Commentary: Could 'black hands' be behind the Hong Kong protests?
It is understandable why people have been asking whether the Hong Kong protests might have received foreign backing, though there is no evidence to conclude as such right now, says the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Associate Professor Wilson Wong.
HONG KONG: One of the most common questions frequently asked about the Hong Kong protest is this: Whose “black hands” are behind it?
There are rumours that the protest may be masterminded by someone covertly working behind the scenes, and may even involve foreign governments, such as the US and UK, especially after China confirmed it had detained a UK consulate employee.
Indeed, some pro-government, pro-establishment politicians in Hong Kong who are supposed to be very familiar with the city are even voicing similar questions.
CONCERNS OVER ‘BLACK HANDS’
After months of protests of the scale, organisation and variety of tactics that we’ve seen on the television, the Internet, and social media, it is indeed hard not to imagine that something or someone big and powerful is not commanding, helping or even funding the protesters behind the scenes.
But without any smoking gun, it is premature to conclude that some power holds huge sway over the direction of the protests and has the means to influence and orchestrate developments.
Given how much resources the protests have taken up, and will continue to take up if they persist, the protesters must surely be receiving support.
At this stage, it is undeniably impossible to eliminate the possibility of some form of assistance from any power or organisation overseas.
Crowdfunding has been used by the protesters to take out advertisements to oppose the Extradition Bill in major newspaper around the world to oppose the legislation, for instance, and it would be no surprise if some help had been given by groups of people or organisations outside of Hong Kong.
We may never know the identity of all these donors. However, that does give pause to the argument that there is a single actor driving the movement.
The movement has been going on for more than two months and authorities should have collected sufficient evidence to find out if there is indeed a person, a group of people or organisations responsible for controlling the movement but nothing has been announced.
Meanwhile, the media spotlight has stayed on Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has been held responsible for the persistent protests. Many participants of this movement have pointed to the fact that she has yet to accept any of their five demands, which they say gives protesters little choice but to return to the streets.
SCALE OF PROTESTS
Other factors to consider in figuring out whether there are black hands in the movement is the size of the protests and profile of the participants.
As many as 1.7 million people in Hong Kong joined the protest organised by the Civil Human Rights Front last week, smaller in size but still a formidable number compared to the 2 million people who joined one of the first protests in mid-June, the largest in Hong Kong’s history.
It is unimaginable that no traces of evidence have been found if there were powerful figures working behind the scenes paying protesters to show up, given how many people were involved. Can such a secret be kept for an event that involved millions?
In addition, a typical profile of the active protesters are professional, middle-class, well-educated youths, according to multiple surveys, including those carried out by CUHK, who are less susceptible to monetary bribes or material incentives for participating so intensively in a major political movement.
A MOVEMENT WITH STRONG SUPPORT
Unless protest numbers were consistently exaggerated or made up by news outlets, one can only conclude that the Anti-Extradition Bill movement in Hong Kong is a movement that has wide support.
Many Hong Kongers I talk to say they want to protect the core values highly treasured by the people under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework, which they see as coming under threat with the proposed extradition legislation.
Meanwhile, there is talk about how the narrative on the Hong Kong protests has been shaped by China, where developments have been portrayed as violent, foreign-funded and a plot to destabilise the country.
There are news reports suggesting protesters who participate in many of the pro-extradition bill and pro-police rallies do not know or understand the purpose and meaning of those rallies.
More recently, American tech giants Twitter and Facebook said they had suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts linked to a social media campaign emanating from China aimed at undercutting the legitimacy of the Hong Kong movement.
LEADERLESS DOES NOT MEAN LACK OF LEADERSHIP
It might be a leaderless movement in Hong Kong, but it doesn’t mean the protests lack leadership. That is why the movement still retains high levels of support, despite mistakes and clashes.
This function of leadership is exercised through the participation of Hong Kong residents on social media and online platforms such as Telegram discussion groups and LIHKG forums.
There is a deliberative process of making decisions by consensus through means combining rational discussion and voting. In the actual protests, sometimes protesters hold discussions and conduct voting onsite to decide on the tactics to be employed and next steps.
The protesters have also set up some basic ground rules such as “no criticisms among one another” and “no doubts on one another”, to coordinate interactions, facilitate cooperation and generate trust among participants.
While all these may appear to be a big surprise for observers around the world, they are outcomes of the lessons learnt from the failure of the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
The absence of a black hand by foreign powers does not necessarily mean that the movement has been localised. The US is taking an active stance on the issue where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reiterated Washington’s calls for China to respect Hong Kong’s rights to speak out.
No doubt many around the world will be watching to see how the protests evolve.
Wilson Wong is Associate Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Government and Public Administration.