By Fred Chan Ho-fai
I am one of the Hong Kong protesters. I took part in the two mass marches earlier this month, the June 12 protest that turned violent and the blockade of police headquarters on June 21.
I am not optimistic that we can get what we are asking for. The government’s response has been robotic, and it still refuses to completely withdraw, instead of just suspending, the extradition bill we oppose. But like other protesters, I will devote myself to the movement anyway. It would be cowardly not to; Hong Kong’s entire future is at stake right now.
Under the proposed law, anyone in Hong Kong who is wanted by the authorities on mainland China could be sent there for trial. If the extradition bill is passed, the Chinese Communist Party will start targeting and purging its perceived opponents here, one by one, group after group. If the bill is passed, it will be as though 2047 — the year that China is supposed to gain full control over Hong Kong — were already here.
Back in 2014, when I was 25, I participated in the Umbrella Movement and joined the call for real universal suffrage in Hong Kong. I would spend most nights at the sit-ins, after work. But when the protesters were removed after 79 days of peaceful occupation, with no concession from the government, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.
By the time the current movement started, I, like many other young people, had been inspired by Edward Leung Tin-kei, a spokesman for Hong Kong Indigenous, a localist group that calls for the independence of Hong Kong — or that used to call for independence, before doing so publicly triggered reprisals from the government. In August 2016, after being barred from running for the Legislative Council because of his political views, Mr. Leung said, “When dictatorship is a fact, what else can we do? Revolution is our duty.”
That made me wonder what measures — more radical than those of the Umbrella Movement — might be effective.
Then the confrontation between the protesters and the police happened on June 12, and it sharpened my thinking.
The police’s violent overreaction revealed two things very clearly. The first one I knew, of course: The protesters’ power and equipment are no match for that of the police. At the same time, the police’s brutality helped bring out nearly two million Hong Kongers to the streets the following Sunday. That number, a record, surprised me. That’s about the size of the People’s Liberation Army of China or the population of Slovenia. When Israel became a country in 1948, it had fewer than 900,000 people.
An important idea that has been circulating in online forums is now firmly planted in my mind. It is called the Marginal Violence Theory (暴力邊緣論), and it holds that protesters should not actively use or advocate violence, but instead use the most aggressive nonviolent actions possible to push the police and the government to their limits.
Such actions are a way to make noise and gain attention. And if they prompt the police to respond with unnecessary force, as happened on June 12, then the public will feel disapproval and disgust for the authorities. The protesters should thoughtfully escalate nonviolence, maybe even resort to mild force, to push the government to the edge. That was the goal of many people who surrounded and barricaded police headquarters for hours on June 21.
It will be tricky implementing the Marginal Violence Theory. It’s difficult to calibrate it just right: If the police get violent, we, the protesters, win over a million people — as happened between the marches on June 9 and June 16 — but if the protesters get violent, we lose a million. And some protesters remain committed to using nothing but absolutely peaceful means.
That’s why I am not in favor of, for example, throwing bricks at police officers. And on the night of the 21st, I didn’t want anyone to try to break into the police’s headquarters.
I didn’t throw any eggs or tomatoes either. But I had nothing against the fact that other protesters did. That wasn’t violence; it was a symbol and a provocation, a test.
One difficulty we face is that the authorities have wised up, it seems, since June 12, and now understand our approach. At police headquarters on June 21, a journalist next to me wondered out loud why half a dozen officers had been posted at the top of an escalator outside the building, in front of, rather than behind, a metal curtain, leaving them exposed to the humiliation of being pelted by eggs and tomatoes. I think that was deliberate: The police wanted the media to relay to the public images of a force that was not only restrained, but also looked vulnerable, even under attack. The authorities, too, are playing to public opinion.
That’s one reason that we, the protesters, should be careful not to make certain demands at this moment. Asking for self-determination or Hong Kong’s full independence from China are controversial ideas. They could turn off members of the public, or the government could find a way to use them to discredit us.
Like many of us, I decided to come out to protest not because of any politician’s or organizer’s calls, but because of various posts on the local online forum LIHKG.
I distrust the older generation of pro-democracy politicians — those champagne Socialists who use fancy words to get votes, but whose actions over the years haven’t help Hong Kong make progress toward democracy. They have only created false hope.
The younger politicians I support have been disqualified from the Legislative Council or sentenced to prison for previous protest activities. It’s by necessity that the movement has no leaders.
But that’s also a good thing, I think. That we have no leaders reflects a certain vision of democracy: Everyone can express their ideas and act on them swiftly. We have traded the prolonged, organized mass sit-ins of the Umbrella Movement for spontaneous actions and momentary disruptions. The siege of police headquarters on June 21 lasted less than a day. Unpredictability makes us less vulnerable to repression. Bruce Lee’s advice, “Be water, my friend,” has become a motto of the movement.
But being water doesn’t simply mean being fluid and elusive. To be effective, we must also be everywhere. Sometimes very large numbers of us will march all together. But even when it’s just a few of us acting, it should be with the support of many.
Monday, July 1, is the anniversary of the day in 1997 that the British colonial government handed over control of Hong Kong to China. The authorities are planning to hold the usual flag-raising ceremony — but are taking exceptional security precautions this time and excluding student groups from attending. (The event may even be held indoors, they have said.) Another protest march is expected.
I will join whatever side operation is most likely to unsettle and provoke the police, and push them to the edge. Every one of their abuses is a gain for us.