite the efforts of China’s state-run Global Times newspaper to lay blame for the “uncontrolled street politics” on “Western forces” and “malice from afar”, however, Chinese political authorities have remained relatively quiet on the Hong Kong protests this week.
This is unsurprising. Coming just a week after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, China was never likely to take an openly provocative stance against the protesters.
But it is clear Beijing is keeping a close eye on the situation, pushing back on criticisms from abroad and now possibly wavering in its support for Lam. Ever sensitive to external critiques that relate to questions of sovereignty, the Chinese government may decide to take a harder line should the protests continue to gather momentum.
Lack of foreign pressure
Thus far, the response to the protests has been relatively muted. The European Union has called for the rights of the Hong Kong people to be respected, noting its concern for the “potentially far-reaching consequences” of the extradition bill. UK Prime Minister Theresa May, meanwhile, has called on authorities to ensure the extradition arrangements “are in line with the rights and freedoms” set forth in the joint declaration when the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
US President Donald Trump has remained ambivalent so far, saying only last week, “I’m sure they’ll be able to work it all out.” But according to his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Trump is now expected to raise the issue when he meets Xi at the G20 Summit at the end of the month. This is only significant insofar as it reminds us of Trump’s transactional interest in the region.
As for Australia, Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a fairly neutral statement in support of the Hong Kong people’s right to protest. It left many, including those in Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere who protested in support of Hong Kong last week, somewhat underwhelmed.
Beyond the protests, how the current tensions unfold will have serious implications for Australia’s engagement in the region and our ongoing relationship with China. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper reinforces the core values underpinning our international engagement, including support for political, economic and religious freedoms, liberal democracy and the rule of law.
How and when we articulate our commitment to these values, and reinforce their place in our region, will be the key test of our diplomacy going forward.
Where do the protests go from here?
Lam’s decision to suspend consideration of the extradition bill offers a necessary moment for pause. But it hasn’t taken the heat out of the protests.
At this stage, Lam hasn’t backed away from her intent to revive the bill at a later stage. It’s also likely the Chinese government will continue to press towards that outcome, though perhaps in a different form and even under different leadership. Much hangs in the balance.
Hong Kong’s protesters appear galvanised by their cause. But whether they can sustain the necessary momentum for the long game — where crossing red lines may come at a cost — is another matter altogether.