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Hong Kong’s dialectic between spontaneity and organization

Kai Yui Samuel Chan

Platypus Review 119 | September 2019

SHOULD SOCIAL MOVEMENTS BE ORGANIZED in a horizontal, spontaneous, and decentralized manner so that every member can equally participate? Or should movements be structured hierarchically with clear leadership so that they can act decisively in response to changing circumstances? The debate between spontaneity and organization is an old one, so old that one could trace it at least back to the debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin. In recent years, the debate has tilted in favor of organization. Prominent scholars on the Left such as Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Lea Ypi insisted on the need for hierarchical leadership and structure. Decentralized movements are said to exhibit multiple grave defects: they are incapable of distributing commitment among their members, of reacting swiftly during moments of decision, and of converging on unified and concrete political demands. These defects are said to account for the failure of recent horizontal movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement; France’s gilets jaunes, whatever its other merits, remains somewhat vulnerable to these weaknesses.[1] Hong Kong’s recent wave of summer protests against its government’s proposed extradition bill amendment, however, tells a somewhat different story.

Admittedly, this movement began as a protest against an amendment bill that allows the Hong Kong government to accept extradition requests by Beijing, and as such constituted a defence of the city’s bourgeoise legal order and values; there was nothing particularly socialist about it. Hong Kong’s socialists occupied a somewhat awkward position in the movement: while the local socialists had great sympathies for the movement, they found it difficult to square with the localist, xenophobic, and right-wing sentiments of many of the protestors;[2] likewise, many protestors denounced the local Left, seeing them as either focusing on the wrong issues or as impotent of producing concrete changes in Hong Kong. To complicate matters, Hong Kong protestors have sought an alliance with the G20, waved the British and American Flags, and asked Trump to “liberate Hong Kong.” These acts have reasonably made both the local and the international Left uneasy; to them, these practices reek of postcolonial nostalgia.

Yet the movement should be of concern to the Left, and not only in order to steer the city’s democratic activists away from dubious allies such as Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.[3] A careful study of Hong Kong’s unfolding events offers crucial insights to the global Left, of which I will discuss two. The first is that Hong Kong activists’ insistence and success in their spontaneous movement direct us to look at their historical conditions—the emergence of the surveillance state, the protestors’ memories of past struggles, and the revolutionary moment that shot through the city’s static temporality. Contrary to scholars and activists who have tried to settle the debate between spontaneity and organization with universal answers, Hong Kong’s movement helps us appreciate that any answer to this debate has to be historically conditioned. The second insight concerns the role of the Left. The Left has been understandably wary of attending to struggles that are not socialist in their outlook, but this fear overlooks the fact that, as I shall show with Hong Kong’s movement, struggles that are ostensibly non-socialist could, in fact, reflect democratic discontents and develop emancipatory potentials that could have been articulated and clarified into socialist ones. As the early Marx would have reminded us, “we only show the world what it is fighting for, and consciousness is something that the world must acquire, like it or not.”[4]

A few words about the decentralized appearance of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests. The movement has no institutionalized discussion or voting procedure, no formal coordinating mechanism, and no leading person or organization vested with any additional authority. In fact, due to having to conceal themselves behind masks, goggles, and aliases, most protestors know neither the face nor name of their “partners in crime.” This decentralized structure is not the product of abstract theoretical speculation or idealized deliberation, but a practical response to the surveillance and repression technologies of the state. After the city’s Umbrella Movement in 2014 and Mong Kok incident in 2016, the leaders of those movements were convicted of incitement, and many protestors landed themselves in jail after having their identities exposed either on site or on social media. The heavy hand of the state, along with its surveillance technologies, had severely shrunk the space for contestation. Decentralization, spontaneity, and anonymity were taken up as practical strategies of resistance that reopen up this space.

