Carrying water for freedom

Hong Kong’s protestors are brave and, so far, successful. The Chinese Communist Party leadership must be kicking itself

Joseph Lian

‘The pro-democracy movement has managed to maintain undiminished stamina and intensity’

he four-month-old anti-China protest in Hong Kong, dubbed the Water Revolution, has been an extraordinary success. Required by circumstances to evolve at incredible speed, the pro-democracy movement has managed to maintain undiminished stamina and intensity in the face of an often-unrestrained police response and an unconciliatory government.

Few expected it to last so long and present such a potent threat to Beijing’s hold on the former British territory. The surprising sustainability of the movement is attributable to two factors. The first is that this iteration of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is facing much less hostility—and even some tacit support from—the business sector, which has expanded its reach beyond the traditional heartlands of the pro-democracy middle classes and young people.

This wasn’t the case during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, so what changed the minds of the territory’s business elite? Self-interest is the best explanation.

The flashpoint for the 2019 protests was the China extradition Bill, which chief executive Carrie Lam put to the legislature this spring. This presented a direct threat to business people familiar with a European-style rule of law inside the territory and very nervous indeed about its mainland equivalent. The business sector actually rejected the Bill before any other group, in part because many of its members had a direct and none-too-happy experience from decades of running commercial operations in China. Scarred by personal experience of bribery and corruption, they feared the long arm of unscrupulous competitors in China using extradition threats to extort them, perfectly reasonable given China’s highly unreliable and corrupt legal system.

The government partially succeeded in appeasing them with a long, tailor-made list of exemptions. Even then, misgivings remained because elements in China could always create other false charges. The prestigious Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of many small- and medium-sized businesses—the bread-and-butter of Hong Kong’s vibrant market economy—has steadfastly maintained its objection to the bill, and to some of the police misbehaviour since the protests began. 

Surprisingly, the territory’s preeminent tycoon, the richest man in Asia, Li Ka-shing, came out with a strong plea on behalf of the young protestors who had suffered police brutality and run foul of the law. He asked the government to show compassion and to go easy on “those who are the future of our society”. This thoroughly rankled Beijing’s communist leaders, who showed displeasure in an article published in a medium under the control of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, one of the most powerful organs of the communist party, attacking Li for aiding and abetting Hong Kong “criminals”, while also accusing him and other local real estate tycoons of having long profited from sky-high real estate prices in the city, causing a huge wealth gap and thereby creating dissatisfaction among the people. Li, who has shrunk his investment portfolio in China and off-shored most of the assets of his business empire, shot back with a defiant statement. He commands respect in much of the business sector in Hong Kong and so his attitude on the issue, and towards China in general, can reasonably be seen as representative of a wide cross section of business people. Even so, with the exception of a few other tycoons who issued statements to condemn the protestors, the rest have kept very quiet.

But there is another reason for attacking the tycoons. The current conflict is intensely political. It accentuates the antagonism of Hongkongers towards China and especially the communist party, for its totalitarian ideology, for the way it has reneged on its pre-1997 promise of allowing Hong Kong to go through democratic reforms and universal suffrage by 2007, and for the ever more suffocating control it has been exerting in Hong Kong’s educational, cultural, legal, media and even religious spheres.

China does not want to bear the brunt of the people’s anger and is seeking a scapegoat among the real estate tycoons. There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy to this: during the last two decades, Chinese state and state-related capital has been investing heavily, even recklessly in the eyes of some of the local tycoons, in Hong Kong property. In each and every one of the city’s major land auctions, so-called Red Capital has been furiously bidding up prices and beating out the local tycoons. If there is an ever-larger wealth gap in Hong Kong, defined by the haves and have-nots in home ownership for millions of local people, it is China’s hot money that is the culprit. 

While none of the tycoons has been as openly defiant as Li, it is almost certain that many of them are angry. And if they are angry they can do things discreetly to get even. A possible example: recently there was a fund-raising operation organised by the protest movement to finance the purchase of advertisements in the major newspapers in the developed world, to explain Hong Kong’s plight and to ask for help. The fundraising target was easily surpassed within 24 hours. It looks likely that some of these disgruntled tycoons, unable to help even indirectly the movement in Hong Kong in any other way, have opened their wallets.

It is also important to note that, unlike the Umbrella Revolution, these protestors don’t occupy the main traffic arteries continuously for weeks on end, but instead timed their demonstrations mostly on weekends, so that normal business in the city would not be overly impacted. This has largely spared the business sector and they know it.

