A History of Hong Kong’s Contentious Politics: “It was you who taught us…”

Whether one is reading Charles Tilly or Erica Chenoweth, the literature on social movements and resistance campaigns usually begin with a recognition that the state is not monolithic. Personally, I am fond of Tilley’s work that defines ‘regimes’ as the stakeholders (at various social scales) that control the instruments of state power in a polity. In this framing, democratization is about expanding the regime to include ever more massive swaths of the polity’s population. The literature on non-violent civil disobedience looks at the same thing in non-democratic contexts and speaks of ‘pillars of support’ for the regime. Tyranny, injustice, and autocratic rule can be undermined and replaced with something more pluralistic if these ‘pillars of support’ can be co-opted to a movement’s cause. To understand why they insist this must be done as non-violently as possible, think of a polity as a naval ship out in the open ocean:

The captain is mercurial, incompetent, and increasingly violent towards the crew. The ‘pillars of support’ model draws a social diagram of ship life and notes that however unpopular the captain is, the ship does not run on his orders alone. People must follow them via co-option or coercion. Cooks keep the crew few, mechanics keep the engines running, Military Police (MP’s) throw would-be mutineers in the brig. He is surrounded by a cadre of officers both on the bridge and throughout the ship that makes sure sailors are carrying out the commands and duties the captain assigns them.

Imagine, , fed-up cooks storm the bridge by surprise with kitchen knives and take control of the ship. Or perhaps they take a few particularly infamous officers’ hostages and demand reforms in exchange for their release. Scholars of non-violent resistance note that these rogue cooks will immediately encounter two problems, the first of which is that MP’s aboard the ship are trained to handle precisely this kind of situation. The cooks pulled a knife, they will brandish and likely use their guns. They are better trained and disciplined. Second, would the rest of the crew trust that the People’s Admiralty of Cooks are better stewards of their fate than even the much-hated captain? In most situations, even ordinary sailors would not actively support them and would be easily co-opted by remaining officers to ensure the mutineer cooks wind up in the brig.

Advocates of non-violent resistance point to another, non-violent route. What if instead of storming the bridge with knives and meat cleavers the chefs went on a work-to-rule strike? Would they not have more influence of they began serving meager, unappetizing meals served as slowly as possible? The operations of the ship could be ground to nearly a halt if the entire crew joined in a campaign of non-cooperation. The brig is far too small to throw every sailor in. Drag it out long enough and eventually officers and MP’s will turn against Captain Awful.

Overall, I think this model is mostly correct. Where it stumbles, however, is dealing with disenfranchised minorities within a polity that are already disfavored by the ‘crew’ in the above analogy. I cannot, for instance, imagine a campaign of non-violent resistance working with Uighurs in China or Rohingya in Myanmar. One can credibly argue that violence will not help their cause – even hurt it – but what does it matter when the stakes are existential, and the non-violent alternative is admittedly hopeless?

There are elements of this scenario in Hong Kong today, such as the Chinese state media campaign spreading hate and fake news about Hong Kongers, but I do not [yet] believe the stakes of our polity and its dissidents are comparable to the Rohingya or Uighurs. However, I am increasingly convinced that the ‘pillars of support’ model fails to capture the sui generis realities of Hong Kong’s  One Country, Two Systems framework of governance. Alternately, one could say this once did describe One Country, Two Systems in Hong Kong but currently does not.

A quick tour of the history of Hong Kong’s contentious politics in the modern era shows that both violent and non-violent resistance ‘worked,’ but non-violent movements were more successful. The ‘1967 Riots’ were both too violent and ideologically extreme for mass appeal. Yet it was a wake-up call for a Colonial government running on autopilot that (a) there was a political ‘consciousness’ among their subjects and (b) the needed to be more responsive to Hong Kong society before things ‘blew up.’ Hong Kong was not ‘democratic,’ but for the Hong Kong government sought to avoid contentious political fights for the next five decades.

