Original: 【香港民主運動的困境──「無大台」、「排外」、「本土」、「攬炒」的思考】, published in 現代中国研究. Republished with permission.
Read Part 2 of the essay here.
Translators: Promise Li, Edward Hon-Sing Wong, 翡翠廢青, White Fish
Editor’s note: As the dust of the movement settles and Hongkongers face new rounds of repression on a daily basis, reorienting resistance based on the lessons of the last two years has become an urgent task for future struggle. This two-part assessment written by an active participant in the movement provides a comprehensive overview and critical look at the internal contradictions and complex socio-political forces that have brought Hong Kong’s resistance to where it is today under the National Security Laws (NSL).
The author examines various flashpoints in the movement from the limits of decentralization, disunity between moderates and radicals, xenophobic violence, the local impact of the US elections and the movement for Black lives, and the ideological evolution of the movement from localism to laam chau.1
The 2019 anti-extradition bill protest is the largest mass movement in Hong Kong history.2 The political weight of all actors involved meant that the city was thrust into a flashpoint of US-China competition as an arena in the “new Cold War.” Transnationally, grassroots movements from different regions rushed to learn about “the Hong Kong protest story,” focusing especially on Hongkongers’ mobilization tactics.
I had the privilege of witnessing such a complex movement, one filled with passion, dreams, vigor, courage, persistence, tolerance, as much as it has been with despair, anger, rage, and fear. As a participant, burning with fervor along with millions around me, I faced fully armored riot police and their relentless tear gas attacks with other young people. More importantly, I experienced the movement’s internal contradictions, running into many situations where I held a different standpoint on principles and strategies to many of my comrades. Just as I mourned the early, heroic deaths of Marco Leung Ling-kit and Alex Chow Tsz-lok, my heart broke for the man set on fire by a protestor for voicing another view, and the elderly cleaning worker killed by a stray brick in a fight between protestors of different political persuasions.
In a movement with over two million participants, an overwhelming majority were newly politicized and less than familiar with many political ideas. The spectrum of the “yellow” camp3 is vast and difficult to characterize in a few words. Even though this is a movement with no explicit political leadership, it is undeniable that the dominant force of the movement began shifting toward the right as the struggle dragged on.
In the final days of the movement, once the more moderate and less invested sections of the two million strong masses had become less vocal, a minority of radical voices came to the fore. This created a noteworthy situation: Many parts of the mainstream discourse have been taken over by radical right-wing localists. In general, while they don’t necessarily have the most supporters, they do have the largest capacity to mobilize, and their supporters tend to take more initiative as an active and dynamic part of the movement. It’s not as if they were given a universal stamp of approval, but it did mean that their political vision had the biggest reach.
At a point in which Hongkongers are at their most vulnerable in the face of unprecedented repression and retribution from Beijing, many movement supporters are preoccupied with providing sympathy and validation for the struggle as such, in the process deeming reflection and regrouping an untimely luxury. This is a reality that we need to face head-on, no matter how harsh it may be. I share this account to provide some analysis built upon concrete experiences and observations as a participant in the movement, hoping to offer some alternative perspectives for us to examine the problems and setbacks that the rise of far-right localism has brought to the Hong Kong movement.
The limits of ‘no big platform’
The concept of “no big platform” (無大台) arose from radical localists’ call to “dismantle the big stage” during the final days of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Though the sentiment that “no single leader can represent me” advocated on the surface for the importance of each person’s sense of initiative in the movement, a right-wing, xenophobic faction of localists has, as far as practical effect goes, appropriated it as a strategy to strengthen their own position against that of the pan-democratic camp.
The protests outside of the police headquarters on June 21, 2019 represented a key moment in which the practice of “no big platform” was popularized and incorporated into the movement. Although the earlier action at the Legislative Council (LegCo) building saw many young people autonomously mobilize to surround the area on June 12, the rally that day was nevertheless first called and platformed by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) under a legal permit. June 21, hence, was the first day a major action had been mobilized, not by the CHRF, but by anonymous protestors online through mediums like LIHKG and Facebook.