What is remarkable is that the movement, despite being highly decentralized and spontaneous, has so far avoided the above-mentioned defects of horizontalism, to the extent that state officials continue to suspect that there must be some leadership hidden somewhere. Despite its continuous transformation, the movement has retained a consensus over its demands: from the withdrawal of the extradition bill to the now five-fold demands of withdrawal of the bill, a retraction of any characterization of the movement as a “riot,” a retraction of all charges against anti-extradition protestors, an independent investigative committee into police abuses, and universal suffrage immediately. Furthermore, the movement has deployed every imaginable and unimaginable tactic: mass demonstrating, rallying, occupying key political sites, subverting public spaces (such as their Lennon walls), adopting guerrilla strategies, striking, boycotting, petitioning, doxing, picketing, holding civilian press conferences, appealing to foreign governments, media, and international organizations and so forth. Yet despite such a plethora of strategies, these strategies coordinated with and built upon each other to maximize their impact. The scene on confrontational sites is even more remarkable: observers reported a “well-developed system” for replenishing, safekeeping, and moving supplies, providing aid, scouting for police movements, communicating messages, and constructing barricades among the protestors that enabled them to act instantly against police clearances.[5] Many reporters have attributed this success to the movement’s technological infrastructure: ideas are crowdsourced on anonymous discussion forums; strategies are discussed on secretive apps such as Telegram and Firechat; Airdrop is used both for instant updates but also for influencing commuters and passersby. Technological advances might have facilitated surveillance and repression, but they have also enabled new forms of resistance previously unavailable to activists. At the same time, however, we must resist the temptation to fetishize technological tools, as the tools themselves cannot determine their function, nor do technological conditions exhaust our historical conditions; we must look at the city’s broader history.

For Hong Kong protestors, the history of their city since its handover to China in 1997 is one of loss, and the history of their struggles is one of repeated failures and frustrations: housing prices and costs of living have surged, cultural and political values eroded, and universal suffrage denied. Resistance seems futile. The Umbrella Movement of 2014, a mass-scale, 79-day peaceful occupation of the Central Business District demanding universal suffrage, yielded no substantial reforms. The movement’s failure bred hostile feelings among some protestors against both leadership and moderate movement strategies. These feelings culminated in a struggle against police clearance of local hawkers in 2016, in which localist activists took up more aggressive means against police officers. Not only were many of them prosecuted and convicted with lengthy sentences afterwards, but their approach offended other “peace-loving” democratic activists in Hong Kong, and the rift between the two camps of activists widened. From then on, Hong Kong’s democratic movement stagnated: from 2014 onwards, there was not a single mass movement that succeeded in yielding any concession from the government.

It is this historical background that protestors had in mind when the anti-extradition protests unfolded in June. They understood full well that the radical plurality of protestors implies that there cannot be a leadership that represents them all, nor is leadership viable under a regime of surveillance and repression; however, they also recognize that factionalization is the biggest hurdle they have to leap through. Thus, one of the most prominent slogans in the movement is “No Blood, No Injuries, No Arrests; No Divisions, No Betrayal, No Blame.” Protestors made sure that they would not undermine but would instead build upon the strategies of other protestors. Additionally, they made extra efforts to understand alternative strategies, and even when disagreement persisted, they would not withdraw their support for those they disagreed with.

The frustration of previous movements, coupled with the absence of leaders, also enabled a blossoming of the most diverse ideas. Because no strategy worked before, new and creative strategies have to be thought out and experimented; because no strategy could claim certainty of success, no idea can be dismissed out of hand; because there is no leader, the burden is on every single person to think and contribute. Nobody could afford to be a blind follower. Such enhanced sense of agency is what Hannah Arendt attributes to the direct and intense participation in revolutionary times.[6] Protestors, however, do not weave ideas out from thin air: many strategies of occupation and of confrontation can be traced back to the Umbrella Movement and the Mong Kok incident; many symbols, slogans, and images were passed down and have taken a new life; many lessons were explicitly taken from international movements such as Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, France’s gilets jaunes, and various black bloc protests.

