Features | Politics | East Asia

Inside Hong Kong’s Leaderless Uprising

Young Hong Kongers, with dreams of democracy, continue their grotesquely uneven battle against Beijing. 

By Magnus Ag for
Inside Hong Kong’s Leaderless Uprising

Protesters light their torches during a peaceful rally in central Hong Kong’s business district, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

HONG KONG — The desperation and contempt of the authorities are rising after close to five months of mass demonstrations and escalating violence. 750 children have been arrested. Many young Hong Kongers face a terrifying choice: Continue a grotesquely uneven battle against a superior power or acknowledge that the rest of their lives are going to be without civil liberties, without democracy and under Beijing’s strict and brutal control.

“In 10 years, I hope Hong Kong is a place with freedom of democracy instead of more and more crackdowns. That is the reason for us to keep on our fight,” 23-year-old Joshua Wong, one of the pro-democracy movement’s most prominent young voices, told me over the phone on his way between meetings in another part of town

Wong started his political activism as a 15-year-old when his initiative brought 100,000 Hong Kongers to the streets. His defining role in the 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement is captured in the Netflix documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower. 

His dream is shared by many. “I joined the protests because Hong Kong has no democracy now,” says a 17-year-old woman, dressed in black, during a protest near the historic Victoria Harbor. “Many youngsters like me will step up and risk anything to save Hong Kong.”

The young woman, who asks to be identified only as Miss S, tells me that she has been part of the protest movement since the first large-scale demonstration against the local government’s controversial extradition law. The law would have made it possible to extradite people from Hong Kong into China’s draconian legal system. In reaction, 1 million Hong Kongers took to the streets in protest on June 9. A week later, almost 2 million, a quarter of the city’s population, marched.

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“But our chief executive Carrie Lam ignored us. That is why we want to voice our opinions here.”

“Nick” and “Marcus,” both 16 years old, are standing among a small group of peers by a public toilet before they move back into the crowd. They are all wearing black clothes and different kinds of masks. Nick’s arm is in a cast. They joined the protest in reaction to police’s violence against protesters but also out of fear of a future more dominated by China.

“The police should help people. Not hurt people,” says Marcus. “The Chinese government is forcing us to become part of China,” he continues. Then Nick cuts in: “At that point we can’t say much more. So we have to say it now.” 

Leaderless

These young Hong Kongers are the first generation that will live a significant part of their lives after Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model formally ends in 2047. The model grants the former British colony certain liberties but ensures the city’s leadership ultimately answers to Beijing.

From crushing the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa in 1959, to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and onward, the regime these young people are up against has shown a terrifying ability and willingness to crack down on independence and democracy movements.

In 1989, as in 2014 during Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, authorities were able to hamper the protesters by arresting their leaders. These experiences are part of the reason why the current movement has decided to function without formal leaders. 

“The current movement is completely leaderless. As a result there is not one coherent strategy. Not one vision. Every day they will react to new events as they unfold,” says lawyer and author Jason Y. Ng, who has followed the city’s young protesters for years and described them in the book Umbrellas in Bloom.

The protesters initiate, debate and coordinate the movement’s demands, creative interventions and upcoming demonstrations via the local online forum LIHKG (akin to the American platform Reddit) where everyone can vote new proposals up or down. The messaging app Telegram has also become one of the protesters’ favorite digital tools.

During demonstrations and other interventions, the young protesters are often organized in small groups of 5-10 people. Instead of everyone following one leader’s decision, a single group can decide to execute an action proposed on the LIHKG platform while other groups can do something different, according to the 29-year-old lawyer “C.”

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C is an influential contributor in online discussion fora and told me he also donates cash to the protesters on “the frontlines.” He only wants to be identified by his initial. 

Even decisions in real-time, such as what escape routes to take, are coordinated digitally, according to Ng. 

One advantage of this fluid form of organizing is, according to C, that he and the other young protesters can learn from their mistakes quickly and change tactics faster than the police are able to. 

One challenge to a flat structured, leaderless movement is that it can easily be infiltrated by “spies,” according to C. Another challenge highlighted by Wong, who was imprisoned for his leading role in the 2014 protests, when the current movement took off is to “keep the momentum with solidarity.” But he notes that Hong Kongers have already overcome that for many months now. 

