“Be water, my friend”, FLOW – the famous saying associated to the late martial arts icon Bruce Lee. – A “formless” protest, became the “mantra” of young Hong Kong protesters.
An unprecedented social movement the city has [ever] seen. Hundreds of thousands took part in orchestrated mass rallies sparked by opposition to a bill that would allow residents to be extradited to China, evident of Hong Kong’s narrowing civil freedoms (Cabestan and Florence 2018). In view of increasingly violent demonstrations and the emerging forms of protests organized predominantly on online platforms by politically inexperienced netizens, including the xenophobic and anti-mainland Chinese actors (Cabestan and Florence 2018), the extradition bill has been shelved, yet, demonstrations have continued.
An apparently leaderless movement, wherein tech-savvy demonstrators, made use of deliberately encrypted messaging in online media platforms and mobility in unexpected waves rolling from one spot to another occupying public spaces and government buildings. (Lam, Ng, and Xinqi 2019)
Staging protests the guerilla way
From the start, the protest groups were keen on optimizing social media and word of mouth to gather a crowd. At the back of their minds, the escalation of their actions is highly-dependent on “strength in numbers”.
In an advisory poster circulated via Telegram and Facebook hours prior to the “show-off”, protesters were advised to “reserve their energy” if the crowd was thin but to “play it fully” once more than 30,000 people had showed up.
The protesters, mostly youth, wearing similar colored shirts– seemingly on their usual routine but constantly on-look out, eyes fixed on mobile phones yet keeping a watchful periphery, sensing the area—vigilant on the “go signal” to show-off on that same area, the “ground zero” of the 2014 Occupy Movement. As the protestors spilled over the area, there appeared to be no discernible police presence, a stark contrast to previous face-off when police forces wielded shields and batons.
Visualize a “flash mob”— waves of simultaneous protests circling around the area comes in. In this new trend on political mobilization, protesters could come and go as they wished and play on their own strengths. Having no identified protest leader, provides people the flexibility to initiate and decide whether they want go to the front lines, or stay back. Guerilla tactics, indeed.
From a political science expert’s lense, Edmund Cheng Wai, of Baptist University who specializes in political mobilization commend the decentralized and leaderless movement’s good utilization of Telegram in order to canvass views, vote on decisions and forge a consensus. To add, he pointed out how protesters had learned their lessons from the 2014 Occupy Movement when citizens were angered and frustrated for causing major disturbance. This time, protesters knew when to retreat and when to advance, hardly overstaying on target areas.
Meanwhile, a lay ground observer, warned that the emerging demonstration mode might lead to problems when protesters wanted to negotiate with the government and reach an end game. quoting [with this set-up], “it’s difficult to locate representatives of protesters for negotiations and set priorities of the demands for the government”.
The art of war
Cared to share his two-cents, a by stander remarked, “Protesters should pick their targets carefully, fearing their actions might backfire as they inevitably [or intended to] affect the provision of government services [specifically government offices targeted to stage demonstrations].
The HKSAR government should not be taken lightly, they are playing tricks as well to turn the cards on their side and gain positive public opinion out of the situation, referring to the softer stance adopted by police forces in response to unprecedented demonstrations and the apologies offered by high officials over their mishandling of the extradition bill. In essence, protestors should be mindful not fall into the trap, and not to turn allies [pro-liberal democracy] public sentiments towards the government’s side.
There is power in political protest posters
Posters are designed to encourage unity among protesters. Ongoing creation and mass dissemination of protest art that informs, inspires and, at times, offers relief substantiates the trend on the emerging “Be Water Protest Movement”.
Political art in Hong Kong has taken on a distinct style, from design to distribution. Banners are not just plastered onto main roads — they are sent directly to residents via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi almost immediately after they are created. Credits to modern world information technology infrastructure.
Graphics serve multiple purposes; as form of advertisement on upcoming protest marches, others contain subversive criticism of the authorities all the rest encourage unity and stamina.
To wrap-up and synthesize the discussion, the central theme of the featured poster is the ability to “be water,” a phrase inspired by martial artist Bruce Lee encouraging fluidity and adaptability to any situation, a stark contrast to the 2014 Occupy Movement protests, stationed in one area of the city as protesters camped against authorities. Then, emerged BE WATER, a movement utilizing an unprecedented and smarter “divide and conquer” strategy, strengthened by art forms distributed through online mobile platforms. This time, protesters widened their demands to call for liberal democracy and to call out police brutality.
Prior to calling out an authoritarian regime leader, critics should ask first what did opposing powers do help protect democracy? Or if not the political actors, what could have been the role of civil society groups, in the opposing end, banking from their non-institutional resources? The discussion resounds Gamboa’s claim on her [short-titled] paper, “Opposition at the Margins” viewing erosion of democracy through “regime defeat lens” thus, shifting the focus on the decisions [and actions] of the opposition.
Cabestan, Jean-Pierre, and Éric Florence. 2018. “Twenty Years After the Handover: Hong Kong’s Political and Social Transformation and Its Future under China’s Rule.” China Perspectives (3): 3–7.
Lam, Jeffie, Naomi Ng, and Su Xinqi. 2019. “Be Water, My Friend: Hong Kong Protesters Take Bruce Lee’s Wise Saying to Heart and Go with the Flow | South China Morning Post.” https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3015627/be-water-my-friend-protesters-take-bruce-lees-wise-saying (October 23, 2019).
“The Power of Poster Art in Hong Kong Protests – CNN Style.” https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/protest-art-hong-kong-intl-hnk/index.html (December 7, 2019).
Gamboa, Laura. 2017. “Opposition at the Margins: Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela.” Comparative Politics 49(4): 457-477