Talking Tactics for the HK Umbrella Movement?

By Andrew Junker

The Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central with Love and Peace face new challenges now that the occupation seems to have reached its conclusion. First among the challenges is, what to do next? How to keep the movement going in the absence of the tactic that made it a movement at all? I will speak to this issue from the perspective of my research on two other Chinese protest movements that flourished during direct and dramatic confrontations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and then later faced the dilemma of how to keep each movement going after confrontation ended. These two movements are the Chinese democracy movement of 1989, and especially its diaspora counterpart that mobilized after June 4th, and the religious group Falun Gong, which also mobilized outside of mainland China after homeland repression drove supporters underground. From these two cases, I draw the conclusion that unless Umbrella activists depart from the historically specific tactical repertoire of Chinese democracy activism, the uprising may go the way of June 4th: a wonderful flash in the pan of liberal spirit but ultimately a failure.

When the Hong Kong occupations finally end – which seems to be unfolding as I write – activists will need to decide what to do next. Will their tactics be suited to the challenges that lie ahead? Grassroots democracy activism in Hong Kong, as part of a larger tradition of Chinese democracy activism, is shaped by its own historically specific expectations for what constitutes protest and for what might be an effective strategy. These expectations, which comprise the movement’s tactical disposition, are a product of culture and collective memory as well as ongoing interactive engagements with opposing authorities. Seeing beyond the constraints of automatic, dispositional thinking is important for broadening the range of what useful tactics might actually be adopted. Although the mainland Chinese democracy movement has always been distinct from the movement in Hong Kong, it is illuminating to draw out some comparisons concerning what tactics activists might imagine doing when an occupation ends.

After June 4, 1989, mainland China plunged into a state of lockdown and activism basically stopped. Since harsh repression is not in Hong Kong’s immediate future, a more useful comparison is to look at what overseas Chinese activists, who could continue a movement, did in the years following June 4th. There were tens of thousands of Chinese students in North America, Japan, Australia, and Europe who had actively supported student protest in China. Many of them after June 4th tried to build a sustained democracy movement carried on in diaspora. Their efforts did not work. The overseas movement pretty much disappeared within two years. As with any historical outcome, explaining this failed mobilization is complex, but my research (published in the September 2014 issue of Mobilization) suggests that one part of the story concerns the particular tactical repertoire of the democracy movement.

When the occupation of Tiananmen ended, overseas activists focused on activities like setting up movement organizations, marches, publishing and media, and lobbying. Much attention went to centralizing movement leadership and creating impressive sounding organizations. Unfortunately, this emphasis on formal organization spurred disputes about leadership, and these disputes led to low morale and people exiting the movement. Furthermore, the main pathways into activism involved either participating in big collective actions, like a demonstration, or working through the formal organizations, which were notoriously troubled. Little in the tactical repertoire encouraged individual participants – or potential participants – to be creative and take personal initiative. Also, little in the repertoire focused on creating dialogues with and among fellow Chinese people about democratic reform.

Now let’s turn to the Falun Gong for a contrast case of a Chinese movement that continued to mobilize after direct confrontation with the state ended. Falun Gong is a religious movement that started in 1992 in China. The group became an anathema to the CCP when it staged a large nonviolent protest in 1999. The CCP banned the religious group shortly afterwards and then, for about 18 months, Falun Gong activists in China continued to protest the state and the state intensified repression. Eventually, repression forced domestic Chinese resistance underground but Chinese Falun Gong believers who lived overseas continued to protest. In contrast to the way overseas Chinese students of 1989 failed to keep a diaspora movement going, Falun Gong has been able to sustain their protest over time.

The how and why of Falun Gong’s mobilization is its own tale (about which I am writing a book), but one piece of the story is relevant for thinking about how Hong Kong activists might go forward after occupation. Falun Gong’s tactical repertoire emphasized a form of activism that the democracy movement never seems to have seriously considered: encouraging participants to individually seek out members of the public – bystanders to the conflict – for meaningful conversations about the movement’s cause. What this decentralized tactic amounts to is something akin to what an older generation of American activists called “consciousness raising” or what labor activists call “organizing.” In Falun Gong, this form of activism evolved out of proselytizing, and activists refer to it in English as “clarifying truth.” The phrase in Chinese, however, can be rendered as “talking truth” (jiang zhenxiang), so we might also call this tactic “the talking tactic.”

If you’ve ever encountered Falun Gong firsthand, chances are good that you’ve encountered it through the talking tactic – a pamphlet handed to you on the street along with an effort to engage you in conversation, a phone call to your home (especially common for people in China), a display table at a train station, and so forth. Although I have never tried to estimate how many of these conversations have occurred, it must be in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Also, there seems to be almost endless ways that activists will find to reach people to have more conversations. In one example that illustrates the tactic, Chinese-speaking activists living outside of China regularly make telephone calls to people in China to talk to them about the Falun Gong cause. A subset of calls especially targets street-level police officers to pressure them to be more lenient when implementing China’s anti-Falun Gong policy. The one-to-one conversation approach to mobilization is quite different from anything I’ve seen undertaken by democracy activists – with the one recent exception of Xu Zhiyong’s New Citizens Movement in the PRC, which has called for people throughout China to hold dinner parties to discuss reform. Perhaps it is a measure of CCP worry about people earnestly talking to one another about reform that the state construed such dinner parties as “gathering crowds to disrupt public order” and sentenced Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison in January of this year.

What Falun Gong believers talk about in these conversations is obviously not what democracy activist would want to discuss. But what if democracy activists adopted the tactic’s form and filled it with their own content? What if democracy activists, with coordination and determination similar to their Falun Gong counterparts, reached out to the bystander public to have as many conversations as possible about a more democratic future for Hong Kong? Or even (dare I say?) conversations about a more democratic future for Hong Kong and China together? Imagine thousands and thousands of conversations – in Hong Kong, in China, and even across the border.

The talking tactic approach to sustaining a movement has a number of benefits. It is non-confrontational and evades showdowns with the state, so it can be carried on after the occupation is over. Unlike setting up bureaucratic organizations that lead to factional bickering over who is in charge, this tactic goes the other way. Most of the movement’s work is crowd-sourced. Initiative and activism are decentralized, making the movement less bureaucratic and more organic. Furthermore, rather than only being an investment of time and effort for what might be a hard to realize goal, the talking tactic has some intrinsic and immediate rewards: occasionally, a conversation will lead to a meaningful firsthand human connection. These connections are important: they reinforce an activist’s commitment to the movement, help recruit new members, lead to stronger networks, and thus more tenacity over time. All of these are things the democracy movement has historically lacked in the dry spells between confrontational episodes like the 1989 protests and the Umbrella Movement.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements in East and Southeast Asia

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