I ended up deciding not to participate in the action on June 12 because at the moment, when I inquired about the purpose and strategies of the action on various online platforms—who had called the action, what was our goal, should we storm the police station or not, what is our overall strategy, do we have a plan to retreat and de-escalate, do we have enough legal support for everyone that shows up—I did not receive a single response. On the positive side, the principle of “no big platform” encouraged masses of previously apolitical actors to take ownership of their role in the movement. Certainly, this decentralized participatory culture contributed to the energy and momentum of the protests. However, there should never have been a total lack of consensus, strategy, material reinforcement, and mutual care, which includes attending to each other’s safety to the best of our abilities.
The result of the June 21 protest could have very well been a lot worse. First, surrounding the police station is an extremely risky action. Politically speaking, protestors were well within their rights to execute such an action, but on the level of strategy, this was not tactically sound. Under conditions defined by “no big platform,” in which no one’s actions are accountable to each other, reckless decisions made by only a handful of individuals can catalyze an intense conflict that implicates everyone. In fact, most of the violent encounters in the movement began because of this dynamic. That night, the police were lying in wait, heavily armed, creating an extremely unfavorable situation for protestors.
Though Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam subsequently received what many perceived to be an overly severe sentence for the June 21 protest, I daresay it was already a fortunate outcome, given the dynamics that day. If a serious clash had occurred in front of the station, there would have been many more casualties, resulting in even lengthier sentences for Wong and others. The reality is that they weren’t the conveners, let alone the leaders, of that action; holding microphones and loudspeakers, they were trying to organize and encourage the protestors to vote on next steps in the movement. They were shut down by some radical youth activists, who viewed these efforts as co-optation and an attempt to take credit and re-create a “big platform.”
And just like that, “no big platform” became the most effective weapon to shut down attempts at collective dialogue and decision making in organizing subsequent protests of all scales, or in strategy planning discussions online. However, this injunction was clearly weaponized only against institutionalized or “less radical” pan-democratic organizations and individuals. Even as the “more radical” right-wing localists outwardly championed the antithesis of centralized leadership, their views eventually formed its own kind of “big platform” along with the consolidation of their base.
The ‘failure’ of the non-violent moderates and pan-democrats
Learning the lesson of the Umbrella Movement, nearly all traditional and politically moderate leaders of the pan-democratic camp, like the CHRF, were keen to point to the Hong Kong government as the source of violence, and chose to tolerate the violence and aggression of the more militant protestors. And yet, the “valiants” (勇武派) continued to lambast folks in the movement who took a more moderate non-violent approach (和理非).4
On July 14, at a rally in Sha Tin, the management of New Town Plaza, a shopping complex, was criticized for failing to stop the police from entering the premises to brutalize protestors. On the next day, many citizens surrounded the plaza’s information desk and demanded accountability. The Democratic Party’s Lam Cheuk-ting, who was at the scene, noticed that one protestor seemed to be carrying a bag of weapons, and urged everyone to stay calm to prevent unnecessary escalation. This triggered the rage of protestors in the vicinity as well as online, who accused Lam of cutting ties with the movement (割蓆).5 In following actions, anyone who urged protestors to peacefully de-escalate would be slammed as uncomradely.
On August 12, I peacefully occupied the airport with many other protestors. Airport authorities had just canceled all remaining flights when we received word that large numbers of riot police were about to surround the airport. I chose to leave at that time. The goal of paralyzing the airport’s operations was achieved, and in light of the police’s increasingly apparent penchant for losing control, I decided that leaving would be the most reasonable course of action, one that would be in full alignment with the movement principle to “Be Water.” As usual, when I tried warning others about the incoming police, I was met with mockery and given the cold shoulder by many young protestors. Afterwards, online platforms were overflowing with criticisms of those who had left early, but no one was able to explain why we should have stayed instead.
