Unity and leadership are critical to success–why it is wrong to advocate “there are no organizers but only ordinary people, no orders but only commonsense”

[Updated on Mar. 20, 2015]

See also “almost a revolution


I am increasingly troubled by the challenges of what Patten calls “rowdies” to the movement’s mainstream. All over the world, unity is what makes or breaks a movement. Occupiers share the same goal of genuine universal suffrage. If there are disagreements over strategies and tactics, talk them over. People fighting for democracy have to demonstrate that they can resolve differences through democratic methods. It is not surprising that international media are now talking about “rift” and “split” rather than order and discipline.

Hong Kong Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power: Disorganized and divided, the pro-democracy movement is losing steam

After 50 days, rifts emerge among Hong Kong’s protesters

Hong Kong democracy movement split in protest-weary city 

A Struggle for the Soul of Hong Kong’s Protest Movement

Hong Kong’s House, Divided

Unity, planning, and discipline are the three ingredients to all successful movement. And planning and discipline are not possible without unity. Unity, in turn, is a function of leadership. Don’t be fooled by the perception that this is a leaderless movement. Successful movements have decentralized leadership, but there has to be a leadership nonetheless. See post on leadership. If everyone acts out of his or her own judgement of what is right or wrong, then you get a Hobbesian world. The position that  “there are no organizers but only ordinary people, no orders but only commonsense” as shown in the Passion Times’ profile picture (they are not alone,  other “rowdies” are also anarchists) can only hurt the movement. The slogan  is also simply untrue and hypocritical — as those who lead Civic Passion are clearly leaders while challenging mainstream leaders.



One question is if the movement should stay or withdraw (there is a difference between withdrawal, which is more tactical, and retreat, which is more passive).《佔領故事》:佔領區內外對撤離與否民意分歧 At issue also is if the movement should escalate. According to the Civic Passion:

“The Occupy campaign needs to be taken to a new level,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable.”

Was it wise to escalate by storming the Legislative Council building on Nov. 18? Members of Civic Passion (https://www.facebook.com/passiontimes) are indignant that other protestors blame them, but Passion Times has various posts justifying the act. (A colleague suggests that justifying is not the same as advocating. I am not sure why Passion Times would bother to justify something that they don’t advocate. But I am a boring academic and I grant this analytical distinction.) It could be the work of “the Golden boys“. And see this disclosure by an anarchist.  Whichever organization “the rowdies” belong to, why not learn from experiences from around the world?

Artists calling for unity: https://www.facebook.com/pages/香港藝術家關注示威作品召集群組-Hong-Kong-Artists-concern-protest-art/283372865206454



Listen to “Long Hair” : “Prominent Hong Kong activist says protesters need to unify, strategize“:

The diffuse nature of the protest leadership may have helped perpetuate the demonstrations – but also has limited protesters’ ability to forcefully unite and agree on a strategy to bring more pressure to bear on government authorities. Leung’s remarks came as two founders of Occupy Central, university professors Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, announced they have resumed their university teaching duties after a month spent mainly at the protest zone in the Admiralty district, near government headquarters.

Another hero of radicals: Patten said that “I am sad” about what “the rowdies” did, referring to the storming of the Legco building last week. He wasn’t even asked about this at the CECC testimony but made a point of giving this advice to HK protestors. See http://www.cecc.gov/events/hearings/the-future-of-democracy-in-hong-kong. At the CECC hearing, everyone expressed concern about the storming act — here is how the movement could lose international support with a single act!

從甘地與馬丁路德金看佔領運動的失敗 http://www.inmediahk.net/node/1029574


從魁北克罷課反觀香港雨傘運動 http://www.inmediahk.net/node/1030246


罷課最終迫使自由黨在選舉中落敗,當選的魁北克人黨撤回加學費方案,並廢除議案 78 (一條類似香港《公安條例》的法例)。而這場全民運動的成功秘訣,原來只在「團結」二字,而要做到團結,則是由一個從下而上的全民決策模式所達成。

CLASSE 在罷課前舉行多次全民大會,讓支持和反對罷課的學生申述自己所持立場的理據,而且每次發言並非空談,必須提出一些方案、計劃、行動,最後讓學生以直接民主的形式作出重要決策:以投票決定開始罷課,亦以投票決定結束罷課。

