English /// 中文
Translator: Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Brian Hioe
I. Why Write This?
WITH THE rejection of the demands of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the declaration of defeat, I remember talking with some friends about Hong Kong at the time. Our views at the time were that we admired Hong Kong protesters, but that we were pessimistic. We were admiring of how Hong Kongers had strongly stood up for their rights to protest, to protect their democratic freedoms. But at the same time, we felt that there was the strong possibility that these protests would have no means of resisting the extreme oppression of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In observing the current protest of Hong Kongers, as well as the detention of more than one million Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang, on the one hand, I feel a sense of rage toward the authoritarian oppression of the CCP. On the other hand, I feel, “Is it really that in confronting totalitarian oppression, there’s no way for us to fight back?
With these questions in mind, I began to look into research regarding non-violent resistance. These are my thoughts, some optimistic and some more skeptical. But if I were to sum up my thoughts it would be this: “Even in confronting a dictatorial government like China, there is still hope for the people to resist and walk toward democracy. The hope is not simply waiting for a miracle to happen, but can be de derived through reason and based on historical precedents.”
I’ve written out some of my thoughts to share with everyone, hoping that there can be more discussion.
I hope that this can allow for some food for thought and that this can provide guidance for action.
II. Theoretical Analysis of Non-Violent Resistance and Historical Evidence: Gene Sharp & Erica Chenoweth
How to Overturn an Authoritarian Government and Establish a Democracy?
GENE SHARP’S book, “From Dictatorship to Democracy” describes non-violent protest, though in the book he uses the term “political defiance,” as the means to overturn a dictatorship and establish a democracy. Sharp is a pioneer of research into non-violent protest. Apart from theoretical analysis of non-violent resistance, in his book, Non-Violent Action Now, he elaborates on 198 forms of non-violent protest. This book has been translated into many languages and it is said that it has been influential on many protest movements, leading Sharp to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
How to overturn a dictatorship and establish a democracy? There are two primary answers: Armed revolution and foreign support. But Sharp believes that these two methods should be disregarded. Regarding the first, although the present authoritarian government may be overthrown, armed revolution may be unable to resolve the authoritarian relationship between the people and the state. In other words, the essential characteristics of “dictatorship” will remain, but simply who is the dictator changes.
On the other hand, Sharp believes that completely relying on an external force (such as the United Nations, international public opinion, relying on other countries economically or politically, or relying on diplomatic sanctions imposed by other countries) is also insufficient. A cruel reality is that when other countries make strategic decisions, they will make them from the standpoint of their own economic or political benefits. As such, if supporting a dictatorial government is in their interests, these foreign actors may put up with it, and may even directly assist a dictatorial government. (One can observe this with the countries that recently signed a petition in support of China’s policies in Xinjiang.)
Compared to a military coup d’etat or expectations of foreign assistance, Sharp believes that non-violent resistance from the people is the most effective and most feasible means of accomplishing this. There is a key understanding undergirding this overly idealistic sounding statement: “Political power is maintained on the basis of obedience from the people.” No matter how strong dictatorial power may be, in order to maintain political control, this must rely on a sufficient number of people accepting, complying, and cooperating with the authority of this political power.
The more people that comply with the ruling power, the stronger its political power is. Conversely, the more people there are that protest a government, this strengthens doubts about and non-compliance with the ruling power, and this will weaken the political power of that ruling power. This principle is true not only in democratic systems of government but in extreme dictatorships. Without the compliance and support of the people, the political power of the government can be paralyzed. This is why Sharp says, “Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves.” When the will of the people is strong enough to resist, this can also more easily attract outside help.
Why the emphasis on non-violent protest? Why rule out violent resistance? Sharp believes that the strongest advantage possessed by a dictatorship is its military strength, so if there is the decision made to use armed struggle against a dictatorial government, this would be to pick a terrain of contestation in which the enemy has the advantage. Although Sharp agrees that under some circumstances, small-scale violence may be unavoidable, he believes that protest movements should adhere to being non-violent.
