As a political sociology doctoral candidate within the concentration of social movements, leadership, and technology, I have definitely been following the development of the current protest movement in Hong Kong with great interest.
Five years after the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014, in which protesters marched against the proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system, the youths of the city have arisen again in the name of upholding democracy. This time, the protesters seized the city to march against the hugely controversial extradition bill with China. This bill, if passed, will allow fugitives in Hong Kong to be extradited to China. This means the bill will leave “anyone within Hong Kong vulnerable to being grabbed by the Chinese authorities for political reasons or inadvertent business offenses,” and this would undermine the city’s semi-autonomous legal system, guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” formula, after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The bill is now currently suspended, but protesters still are unhappy as they continue to converge in the city and call for the bill to be withdrawn completely and for their leader to step down.
What especially caught my attention as I read the news and scrolled through Twitter was how this protest, — unlike Umbrella Movement who had the newly released Joshua Wong as the central figure of the movement — lacks a clear leader. Yet, the protesters mobilised in an organised and well-disciplined manner, as if they had been trained for years. “Anyone who needed a helmet, mask, or umbrella would yell to the sky. Those around them would stop, passing the message instantly through the crowds with unified chants and matching hand motions: patting their heads for a helmet, cupping their eyes for goggles, rolling their arms for cling wrap, which they were using to protect exposed skin from tear gas and pepper spray.” The protesters even developed their own hand gestures to communicate among themselves to ask for helmets, eye goggles, face mask, and others on the front lines. In one instance where protesters get hurt and need an ambulance, the crowd parted like the red sea giving the ambulance a clear path to get to the other side to treat the patients. Everyone knows their roles, what to do and where to go — which is in a way also attributed to the effectiveness of the public sphere and architecture of their city (which is another question to think of).
The “deliberately leaderless” protest, and their “logistical practices of bringing supplies, setting up medical stations, rapid mass communication — were “in-built” from the last few years of practice,” according to Baggio Leung, convener of Youngspiration, a local political group formed after the 2014 Umbrella Movement. “It’s just like a machine or a self-learning AI that can run by themselves,” he said (although I would be cautious with that statement and would say that the organisation is even better run).
The sheer size of the protest, in a way, was attributed to the efforts of Human Rights Civil Front. The first organised demonstration was held on March 31 and attracted 12,000 people. A month later, they decided to ramp up the efforts to get more people. A volunteer was recruited to get in touch with journalists through apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, and platforms like Periscope were used to livestream the protests. This time, hundreds of thousands showed up.
Like a proper leaderless, well-organised movement, the emerged central figures from the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition consisted of 50 organisations — or conveners, as they called themselves — would reiterate the power of the people and “thanking the government for decisions that kept them coming to the streets” — a very classic case of political opportunity. The protest, in my opinion, is an embodiment of the power of the collective, one disregarding the notion of charismatic leadership, and one that “emerge(s) with collective analysis, serious strategising, organising, mobilising, and consensus building.” It is not often that we come across such protests with a great deal of organisation, strategy, and capacity — and this 2019 Hong Kong protest is definitely something I am keeping an eye on, and to learn greatly from.