Tea Leaf Nation

In Hong Kong, Anger Waits in the Wings

A vocal minority of pro-democracy protesters are advocating what they call "forceful resistance" against authority.

Onlookers and the press watch as government officials clear the area in front of the Legislative Council building occupied by pro-democracy protesters in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on December 15, 2014. Police moved in December 15 to clear Hong Kong's last remaining pro-democracy protest site in the Causeway Bay district with just a handful of demonstrators making a final stand, after the main camp was demolished last week. AFP PHOTO / ISAAC LAWRENCE (Photo credit should read Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — A surprisingly festive atmosphere greeted onlookers on Dec. 10, the night before the clearance of Admiralty, the largest campsite for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, as over 10,000 showed up to play music, distribute souvenirs, and eat hot pot to celebrate what they hoped was a beginning, not an end, to their movement. These demonstrators, who dominated the Admiralty site, believed their movement for universal suffrage in the Chinese territory had set the stage for a political awakening that will be crucial for garnering more public support as part of a long-term struggle. But a small group of protesters, upset at the self-congratulatory tone of the crowd, yelled from across the wide road as student leaders delivered closing remarks. “If all of you turn up tomorrow, the police will not be able to take Admiralty.” The assembly’s sound system drowned out their shouts, and few paid attention.

But that minority isn’t going away any time soon, and continues to push for yung mou kong jang, Cantonese for “brave and forceful resistance.” The concept embraces the use of force in the fight for democracy and reflects a belief that decades of nonviolent struggle led by pro-democracy politicians has proven ineffective in pressuring the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to accede to demands for democracy. Although that minority opinion was unpopular among protesters in Admiralty, most of whom agreed with the nonviolence principle advocated by protest leaders, it’s a stance that represents many who experienced police violence firsthand, particularly those camped in the shopping district of Mongkok.

While a minority in Hong Kong society, hard-line pro-democracy activists are gaining influence on social media, giving them the potential to mobilize a loose network of activists for potential future demonstrations. For example, the online newspaper Passion Times, run by a populist group called Civic Passion that embraces self-governance and opposes moderate activists, is a strong presence on Facebook, Hong Kong’s social network of choice, with over 288,000 followers. Protest Times, another Facebook-based news site, specializes in disseminating stories on confrontational forms of activism. One of their more popular videos, featuring Ukrainian demonstrators in violent clashes with police, has been shared over 2,400 times.

Some of the protesters advocating forceful resistance were participants at an open-mic event called the Action Forum, which began in early November. Action Forum no longer has a street presence, but it lives on as a Facebook group linked to one of its organizers. Speakers at Action Forum contemplated (heretofore unused) tactics including egging, paint bombing, and even firebombing. “We’re not inciting anyone,” a 28-year-old nicknamed Black Cap told Foreign Policy, declining to give his real name for fear that police would target him. Black Cap is well known among confrontational protesters; he is an Action Forum co-founder who actively promotes forceful resistance online. “But,” he added, “we endorse the reasonable use of force, as nonviolent resistance has proved ineffective.”

Hard-line protesters seem conflicted about what force — and reasonableness — means. Andy Chan, a 24-year-old marketing student and also a co-founder of Action Forum, argued that “reasonable use of force” refers to self-defense during clashes with police. But Chan did not distinguish between pre-emptive and defensive action, and he too invoked the specter of greater violence: “You have to paralyze the military that maintains the regime. If police use plastic bullets against the people, they will resist with more force. Eventually people might use firebombs — it is not impossible.”

Alvin Cheng, a 26-year-old Hong Konger who attends an Australian university but returned home in September to protest, has also pushed for stronger measures. In early December, disillusioned by what he felt was the ineffectiveness of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, two influential but moderate groups helping to organize protests, Cheng founded others who had been injured while defending the Mongkok camp to found Student Front, which also promotes forceful resistance. The group now has over 22,000 Facebook followers. The Passion Times wrote that Cheng was arrested at home on the morning of Dec. 11, the day of the Admiralty clearance.

On that day, widely viewed as the end to demonstrations, few Mongkok-based protesters bothered to show up. “We didn’t go because arrests are meaningless sacrifices,” said Anson Wong, a 31-year-old who braved police violence on Mongkok’s front lines. Seventy-nine days of nonviolent occupation had proved ineffective in changing an undemocratic government, argued Reaven, a 23-year-old physics student and a core member of Student Front who declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation. “I’m open to any strategies, from a citywide labor strike to a mass boycott, as long as there are enough people executing it. But since there aren’t, we must think of escalation.” He added, “At this stage, Hong Kong people may not be ready for actions like attacking police and storming government buildings, so we’re going to focus on public education to prepare people for forceful resistance.”

Yet the Hong Kong majority — student leaders, politicians, and opinion-makers — strongly oppose any use of force to promote democracy. “Even though many feel desperate after seeing that nonviolent strategies didn’t bring substantial change, forceful resistance is counterproductive,” barrister and former legislator Margaret Ng told FP. Veteran activist and League of Social Democrats member Tsang Kin-shing, a.k.a. “The Bull,” best known for risking prosecution for running an underground radio station since 2005, also criticized forceful resistance. “We need a second wave of community outreach to galvanize public support, not a revolution. A real revolution would be bloody and bring unnecessary sacrifices, and Hong Kong doesn’t need that.”

It will be hard for more mainstream protesters to bring the forceful resistance camp to heel. Student leader Lester Shum told local paper Ming Pao on Dec. 12 that forceful resistance is likely to occur in the near future. The rise of a new generation of confrontational protesters during the pro-democracy movement, mobilized via a decentralized web, reject any form of authority, no matter how young that authority may be. Meanwhile, even sympathetic political figures no longer have full control over Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Lawmakers like the moderate Ronny Tong Ka-wah fear that pro-democracy legislators might lose in upcoming 2016 legislative elections, bringing them below the one-third threshold required to veto a bill. That would mean pro-democracy lawmakers would not be able to block new election rules they might think too pro-Beijing.

“This is make or break for us, and we have nothing to lose. If we want freedom, we must be ready to give up everything,” Vicki Chan, a soft-spoken 18-year-old student at the University of Hong Kong who says she has been pepper sprayed numerous times on Mongkok front lines, told FP. A frequent speaker at Action Forum, Chan cried on the Admiralty camp’s last night. She insisted that Beijing would never concede unless protesters escalated the movement and generated direct pressure on the Hong Kong government. To Chan, that requires the use of force. “If it takes death to achieve democracy,” Chan said, “I will be the first to volunteer myself.”

AFP/Getty Images

Ellie Ng is a Hong Kong-based writer.