The fallacy that nonviolence has not worked–“we thought if we could keep the revolution peaceful, it might lead to some changes”

Original post:

Can HK protestors continue to maintain nonviolent discipline? People who doubt the effectiveness of nonviolence are clearly unaware of failed violent movements around the world. Plenty of people study movement tactics and HK protestors should learn from such lessons.

Not just “rowdies” are at fault, so are movement organizers/leaders. It is not enough to tell protestors that they have already won by awakening more HK people–clearly many protestors don’t buy this line. To convince protestors not to escalate by taking counterproductive radical actions, leaders/organizers have to offer potentially more effective alternatives. See recent posts escalation by other meanswhat could be more effective, and targeted boycott.

I have been teaching about contentious politics for over 10 years. If HK protestors believe that the nonviolent umbrella movement has failed and that they have to escalate to “minimum force” to respond to police brutality (see police state), they should know that they would simply follow the footsteps of failed movements in the 20th century. Movements that involve violence are far more likely to fail than movements that can maintain nonviolent discipline. (See Chenoweth and Stephan below.) Indeed, the turn to violence is such a recipe for failure that violent movements around the world have returned to nonviolence. HK protestors should know that their misguided judgment is certain to lead to disasters.  In Hong Kong as elsewhere (including such hard cases as Libya and Syria–see Zunes below), it is not that nonviolence has failed; rather, it is because protestors have stubbornly stuck to the most unsustainable form of nonviolent action — a disruptive and concentrated action of occupying streets — and have not tried other dispersed methods that have proven to be more effective and sustainable around the world — e..g, a consumer boycott that targets at business tycoons whose support is critical to CY Leung’s survival. See earlier posts nonviolent discipline and backfire.

The following sentiments are deeply worrying:

Cheung emerged from the crowd, his skin pale. “We have the right to protest,” he said, staring at the shaken students. The government, he said, had shredded any last thread of a relationship with her people, he said. “Somehow, we thought if we could keep the revolution peaceful, it might lead to some changes,” he said. “I can’t promise this is a peaceful revolution anymore.’’ (Hong Kong Protesters Face the Limits of Their Power )

The fighters. On the evening of Dec. 1, after Hong Kong’s police forcefully beat back protesters, a small group gathered in Admiralty to discuss the use of what they called “minimum force.” Jason Chow, a 20-year-old student, told Quartz the recent police violence has inspired the group to “fight valiantly,” rather than being “a lamb to the slaughter.” When confronted again by police, the group plans to use defensive armor, throw objects, and even wrestle away cops’ batons from them if they start beating people, he said. (The fighters, the hunger strikers, and the surrendered—new faces of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement)

A new student group “Student Front” said that they would not insist on maintaining nonviolent discipline but plan to use shields to push against police lines.  鄭先生指出,「學生前線」近日要談分工,並再討論清場時的應對及文宣工作,宗旨是「保護自己,保護身邊的人」,不希望有人無謂地被捕,「非主張主動攻擊警察,但亦不可一直只堅持理性和平」。他指如警方清場,不會認同公民抗命坐着被捕,會以盾牌等守住防線;他不認同使用盾牌向警方防線推進是暴力。(大專生成立「勇武派」團體 盾牌守防線抗清場

Also [學生前線 勇武抗爭] 19122014 學生前線核心成員訪問

I have been hearing similar sentiments on live stream in the past week.

Why any deviation from nonviolent discipline is a recipe for failure? Why is nonviolence a force more powerful in the face of the most brutal regime? Let me list the three most important reasons. 1) In the balance of firepower, protestors are no match for those in uniform. Direct confrontation with the police, whether protestors just storm police lines or resort to physical violence, means that protestors play by a game that the police are well trained for.  The failed action on Dec. 1 was predictable. 2) The regime enjoys the balance of firepower because it monopolizes the power of the gun. Protestors can win only if they compel those in uniform to disobey orders to shoot, fire tear gas or beat up protestors. Radical actions by protestors would only compel those in uniform to move in the opposite direction, forcing them to rally around the regime, CY Leung in this case. 3)  Regime violence backfires on the regime only when protestors maintain nonviolent discipline. Radical actions by protestors, even if not strictly violent, can only backfire on the movement and alienate the public.