Things were mostly quiet until 2003’s Article 23 protest movement insofar as 1967 is a baseline for mass discontent. Article 23 is a sui generis legal ‘thing’ in that it’s a constitutional requirement for the Hong Kong SAR government to pass national security legislation that did not, and does not, exist. There was collective fear and outcry when Hong Kong’s first post-Handover Chief Executive introduced Article 23 legislation to LegCo. Opposition to Article 23 was deep and wide, reaching inside the pro-‘establishment’ camp itself, and half a million people marched peacefully in the streets. Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa eventually backed down and resigned for ‘health reasons’ several months later.

In my view, this set a template for the repertoire for opposition politics in Hong Kong: if the pro-democracy camp did not have the votes to veto a controversial proposal, very large peaceful assemblies could pressure the government to back down. On the government side, they would save face by pretending they didn’t back down but, instead, were ostensibly ‘going back to the drawing board’ and would come back with a less controversial proposal in the future. Of note, both Beijing and the HKSAR government would ‘play along’ by claiming that the proposal and decision to back down came from the Hong Kong government. This worked one last time with opposition to Moral and National Education in 2012. A controversial idea originated from Beijing, was proposed as legislation by a Hong Kong Chief Executive, civil society mobilized against it, and the proposal ‘went back to the drawing board.’

This background is a necessary context to understand activist decisions and strategy in 2014. Like Article 23, the Basic Law required legislation that did not exist: choosing Chief Executives “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Skipping over the complexities and ambiguities of what this meant, the Hong Kong SAR government intended to pass legislation in time for 2017 ‘election’ that ultimately brought Carrie Lam into the job. Pro-democratic Hong Kongers braced for what they knew would be a very different, and more difficult, fight than what had come before.

Benny Tai spent the summer of 2014 converting Hong Kong activists to the cause of non-violent civil disobedience. Marches and gatherings would not bring enough pressure on the Hong Kong government in part because Beijing had a clear stake in what would be proposed. He pushed an idea called Occupy Central that was debated the entire summer. Some thought it was too disruptive and his idea of a mass sit-in was called ‘radical‘ just five years ago, while others argued few people would even show up. An overlooked part of Tai’s idea, though, was that participants should be willing to face the consequences. Arresting peaceful protesters was, in itself, part of the strategy.

I’ll skip a complex history of what exactly happened but suffice to say we had an [several] occupations that only vaguely resembled Benny Tai’s idea and his role was scarcely more than an intellectual architect. The Umbrella Movement was far more substantial and more sustained than any previous protest since 1967. It was the archetype of Tilly’s idea that social movements should exhibit WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. For the first time, however, there were no concessions at all. Perhaps in disbelief that the unofficial ‘rules’ had changed, the occupation dragged out for 79 days.

Something changed on the pro-democracy activist side in the final stretch of the movement. There was split between the ‘Main Stage’ advocating purely non-violent means at the Admiralty occupation and a more militant ‘yungmo’ faction, primarily based in Mong Kok, that wanted to escalate by resisting police clearance operations. The level of resistance proposed was far less aggressive than anything seen in 2019 but did include wearing armor, blocking more roads, and trying to defend frontline barricades.

A little over a week before Admiralty was cleared, Joshua Wong endorsed an escalation to block Lung Wo road behind LegCo knowing full well it would draw out the Hong Kong Police Force “Raptor” units. It was a concession that the purely non-violent, ‘optics’-focused civil disobedience had failed, and those calling for more aggressive tactics should at least be allowed to try new methods. It was a disaster. The Umbrella Movement ended on December 11th, 2014, in total defeat. The government, it seemed, intended to make us feel helpless and that resistance was futile.

Most of us who participated in the Umbrella Movement internalized this ‘lesson.’ A minority took a different lesson and re-interpreted ‘direct action’ as a full-on confrontation with police, as seen with the 2016 Fishball Riot where they were pelted with bricks and glass bottles. In retrospect, the Fishball Riot marked a change in thinking on the peacenik side too. While initially outraged by the violence, most of us landed on something like “neither endorse nor condemn.”

