Argument

The Hong Kong Government Is as Leaderless as the Protesters

A distant Beijing and a shifting protest movement make it hard to sit down at the bargaining table.

Pedestrians walk past a big screen television replaying Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announcing the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill on September 4, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.
Pedestrians walk past a big screen television replaying Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announcing the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill on September 4, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

 Bruce Lee didn’t like conventional fighting styles, finding them too rigid. Instead, like jazz musicians with their scales, he took his many years of repetitive training in various martial arts and riffed on them to try and take people by surprise, hitting them hard from odd angles. He was a street fighter, not a prizefighter.

Unsurprisingly, Lee has now become inspiration for a Hong Kong protest movement that now owns—sometimes—the city’s streets. Protesters try to be “like water”: shapeless, formless, able to “drip” and also to “crash.”

Being like water is a very effective protest movement. But it is not a political movement. And therein lies its problem for dealing with authority: Like a street fighter, it can win individual fights but not battles.

Yet the other side is also leaderless, as Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s flailing has shown. Her withdrawal of the extradition bill today is months after it would have been effective, in part because of her own uncomfortable position. Beijing shapes the Hong Kong authorities but cannot directly order them. The Hong Kong government, the body that possesses the power to grant most of the demands of the protesters, is hampered by its own deliberately flawed design, which gives undue weight to Hong Kong tycoons and high society. Caught between the people and Beijing, the Hong Kong elite have no answer—nor do the protesters.

A protest movement, not a political movement

“Like water” works by coordinating people without a central leader or organization, a so-called open-source protest movement. Unlike groups led from the top down, which allow authorities to track, monitor, and control protesters through their leaders, “like water” uses online communication tools. Those require an initiator but not a leader. Everyone decides what to do through online voting systems where anyone can post their ideas and members show their support by up- or down-voting the schemes. Leadership can be transferred, proposal by proposal, to whomever gets the most votes.

This separates “like water” from other, more political movements, which use organizations and structure in order to achieve final goals rather than concentrating on protest. There is no leader who can mobilize the public in person or negotiate demands with authorities, who expect a leader, not an ideal, to be the central point of any protest.

That has wrong-footed the authorities. Chinese official media have focused on a handful of elder statesmen and women, writing, “Without these modern traitors calling the shots, shaping public opinion, and being the agents for Western anti-China forces, would Hong Kong have so easily descended into such chaos?” Yet, upon being asked his thoughts, one of these “traitors,” 81-year-old democracy activist Martin Lee, responded: “How can a few elderly people control these youths? They themselves have no leader.”

“Like water” is not only leaderless, it also speaks to different audiences using different symbols. Protesters mix Western pop culture, Cantonese-language puns and mainland Chinese protest culture. Any protest will see a range of Hollywood references, such as protesters dressing up as Captain America or quoting movies such as The Hunger Games. Their social media use could be taught in film studies classes, with techniques ranging from Japanese anime to Madison Avenue marketing. They appeal directly to Western political leaders—flying foreign flags, buying ads in global newspapers, lobbying officials. And their internal chat rooms concentrate on blocking “fake news.”

Above all, they are a nativist movement. As the protesters say, “If you’re from Hong Kong, save it yourself.” Bulletin boards, posters, chat rooms, and banners use Hong Kong-specific Cantonese, often only comprehensible to locals despite using Chinese characters. (Many of these characters were created by Hong Kong local newspapers to represent words previously only used in speech.)

And there is a distinct aesthetic. When on the move, protesters all wear the same color, painting subway cars black in the matter of seconds. To go home, they all change into different clothes: Large bags of other clothing are distributed and left by subway toilets for protesters to meld back in with commuters. Large, brightly colored walls of sticky notes and scribbles supporting the protesters greet you when leaving transport hubs.

Beijing, however, communicates through different means. Its press follows the line set by the People’s Daily. In mainland China, newspapers must receive the approval of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s propaganda department. Social media is frequently used to pass around information, but it is censored, and subject to intervention by paid commentators. The protesters recoil from this, and indeed have a deep distrust of institutional media. The Telegram groups of protesters boast a number of special “fact check” segments using footage shot at protests. Facebook, similarly, is used to verify matters, although it is unclear how well this works.

These differences are not merely semantic, but reflect Beijing’s structural conundrum—it must rule through signals, as it cannot give direct orders. 