The next day, protestors successfully paralyzed the airport again, once again proving that non-violent action continued to play an important role. But the situation was different from that of the previous day, when protestors had been relatively organized. They did not seek to disturb travelers, but rather patiently explained to them the situation of police violence in Hong Kong. But on the second day of the airport action, they started to block off key passages, not letting passersby use the escalators. At night, some even tried to detain and tie up someone who was suspected of being a mainland Chinese police officer. They demanded to see his ID, doxxed him, forced him to unlock his phone for inspection, and prevented medical workers from escorting him away to tend to his wounds. The situation devolved to the point where many protestors were ultimately arrested and the police pulled out their guns. An initially successful non-violent airport stoppage was disrupted by a minority of protestors with no clear decision-making process.6
Afterwards, some netizens did voice criticisms against these protestors’ actions. This was one of the critiques: “No matter how much the public can understand why you lost control, we cannot simply excuse it, because some of you are reproducing the kind of unaccountable violence that we are supposed to resist together!” Quite a few young protestors apologized online in the fallout, and some pan-democratic political figures urged the public to accept their apologies, even as they agreed with the need for accountability (是其是，非其非). However, the overwhelming tendency remained as follows: “Valiants” would insist on escalation and open conflict with the police at the culmination of each peaceful rally.
Even as the ‘more radical’ right-wing localists outwardly championed the antithesis of centralized leadership, their views eventually formed its own kind of ‘big platform’ along with the consolidation of their base.
In light of this, the CHRF organized an Umbrella Movement anniversary gathering at Tamar Park in Admiralty. I worked as a rally marshal at the event, hoping to play some small part in making it as safe as possible for everyone there. Even before the rally had started, some frontliners were already picking fights with the police and actively provoking escalation. During the event, they began occupying and blocking the roads, while pushing relentlessly towards the police defense line near government headquarters.
Meanwhile, the police repeatedly demanded the CHRF to rein in the protestors, but the CHRF had no authoritative grounds as an organization, especially with the rise of “no big platform,” to stop any individuals from escalating. Finally, the police gave the order for everyone to clear out after 8:30pm, citing that “the CHRF was unable to maintain order of their own rally.” The CHRF was forced to wrap up their programming early to give enough time for attendees to leave safely.
There were a lot of people that night, and some street clashes were already taking place between protestors and the police. The large crowd of attendees could only disband very slowly. I was planning to retreat toward Wan Chai, but was told en route that clashes had already broken out in the area, so I had to double back toward Central to leave the zone of conflict. The narrow streets were still really congested, so we were not able to move much faster. During this time, a few masked “valiants” appeared and repeatedly yelled, “Everyone, hurry! You’re going to burden our frontliners and make their retreat impossible if they have to protect you while you all move this slowly.”
I witnessed many “valiants” instigating conflict with the police line earlier, thereby cutting the peaceful rally short and causing frantic mass dispersion. The event could have concluded peacefully, but the narrative quickly became how this was the fault of non-violent protestors, and that “frontline radicals couldn’t help but start a fight in order to protect the peaceful moderates.”
In the early stages of the movement, the CHRF had demonstrated their strategic importance by mobilizing the masses. Because the public have largely vested their trust in this organization, you would often find children and the elderly in rallies they organized. Apart from the desire to express their discontent at the government, another reason why record-breaking numbers showed up to some of the biggest protests was because of this trust in the CHRF’s capacity to protect, including but not limited to ably obtaining legal permits, planning out viable rally routes, organizing community marshals, and providing legal support. But what had once been a talisman—the safety and care guaranteed by the CHRF’s involvement—was gradually eroded by a faction of uncooperative frontliners.
Around that time, articles that mythologize frontliners as heroic saviors of non-violent protestors and other oppressed people started to circulate widely. Privately, I had also heard that while supporters of the more moderate pan-democratic camp were unhappy with the frontliners’ operations, they were increasingly unable to speak out because they haven’t “sacrificed,” i.e. suffered injuries or arrests, enough for the movement. Those who disagreed with these dynamics were effectively backed into a corner, intimidated into silence and compelled to hold their tongue.
