Why These Hong Kong Protests Are Different

Demonstrations in 2014 brought people like Joshua Wong to the attention of the world. These latest rallies are very different.

Demonstrators massed in Hong Kong over the weekend, demanding the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill.
Demonstrators massed in Hong Kong over the weekend, demanding the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill. (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

HONG KONG—Bonnie Leung and members of the Civil Human Rights Front have reason to feel triumphant. Demonstrations organized by the group in recent days have brought hundreds of thousands of people at a time to the skyscraper-lined streets of Hong Kong, chanting and marching through the city in defiance of a proposed law that would allow extradition to mainland China.

Any belief that the people of Hong Kong could not sustain their frustration and outrage has been definitively proved wrong this month. Leung and others in the group could take much of the credit.

Demonstrators had rallied earlier this month, and Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, at first tried to placate the masses with praise, thanking them for marching despite their opposition to the bill. After protesters then flooded main roads and police opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets to dispel the crowds, leaving dozens wounded, Lam changed tactics. She scolded demonstrators, comparing them to fussy children, and teared up as she spoke about accusations of selling out Hong Kong to Beijing. The reprimands only incensed people more, her tears dismissed as crocodilian.

Then, six days after one of the biggest protests in Hong Kong’s history, Lam announced the bill would be suspended for the time being, providing no timeline for when it would be reintroduced. Though it was not completely withdrawn, the proposal’s temporary shelving was a concession that had been unthinkable, even to the most committed demonstrators, just a few days earlier. It marked a deeply embarrassing retreat for Lam, who, in a humiliating press conference, repeatedly dodged questions about her ability to lead, the possibility of stepping down, and why she hadn’t moved to suspend the bill earlier—before the accusations of police brutality.

Hong Kong’s recent protests have drawn comparisons to the 2014 Umbrella Movement demonstrations, which saw young protesters occupy thoroughfares for 79 days to call for universal suffrage for Hong Kong. There are, however, significant differences, perhaps the most obvious of them being the lack of a clear leader. Five years ago, Joshua Wong, just a teenager at the time, rose to be the central figure of the movement. Time magazine put him on its cover, and the Financial Times called him “the teen doing battle with Beijing.” Wong was released Monday morning after serving nearly five weeks in jail on charges stemming from his involvement in the 2014 protests. Moments after being escorted from jail, he called for Lam to step down and the extradition bill to be withdrawn.

No single person has risen to Wong’s status this time around, but the Civil Human Rights Front—a coalition of 50 organizations, including pro-democracy political parties—has been instrumental in building and helping sustain the protest movement, and in the process has obtained remarkable results, even if incomplete by its own measure.

Each member of the group plays a different role, both officially and emotionally. Whereas its leader—or convener, as they call themselves—Jimmy Sham, is known for his impassioned, animated flair, Leung speaks firmly and clearly, often reiterating the importance of Hong Kong’s global standing and urging international residents to speak up. After Lam’s announcement on Saturday, Leung denounced the chief executive as untrustworthy and demanded she fully withdraw the bill and resign, as well as drop charges against arrested protesters. The legislation is viewed by many as Chinese overreach and the most egregious example to date of an attack on the “high degree of autonomy” Hong Kong was guaranteed for 50 years when Britain handed it back to Beijing in 1997. Wedged between a row of microphones and a set of police barricades in a park next to Hong Kong’s main government building, Leung, the Civil Human Rights Front’s vice convener and its de facto English-language spokesperson, said Hong Kong’s residents “have been lied to so many times, we have learned the government cannot be trusted.” At one point, she chanted: “Down with Carrie Lam!”

Bonnie Leung, third from left, speaks at a news conference outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building. (Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters)

The group would rather credit go elsewhere. Asked about playing a leading role in these protests, members I spoke to instead offered effusive praise for the people of Hong Kong and shrewdly thanked the government for decisions that kept people coming back to the streets. “The momentum was not built up by us. It was built up by the government,” Leung told me. “It is the government’s indifference.”