We could understand why some people refused to feel helpless even if we were deeply uncomfortable with their actions. What we would not do, under any circumstances, is side with the Hong Kong police. The consensus narrative that started on September 28th, 2014, and continues today asked why the Hong Kong government seemed to always resort to violent repression first instead of engagement, dialogue, or even token compromise. Etched into the name itself, the ‘Fishball Riot’ was kicked off by police violently clearing a protest over… the right to sell snacks on the street during Chinese New Year. Police fired a live ammo warning shot over fishballs.

Participants and supporters of what happened that night call it the ‘Fishball Revolution.’ For them, it was about standing up or simply refusing to be pushed down. This is noteworthy Edward Leung’s campaign slogan – “Reclaim Hong Kong, the Revolution of our Times” – is now the go-to slogan and call/response chant of the 2019 movement in Hong Kong. Leung was arrested for incitement to riot due to his role in the Fishball Riot. This is the semantic key to understanding our current situation. Revolution, in this context, means a refusal to be suppressed without a fight.

In my opinion, there is a ‘ceiling’ to how far a mass resistance movement can go anywhere. Without unpacking the details or entire history of the Summer of Discontent, opposition to both Carrie Lam and her Extradition Bill reached broader and deeper than any previous political event in modern Hong Kong history. Her allies are angry over her incompetence. We have seen the government’s civil service come out in protest. The EDSA I “People’s Power” movement that ousted Marcos in the Philippines had an estimated 2 million participants on the streets. Organizers estimated we reached that number on June 16th. There have been three peaceful marches that organizers estimated had over a million participants. Hundreds of thousands came out with friends, neighbors, and family to recreate the Baltic Way on its 30th anniversary.

A close reading of these non-violent methods and actions reveals that they not only co-exist but work alongside, increasingly violent street battles fought between police and ‘militant’ frontliners. I believe that this is because – for the first time since 2012 – ‘we’ collectively came across a tactic that seems to be effective. The estimated one million-person march on June 9th did nothing to change Carrie Lam’s position. Surrounding LegCo on Tuesday, June 12th not only stopped LegCo from meeting to move forward with the Extradition Bill but provoked a violent police crackdown that appalled the public.

The first and only concession from the Hong Kong government since 2012’s climbdown on Moral and National Education came three days after the June 12th escalation, when Carrie Lam ‘paused’ the bill. The Hong Kong public responded by doubling the march size two days later on June 16th. The demand was now about formally withdrawing the legislation, Lam’s resignation, investigating police use of force, and reversing the HKPF declaration that June 12th was a ‘riot.’ From this point forward, the movement was no longer about the bill itself but the structural contexts that got us in the situation in the first place: an unelected, unresponsive, illegitimate, and reviled HKSAR government that now responded with excessive force whenever activists showed signs of doing anything more than march along designated routes or gathering in parks.

I predicted some political taboo would be shattered in the wake of the Umbrella Movement’s failure. I felt then and now that it was dangerous to signal that non-violent resistance to contentious political issues was a risky move for both Beijing and the SAR government. My prediction then was that the activation of ‘us vs. them’ Hong Kong identity in 2014 would eventually lead to a nationalist movement. Perhaps that’s happening quietly in people’s minds in the background, but the taboo that was shattered was an increasing comfort around far more confrontational ‘militant’ resistance.

The failure of achieving any of the demands after June 16th was even more dangerous than the failure of the Umbrella Movement. Peaceful marches couldn’t have been any larger or more diverse. Between 2014 and now, we have collectively tried nearly every “peaceful, rational, non-violent” trick in the book. Much of what remains on the list would be violently suppressed in any case. The general strike on August 5th was only partially successful not because of lack of support, but (a) growing concern among the general public about the repercussions of being personally identified with the movement and (b) a growing sense that these tactics simply don’t work.

