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Commentary: How a leaderless movement in Hong Kong went haywire

The outbreak of violence at the Hong Kong Airport has raised difficult questions about the protesters’ moral authority and the movement’s ability to rein in mob instincts, says Audrey Jiajia Li.

Commentary: How a leaderless movement in Hong Kong went haywire

An injured man who was suspected by protestors of being a Chinese spy is taken away by paramedics on a stretcher at Hong Kong’s international airport, late on August 13, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

GUANGZHOU: The clashes at the Hong Kong Airport over the last few days have obstructed operations and culminated in assaults on people.

Two months on, the Hong Kong protests have raised important questions for debate, not least because the progressively more violent and disruptive actions taken have not stirred discussion about the proportionality of these actions among supporters.

As someone who lives in Guangzhou, I have long had sympathies for Hong Kong’s lonely pursuit of autonomy. Even then, I have grown more uneasy about the radicalisation of these protests and, yet, am finding it tough to have the courage to voice these concerns.


In The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, famed French polymath Gustave Le Bon points out that: 

By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings. 

This is the natural dynamic when it comes to crowd movements.

No doubt many acts of non-violent civil disobedience have their share of unintended, extreme incidents.

But many Hong Kong protesters and their supporters have clung onto a belief that vandalism, violence, and harassment against fellow citizens who do not agree with them are simply actions of a small group of people on the fringe and are not representative of the protests.

They have unfortunately also taken the view that for the sake of the longer-term success of their collective goals, Hong Kongers should tolerate these mischievous behaviors, not make a fuss of them, and certainly try not to tar the movement with these images. 

Anti-extradition bill protesters try to stop passengers from entering the security gates at the Hong Kong international airport, in Hong Kong China on Aug 13, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

These highly decentralised protests have been leaderless and fluid “like water”. Among the participants, a code of conduct has emerged, one that many say is not for debate or negotiation – stick together, never disavow anyone of their own, no matter what happens (不割席 不篤灰).


But those once on the fringe of the protests have started to dominate the discourse and garnered more attention. The huge media coverage has emboldened these segments to take more aggressive action.

While the protests began as a peaceful, broad-based movement that involved a huge segment of society, including mothers, lawyers, civil servants and workers, the moderates were pushed aside for not being audacious enough.

READ: How Hong Kong protesters have been dominating the battle for public space, a commentary

The online forum LIHKG, dubbed Hong Kong’s reddit, which many demonstrators use to communicate and coordinate activities, reveals a worrying direction in which many discussions have headed over the past few weeks – and has become a fertile ground for doxxing those less supportive of the movement. 


This line of thinking, which pits protesters against everyone else who doesn’t support their mantra that the ends justify the means, is dangerous. It is this kind of strategy that will inevitably lead to two major consequences. 

First, given that no participants have publicly denounced acts of violence, which, worryingly, include arson and the use of petrol bombs on the part of the radical wing, or disavowed those responsible, the movement as a whole risks being tarnished by the actions of those few. This dynamic risks further damaging the protesters’ moral authority. 

A pro-democracy protester throws bricks at police on a Hong Kong street. (Photo: AFP/Isaac Lawrence)

Second, although there will be enthusiastic supporters who will give their unconditional support to the demonstrators, these frightening actions risk alienating more people, including those like myself, who are sympathetic towards their aim of preserving the city’s autonomy.

READ: Why it’s not in Beijing’s interest to rock the Hong Kong boat, a commentary


Many supporters do draw a line between what’s acceptable and what is not, even if most differ on where that line should be.

To me, the line must be drawn at basic human decency. Take a recent example: Some protesters besieging and vandalising a number of disciplined services quarters that accommodate off-duty police officers and their families.

They slung bricks into windows and set fires outside these buildings. I was shocked by the threatening graffiti painted on the walls — “Good dogs don’t serve as cops, or your wife and children (will) be cursed, drop dead”.

READ:  Time to end Hong Kong’s distressing self-harm, a commentary

It is sad to see innocent women and children getting threats like these simply because of their husband or father’s occupation.

As an observer watching the news on the Hong Kong protests over the last two months, I have seen a group of protesters roughing up solo passers-by for refusing to delete photos they took at the scene, college students encircling their president’s residence demanding he toe their line, and online vigilantes leaking private information and travel arrangements of police officers and their families.

All these cross the line for me, let alone leaving stranded international travellers at the airport and assaulting Mandarin-speaking individuals because of suspicion they could be “undercover mainland policemen”.

Protesters deliver leaflets to arriving travellers at Hong Kong's international airport on Aug 13, 2019. (Photo: AFP / Philip Fong)


Don’t get me wrong. I understand and share the demonstrators’ frustration at the political encroachments experienced by Hong Kong. I too was upset by the sudden attacks on protesters by thugs in white.

But as modern societies, as citizens who hold ourselves to the highest standards of conduct, we cannot allow ourselves to live in a jungle where only fists talk and where anger is vented on innocent people whenever someone feels outraged.

No matter what sacred ideology we hold dear, or how resentful we might be of others who don’t share ours, we need to focus on our essential common humanity and rethink the use of violence to achieve our ends. 

One question haunts me. If these appalling acts are accepted, even normalised, by those who call themselves the pro-democracy camp, how can we be sure they would not become as intolerant as the forces they are now fighting nor employ mob violence when it comes to responding to dissidents, should they ever come to power?

LISTEN: The Pulse: The Hong Kong protests - what next?

Here is one more worry I have. As the protests in Hong Kong have become so decentralised, nobody appears to be in a position to accept a negotiated compromise and call off street protests. Nobody is taking responsibility to condemn what the few bad apples have done in their name.

Meanwhile, those in the opposing camp will spare no effort in using the behaviour of radicals to scare people and justify tough action, with great success.

Indeed, after the scenes of chaos in the Hong Kong Airport, it is getting harder to believe these are contained actions of a few individuals that do not represent the movement.

Protesters try to occupy the departures hall during another demonstration at Hong Kong's international airport on Aug 13, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Philip Fong)

I recently interview Professor Larry Diamond, a respected Stanford scholar who has studied such protests. While admitting that a decentralised movement can be useful in generating early sparks of citizen outrage and passionate involvement, he expressed some concerns:

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that to carry a movement from protest, and venting of outrage, to actual impact, requires leadership, organisation and strategy.

Unfortunately, it seems protesters have left out of the protests these most crucial ingredients to preserve moral authority.  

Audrey Jiajia Li is a Chinese nonfiction writer and broadcast journalist.

Source: CNA/sl


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