According to Jamila Raqib, head of the the Albert Einstein Institution, a leading organization promoting the study and use of nonviolent action, the leaderless movement shows a new recognition of what power is and where it comes from.

“Leadership looks different than it did in the Indian independence movement, the American civil rights movement, the Polish Solidarity movement. It is not necessarily that there is no leadership. But it is not centralized and it is not charismatic in the sense that one person has all the knowledge and determines strategy. If we decentralize knowledge and access to information, I think that takes the place of a need for one person that tells us what to do.”

The flat structure and fast communications have materialized in an avalanche of creative interventions and actions during the past several months. 

The new unofficial national anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, was composed and uploaded by an anonymous user, improved by others and spread with the speed of the internet across social media and out to singalongs in malls and during demonstrations — as local patriotism reached new highs. 

The Violence

In a leaderless movement there is not one individual that can set the standard for the degree of violence acceptable to achieve the movement’s objectives. 

“Hong Kong is a city in transition. One of the most remarkable transitions is this growing tolerance for some level of violence. It used to be that Hong Kong people were ‘allergic’ to any form of physical confrontation,” Ng tells me as he squeezes in an interview during a break from his run along Victoria Harbor.  

Arson and vandalism targeting companies and symbols deemed to support Beijing, as well as escalating violent clashes between protesters and the police, has become the new normal in Hong Kong.

“Force has been used by protesters to protect and defend themselves,” Wong tells me a few days after China’s National Day, where an 18-year-old was shot in the chest after attacking a police officer and a month and a half after protesters for the first time were attacked by pro-Chinese gangs with alleged connections to organized crime. He continues: “The use of force by protesters has never reduced the momentum and bargaining power of [the] movement.”

Many of the young protesters legitimize the use of violence not only as reactive defensive measures but as a tactical necessity.

“It was you [the government] who taught me that peaceful marches are useless,” is a phrase that over the summer has been spray painted several places across the city with a reference to the largely peaceful but unsuccessful Umbrella Movement.

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Ng notes that when the protesters decide to use violence they chose to focus “on objects, on things.” But he adds: “That strategy isn’t perfect. There have also been incidents of people getting beat up.”

Miss S and many other young protesters told me that they personally prefer nonviolent means but that they can no longer condemn the use of violence by others in the movement. 

The lawyer C describes himself as belonging to the most radical part of the movement. He says: “once people accept fires in the streets they are more acceptable to the idea of revolution, or even war.” However, he is also conscious of the risk “that the older people will split from the young because of the use of violence. But it is much less likely than in 2014.”

Opposite from Miss S, Wong and C stands a minority of young Hong Kongers that describe themselves as “pro-establishment.” 

L, 25, is head of a local student association and told me: “I love Hong Kong, it is the best city in the world. But the last few months has lacked order. It has been very negative. What is the point of damaging the MTR [Hong Kong’s metro] and attacking the police every day?”

He says he respects the protesters’ vision. “I think the protesters want a better Hong Kong, a better society. But you need to have a plan of how to achieve your vision.”

According to L, the authorities can forge stability by creating more affordable housing and better job opportunities for young Hong Kongers. Hong Kong has one of the world’s most expensive housing markets and university graduates earn less than their counterparts did 30 years ago.  

Another central element on a more stable path to democracy, according to L, is to “trust the central government” in Beijing.

De-escalation?

However, trust levels in Hong Kong are running low. Hundreds of thousands defied a protest ban and marched through the streets of Kowloon on Sunday October 20 as scenes of violence followed. 

Jamila Rabip, known for her work and TED-talk on effective nonviolent resistance, underscores that the majority of the pro-democracy movement is still using non-violent civil disobedience. From a historical perspective, she says, the introduction of violence in most cases ends up undermining social movements because of the huge disadvantage such movements face against opponents who are superior militarily.

“What China wants right now is for the movement to turn into all young men. It wants older people and women to go home because it becomes too dangerous. When that happens, it is easier to launch a crackdown,” says Jamila Rabip.  She continues, “Nonviolent resistance raises a movements chances of success because it shifts the conflict to a means in which the movement can gain the upper hand.”