To be sure, many people and groups have had a role in these demonstrations. On Wednesday morning, protesters, some of whom had spent the previous night outside, flooded a main road near the government complex. Word had been passed by protesters on secure messaging apps and social media, but with little centralized organization. Soon metal barricades were turned on their sides to create makeshift siege ladders, allowing people to scramble over concrete highway dividers into the road. The scene was at first chaotic, but within a few hours, labor was being divided, supply points established, first-aid centers manned. Avenues of inbound goods emerged, snaking their way to the front of the crowd, where protesters carried umbrellas and wore hard hats as they jostled with police along a line of barricades. To communicate, demonstrators devised hand signals, relaying the need for gloves and inhalers after police fired pepper spray, before the supplies were passed from person to person to the front. Protesters moved with a sense of urgency. If the Umbrella Movement was a war of attrition, this looked to be a fast-moving street battle.

Still, the sheer size of the latest protests owes something to the Civil Human Rights Front. The first demonstration organized by the group against the extradition bill was held on March 31, with about 12,000 people showing up—an impressive draw and one of the largest turnouts of the year, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. But in a city with a vibrant political and activist community, where demonstrations have for years been a family affair, that was hardly something that would make global headlines. Wong Yik Mo, another vice convener, told me people in Hong Kong were dismissive of the value of those protests at the time. “And, of course, it was useless,” he acknowledged, “because the government and pro-establishment lawmakers, they continued the process of the amendment.”

A month later, however, they ramped up efforts to get the word out about the bill, and 130,000 people marched. “We finally reached the people,” said Wong, who is in his second year of involvement with the Civil Human Rights Front and said he was “enlightened by the Umbrella Movement.” The goal for last weekend’s protest was originally 300,000, then reforecast to 500,000; the group finally announced the participation figure was just over a million, whereas police claim 240,000 attended. Eventually, it “had to call for help,” Wong said. A volunteer was enlisted to begin fielding media requests, and a WhatsApp group was established for journalists, pushing out updates in Cantonese and English. That group quickly reached the maximum capacity allowed by the messaging platform.

Leung, like many demonstrators here, is a veteran of the Umbrella Movement. When the main demand of that previous protest failed and the movement stopped, she told me, she was depressed and suffered from anxiety. “I was willing to die for my city,” she said. The lessons of 2014, though, have been useful—protesters learned then “how to not trust the police, not trust the government, but trust ourselves,” she said, adding that there are now fewer divisions among demonstrators, and more unity in their aims and how to achieve them. Leung, who is in her early 30s and serves as a district councillor from the pro-democracy Civic Party, was deeply involved in the 2014 protests. She said they made her question what lengths people would need to go to in order to achieve change in Hong Kong. “I did everything I could, so what else can I do?” she said she asked herself. The shortcomings of that movement, she said, left her with a feeling of “powerlessness.”

Leung said that while the Civil Human Rights Front’s name is on applications for marches to win official approval—thus they are technically organizers—they prefer to see themselves as facilitators. Rather than dictating orders from above and attempting to exert too much control, they have left decisions up to the masses. “People know that we are not telling them what to do,” she said. “Instead we are trying to give them the correct information, for them to make correct decisions by themselves.” Talk of facilitation aside, however, the group has a great deal of organizing power. After Lam said she was suspending the bill, the Civil Human Rights Front called for a planned protest to go forward anyway. Asked how it knew that the people of Hong Kong weren’t satisfied with the concession, Leung said her group had a large social-media presence and had already heard from many people that “they are not prepared to accept only the postponement” of the law. That feedback proved correct. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of protesters again took to the streets. This time, most of them dressed in black and carried placards condemning the police. Thousands also laid flowers on the street where a young man died on Saturday night while protesting on the edge of a building. Local media reported that his death is being investigated as a suicide.

Leung’s convictions were echoed by the masses there, spanning all ages and professions. By the time the final protesters finished the designated route, more than eight hours after Sunday’s march began, Lam had offered a vague apology. Leung stood onstage dressed in black, with a white ribbon pinned to her shirt. The numbers who came out were “a record in Hong Kong’s history,” she said, claiming close to 2 million people in attendance.

It appeared a vindication of the group’s strategy too—that, as Leung had told me, less leadership can be beneficial. “Not trying to control,” she said, “is the way to make things less uncontrollable.”