Rudderless rebellion: Inside the HK protesters’ campaign against China

Protesters clad in black stand behind metal barricades at a rally in Hong Kong. (Reuters pic)

HONG KONG: A young Hong Kong citizen spends his days working as a clerk for a shipping firm. By night, he dons a mask, black helmet and body armour, and heads out to face off against the city’s riot police on the streets of Hong Kong. Ah Lung, a 25-year-old activist has been a constant presence at the often violent protests that have rocked Hong Kong this summer, rallying comrades, building barricades and rushing from district to district in a frantic game of cat-and-mouse with police.

He is representative of a growing number of discontented young Hong Kongers who are fuelling a protest movement that, unlike its predecessors, is taking aim directly at Beijing.

It is a movement without clearly discernible leaders or structure, making it difficult for the authorities to effectively target and increasingly hard for the protesters themselves to manage. It has the support of established pro-democracy groups but the amorphous movement relies on young Hong Kongers who operate independently or in small groups and adapt their tactics on the run.

This is how the movement functions and the mindset driving it.

“We’re not so organized,” Ah Lung said. “Every day changes, and we see what the police and the government do, then we take action.”

Ah Lung said, “My dream is to revive Hong Kong, to bring a revolution in our time. This is the meaning of my life now.”

The Hong Kong protests have since 2014 evolved into a direct challenge to Communist Party rule over this former British colony. With slogans such as “Free Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong is not China,” Ah Lung and his fellow protesters, like Nick Tsang, another black-clad protester who found himself in a big crowd amassed at the China Liaison Office on Jul 28, have made clear they reject a future in which Hong Kong is inexorably absorbed into the mainland giant, eventually becoming just another Chinese city.

Protesters are provocatively calling the demonstrations an “era of revolution,” a formulation that has infuriated a ruling Chinese Communist Party determined to crush any challenge to its monopoly on power.

Scenes of mass protests and violence, once unthinkable in Hong Kong, are now too familiar. On Tuesday, protesters who managed to shut down the airport also attacked a Chinese man for being a suspected undercover agent. He was identified as a reporter for the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by Beijing, highlighting how activists are making the Chinese government the target of their protests.

In this leaderless rebellion, made possible to a large extent by social media, despite a large degree of self-restraint and solidarity, “if certain actions spin out of control, if say someone dies from it, then that might be a game-changer,” said Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who conducted surveys of protesters to understand their motives and support base.

The protesters’ mantra – “Be water!” – epitomizes the movement’s tactics. A phrase borrowed from the 70’s Hong Kong late movie star Bruce Lee who used it to describe his kung fu philosophy, it is a call for flexibility and creativity, moving forward to press an advantage and pulling back when a strategic retreat is needed.

Its latest manifestation is the series of wildcat protests that have spread across the city in recent weeks. When police turn up in numbers at one protest, the activists often engage them, tying down officers before melting away and reappearing to stage a fresh protest in another area. The fluid tactics now being deployed by frontline activists like Ah Lung, often masked to avoid surveillance and dressed in black, deliberately staying under the radar, using pseudonyms and appearing at protests with their faces obscured by masks and sunglasses, present a greater challenge for the police. Frontline officers speak of exhaustion, saying they never know where the activists will strike next.

Protesters take their cues from more than 100 groups on the instant messaging app Telegram, dozens of Instagram sites and online forums like LIHKG. Many came after seeing recruitment appeals in a Telegram group. The groups are used to post everything from news on upcoming protests to tips on dousing tear gas canisters fired by the police to the identities of suspected undercover police and the access codes to buildings in Hong Kong where protesters can hide.

It’s not an issue of having “no leader, it simply means that everyone is a leader,” said one 22-year-old Hong Kong student based in Britain who helps run “antielabhk,” an Instagram page that includes details about protests that has amassed more than fifty thousand followers.

In Sham Shui Po on Sunday, Ah Lung joined other masked “frontliners” as the protest began. Some used wrenches to loosen bolts on roadside fences, which were then shaken loose, bound with nylon ties, and formed into makeshift barricades against the police. He called out instructions on where to position the barricades. As they worked, other masked protesters used hand-held telescopes to track police movements.

The improvised, bottom-up nature of the protest movement is further evident in the scores of medics, some of them medical staff from local hospitals, who say they have turned up unprompted at protest sites to treat the wounded and administer saline solution to tear gas victims.

Kay, a 28-year-old medic who works in information technology and would only give her first name, said she prepared an emergency kit, including iodine, bandages, tourniquets and saline solution before every protest. “I was hit by a tear gas canister one time and then when I retreated to a safe spot, some people helped me. I felt touched, and I wanted to help some people back.”

Francis Lee, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has written a book on Hong Kong social movements, describes the protests as an “open source” movement. Protesters often aggregate the best ideas in online groups and vote on courses of action, he said.

Hong Kong was promised it would enjoy the “one-country, two-systems” autonomy until 2047 but, for these young protesters, that deadline will occur during their mid-lives. “In 2047, if it returns to China, real Hong Kongers will leave and emigrate from Hong Kong,” said Ah Lung from his small apartment in the Sham Shui Po. “By then, it won’t be Hong Kong anymore, but Xiang Gang,” he said, referring to the name commonly used on the mainland for Hong Kong.

“We can’t retreat or the authoritarianism will worsen,” said Tsang, the other black-clad protester in this story, referring to the Chinese government.

“This is not about me. This is for Hong Kong, my home city.”