This kind of emotional blackmail continued to proliferate among the anti-government “yellow” camp. During the night of the Polytechnic University (PolyU) siege on November 18, tens of thousands of protestors attempted but failed to surround the police to save their comrades on campus, leading to even more arrests. A woman claiming to be a PolyU student wrote online that “non-violent protestors claim to number in the millions, but when they are needed, not even a few thousand can be found. The word ‘non-violence’ is more disgusting than any other profanity.” I asked her, “Then why don’t you go on site to save people instead of criticizing people online in your free time?” By this stage of the movement, incurring physical injury not only granted one more legitimacy and discursive power than any other means, it also granted people the authority to fault and resent anyone whom they thought had not made sacrifices to an acceptable degree.
The rise of vigilantism and vandalism
A culture of vigilantism (私了) found its inception in the Yuen Long attacks of July 21.7 There is entirely too much evidence that would indicate the police had already predicted this attack; the police station had even shut the doors on citizens who tried to report the attacks. This was a bona fide instance of terrorism made possible by the collaboration between the police and the triads. From that point on, the public’s trust in the Hong Kong Police Force was completely decimated.
Protestors soon realized that they can no longer sit and wait for justice to be served. Some began vigilante counter-attacks on people who have genuinely harmed protestors, like the knife-wielding triads who had ganged up on people. When the police failed in their duty to protect, protestors could only rely on themselves to protect each other in the face of malicious and violent harm. It is only right and necessary to resist.
Later, some protestors began attacking pedestrians who voiced different political opinions or showed discontent at their actions. In some cases of vigilantism, fellow “yellow ribbons” and even journalists became collateral damage.
November 11 marked the prelude to the climax of the anti-extradition bill protest. Clashes between protestors and the police had reached its apex. A traffic police officer fired live rounds at protestors, while some protestors went as far as to mistake some Japanese tourists and retired journalists as government supporters and therefore made them targets of their vigilantism. One pro-establishment supporter was burned alive after trying to stop protestors from damaging MTR infrastructure, and suffered second-degree burns on 40% of his body.
Here is a report from Stand News, one of the most influential pro-opposition online outlets, that day:
“A man was suspected to be filming protestors and was assaulted in the middle of the busy district of Mong Kok. His glasses were broken in half and the corner of his right eye was bleeding after it had been hit with an object. He lamented aloud that those glasses were a treasured gift from his wife. People around him jeeringly threw coins at him to ‘compensate him for his loss.’ Afterwards, he told reporters and other bystanders that his name is Chen Ging-sun, and that he’s a retired reporter, previously from Taiwan’s United Daily News. He was hoping to record the protest for archival purposes after visiting a doctor, but protestors didn’t accept his explanation. He produced his journalist credentials, and later medics tended to his wounds.”
It is important to note that Chen wasn’t just assaulted, but was further humiliated by the coin-throwing gesture. Later, Chan Hiu-lui, a prominent Hong Kong journalist, vouched for Chen and said that he was a “fellow traveler.” But many people in the comment section still pinned the responsibility on Chen himself: “Everyone says that he was deliberately trying to take pictures of protestors’ faces!” Many comments adopted a victim-blaming angle: “Journalists should be wearing reflective clothing”; “he deserved to be beaten up, filming people like that”; “I hate people like him, obstructing people in critical moments for photos to self-promote later in their own exhibits, overshadowing the blood and sweat of real frontline reporters who already have to face police violence”; “this is tragedy borne from the chaos of the moment and he only has himself to blame for not showing the right credentials earlier.” Only a minority of people expressed discontent with the protestors’ actions.
Similarly, many “yellow ribbons” left cold-blooded comments about setting the pro-establishment individual on fire. Some even accused the victim of being an actor, planted by the government to smear the movement. On LIHKG, more than 5,000 commenters didn’t think the action was out of line or an inappropriate use of force, and only around 300 commenters thought it was unacceptable. Of course, LIHKG has always been an important stronghold for far-right localists, so these numbers cannot reflect the opinions of two million pro-democracy protestors.