The same Mr. Cheung quoted above actually had this correct understanding of the doomed attempt to surround the central government offices on Nov. 30-Dec. 1: “It’s police setting a trap,’’ he decided. “We didn’t occupy [Lung Wo road] at all. We’re just waiting to get arrested.” Likewise, if “Student Front” want to minimize arbitrary arrests by pushing against police lines when the police clear Admiralty, it remains to be seen if their planned action would only have the counterproductive effect of having more arrests and casualties. [Update: Student Front dropped the idea of “using force to counter violence” during the clearing of Admiralty. Mr. Cheng was nevertheless arrested before the police operation.]

“Student Front” believe that they enjoy widespread support on FB:


Here is a hard lesson from Egypt:

Early in 2008… a group of tech-savvy young people an hour’s drive to the south in the capital city of Cairo, who started a Facebook group to organize protests and strikes on April 6 throughout Egypt in solidarity with the mill workers. To their shock, the page quickly acquired some 70,000 followers. But what worked so smoothly online proved much more difficult on the street. Police occupied the factory in Mahalla and headed off the strike. The demonstrations there turned violent: Protesters set fire to buildings, and police started shooting, killing at least two people. The solidarity protests around Egypt, meanwhile, fizzled out, in most places blocked by police. The Facebook organizers had never agreed on tactics, whether Egyptians should stay home or fill the streets in protest. People knew they wanted to do something. But no one had a clear idea of what that something was. The botched April 6 protests, the leaders realized in their aftermath, had been an object lesson in the limits of social networking as a tool of democratic revolution. (Tina Rosenberg, “Revolution U,” Foreign Policy, 2/16/2011.

And a similar lesson from Turkey:

Protests like this one, fueled by social media and erupting into spectacular mass events, look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime. And whether these take place in Turkey, Egypt or Ukraine, pundits often speculate that the days of a ruling party or government, or at least its unpopular policies, must be numbered. Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale. This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment. (Zeynep Tufekci, “After the Protests,” NYT, 3/19/2014

Thus the commentary “Protesters are playing into the hands of the government” is correct.

The protesters, or at least some of them, have not helped themselves by also becoming more aggressive. Unfortunately, the students are just playing into the hands of the government. They are allowing themselves to be portrayed as law-breaking, destabilising and selfish; while the government is increasingly able to present itself as a force for stability, rule of law, reason and “normality”. As the violence becomes the focus of attention, people are losing sight of what this is supposed to be about, namely political reform. The endgame we talked about a few weeks after this all started is now coming into play.

One bad action on Nov. 30-Dec. 1 sapped the support for the movement. Another bad action could kill it.

A HK student who participated in a successful student movement in Quebec 從魁北克罷課反觀香港雨傘運動





施加經濟壓力… 公民不合作非暴力抗爭要取得成功,在集體犯法之餘,必須配合其他有實際作用的行動,對當局以至整個社會施加實質的經濟壓力,始有成功的希望。…甘地使出了「排斥英國貨」的策略,抵制英國產的商品。… 甘地和馬丁路德金所發起的公民不合作非暴力抗爭並不是純粹的集體犯法,而是針對有關不公義不平等政策與法律的實際行動,並且是成功對有關既得利益者施加實際的經濟壓力,有助迫使對方讓步。反觀香港的公民不合作非暴力抗爭,基本上就只有佔領街道一途,干犯的非法集會的法例,與爭取的真普選並不相關,而佔領數條街道,實際上亦未對既得利益者造成真正的巨大經濟損失,效果不彰,未能爭取到爭取的目標,乃是正常不過。