Julien 說:「We are get used to the general assembly.(我們已經習慣全民大會。)」直接民主已成為魁北克學生的傳統,因此就開始罷課與否投票時,即使支持和反對的聲音相約,雙方都會尊重投票結果,尊重罷課的決定。的確,由下而上的決策模式費時間、耗精力,但這種方式最能避免因欠缺討論而出現的矛盾和爭執。

提倡「沒有大會」的組織 ─ 訪本土民主前線黃台仰


I have been teaching about movements around the world. Here are some relevant materials:

The trifecta of civil resistance: unity, planning, discipline https://www.opendemocracy.net/hardy-merriman/trifecta-of-civil-resistance-unity-planning-discipline

Srdja Popovic: his TED talk on unity, discipline, and planning https://www.ted.com/talks/srdja_popovic_how_to_topple_a_dictator?language=en

Gene Sharp http://howtostartarevolutionfilm.com

In particular, note the clip when Popovic said that Otpor had no leaders; haha, Otpor leaders said that Otpor was leaderless…

Protestors admire Mandela, see how the anti-apartheid struggle was on the verge of a civil war until Mandela urged for moderation: http://www.mandelamovie.co.za. Read Long Walk to Freedom for the real experience.

See the award-winning work of Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJSehRlU34w; Why Civil Resistance Works The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/isec.2008.33.1.7

“Rowdies” are also complaining about the marshals, saying the same line that everyone is a marshal and there is no need for designated marshals. However, this view is just as wrong. It is extremely difficult to maintain nonviolent discipline in any movement. As Wikipedia puts it,

Demonstration marshals, also called stewards, are used by the organizers of large or controversial demonstrations, rallies and protests, to help ensure the safety of the participants.[5][6] They are especially important for preventing infiltration by agents provocateurs. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshal)

Marshals in Taiwan:

Perhaps due to … the even more dispersed and ad hoc social organization of Hong Kong activists, there is not yet an institutionalized or badge-wearing security team. The need for strict security was evident early on in Taipei, when plainclothes agents reportedly tried to smuggle in weapons and contraband into the occupied Legislative Yuan, and gangsters outside, in a sad replay of martial law-era tactics, attempted to drive in with motorbikes and firecrackers to intimidate protesters. There have been only a few minor reports of such disturbances in Hong Kong. Instead, vehicles bearing refreshments of food and water are cheered as they enter the encampments. Such a high degree of trust and loose security may turn out to be both a blessing and a curse should the scene turn violent for any reason. (A Tale of Sunflowers and Umbrellas )

In HK, June 4 and July 1 protests have long had marshals and they have provided indispensable service.  On what the movement marshals have done this time: 雨傘運動的死因——內鬥內 學會面對失敗,才能延續抗命時代

Escalation may be productive but may also be counterproductive.  Rowdies think that escalation “would demoralize the police and force the government to offer concessions” and “steel protesters for future struggles”? That could happen, but there is no guarantee. It is the same dilemma faced by the government: will repression intimidate protestors or backfire. For protestors, taking radical actions may galvanize support, but may alienate supporters and strengthen the police. What happened on sep. 28 and oct. 3 is unlikely to be repeated. At the time, police and thug violence backfired on the government. This time, the storming of Legco is backfiring on the movement. See also https://victoriatbhui.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/escalation-by-protestors-can-also-backfire/

One could argue that breaking glass doors/windows is hardly radical or violent. See 西環遊記-暴力是… http://podcast.rthk.hk/podcast/item_epi.php?pid=272 I have always joked that Gandhi would be seen as a radical in Hong Kong. Yet, it is important to gauge public sentiments in planning the next move. What could allow protestors to win over more hearts and minds as opposed to just making a stand? What would win more instead of losing international support?