All of this confirms Luxemburg’s thesis that the mass learns from praxis. The mass learns not only strategic but also theoretical lessons, as Hong Kong’s democratic movement demonstrates in two ways. The first lesson is that of governmentality. While the protest began as a defense of the existing legal order and values, protestors quickly learned in the process of resistance how various apparatuses of governance — the police force, surveillance cameras, new ID cards, or even the organization of urban space — have suffocated their space for contestation. New strategies were developed to overcome these mechanisms of control, and the protest itself has turned to focus on these apparatuses rather than the amendment bill itself. The second regards the line between economic and political struggles. As Luxemburg illustrates in The Mass Strike through the Russian strikes, economic and political struggles are but two phases that flow into each other as history progresses. Likewise, in Hong Kong, what began as a political movement took on an economic dimension: protestors realized that strikes, boycotts, and divestments are significant means of contestation and started to inquire after the material and organizational conditions for these tactics; that most corporations are in essence allies of the authoritarian regime, and measures have to be taken to either pressurize them or empower more local and cooperative businesses. Most importantly, the movement denaturalized the capitalist imagery of the person: people need not be self-interested but can cooperate without codified rules and contracts. New, yet inchoate, social possibilities are opened up.

The mass could learn and progress theoretically because they have the will to do so, and this will is historically conditioned: their memories of past losses and failures motivated them to understand the milieu they are situated in; the revolutionary sentiments gave them the passions and bravery to break through old norms; the decentralized structure of the movement empowered them with agency to think as equal intellectual partners with their fellow comrades. The picture, however, would be incomplete if I leave political emotions and identity politics unmentioned. The government’s utter disregard of the protestors’ demands, along with escalating police abuse, have left protestors angry, frustrated, and often in shock and fear. These emotions have proven to be double-edged swords, both mobilizing yet also devastating, pushing many to the verge of collapse, six of whom already committed suicide for the cause. On the other hand, the selflessness and creativity of protestors filled everyone with amazement, excitement, pride, and affection. Among these emotions, the most important has to be a sense of identity-based solidarity: Hong Kongers must stand together in the face of crisis. Socialists have always been skeptical about identity-based politics, especially those with a nationalist overtone, and often with good reasons. Undoubtedly, many sexist and xenophobic elements went into the construction of the Hong Konger identity; it has often been constructed and maintained in opposition to the “other” — mostly Mainland Chinese and sometimes other ethnic minorities. But identity gets recreated through praxis, and it need not remain conservative or even exclusive. Over the past two months, gender stereotypes are debunked as females were seen to play aggressive and leadership roles in the movement; protestors started seeing all participating South Asians as fellow Hong Kongers and urged each other to drop all negative labels employed against them; they identified themselves even as allies of other oppressed regions in China such as Xinjiang and Wuhan.

Yet even if the mass has the will to learn, its learning process is bound to be messy and its direction undetermined, and thus its complex appearance and uncomfortable elements. The Left should not seek to lead the movement, nor is it capable of doing so — this movement, like many others, defies any attempt at leadership — yet the Left cannot afford to leave it alone either. Instead, the Left must play the role of what Michael Walzer calls the “connected critic”[7] — it must continue to articulate ideals and make criticisms but with vocabularies internal to local practices and culture. People on the ground will not be mobilized by scientific claims, dry analyses, and lofty ideals unless they feel that these are their values and ideals. This does not mean that the Left should simply go with the flow; rather, the Left must pay close attention to the history, discourses, and understandings of the people who fight against oppression and look at the emancipatory potentials that emerge as struggles unfold. Hong Kong’s democratic activists might have appealed to the G20, but they also allied themselves with the J20 Resistance. Taiwan’s Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union had set an example of international solidarity by donating resources to Hong Kong’s frontlines and supporting its mass strike. Could the Left show Hong Kong that a socialist international coalition will be the more reliable and effective one? Hong Kong activists are now looking with keen eyes towards the introduction of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the U.S. Again, could the American Left articulate Hong Kong’s discontents and potentials by supporting yet making their amendments to the Act? Luxemburg argues that “the masses will be the actual chorus.” If the Left wants to interpret the melody, it must first sing along. | P


[1] Cédric Durand. 2018. “A Movement With a Future.” Jacobin, December 14. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/12/gilets-jaunes-yellow-vest-macron-capitalism

[2] JS Chen & Sherry Yuen-Yung Chan. 2019. “’Hong Kong’s Last Battle.’” Jacobin, June. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/06/hong-kong-china-protests-extradition-bill