Its “one country, two systems” policy is based on a trade-off whereby it coopts the Hong Kong system. Democracy activists win the popular vote in every election, but they don’t get to appoint the chief executive. Rather, the candidates are filtered through the preferences of various professional and interest groups on “election committees” appointed from above.

Beijing may to some extent trust these people. It does not, however, appear to issue direct orders. On the mainland, CCP rule is a mixture of direct commands and general indications, where the center gives an indication of what it wants and everyone else rushes to fill in the blanks. Lam undoubtedly consults with China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, but they are unlikely to give her direct orders. Rather, they provide targets and goals, which she is to do her best to meet. They can veto ideas, but not specify them.

A leaderless movement thus clashes with a government whose own leader is powerless, and directed by a faraway center that won’t issue commands—and that is incapable of compromise. This is because China tried to control Hong Kong from the top down, using tactics well honed elsewhere where you control the ideas and the elites and expect everyone to follow. This does not work in modern Hong Kong, which like nearly everywhere else today has no faith in institutions or traditional leaders. The protesters not only know this, they use it in their favor. Beijing knows it, too, judging by the large increase in inspection teams sent to Hong Kong to meet with elites and write reports back to the mainland about what went wrong.

What comes next?

The question is, then: Who can do anything to remedy matters? So we come back to the tycoons. While they are a Hong Kong institution, their iconic headquarters and offices have not yet been targeted by the protests. They, like other conservative forces such as the gambling monopoly Jockey Club, have perhaps funded and sponsored enough in the city to have some clout left. And they have significant skin in the game: Recent estimates put it that they have lost some $15 billion in value since late July.

The tycoons can do nothing about the protesters’ political demands, which Beijing is ideologically incapable of meeting. But they can act on other factors underlying the protests—one of which Beijing has given its stamp of approval to.

The first of these factors is land. As a recent piece of protest graffiti goes, “If we can’t afford a 70-square-foot house, why do you think we fear a jail cell?” The exorbitances of Hong Kong are due to a failure to release more land onto the market for fear of the price falling too far, which would most hurt the tycoons. A land release would fit Beijing’s belief that economic and social development is the only thing that will placate the protesters. And there are few other alternatives, as Hong Kong’s social services are already world-class and heavily government-subsidized; nearly 90 percent of Hong Kong’s hospital beds are publicly funded, for example. That this has made no difference to the protesters’ demands shows that more promises of development are unlikely to change matters.

So either the tycoons can give a generous bequest, or the central government can persuade the Guangdong provincial government to give a large chunk of land to build social housing on for Hong Kong residents, as happened with Macao and Zhuhai recently, and the tycoons can promise to develop it.

The other possibility is legislative. Tycoons, unlike Hong Kong citizens, have a formal say in governing, through their representation on the Legislative Council and getting to appoint the chief executive. Lam consults them before any major decision. And a good number of so-called functional constituency seats—designed to represent special interest groups—in the legislature are controlled by company votes rather than individual votes. So the person representing real estate in Hong Kong is not chosen by those working in the field, but rather by the people who own the companies, the tycoons. Renouncing some of their power on these committees, and on the bodies chosen to appoint the chief executive, would allow for greater representation, and might give Beijing the single person to deal with that it craves. This would be similar to how a number have recently stepped down from their Chinese government advisory positions. While Beijing doesn’t like the tycoons, it is telling that one of Beijing’s first actions in response to the protest was to summon them to a meeting over the border in Shenzhen. They remain vital proxies.

In both cases, the protesters will need to support the plan. For their part, they argue that they turned the taps on and can turn them off too. As a young leader recently wrote to Lam, “Our popular forces have both the wherewithal and the strength to engage with you and to respond effectively. That is to say, the People of Hong Kong themselves are the negotiating partners in this movement.” So the issue is whether they can make a deal.

Obviously, both of these suggestions seem fanciful. But then again, so is having Bruce Lee as the face of a popular protest movement. A child of Hong Kong, he was himself a member of a famous tycoon family, with his father making his own money independently only through real estate acquired during the Japanese occupation. His idea of being “like water” was born out of frustration. Just before Lee left Hong Kong to go to the United States, where he became famous, he wrote, “I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea, I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched at the water … That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.” Water, too, flows away.

Dr Ryan Manuel is managing director of Official China @chinaregulation. He was previously an academic and a senior China analyst for the Australian government.

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