Apart from the previously described reasons, Harvard Kennedy School public policy scholar Erica Chenoweth in a TED Talk raises the other advantages of selecting non-violent resistance. Compared to armed struggle, the threshold for joining non-violent struggle is lower. For example, many may take the view that non-violent struggle is too dangerous, or that they lack the ability to participate in armed struggle. Comparatively speaking, participating in a street-based sit-in protest is much safer, and one does not need any training in this.
This is why non-violent struggle can attract more mass participation and the people that this will attract tend to be more diverse, attracting participants with more representativeness of the people as a whole. This not only helps the effectiveness of the protest, but also lays an important foundation in establishing a democracy later. But how many people need to participate in a protest for it to be successful? Erica Chenoweth researched large-scale protests with upward of 1,000 participants between 1990 and 2006 and arrived at the answer 3.5% of a population. In confronting an extremely authoritarian government, 3.5% of the population gathering, having a system to sustain protests, would lead to the success of the movement. Chenoweth termed this, in an optimistic light, as the 3.5% Rule.
Of course, 3.5% is not a small number. In Taiwan, this would require the mobilization of 825,000 individuals. But at the very least, 3.25% is not unattainable.
The need for large amounts of mobilization also reiterates the importance of non-violent protest. Chenoweth points out that the scale of non-violent protests is around four times larger than violent protests. In the period she researched, of the protests able to reach the necessary 3.5%, all were non-violent movements.
III. What Has Hong Kong Accomplished?
UNDERSTANDING THE theoretical basis behind non-violent protest and keeping historical experience in mind, we might turn next to examining the protest movement in Hong Kong. Beginning from the protests on June 9th, the Hong Kong people have already engaged in two months of protest. Below, I will outline several points which suggest to me that the Hong Kong people grasp the principles of non-violent protest.
(1) The Principle that Non-Cooperation Weakens the Strength of the Government
As Sharp points out, political power comes from the cooperation of the people in many respects, including in terms of manpower, coordination of material resources, and compliance with the ruling authorities. The Hong Kong people strongly grasp this point and, apart from using street protests as a means of non-cooperation with the government, and have also expressed their strong skepticism of the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong. In July, Hong Kong netizens, gathered the resources to publish an ad, thanking Taiwanese for preserving the original copy of Treaty of Nanking—but pointing to the fact that the Chinese government lacks the original copy of the Treaty of Nanking, suggesting that the Chinese government’s rule over Hong Kong lacks legitimacy.
(2) Preserving the Central Axis of Non-Violent Protest
Civil society protests in Hong Kong have preserved the appeals to “peace, rational, and non-violence.” This has also been maintained as the central principle of the current protests. In confronting police firing tear gas grenades, pallet bags, rubber bullets, Hong Kongers have emphasized, “Not getting hurt, not getting killed, and not shedding blood,” as protest slogans.
But with continued brutal violence at the hands of the police, the triad attacks in Yuen Long, and the Chinese government attempting to incite public opinion with its actions, the intensity of the movement has increased. As such, a debate between non-violent versus violent means will necessarily appear in the movement, and with the popularization of the slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” the future direction of protests remains unknown.
(3) Using Multiple Non-Violent Means of Protest
Sharp divides non-violent means of protest into three categories: A) Protest and persuasion, B) Social, economic and political noncooperation, and C) Non-violent intervention.
Protest and persuasion refers to symbolic means of demonstration, such as circulating a declaration or petition. An example of social noncooperation would be a boycott, an example of economic noncooperation would be striking, and an example of political cooperation would be resisting government duties, resisting law enforcement, boycotting elections, etc. Non-violent intervention refers to means such as non-violent occupation, parallel government, and other strategies.
What we can observe is that the current movement in Hong Kong widely uses the above strategies. Whether with regards to street protests, declarations aimed at calling the legitimacy of the government into question, a petition signed by public servants, calling for a general strike, as well as protest tactics using new technologies, these are all for the sake of strengthening the movement.