They don’t work, in part, because the ‘pillars of support’ model has proved illusory in the infinitely strange model of Hong Kong governance.  These supposed ‘pillars’ have eroded away, the regime stands naked with 17% support and less than 10% strongly opposing continued participation in protests… and yet it still stands. We don’t even know how to describe the regime that runs Hong Kong anymore. We don’t know who makes decisions. We have a Chief Executive who can’t explain why she won’t formally withdraw the Extradition Bill (or even if she can), says she has no control over the Hong Kong Police Force, and cannot launch an independent investigation because HKPF wouldn’t like it. Last I checked, HKPF is not a branch of the HKSAR government and is under civilian control. Unlike 2014, it’s not clear whether Beijing is calling the shots either.

Were we to return to the ship on the brink of mutiny analogy at the beginning of this essay, this is a revolt against a zombie ship’s captain where not even her top officers and allies know how to get her to change course or give up command. Meanwhile, we have learned that clashing with the MP’s in this analogy doesn’t alienate other sailors on the ship (much). It does, however, have the effect of increasing solidarity and pressure by way of making the officers around the captain beg her to respond to at least some of the demands. The captain acts as if there were a gun to her head when no such weapon is evident.

Making things even more complicated and sui generis, there is no benefit in getting those MP’s to switch sides because a far larger boat filled with replacements has docked next to us in case of precisely that scenario. Whereas the non-violent disobedience literature correctly argues that it is crucial to get the ‘guys with guns’ to switch sides or stand down, the clashes in Hong Kong continue to escalate more violently because the People’s Armed Police is waiting for orders across the border to replace them should they do this. The task is impossible because their replacements are hypothetically limitless.

All of this has been confusing to this defrocked scholar who spent a year reading the literature on contentious politics and watching two 70+ day massive social movements in Hong Kong. I have wrongly predicted the end of this movement several times by trying to apply the international lessons learned to Hong Kong. For instance, I thought storming LegCo on July 1st was surely an escalation too far and was particularly ill-considered because it happened at the same time another massive march was gathering. It turns out I was just slow to learn what others here picked up earlier: July 16th proved turnout doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant as a metric of success or support for this movement. As was spray-painted inside the building: “it was you who taught us that nonviolent marches don’t work.”

I thought it particularly unwise for protests spread across the city to nearly every residential neighborhood. Wouldn’t local residents blame protesters for tear gas entering their homes and rubber bullets flying through their streets? They come down to scream and heckle police with “black cop” and “triad” chants instead, despite neighborhoods like Wong Tai Sin being gassed more times than I can remember. After a particularly violent clash in Tsuen Wan on Sunday that included pillaging suspected Triad-run shops, protesters arriving in Sha Tin were greeted as heroes as they passed through a mall.

Who would want the ‘normal rule book’ on non-violent resistance to work more than the families being gassed? Or this long-term resident raising a child here? One-fifth of the people in our polity showed up for a record-breaking peaceful march hoping, but not expecting, for the what works everywhere else – and used to work here – to bring about desired change. A very significant portion of that same group came out to hold hands for the Hong Kong Way to restore the movement’s image after the ugliness at the airport, where in turn frontliners stood down and let peaceniks set the agenda for more than a week.

We all knew holding hands together would accomplish nothing, just as most of expected the even more violent clashes that occurred the following weekend. None of this healthy. All of this is dangerous. Someone is going to die soon. If you take anything from this essay, it’s that the sui generis political structure of Hong Kong is rewarding escalation right now and solidarity runs deep. We can hear the sound of the cracking for the first time since 2012. It, unfortunately, requires a lot of banging though. We got here slowly and very reluctantly. Many of us here did the best we could to slow or stop the slide into violent political contention. But here we are. We didn’t ‘start’ it. There will be time for finger-pointing and blame when this ends. If it ends.


  1. […] There are different theories about what exactly happened in that first week, but my argument now is that it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is the type of governance, and quality of leadership, Xi Jinping forced on Hong Kong. His underlings at the Liaison Office decided that John Tsang, someone from their own faction who had strong popular support, wasn’t loyal or obedient enough for the position. His refusal to offer any concessions during the Umbrella Movement ignited a nationalist awakening in Hong Kong and taught people here that “peaceful marches don’t work.” […]

    October 8, 2019

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