[Updated with resources on Dec. 14, 2015]

The new cabinet of the HK Federation of Students vows to continue the insistence on nonviolence 來屆學聯「命運自主」作綱領 繼續非暴力抗爭


[Mar. 28] HKU’s Students’ Union issued this statement on the half-year mark of the outbreak of the umbrella movement:

The scale and impact of the Revolution failed to move the fiscal structure. It occupied but not obstructed. Half a year has gone by since the end of it. Instead of drowning into the Utopia at Harcourt Village and reminiscing the romance and reverence for the Revolution, the fact that it ended in failure is to be accepted, and there is a need for us to evaluate our mistakes and consider other possibilities in further pressuring the regime. How can we ever break off again from the limit of peace? How can we snap off the curb on militancy? / 無論雨革如何波瀾壯闊,仍然無法動搖政經結構,流於「只佔不堵」。半年已過,與其繼續沉溺夏慤村的烏托邦生活,緬懷「雨傘運動」的浪漫與神聖,我們必須接受佔領失敗的事實,檢討過失,思索向政權施加更大壓力的可能。我們如何再次衝破和平的魔咒?如何擺脫武力的潔癖?

This statement has the right diagnosis but the wrong medicine. See the discussion of “pillars of support” below.

Hong Kong University student magazine Undergrad talks of revolution — Publication criticised by CY runs article urging city to revolt or face ‘destruction’. (Link to the issue:⼀一⽉月號-⾬雨傘世代-⾃自決未來/)

Repeatedly, we hear people say that nonviolence cannot work or has not worked. The problem is that they don’t understand what nonviolence is and they haven’t tried the full repertoire of nonviolent methods–instead, the Umbrella Movement followed the most unsustainable method of occupy streets. (More below. And see “targeted boycott“.)

Scholarism has a nuanced understanding of nonviolence, that it is not restricted to mild actions 周庭:非暴力與激進無衝突 組織歡迎任何合作空間:



Meanwhile, dock workers say that their concerted 40-day strike two years ago was very useful 碼頭罷工兩周年 —「罷工好有用!」

What is and is not nonviolent action? (When people say that NV doesn’t work or has failed…)

Kurt Schock, “Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists,” PS Political Science and Politics, Oct. 2003, pp. 705-712 (NV Schock)

  • It is active; not inaction, submission, passivity, not passive resistance
  • It is nonviolent; but not anything that is not violent
  • Not limited to legal actions
  • Not limited to negotiation or compromise
  • Not James Scott’s everyday forms of resistance/weapons of the weak/disguised resistance
  • Not pacifism; it is pragmatic/strategic nonviolence, not principled nonviolence
  • Not spontaneous people power: it takes planning, organizing, strategizing

In South Africa:

When asked about methods of nonviolent action, a common response of participants was “‘We tried that [nonviolent action] for fifty years and it didn’t work. Sharpeville in 1960 proved to us that violence is the only way left’” (Wink 1987, 4). Yet, when Wink pressed them to identify the tactics that were most effective in challenging the state over the past two years, they produced a remarkably long list of nonviolent actions: labor strikes, slowdowns, sit-downs, stoppages, and stayaways; bus boycotts, consumer boycotts, and school boycotts; funeral demonstrations; noncooperation with government appointed functionaries; non-payment of rent; violation of government bans on peaceful meetings; defiance of segregation orders on beaches and restaurants, theaters, and hotels; and the shunning of black police and soldiers. This amounts to what is probably the largest grassroots eruption of diverse nonviolent strategies in a single struggle in human history! Yet these students, and many others we interviewed, both black and white, failed to identify these tactics as nonviolent and even bridled at the word (Wink 1987, 4). (Schock, p. 710)

Nonviolent action against the Nazis:

Non-cooperation in Denmark through tactics such as work slowdowns and strikes severely hindered the German effort to extract resources and exert control over the country. Generally, the Nazi military machine was dumbfounded in the face of widespread nonviolent resistance. B. H. Liddell Hart, a British military strategist who interrogated Nazi generals after the war, found that “they were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them . . . It was a relief to them when resistance became violent, and when non-violent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic suppressive action against both at the same time”  (Liddell Hart 1968, 205). (Schock, p. 708)

Call to boycott the Maldives as its economy heavily relies on tourism: The Maldives: Luxury Heaven Boycott Can Avert Human Rights Hell

Even Palestinians who have tried guerrilla warfare and suicide terrorism have returned to nonviolence against Israel’s barrier. See “Budrus” and “Pay attention to nonviolence“.

Resisting ISIS: Surprisingly, acts of civil resistance in Syria and Iraq have shown success against the so-called Islamic State. by Maria J. Stephan | April 2015

Kafr Nabl achieved international acclaim for its colorful and clever banners offering critical commentary on various aspects of the revolution. The village is a paradigm of self-organization and boasts a robust media apparatus. In Menbej, a town in Aleppo, the business community closed their shops in a general strike against ISIS in May 2014. ISIS sent its militants to reopen the shops and the villagers remained defiant, albeit only for a short time

Acts of defiance targeting ISIS are spreading in Iraq as well. In Mosul… In July 2014, after a prominent imam and 33 followers refused to pledge their allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a large number of Iraqi supporters flocked to mosques where they preached to show solidarity for these leaders’ act of defiance. ISIS detained some of the leaders but has not killed those with such a significant following. Local groups of Iraqis have resisted ISIS’ destruction of local landmarks and shrines in Mosul, a city that is considered an archeological treasure and paradigm of religious coexistence…

Satire has become a particularly powerful weapon of nonviolent resistance that Syrians, Iraqis, and others in the Arab world are using to delegitimize ISIS. Videos dramatizing the absurdity and illegitimacy of ISIS’ tyranny have gone viral on social media and have been shown on satellite television stations.

See also Can political struggle against ISIL succeed where violence cannot ? ;  Nonviolent strategies to defeat totalitarians such as ISIS ; Myopia of the Syrian Struggle and Key Lessons

Also Powerful nonviolent resistance to armed conflict in Yemen

the most significant setbacks to the Huthi militia in their march southward across the country in recent months have come not from the remnants of the Yemeni army or Saudi air strikes, but from massive resistance by unarmed civilians which has thus far prevented their capture of Taiz, the country’s third largest city, and other urban areas. The resistance efforts have also pressed the Houthis to withdraw their forces from a number of previously-held areas, including universities, residential neighborhoods, and even military bases…

Major student protests swept the country throughout the fall, primarily in Hodaidah, Ibb and Baydha… In addition to demonstrations, a wave of strikes took place across the country targeting a variety of sectors where the Huthis attempted to assert their control: in addition to universities and high schools, the military academy in Sana’a, the judiciary in several cities, and fuel production facilities in Shabwa were shut down. Hundreds of prisoners held captive by the Huthis went on hunger strike, as did President Hadi while under house arrest prior to his escape. Scores of prominent Yemenis have resigned from their posts in protest, including governors, police chiefs, senior military officials, and top administrators in transportation, medicine, communications, and other sectors.


To know more about what nonviolent action is and how wide-ranging nonviolent methods can be, see :

The Checklist to End Tyranny 结束暴政清单

The Trifecta of Civil Resistance: Unity, Planning, Discipline 公民抵抗三要素:团结、规划、纪律

The CANVAS Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle 非暴力行动与战略应用中心核心教程 : 有效的非暴力抗争指南 (PDF 6.4MB):…/0BxnzgzmO-h-dZmE2Z2tCVF84ekU/view

Agents of Change and Nonviolent Action 公民抵抗三要素:团结、规划、纪律

Civil Resistance: A First Look

USIP Global Campus’ online course on nonviolence:  Civil Resistance and the Dynamics of Nonviolent Movements. Some select lectures: 

1.0 Voices from the Field

1.2.1 Challenging Conceptions of Power

1.4.4 Tension, Conflict, and Nonviolent Struggle

2.1.1 Strategic Effectiveness

3.2.2 Courageous Leadership

3.4.2 How Can a Movement Increase Participation?

4.1.5 Constructive vs. Obstructive Actions

5.1.1 Building a Movement Narrative: Story of Self, Us, and Now

5.4.1 Arts and Resistance Overview

Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy” (從獨裁走向民主) and other books: in English and in Chinese.