“public opinion is beginning to turn against the remaining protesters, a trend that accelerated after the attack on the legislature building.”  (Hong Kong democracy movement split in protest-weary city )

And why it makes little sense for rowdies to point to Taiwan’s example:

Taiwan’s example has figured in the debate. A member of Civic Passion… responded by criticizing activists who only get behind already-successful campaigns like Taiwan’s Sunflowers. English-language comics circulated poking fun at Hong Kong legislators who supported Taiwan’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan while not tolerating a similar attempt in Hong Kong. Yet, what they choose to overlook is that the Sunflower’s target was precisely the Legislative Yuan, where the Cross-strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was nearly passed without the review promised by the KMT. Likewise, as dangerous as the Executive Yuan campaign was, it had political relevance — Premier Jiang, who heads the Executive, was the last person to speak with the protesters. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, however, has zero ability to deliver “genuine universal suffrage,” the core Umbrella demand. Worse, breaking a few windows made little tactical sense for a movement that is already losing steam after too many weeks of impasse and still under the gaze of a public that has little tolerance for destruction of public property. The government successfully spun it as “severe damage” and even generally sympathetic Western media described the acts as “violent.” (In Search of Sunflower Seeds in Hong Kong )

And if rowdies like to look to the Sunflower movement, see the debate between the splinter voices and the mainstream:

Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, a KMT member, visited the legislature and promised to not call for future bipartisan review of the CSSTA until the oversight mechanism had been implemented. … the Sunflower Movement regarded Wang’s declaration as an act of goodwill and soon afterwards announced that it would vacate the legislature on April 10… Although a few splinter groups associated with the movement opposed leaving the legislature and argued that the government could not be trusted to fulfill its promises, the core leadership succeeded in convincing the rest of the group that it was time to leave. Not only did they have public support behind them, they were also exhausted after 24 days marked by lack of sleep, irregular meals, and constant media attention. (Sunflowers End Occupation of Taiwan’s Legislature)

The Sunflower movement has failed to maintain unity:

The movement has splintered and its members are now busy fighting among themselves… Another divisive factor has been the jealousy that has developed against the young charismatic leadership of the Sunflower Movement… the movement is now split and unable to work together… (Where have the Sunflowers gone?)


Frustrated with the impasse? Escalation doesn’t necessary mean taking more radical actions. Mainstream HK protestors are fixated on keeping the occupy sites. But there are alternatives to keep the momentum. The most effective methods are not necessarily radical. See https://victoriatbhui.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/if-we-withdraw-now-we-would-lose-everything-that-we-have-fought-for-in-the-past-3-weeks/

Are occupy movements sustainable elsewhere? See Physical space and ‘Occupy’ tactics: a new trend in civil resistance?

“it remains to be seen whether movements have been doing themselves a favor or a disservice by allowing themselves to be defined by the site of occupation or by the tactic itself, and not by political and social claims on behalf of those whom they represent.” (https://www.opendemocracy.net/civilresistance/matt-mulberry/physical-space-and-‘occupy’-tactics-new-trend-in-civil-resistance)

See also why the movement hasn’t failed, at least not yet.

Rowdies don’t like the traditional democrats, see leadership.


“Rowdies” insist on calling this movement the Umbrella Revolution. I actually don’t understand the fuss about this, or why they want to call this a revolution while China is nervous about this movement being a color revolution. Color revolutions are hardly revolutionary because they have uniformly taken place in semi-democracies. In Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, what was at stake was electoral disputes.


Hong Kong Protests Are Leaderless but Orderly http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/01/world/asia/in-hong-kong-clean-and-polite-but-a-protest-nonetheless.html

The Main Hong Kong Protest Site Is a Perfect Anarchist Collective http://time.com/3523217/occupy-central-hong-kong-harcourt-road-admiralty-democracy-anarchism-anarchist-collective-china-protest/


The split is of course not new. Thanks to the post-1997 government’s electoral arrangements for Legco — switching to proportional representation with party lists in multimember districts after 1997 (wikipedia and Larry Diamond ch.), democrats have had to compete among themselves for geographical seats. All sides put away their differences at the height of the Umbrella Movement. But differences over the next move/s are tearing them apart again. If democrats allow the split to deepen and if canvassing for votes is already splitting protestors now, then the movement will likely lose. This is one lesson that I have been teaching about: unity is critical to success, but unity is also the most elusive element for every movement. Can HK’s Umbrella Movement pass this test?

[Note: thanks to Hung Ho-fung for comments on an earlier version of this post.]


Filed under Umbrella Movement

4 responses to “Unity and leadership are critical to success–why it is wrong to advocate “there are no organizers but only ordinary people, no orders but only commonsense”

  1. Pingback: A Social Media Movement — and self-censorship by most mainstream HK media | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  2. Pingback: Escalation by other means? | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  3. Pingback: Lessons from “Almost a Revolution” | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  4. Pingback: Fishball Protests–The Fateful Turn to Violence | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Beyond

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