(4) Decentralized Organizations
Another aspect of the present movement which is quite astonishing is the use of a decentralized organizational structure as a means of conducting organizing. The development of the movement to date has not led to the appearance of core leader figures; on the contrary, the movement relies on collaborative cooperation, with mutual assistance between the people, and the support of various sectors. This has led to non-cooperation on many levels, with the call for the movement to “spring up all over the place” (遍地開花). The decentralization of the movement has allowed for greater consolidation in the movement, making it more difficult for the government to target it.
Apart from that decentralization has allowed for the consolidation of the movement, if the aims of the movement are understood as to overthrow an authoritarian government and establish a democratic system of government, one can say that the principles of democracy are realized in the movement itself. This will constitute an important basis for the establishment of a democratic system of government.
IV. Signs of Progress in Hong Kong’s Protest Movement
APART FROM that non-violent protest is clearly visible in the protests to date in Hong Kong, what have been the concrete signs of progress in Hong Kong’s protest movement to date?
(1) 3.5% of the Population Participating in Protests
Hong Kong’s population is around 7.4 million people. According to the 3.5% Rule, 260,000 would need to participate in demonstrations for them to achieve success. In street demonstrations from June 9th up until now, noncooperative activities have taken place in many forms, including occupations, declarations, strikes.
Taken together, participation has already surpassed the 3.5% benchmark. If this rate of participation can be maintained, this should be sufficiently threatening of the current government. The responses of the Hong Kong government demonstrate that the current set of protests have applied strong pressure to the Chinese government. (See point #3)
(2) Destabilizing the Core Sources of Manpower for Operations of Political Authority
Sharp points out that the military, police, and government bureaucracy are three core human resources needed for the government to smoothly operate. As such, when these three core organizational bases become destabilized, this is the most important step toward overturning a government. Recently, 500 civil servants signed a petition, and calls have appeared for civil servants to demonstrate, with the call that, “Beneath the uniform, we are all Hong Kongers.”
Apart from this, 400 administrative directors in Hong Kong government have issued a statement criticizing the police’s use of force, and their selective application of the law. These core sources of manpower needed for the operations of the government have started to question political power and become noncooperative, and this will be of great importance for the movement going forward.
(3) Responses from the Government
If the original demand of the protest movement in Hong Kong was to call for the withdrawal of the extradition bill, then Carrie Lam declaring at a July 9th press conference that “The bill is dead!” can be seen as the movement having accomplished its goal. But because the government backing down came late, only after police violence and a wave of suicides in Hong Kong, and protesters are labeled “rioters,” and the government did not fully withdraw the extradition bill, this has led to an intensification of the protests, leading to the escalation of the movement’s demands to the “realization of genuine universal suffrage” by 2020 at a 7/21 protest rally. After triad violence in Yuen Long and police actions such as pointing a gun at demonstrators, the anger of Hong Kongers will not easily die down.
However, the effect of protests to date can be observed in the shifts in responses by the government. From initially ignoring protests, Carrie Lam was forced to take a step back, and then turned toward attempting various means to stir up violent resistance from the protesters. The Chinese government also attempted to use the news to incite public opinion regarding the protests.
The protest of Hong Kongers, in addition to external pressures, must be a headache for the Chinese government. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office recently issued a statement condemning demonstrators as engaging in “violent activities” (暴力活動) , “disrupting One Country, Two Systems” (破壞一國兩制), and stating that actions by the police were necessary to put down “violent activities” (懲治暴力). This may be with the aim of paving the path for eventual military intervention.
What cannot be denied is, if demonstrators adhere to the path of non-violent resistance, in the process of demonstrations, there will necessarily be sacrifices and bloodshed, though this would likely be less than that which would take place through engaging in violent protest. In order to realize democracy, there will need to be strategic planning. But if Sharp and Chenoweth’s research is to be believed, then the present situation appears to be if Hong Kongers continue non-violent protest and preserving decentralized flexibility in noncooperative activities, we can take an optimistic view of the eventual course of events—on the basis of the 3.5% Rule and the past century’s history of protests.
V. What Now, Then?
HOW WILL the protest movement in Hong Kong subsequently develop? How long will protests need to go on? Will there need to be further planning about how to expand the movement? Will the movement need to shift further away from demonstrating against the extradition bill to realizing genuine universal suffrage? Is there a need for more international support? How can the Chinese government be forced to compromise?