The protestors taking on the police every weekend since June are in a much more dangerous environment than those occupying the streets and camping out during the Umbrella Movement. Yet these protests have already gone on much longer than the 79 days of 2014, even while the losses sustained by the demonstrators have been much, much higher this time. There are reasons for this:  the unity between radical and moderate wings and the brilliantly diverse nature of a mass movement that is leaderless, formless, almost organisation free, but paradoxically is at the same time highly efficient.

Leaderlessness is certainly not new—social movements like that have been around for several years, with some commentators ascribing its origin to the 2013 “June Journeys” protests in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But pundits have hitherto questioned the viability of such movements. For example, a 2014 commentary on the Huffington Post argued that they cannot last long, as the many constituent subgroups would be unable to articulate a common raison d’être or a sharply focused vision, and so would unravel, eventually becoming a mere Shakespearian footnote, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Coming from a platform aligned to one of the West’s biggest organised political entities—the US Democratic Party—that unflattering view is perhaps unsurprising.   

This unsustainability view certainly sounds common-sensical, but has been proven dead wrong this time in Hong Kong. Not only does the Hong Kong movement have staying power, it broke many records set by movements with leaders. As of October 3, it had already lasted 40 days longer than the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Taiwan’s Formosa Magazine Incident of 1979 lasted no more than 28 days and ended with the arrest of its leaders. Not only that—the current movement in Hong Kong has a surprisingly coherent and tightly-adhered-to set of demands that has remained throughout. Its paramount slogan, a couplet in eight characters meaning literally “Gloriously Retake Hong Kong—Revolution of our Times”), has been a rallying chant at every one of the scores of marches. The proto-national anthem, originally composed by three nameless artists in August, has become the battle hymn of choice for the movement, sung on street corners, in churches, school halls and shopping malls.

A “Lennon Wall” near the government offices in the Admiralty area in Hong Kong (© NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

The unity demonstrated by this leaderless movement is extraordinary. No one is calling the shots. Decision-making is extremely decentralised and very often ad hoc. There is a single social media platform where many conversations take place and where many ideas are debated, but decisions are always made off platform, mostly in small, unrelated chat groups that also serve as street battle groups. The movement works along the lines Adam Smith described with his Invisible Hand. This is perhaps the ultimate organisational form of a democratic mass movement—not only is the goal of the movement democratic, the very organising principle supporting the day-to-day processes, must all be democratic. Many of the biggest mass movements in history, including every communist revolution in the last century, began in this way, but ended in totalitarianism. Hong Kong’s will not be like that, if ever it succeeds.

Not only is decision-making decentralised, the economic lifeline supporting the movement is also highly diversified. The very word “lifeline” is a misnomer; “lifeweb” would be a much better description. There is no single political action committee or even a single umbrella of groups acting as a clearinghouse of donated money; but there are many smaller, ad hoc, crowd-funded organisations for specific objectives, such as legal defence for arrestees, and advertising in foreign newspapers. Many of the resources supporting the movement are in kind, such as companies donating lunches, friends supplying frontline friends with protective gear, families opening their homes to take in young protestors driven from their own by pro-government parents. Again, an admirable Invisible Hand is at work.

‘A decentralised and leaderless movement is not susceptible to a strategy of decapitation by an overpowering government’

This decentralised organisational nature has allowed the movement to act across the territory’s 18 districts, in numerous public venues and hotspots such as police stations. Hitherto, mass gatherings have been confined to two locations, Victoria Park and Chater Garden, both on Hong Kong Island and far away from most population centres. Likewise, march routes have been confined to two, and they are on Hong Kong Island as well. A unified movement command has difficulty spreading and administering actions in any larger geographic area. This time, the chosen venues or targets, such as police stations, are often within individual population clusters, minimising travel costs and maximising turnout and ensuring protestors are familiar with the terrain.

If Smith’s Invisible Hand makes markets work, the decentralised organisational form in the Hong Kong movement may likewise have achieved a high degree of efficiency and therefore sustainability. Moreover, a decentralised and leaderless movement is not susceptible to a strategy of decapitation by an overpowering government. Very often, the capture or death of one or two prominent leaders of a movement is enough to weaken it dramatically or even terminate it. The names of Che Guevara and Osama bin Laden spring to mind. This is especially so if a movement cannot be guaranteed to be 100 per cent peaceful.

