The protest movement that has sprung to life in Hong Kong now represents the most serious challenge to Beijing’s authority since the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Beijing is obviously worried: Earlier this week it banned the photo-sharing site Instagram and ramped up censorship on the popular Chinese social media site Sina Weibo to unprecedented levels.
But while the threat to Beijing’s power is real, the danger isn’t evident on Hong Kong streets: Rather than presenting scenes of smashed shops or violent confrontations with the police—the sort of images we have grown accustomed to in Cairo, Ukraine, and other sites of popular protests against oppressive regimes—the photos from central Hong Kong show smiling students sitting around doing their homework, passing out donations of food, and meticulously picking up litter—even sorting out the recyclables. What, then, is different about these Hong Kong demonstrators? And how might their almost exaggerated politeness help them against the notoriously severe Chinese Communist Party?
The answers to these questions can be found in the appropriately titled “Manual of Disobedience.” Published online several days before the Occupy Central campaign was set to begin, the document (written in Chinese and English) is part how-to guide and part philosophical mission statement. It details the movement’s tactics, the rules for nonviolent protest, the legal codes that may be violated, and the exact procedure to follow should someone be arrested. It also implores protesters to “avoid physical confrontation, but also to avoid developing hatred in [their] heart,” and explains that the protests must be a model of the values that they are striving to see in their society, namely “equality, tolerance, love, and care.” The protesters understand that these values will not only help win over sympathizers, but lay bare the illegitimacy of the regime if it moves against them with excessive force. These aren’t youthful idealists; these are savvy political operators who understand the secrets of successful nonviolent resistance.
The proof of this fact is playing out in the streets of Hong Kong right now. After the protesters’ first attempt to block the financial district was met with volleys of teargas from riot police, the people in the street did not fight back, leaving society shocked and emboldened by the authorities’ outrageous use of force. The next day, thousands more people turned up with signs supporting the students, condemning police tactics, and calling for the resignation of Hong Kong leader C.Y. Leung. Although it may seem obvious that a protest movement must win popular support to combat oppression, it is no easy feat, and something we have seen movements in dozens of countries fail to accomplish. The staunch adherence to nonviolence Occupy Central has demonstrated takes preparation, training, and discipline—a combination that’s very rare for many movements.
Most of the time, organizers aren’t prepared to handle the crowds that surge into the streets, and with no way to maintain calm and cohesion, too many movements have been derailed by a few thrown rocks or smashed storefronts. Governments seize on the smallest acts of disorder or violence as excuses to crack down. However, Occupy Central’s organizers seem to have come prepared. By issuing the manual and attempting to train their activists, they have maintained a united front and warded off the pitfalls that plague too many social movements.
No one has a crystal ball for knowing what Beijing will do next. Right now the government appears to be set to try to wait the protesters out, hoping that their presence and the disruption of daily life will eventually alienate the movement from wider society. However, Occupy Central has positioned itself well, almost no matter the outcome.
If, as many people fear, mainland authorities crack down Tiananmen-style, the training and the discipline the protesters have displayed will serve them well, galvanizing support and isolating the Chinese authorities. On the other hand, if Beijing realizes the dilemma it faces, it will have no choice but to negotiate with Hong Kong’s protest leaders, a show of weakness that may ultimately inspire more yearning for democracy and even further protests. For now, while it is amusing to watch the most polite protesters in the world keeping up with their schoolwork and keeping the streets clean, their politeness actually demonstrates why they have become such a powerful force to reckon with.