Nobody knows what will happen in the future and the answers to these questions may vary based on our actions. Keeping in mind the optimistic point of view we arrive at through maintaining non-violent protest, I would like to suggest some possible future courses of action:
(1) Continuing to Adhere to the Path of Non-Violent Resistance
Returning to the question we began with, I believe that non-violent protest is the best choice for Hong Kong, with the highest odds of success. We can observe that the government is attempting various means to try and incite outbreaks of violence and clashes, whether this be mobilizing triad members in Yuen Long, or brutal police force, or labeling demonstrators rioters. This perhaps reflects what Sharp points out, that using violent means of protest is to fall into the trap of the government, picking the terrain of contestation in which the government has the greatest advantage.
If demonstrations turn violent, then the Chinese government has a pretense to deploy military force against those it deems “rioters.” If it gets to that point, then there is no means of resistance for the people. Apart from a large gap in terms of capacity to engage in armed struggle, if it really were to come to that, as Chenoweth points out, there will be a large barrier to entry for participants, excluding many participating, shrinking the movement, and reducing its overall capacity.
You might ask then, “Does this mean we should just let the triads and police attack us?” That despite adhering to nonviolence, the police and triads are willing to use weapons.
I agree with these concerns. As I stated before, even in cases of non-violent resistance, there will be bloodshed and sacrifices. If the movement succeeds, these sacrifices, this blood shed, won’t have been in vain. On the contrary, engaging in violence could lead to the weakening and failure of the movement. If so, then these sacrifices will really have been in vain. In this sense, it’s not a matter of debate between violence and non-violent resistance, the question is, under the precondition of non-violent resistance, what we should ask ourselves is, what are the forms of activity that should be undertaken with the highest odds of success for the movement?
(2) Dispelling the Fear of the People
Dispelling the fear of the people is crucial for raising the odds of success for the movement. As I discussed previously, the government’s ability to operate is based upon the compliance and cooperation of the people. The more people respect political authority, complying with its orders, and fearing the consequences of protest, then the authority of the government will be higher. This will also make the situation more dangerous for those that do participate in demonstrating.
But, contrastingly, the more people are not afraid, the more they overcome their customary compliance with the government, then the power of the people will grow stronger and stronger. If so, it will be safer for demonstrators. That is, the more people stand up for themselves, the safer it will be—so-called “safety in numbers.”
The question is, how to overcome this fear? How to allow more people to be willing to stand up for themselves? Sharp and Chenoweth arrive at similar answers, “To let people start with low-risk tasks,” and “To allow participants to realize there are other ways of participating.” Such tactics include conducting sit-ins, wearing the same colored clothing, turning off lights at the same time, and other tactics.
If gathering in any particular location is too dangerous, one can do things the opposite way, to allow people to leave the places where they usually appear (Chenoweth refers to this as “dispersion”), such as conducting strikes, in which they stay at home. If sufficient people engage in this non-compliant activity, this can also achieve the effect of paralyzing society.
No matter what means are chosen, the important point is to allow people to understand: there is a way to dispel public fears. People may fear the government, but state power depends on the obedience of the people. Consequently, if people have enough solidarity to resist, state power will fade, and then the government will no longer have any means of striking fear into the people.
(3) Regarding Civil Servants, Police, and Military
“The people” refers to individuals from a variety of sectors. Among them are the public servants, police, and members of the military that implement state power directly. If civil servants, police, and the military chose to stand with the people and not to comply with the orders of the government, then how would the central government implement its demands? It would only be able to shout slogans from open.
The people who carry out and implement state power from the grassroots level are those who really have a concrete influence. As such, they are those who are able to paralyze the state if they refuse to comply with their superiors. (In contrast, if these people completely cooperate with the government and accommodate it in all respects, then the protest movement will face severe difficulties).
In order to win over public servants, members of the police, and military, one must first understand the forces of resistance and attraction acting on them, to use strategy to win them over, and at the same time minimize resistance.