In an attempt to reduce violent protests, Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced an anti-mask law earlier this month without approval by Hong Kong’s legislative council by invoking an emergency ordinance created by the British in 1922. While the move only involved the mask ban, the colonial-era ordinance grants the chief executive the power to “make any regulations whatsoever” on “occasions of emergency or public danger,” including  “censorship” of publications, and it authorizes the entry and search of premises, according to Reuters

The reaction came immediately in the form of violent clashes and peaceful demonstrations — with an array of funny masks.

Walking through Hong Kong’s narrow streets a morning after such protests, one finds no signs of de-escalation. Instead you will see fast painted graffiti reading “Chinazi,” a contraction of China and Nazi, “If we burn, you burn with us” and “Give me democracy or give me death.” 

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Talking again after violence had escalated further as a police officer was slashed in the neck by a 18-year-old and a leader of one of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy groups was attacked by men with hammers and left on the street covered in blood, Wong told me: The best way to prevent further escalation is by answering our five demands and give democracy to Hong Kongers. Through a democratic mechanism, the city can resolve its political predicament with political solutions.”

Referencing a new poll that shows over 80 percent of Hong Kongers support the demand for democratic reform and free elections, he continued: “There is no way for Carrie Lam and President Xi to turn down 80 percent of the city’s population. It is time for the Beijing and Hong Kong governments to show their courage and negotiate with the public.”

The Demands

17-year-old Miss S does not hesitate when asked what she and her fellow young protesters are trying to achieve. “Five demands, not one less” she tells me with reference to the demands that were formulated by the movement after the first summer demonstrations. The demands are to withdraw the extradition bill, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters,” amnesty for arrested protesters, and universal suffrage. 

However, for some young Hong Kongers the five demands are not enough. 

“To the outside world we still focus on democracy and human rights. But the ultimate outcome is to end Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong and make Hong Kong an independent sovereign state,” C explained at a cafe.

Any talk of independence clearly transcends the “red line” set by Chinese President Xi Jinping of not undermining Chinese sovereignty.

Carrie Lam promised on September 4, after three months of demonstrations, that the extradition law would be withdrawn. On October 23, it officially happened. But she has consistently denied the four remaining demands. Lam’s bosses in Beijing would rather talk of terror and interference from foreign powers than opening up a dialog with the young protesters. 

So the future is unclear and uncertain for the young Hong Kongers.

“I can’t see the end of this movement. So I can’t see the future of Hong Kong. Maybe it is a beautiful city or it is mainland,” a 23-year-old engineering student told me during a peaceful protest. “Maybe after today you can’t see me. Maybe some people will take a photo of me and the police will find me.”

The New Berlin

In the middle of all the uncertainty, young Hong Kongers are very conscious about the value of support from the international community. During demonstrations it is not unusual to see American, British, German and many other flags among the protesters. 

Joshua Wong was in Berlin and Washington last month, among other things to promote an American law that will require the United States to determine if political and human rights developments in Hong Kong justify changing the city’s treatment as a separate trading entity from China. 

“If we are in a new cold war, Hong Kong is the new Berlin,” he said during the trip. 

“Hong Kong is under the creeping threat from China. Bloody crackdowns and political prosecution are on their way, and our freedoms are at stake, as President Xi just vowed to shatter the protests by ‘bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.’ Democratic governments play an indispensable role in avoiding the upcoming miserable situation in the city,” he told me this past weekend.

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“I urge various nations to include human rights clauses in trade deals with Hong Kong and China to ensure minimum protection of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms from China’s hardline agenda,” he continued. 

However, Wong and many other young Hong Kongers know that international support does not come easy, given China’s dominant and growing political and economic power.

“The threat from Beijing towards Hong Kong will trigger more and more hesitation from world leaders when it comes to supporting Hong Kong. But I hope that Hong Kong people will not walk alone. It is really a difficult time for us.”

Magnus Ag is executive director of the human rights organization Bridge Figures. He is also a freelance journalist and based in Hong Kong. Follow him on Twitter: @AgMagnus

An article, in Danish, based partly on the same material was published by Weekendavisen on October 11, 2019.