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The Hong Kong protests have been going on for months. What explains this sustained action?

Here’s how leaderless protests get people out on the streets.

- September 30, 2019

Hong Kong police cracked down Sunday against an unauthorized protest, arresting demonstrators and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. What began as a series of demonstrations in the late spring has lasted more than four months, longer than Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” twice as long as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and five times longer than the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

What explains the Hong Kong protesters’ success at sustained collective action over so many weeks?

For some pro-democracy movements, it takes a charismatic leader, backed by strong civil society organizations. Think, for example, of Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa that pushed for democracy in Poland in the 1980s.

Yet the current movement in Hong Kong is largely leaderless. A civil society group, the Civil Human Rights Front, has coordinated some of the largest authorized protests. But many unauthorized protests lack a core group of top decision-makers, like Walesa, or a formal organization, like Solidarity.

Instead, protesters coordinate their activities in a diffused and quasi-democratic way over social media using Reddit-like forums and messaging apps.

In a new book, I argue that this sort of largely leaderless protest movement is not unique to Hong Kong but is widespread in autocracies. Leaderless protest often comes as a response to attempts to control and repress civil society, and this can be a successful tactic. But there can be important trade-offs. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Leaderless protest is a common response to repression

To understand the course of these recent protests, it’s helpful to look at the Hong Kong government response to the 2014 Umbrella Movement protest, which focused on direct and transparent elections in its demands for democratic reform.

Starting in 2015, the government systematically arrested top leaders of the movement. Some went to prison — including Kin-man Chan, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Benny Tai. These arrests discouraged future protesters from taking visible leadership roles.

The government also invested heavily in surveillance and facial-recognition technology to monitor the city — and identify protesters. These measures forced protesters to take steps to hide their identity, like wearing masks, using disposable cellphone SIM cards and paying for transit using cash.

And the government looked for support from civil society groups friendly to its viewpoint. Native place associations with ties to the mainland Communist Party, such as the Fujian Hometown Association, have organized pro-government rallies.

The tactic of using civic groups to control society and promote autocratic leaders is common around the world. It’s a technique seen in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promoted civic groups friendly to his regime while squelching groups that oppose him.

Arrests, surveillance and control over some sectors of civil society have pushed protesters toward new organizing tactics and technologies — especially leaderless protest.

2. Leaderless protests get people on the streets

How does leaderless protest work? Protesters in Hong Kong have used social media to coordinate when and where to protest. Participants use Reddit-like forums and secure messaging apps such as Telegram to share tips, discuss tactics and make decisions about where to protest.

In the absence of obvious leaders, some Hong Kong protesters have adopted a mantra of sorts from the actor Bruce Lee: “Be water, my friend.” Instead of adhering to a rigid plan or building organizations, protesters are flexible; they occupy one corner of the city, then spontaneously “flow” to another location as police try to break up the gathering.

My research also suggests that protesters in mainland China often use similar tactics. In rural China, the tools tend to be analog instead of digital, but they are no less effective. For example, farmers angry that corrupt local officials have seized their land might engage in leaderless protest by posting an anonymous message in the village square announcing a time and date for a rally.

Similar leaderless protests have cropped up from Nicaragua to Egypt. The New York Times described students demanding the ouster of President Daniel Ortega in 2018 as “a leaderless, disorganized mass of college students.” During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, protesters organized themselves through a combination of online groups and offline associations.

3. But leaderless protest movements have drawbacks

Having no leaders may help protesters evade government repression and surveillance. But it creates problems for protesters, too.

For one thing, the lack of leaders can make it difficult to defuse protests before they become violent. In August, when protesters at the Hong Kong airport assaulted a man they believed to be an undercover police agent, there was no leader with the moral authority to step in. Although the tactics used by police against the protesters were violent, and protesters later apologized, video of the airport incident became a rallying point for those opposed to the protests and the disruption in Hong Kong.

The lack of a leader also means that the government has no clear group with which to negotiate. It may be that dialogue would lead nowhere, as was the case in May 1989, when student leaders in Beijing met with Communist Party officials but no deal was struck. However, a strong leader, in the mold of Walesa, can wring concessions from the government while holding pro-democracy groups together.

Without clear leaders, the government has resorted to targeting the leaders of the Umbrella Movement. The Hong Kong police arrested activists such as Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong. Some of the 2014 leaders, such as Nathan Law, have been subjected to online harassment.

For the Hong Kong government, it appears to be a waiting game. The government makes limited concessions in an attempt to peel off some groups of protesters. Yet the largely leaderless protests in Hong Kong seem equally entrenched as demonstrators continue to push for political change.

Daniel Mattingly (@mattinglee) is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University and author of the book “The Art of Political Control in China,” forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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