But in contrast to the airport incident, it is clear that dissenting voices were by far quieter, even though silence is not necessarily approval either. At the time, I was a volunteer at a pan-democratic party, and I saw chilling comments in the same vein even within our own internal group chat. None of the party leaders spoke up to condemn these opinions. I expressed my discontent and disappointment at the incident as well as the group’s callous reactions before quitting the group chat altogether.
On November 11, a few citizens took it upon themselves to clean up the loose bricks left behind by protestors at Sheung Shui’s Long Win Street. A fight soon broke out between pro-establishment and pro-democracy supporters. A 70-year-old cleaning worker was hit in the head with a stray brick while filming, and passed away the next day. Five days later, after protestors from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) retreated from the siege, volunteers who were clearing up roadblocks afterwards were assaulted by protestors with homemade petrol bombs. At this point, it seemed that the culture of vigilantism had all but gone out of control amidst the “valiant” camp. Many of them may have lost sight of the original intent: that our enemy is the tyrannical government, not other civilians.
Another practice that had found its beginnings in the July 21 events was “remodeling” (裝修), or vandalizing storefronts. Initially, the vandalism of stores operated along these sardonically euphemistic principles: to “remodel” the black, i.e. corrupt and violent (黑裝修), and “refurbish” the red, i.e. those with ties to mainland Chinese capital (紅裝飾), while patronizing and supporting the yellow, i.e. anti-establishment (黃幫襯), and boycotting the blue, i.e. pro-establishment (藍罷買). The scope of eligibility for “remodeling” soon expanded; any business that expressed any sympathy to the establishment or the police or had any ties to Chinese capital was fair game.
Everyone has the right to determine their own political persuasion—a fundamental pillar of democracy. And as long as the person has not harmed another, their livelihood or welfare should not be impacted on the basis of political difference. In the beginning, the broader protest movement often criticized actions undertaken by the “valiants” as unreasonable and demanded restraint.
But as the latter’s approach became more mainstream and constitutive of the general tendency of the movement, the moderates grew to or appeared to accept this turn. By mid-November 2019, there had been no more incidents of vandalism or violence targeting innocent bystanders, but this was scarcely the result of self-reflection; it was largely due to the shocking arrest of over 1,000 protestors at the occupation of PolyU. Even the frontliners who managed to evade arrest were deterred from further actions of a similar nature.
Read Part 2 of the essay here
- Laam chau (攬炒) refers to the principle of mutually assured destruction that has become a well-known catchphrase in the 2019 protests.
- More than one million people rallied on 9 June to protest the anti-extradition bill, while two million turned up for the 16 June protest.
- In Hong Kong social movement parlance, the “yellow” camp or “yellow ribbons” denote anti-establishment protestors, whereas the “blue” camp or “blue ribbons” refer to pro-establishment and pro-police individuals.
- Anti-establishment protestors have been defined by two general categories: the so-called “peaceful, rational, and non-violent” faction, i.e. the moderates; and the “valiant” faction, i.e. the more militant protestors who usually advocate for or are directly involved in frontline action. The former didn’t consist of just pan-democrats and supporters of the CHRF just as the valiant camp wasn’t composed entirely of radical localists either. However, as pan-democratic politicians have mostly advocated for peaceful protests in past movements, it follows that their supporters would share a similar view on protest strategy. In the same vein, localists tend to support relatively more radical tactics, and hence their supporters tended towards a similar approach as well.
- Like “no big platform,” “no cutting ties” is a hallmark of the 2019 movement.
- The airport action was explicitly billed as a peaceful and non-violent intervention. In Cantonese, “和你飛” (name of the action, literally meaning “flying together” in reference to the site of the action) is a homonym of “和理非” (peaceful, rational, non-violent).
- RTHK has produced two documentaries on the July 21 Yuen Long Incident: “Hong Kong Connection: The Dark Night of 721 Yuen Long” and “Hong Kong Connection: Who Knows the Truth of 721?” The producer of the series, Bao Choy, was arrested on November 3, 2020 and accused of making a false statement about why she was obtaining license information from a publicly accessible database.