Gene Sharp‘s lessons for successful nonviolence:

  • Plan a strategy — you can’t improvise and expect success; classic negative example: Tiananmen. The occupy movement now joins the list.
  • Overcome atomisation — get organized
  • Target pillars of support (more below)
  • Resist violence/maintain nonviolent discipline
  • Expect regime repression and make it backfire–that requires that you maintain nonviolent discipline
  • Don’t give up hope — as long as you haven’t given up, you haven’t lost

Tina Rosenberg, “Revolution U,” Foreign Policy, 2/16/2011. ( “NV conflict as a form of warfare — the only difference is you don’t use arms.”

(more below)



Listen to the experts:

Don’t forget what Patten said about rowdies

Maria Stephan, “How the HK protestors can win”

198 nonviolent methods:

Erica Chenoweth at TEDxBoulder, “The success of nonviolent civil resistance”

Max Fisher makes Chenoweth and Stephan’s argument simple: “Peaceful Protest is Much More Effective Than Violence for Toppling Dictators,” Washington Post, 11/5/2013.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, “Drop Your Weapons: When and Why Civil Resistance Works”

Peaceful Protest—Slow And Steady—Is Winning The Race To Create Change

Mairi Mackay, “Gene Sharp: A Dictator’s Worst Nightmare,” CNN, 6/25/2012

CANVAS and Srdja Popovic et al, “A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle”

Srdja Popovic, “How to topple a dictator,” TED, 2011; “How to Topple a Dictator (Peacefully),” NYT, 2015

Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World

A Hong Kong blog on Popovic: Umbrella Blossom

World cases that show that nonviolence is a force more powerful, esp. Ch. 13 “The Mythology of Violence”


Maciej Bartkowski, “Understanding civil resistance. Questions I am asked and wrestle with,” 3/22/2014

Véronique Dudouet, Dynamics and Factors of Transition from Violence to Nonviolent Resistance; and “Dynamics and Factors of Transition from Armed Struggle to Nonviolent Resistance,” 
Journal of Peace Research, 50, 3, 2013, 401-413 (Journal of Peace Research-2013-Dudouet)

Stephen Zunes, “The Role of Nonviolence in the Downfall of Apartheid,” in Zunes, Kurtz, and Asher, eds., Nonviolent Social Movements, Blackwell, 2004, 203-229.

Stephen Zunes, “Intervention in Libya: Is It Really the Only Option?” Truthout, 3/28/2011.

The largely spontaneous Libyan uprising, in its nonviolent phase, focused… on mass protests, making them easy targets for Qaddafi’s repression, rather than relying on more diverse tactics – including strikes (which could have been particularly effective in the oil industry), boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of non-cooperation… the failure of the nonviolent struggle was not because it was nonviolent, but because it was not well-organized strategically.

How Freedom is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy

  • Freedom and democracy are best advanced by powerful, broad-based, and cohesive civic coalitions employing non-violent tactics; in 32 transitions in which strong non-violent civic coalitions were active, 24 countries (75%) are Free, 8 (25%) are Partly Free, and none are Not Free today.

  • The largest gains for freedom occur as a result of transitions driven primarily or in large measure by significant civic protest and mobilization. Of 50 such transitions, 32 have led to high levels of respect for political rights and civil liberties. By contrast, in the 14 transitions from authoritarian rule in which the driving force was from the “top down” and led primarily by reform-minded power holders, only 3 (21%) are Free, with strong performance in terms of fundamental rights. Three other transitions were sparked by international military intervention.