What reasons would these public servants, police, and members of the military have to support the protests? It’s quite simple. It’s as the slogan of the civil servants’ protest is, “Beneath the uniform, we are all Hong Kongers.” Once they take off their uniforms, they are all regular people, who lead regular lives, who have friends and family that they enjoy spending time with. As with other people, they likely also care about what kind of society they live in.
In order to convince them, the key point is to allow them to realize that they are regular people, like demonstrators. The appeals of friends and family members can allow them to realize that the people that they are carrying violent acts out on are those they care about. If police knew, for example, that their children were on the streets, like those they are attacking, would they not hesitate?
On the other hand, there is a force of resistance which prevents them from joining in demonstrations. Part of it is loyalty and obedience to the regime itself, another part of it is that if they protest, they will face even more severe consequences, as in military punishment for soldiers, or that civil servants may lose their jobs. Fearing these consequences, they may continue to obey.
As described previously, this can also be seen as returning to issues regarding overcoming fear. But in drawing in their participation, this, too, could begin with involving them first in low-risk tasks, then letting them feel that there are many forms of participating. For instance, if directly striking is too risky, they could start from more moderate means of cooperation. As Sharp raises, one can express dissatisfaction among peers, try and work inefficiently, or silently ignore orders. One should begin with activities that can draw others into participating, and in these ways, build up the confidence of participants, as well as decrease the barrier for participation and its risk level.
In consideration of the present situation in Hong Kong, civil servants issuing a petition and the director of the news section of the Hong Kong government issuing an open letter, calling on civil servants to demonstrate are historically unprecedented. These all are good signs, reflecting that civil servants have gradually been attracted to participating in demonstrations. If this continues, attracting members of the police to the protest movement may be the next step.
However, with the situation in Hong Kong, the military may be the most difficult element to tackle. The Hong Kong government has no military and so the Chinese government uses the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in order to cope with the Hong Kong people. It would be unlikely that the strategies outlined above would be sufficient to attract the support of the movement by soldiers. As they are Chinese, there is no appealing to them on the basis of the appeal that, “Beneath the uniform, we are all Hong Kongers.”
The Chinese government deliberately publicizes news of the protests in Hong Kong in order to incite public opinion in China against the protests in Hong Kong, misrepresenting the demonstrations in Hong Kong as violent and disruptive to One Country, Two Systems, and not ruling out the potential use of force by the PLA.
With it remaining unknown as to whether the Chinese government would go as far this, the Hong Kong people must carefully reflect on the next steps to take. But what is certain is that violent demonstrations will allow the Chinese government to more easily justify deploying the PLA. Continuing to engage in non-violent protest will make it more difficult for the Chinese government to have an excuse to use military force, particularly seeing as China will face strong international pressure if it does so.
(4) Aid from External Actors
Lastly, we turn toward an aspect discussed less in Sharp’s book. But this is also what I, myself, would like to know most about: As a Taiwanese person concerned with Hong Kong, apart from protecting Taiwan’s democracy, what else is there that we can do? What can we do to substantively help Hong Kongers, to help Hong Kong?
The means of international support that Sharp brings up are: A) Using public pressure, B) Using diplomacy from international governments and international organizations, and C) Providing financial and media support to democratic forces. These forms of action can provide some considerations.
Or perhaps we can use public pressure internationally as a way of obstructing China from deploying the PLA, or seek to raise awareness of these issues among international society, to criticize the Chinese government or seek to impose sanctions on it. Or we can raise donations from the public, to try and provide for the needs of demonstrators…Or if you yourself have thoughts, you can share them with your friends, your family members, and discuss further.
In this protest, while we are foreigners, we are not outsiders. In demonstrating against authoritarianism, nobody is an outsider. If you’re concerned about Hong Kong, if you’re concerned about democracy and freedom, if you’re concerned about the future of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, then we should think about what actions we can take together, so we can be back-up for the Hong Kongers at the frontlines.
And I hope that this essay on the core principles of non-violent protest, the 3.5% Rule, and analyzing the demonstrations in Hong Kong can succeed in giving the brave, democratic, and free Hong Kongers some support. Many Taiwanese support you and stand with you.
Please take care of yourself, keep fighting, and return safely after winning the battle for democracy and freedom!