The first and most important strategy was to “decentralize” and “distribute” organizing. From the very beginning, the anti-extradition movement rejected having formal leadership. The movement adopted this partly in reaction to the defeat of the last expression of Hong Kong’s democracy movement—the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Activists wanted to avoid two problems with leadership in that struggle—its lack of accountability and the political repression of its outspoken leaders. So, this time, no one was really identified as a leader or spokesperson of the movement.
People believed that without leading organizations or political stars, they could have more ownership and control of the struggle. When there was a need to evaluate the situation and plan how to retreat safely, the protesters developed their own scout teams and “crowd-scouting” to report back and mark the police location on a live digital map.
When people were injured protesters and couldn’t go to the hospital due to the risk of being arrested, protesters formed networks of voluntary doctors to treat them. When the public transportation was shut down or no longer safe, school bus drivers gave protesters free rides.
When there’re teenage protesters being kicked out by their parents due to involvement in the movement, “adoptive parents” were found to shelter and resources were found to keep them safe and well fed. These are just a few examples of the countless self-organized, crowdsourced and open participatory systems activists created to share information, knowledge and resources with each other.
The “political campaign team” as a good example. It played an important role in distributing information, consolidating direction of the movement, and mobilization. There are Telegram channels which collected and uploaded hundreds of thousands of posters to spread on social media, Lennon Walls, street booths, and pro-movement shops in every district.
It’s worth mentioning that, instead of claiming the credit for the design, all the materials were made anonymously without attribution, and were made available to everyone to download. The crowd-sourcing platforms enabled the responsiveness and flexibility of the campaign.
Let me give you an example that show this network transmitted information with considerable speed. On the night of August 11th, a medic was shot in her eye and blinded. In response, protesters called an action to paralyze the airport the next afternoon. The next morning when I went downstairs to have breakfast, the tunnel in my neighborhood was already covered by posters about the incident. Several middle-aged men were reading and discussing it.
I even passed by a young person standing at the metro and holding a paper board with the slogan “an eye for an eye,” asking people to join the action in the afternoon. When I arrived at the airport hall, thousands of people had already gathered, and some of the protesters were distributing leaflets to inform tourists about the situation.
Protesters were able to react to the incident and organize a response so quickly because no single individual or entity was responsible for designing, printing, posting, or distributing it. Instead, these important roles were fulfilled by different people working together organically. When people find roles which they can play or ways to contribute they are more motivated to participate.
The second key strategy was a commitment to geographical distribution. From the early months of the movement, the protests expanded to various locations throughout Hong Kong, moving from the financial and political centers to peripheral communities. In my opinion, this development is very crucial, because it enabled the protesters to build networks and organizing bases in their own communities.
These bases enabled people to connect the political movement to their daily lives. It also enabled activists to reach more people, helping the movement grow and sustain itself when gathering in the city center became more and more difficult.
The third important strategy was to use militant direct action and peaceful protests and build solidarity between them. Direct action is not new in Hong Kong’s history. Since the mid-2000s, more people have abandoned the idea that Hong Kong people could achieve through political bargaining between the pan-democratic parties and Beijing government, and instead turned to direct action in the street.
In the Umbrella Movement, direction action broke through on the largest scale yet. However, that movement experienced fracturing between groups and marginalization as a result of radical protest tactics. A big division developed between peaceful protests and radical direct action.
By contrast, high levels of police brutality gave justification to radical tactics in this year’s movement. In a survey conducted in last October, over 90 percent of the protesters agreed that the movement can only achieve maximum effect through a combination of peaceful and radical actions. This very high percentage reflects the deep solidarity between all the protesters and a common understanding that solidarity and cooperation between all wings of the movement was necessary.
But protesters didn’t really reach a consensus on what strategies and tactics worked best – street clashes, strikes, elections, or Yellow Economic Circles (YEC) that organized pro-democracy businesses. Nevertheless, the solidarity among protesters enabled them to explore different fronts and build solidarity between them. For instance, when the movement faced challenges in organizing mass demonstration in July 2019, protesters turned to more radical tactics, including breaking into government buildings, shutting down the airport, blocking roads, and strikes.
And in November 2019, when the radical street clashes faced mass arrests and intensifying repression, activists turned to district-level elections, building Yellow Economic Circles, and unionizing as ways to fight back. Using all these tactics and building solidarity between the different networks organizing them helped the movement to sustain itself and made it more difficult to suppress.