[3] Rosemarie Ho. 2019. “The American Left is Failing Hong Kong.” The Nation, July 10. https://www.thenation.com/article/democrats-hong-kong-autonomy/ ; Wilfred Chan. 2019. “Hong Kong’s Fight for Life.” Dissent, August 8. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/hong-kongs-fight-for-life?fbclid=IwAR1xHDTnVEZynk-4sZ0kxT3cv3elUTIQAE_QgECvVdxUciLxW0RJMer8GDk

[4] Karl Marx, For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing. 1843

[5] Marco Hernandez and Simon Scarr. 2019. “Coordinating Chaos: The Tactics Protestors Use to Fortify the Frontlines.” Reuters, July 12. https://graphics.reuters.com/HONGKONG-EXTRADITIONS-TACTICS/0100B0790FL/index.html

[6] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution. (London: Penguin Books, 1963).

[7] Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).

One comment

  • Posted 2 months ago

    Good piece, especially your point on how Hong Kong people learned from praxis. This allows us to think about the HK movement as a process of developing momentum instead of merely a moment of eruption.

    I somehow disagree on the dualistic distinction beween two organizational structures, one “horizontal” and the other “hierarchical”. Also, it is one thing to be horizontal (in the sense of leaderlessness), and quite another to be leaderful without fixed and monopolistic leaders.

    I think a “leaderful” in-beween situation, or what Deleuze calls “rhizome”, would be better to describe a movement like this, in which people utilize multiple resources (esp. the Internet) to organize themselves without relying on an all-encompassing platform or a thick uniting consensus. In such organizational structures, within each small unit/action certain organizational hierarchies still exist (in a much healthy way to the efficacy of both organizing and democraic procedures), while the active bridging and sewing work between different “roots” underlies the whole structure.

    One of the examples would be how older protesters and sometimes women are excluded from militant direct actions like vandalizing the Legislature Council or MTR and confronting the violent police, the decisions of which are mostly made by frontline young male protesters. With a deep care for comrades for sure, they nevertheless perform the role of unnegotiating decision-maker. To be sure, by persuading other protesters away from the frontlines, they are not excluding them from the movement per se, neither are they leaders in any formal sense. Still, they are leaders produced by those very specific moments and are structurally overrepresented by certain groups.

    In the epistemic/cognitive apparatus, people with more organizing capability (pro-democratic MPs, public intellectuals, lawyers, experienced activists, etc.) naturally emerges as leaders of different kinds. Such capacity (including framing issues, using effecitve rhetoric to mobilize the mass, capturing transformative affects, providing strategic analysis, etc), I believe, is the product of years of professional training and political struggles (esp. over the past decade). This “natural” arrangement necessarily lends more power to those who are capable to mobilize (though they may not directly organize specific actions).

    Besides, previous organizing leaders are still playing their parts, though in a much less influenial way, and purely horizontal structure is infeasible for logistic reasons as well. Such leaderfulness allows people to develop decentered comradeships and necessary cohesion under the HK movement’s mantra without 1). dissolving into messy discontent crowds moving to different directions; or 2). being destructed/fragmented by strategic disagreement despite a common goal; or 3). being predictable and easily suppressed by the authority (as the water-like tactics need to be actively decided and implemented instead of merely spontaneously occurs).

    But like all social scenarios with the presence of leaders and power asymmetry, reflective and reflexive thoughts on intra-movement power relations and accountability (in the case of intra-movement misconduct) should be continuously encouraged. In this regard, I also appreciate your concerns on sexism and xenophobism here. As a #MeToo activist, I have received reports on movement/NGO leaders taking advantage of their epistemically privileged image against their relatively powerless comrades through sexual harrassment and even rape. I observed how notions of fraternity (e.g. 兄弟爬山), gendered division of labor (e.g. a poster depicting a female saying to her male counterpart後方支援平安回家), and the instrumentalization of the #MeToo movement (which should be contextualized against the backdrop of the lack of #MeToo momentum before the anti-extradition movement), potentially perpetuate gendered norms, naturalize man’s role as movement leaders, and reconfirm the secondary status of feminist themes. I believe that “horizontalism” would be especially dangerous in the case of subtle gender inequalities that requires a recognition of intra-movement power imbalance.

    In solidarity,
    A comrade

    by Declan Yates on September 6, 2019 9:22 pm

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