When talking to the protestors in this movement one always feels their strong sense of ownership. Every one of them is so voluble and has so much to talk about, because every one of them is so tuned into a particular piece of the action. In a march or even a charge (as in the Charge of the Light Brigade, but hopefully without the big blunder, God willing) they automatically seek out their own tiny buddy groups. Some even act alone. They may either stay at the back of a charge to assist with logistics or scout out the neighbourhood against surprises. Some move forward to take care of fallen comrades and provide first aid. Some move up to the front lines to work the barricades or taunt and fight the police.

There is no committee decision of who does what and where. The typical participant this time is like a worker who, instead of working in a big corporation as a cog in a vast machine, has become the owner-entrepreneur of a small business. In planned, peaceful, half-day marches, this kind of intense sense of ownership is perhaps not necessary, but in a movement in which most of the events are completely fluid and open-ended, in which each participant must make on-the-spot decisions in split-seconds, this kind of entrepreneurial spirit is crucial, and possible only in the absence of a centralised leadership. 

Yet even though each participant tends to his or her own particular role, they have a strong sense of being in it together. This time, they start referring to each other, especially those on the front lines, using an intimate term literally meaning “My hand and my foot”.

Hong Kong’s continuing protests are already having some impact on the region, albeit with differing effect. In Japan, there is general public sympathy but no strong reaction in the media or clear statement of support from Shinzo Abe’s government. In Korea, pro-Hong Kong feelings are stronger, in part because many of the people in Korea see in the Hongkongers a reflection of themselves struggling for democracy in the not-too-distant past and in part because they know and appreciate that there is huge affinity for things Korean among the young Hongkongers in the last 20 years.

The reaction in Singapore is much more muted. Singaporean news media tend to cast the news from Hong Kong in a slightly negative light, emphasising the chaos and more often than not laying the blame on the protestors. One cannot fail to feel that this represents the government signalling to its people that by asking for too much democracy, Hong Kong is losing out in its competition with Singapore to be the most successful commercial centre in Asia, and that it is a mistake that Singaporeans need to avoid.

From what I have heard from my Vietnamese friends in Japan, there probably is a similar ambivalence in Vietnam. On the one hand, a nascent independence movement on China’s south-eastern periphery would give China, Vietnam’s number one enemy, a greater headache; on the other hand, the Vietnamese communists certainly don’t want young Vietnamese to learn and acquire the kind of anti-totalitarian radicalism of the Hong Kong protestors.

Nowhere is the fallout from Hong Kong felt more deeply than in Taiwan. Before June, when the serious conflict in Hong Kong started, President Tsai Ing-wen was in poor shape as the incumbent running for re-election in the presidential race scheduled for January. She was trailing significantly in opinion polls behind Han Kuo-yu, candidate of the major opposition party Kuomintang, who is widely said to be supported by Beijing and whose populism helped him win the mayoral race in Kaohsiung, the stronghold of Tsai’s party.

But the horrors of the police attacks in Hong Kong and the stern hand of Beijing behind it, clearly presented to Taiwanese voters how life might look under even indirect Chinese rule. Poll results quickly reversed, with a latest showing Tsai ahead by 49 per cent to 41 per cent, and Tsai still gaining. Pressed to distance himself from Beijing, Han now says he rejects Beijing’s persistent demand for Taiwan to accept a One-Country-Two-Systems arrangement similar to Hong Kong’s, with Beijing as the One Country calling the shots. Clearly, activists in Hong Kong have a stake in seeing Tsai re-elected, with many travelling to speak in rallies and warn Taiwanese of the dangers of Chinese advances on the island state. Such work seems to be having some effect.   

It is difficult to present hard evidence of how the Hong Kong protests are affecting Chinese on the mainland, where news of these events is all but banned. There have been some isolated reports of people arrested in China for expressing pro-protest sympathies, but those are far outweighed by the anti-Hong Kong anger, for example, as shown among Chinese students studying in universities in the West. It is fair to say that the separatist sentiments just under the surface among Hong Kong protestors are taken as an affront by the average (Han) Chinese, for whom any notion of independence from the motherland is a mortal crime.

Thus events in Hong Kong have probably deepened the enmity between China and Hong Kong. If the annual massive commemorative activities of the Tiananmen Massacre by Hongkongers in past years made the Chinese government uncomfortable, those could at least be interpreted as a misguided patriotism, but patriotism nonetheless. This time, Beijing senses that an independence movement is brewing in Hong Kong, which makes its leaders flustered and their more patriotic citizens mad.

If China did indeed have a hand in concocting the extradition Bill in the first place, it must be kicking itself now. The resultant movement in Hong Kong has quickly morphed into a full-blown anti-China movement. 


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