Ponce The Hong Kong protests continue unabated as the year ends, having begun on March 15, 2019, and definitely serving as a benchmark for the year. Over Christmas, the protests moved once again into the neighborhoods. Although the numbers have waxed and waned over the nine months, the protests still have the ability to pull out hundreds of thousands on some weekends. Another mark of their staying power was the sweep of 80% of the allotted seats in the city council election by the pro-democracy forces. Although the police have been brutal at times and the threat of surveillance and arrests are ever present, the protests have been unabated.
During this period, I’ve shared the tactical and technological lessons the Hong Kong protestors have taught us all, and they have been impressive. Their ability to persist as a movement that mobilizes with an opaque structure and no externally observable leaders has been widely reported as an asset, allowing them to continue as they dodge potential oppression by the more powerful Chinese state. One of their organizing principles worth remembering has been to “be like water,” meaning able to move to find its own level and to be porous and fill the gaps with protests.
A historian of the protests, Antony Dapiran, a lawyer interviewed in the New Yorker, noted the “phases” of the regular protests that would begin as peaceful marches and demonstrates and then evolve into more violent confrontations with a harder core as the numbers decline. An estimated 1.7 million have participated in protests at one time or another constituting about 20% of the Hong Kong population. One activist interviewed by the New Yorker “…estimated that there were about ten thousand who could be considered frontliners. Of those, perhaps eight thousand had set up roadblocks, painted graffiti, or neutralized tear-gas cannisters with traffic cones [with] the hard core – some two thousand ‘proactive’ protestors who were willing to escalate confrontations with the police and to engage in activities, such as throwing Molotov cocktails or sabotaging surveillance cameras, that could result in serious prison sentences.”
There cannot be any question about the consistency or courage of the protestors, but any organizer would ask two questions. The first would be “How long can they continue?” The second would be “Where can they get a win?” The first level victory was a withdrawal of the bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be taken to mainland China for trials. The problem is that the government has lost any credibility and protestors don’t believe that if they stop, the government will not look for a time to reintroduce the measure. Organizers also know that there is a point where protestors will tire without victories, the economic impact will turn those at the bottom against the action, and that the middle will oppose the violence.
Worse, the strategy beyond the protests and their deep public support is unclear. There seem to be no obvious parties to negotiate anything seen as fair by all parties. From thousands of miles away with limited information, it is hard to not worry that this may be yet another situation where the tactics could devour whatever is left of the strategy.