  • When cohesive and strong civic coalitions emerge in an environment where there is little or no violence, the result almost uniformly is a high level of freedom. Pre-transition, 9 such countries were Partly Free and 9 were Not Free. Today, post-transition, 17 are Free, and only 1 is Partly Free.

  • Even in settings of significant or high violence, the prospects for freedom are significantly better when the opposition refrains from using violence. In the 20 countries in which both the government and segments of the opposition used violence, only 20 percent of the countries are Free today, while 60 percent are Partly Free, and 20 are Not Free. By contrast, in the 12 countries where the authorities employed violent force but the opposition resisted with nonviolent tactics, 7 (nearly 60 percent) are Free, while 5 (more than 40 percent) are Partly Free.

See also the structure of power/pillars of support and alternative nonviolent tactics in what could be more effective.

  • Theoretical premise from Gandhi: Power is relational rather than monolithic
  • Key strategies and methods conducive to success: separation of a regime from its “pillars of support”
  • Pillars of support: The target is not the pinnacle of state power. Rulers draw their resources and legitimacy from multiple loci of power. “A government is like a building held up by pillars.” (Rosenberg)
  • Pillars: police, military, civil servants, the media, teachers/education system, workers, business community, church, int’l support, etc.
  • Power graph: chart each pillar’s level of loyalty to the regime over time, see which pillars had fluctuated and what events caused the change.
  • See CANVAS, “A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle” (

pillars 1 pillars 2

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” International Security, 2008 (a more academic piece)


Rowdies’ mistaken conclusion:



The call to “use force to counter violence”


And 佔旺四式


Anti-govt group mounts online campaign against police

A HK group reposts from US gun rights and suggests that “香港人絕對有自衛權。Hongkongers have the right to self-defence” — not sure if these HK people know much about the American right-wing.

HKAM 香港人絕對有自衛權。Hongkongers have the right to self-defence



See Ackerman and DuVall on the mythology of violence in a force more powerful: ch. 13

非暴力抗爭: 印度的自主運動作為開端



It feels like teaching my usual contentious politics class online these days. Nonviolence is a key focus in Notre Dame’s peace studies and democracy programs:


Filed under Umbrella Movement

11 responses to “The fallacy that nonviolence has not worked–“we thought if we could keep the revolution peaceful, it might lead to some changes”

  1. Pingback: The “Freedom without Democracy” model is broken — why HK needs genuine universal suffrage | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  2. eddie p

    In the 70s, there were violent clashes between the ex-market stall holders and the corrupt hong kong police. These were spontaneous, unorganised, random but persistent for many years and led to the establishement of ICAC.


    • There have been uncountable cases of spontaneous, unorganized and random riots against injustices around the world. Why have they been persistent? Because such riots have rarely achieved anything.
      The ICAC was formed in Feb. 1974. With immense preparation beforehand, it is hard to argue that it was the product of such violent clashes in the 70s. Participants clearly did not have such a goal.
      Now and then, I win a prize without even trying. But don’t count on it.
      And those who were arrested and beaten up (have) lived bitter lives and were forgotten by the society.
      Why do that when known effective alternatives have not been tried?


  3. Pingback: Nonviolent discipline — the protesters were not peaceful? | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  4. Pingback: Post-occupy: Divided over strategies and tactics though united over genuine universal suffrage | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  5. Pingback: Post-occupy: Divided over strategies; time for targeted boycott | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  6. Pingback: Final proposal sticks to Beijing’s rigid framework — and our analyses in the Journal of Democracy | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

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

  8. Pingback: The End of Fake Universal Franchise (For Now) | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

  9. Pingback: Reflections One Year On | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Beyond

  10. Pingback: Why the muted outrage? The danger of ‘demobilization’ | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement and Beyond

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s