As a top adviser to Hong Kong’s government, Bernard Chan (陳智思) is searching for any protester who can strike a deal to end more than three months of unrest.
In lunches with demonstrators and chats with friends who oppose the government, Chan often hears that the protests would stop if Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) even met two of the five demands.
However, nobody he meets can guarantee him that others will no longer hit the streets even after she formally withdrew a bill allowing extraditions to China that triggered the protests in June.
“You alone stopping is not enough — who am I negotiating with?” Chan said in an interview on Friday last week, before the latest weekend clashes.
“I can’t even convince the government to come to the table, because they don’t know who we’re dealing with,” he added.
The lack of a clear leader is one of the main reasons the protests have carried on this long and show no end in sight.
For demonstrators, that is by design: During the 2014 Occupy protests, the government was able to arrest key leaders and throw them in jail. Now the groups guard their anonymity and organize in online platforms like Telegram and LIHKG that are difficult to track.
“Some guarantees may be needed to convince protesters’ delegates to show up,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “On the government side, there is so much foot-dragging that I am not fully convinced that they want to dialogue and much less negotiate, meaning make concessions.”
The protest movement has drawn inspiration from Bruce Lee (李小龍), Hong Kong’s martial arts guru.
Weary of following Occupy’s strategy of holding ground, which led to fatigue among supporters over 79 days and turned its leaders into targets, protesters now follow the kung-fu philosopher’s advice to “empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water.”
“Now, water can flow or it can crash,” Lee said in a now-famous interview. “Be like water, my friend.
Instead of a non-stop sit-in, demonstrators now organize pop-up events around the territory and quickly scatter to a new location once the police use tear gas.
The strategy was on display when Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), the most prominent Occupy leader, was released from jail on June 17. On that day, protesters gathered in Admiralty, moved to police headquarters in Wan Chai and then turned to the Immigration Department building.
Wong was briefly detained again on Sunday morning.
For Beijing, the nature of the protest has made it hard to quell — and they have sought to blame foreign influences in the US and local agents.
Last month, China’s state-run media referred to four senior Hong Kong democrats as a new “Gang of Four,” recalling allies of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) prosecuted after his death in 1976. Then earlier this month, they rounded up Occupy leaders like Wong.
Albert Ho (何俊仁), a former member of the territory’s Legislative Council who was among those blamed by China for stoking the protests, dismissed any notion that he could influence the demonstrators.
“I hope that I could be so powerful,” he said by telephone. “All of this infuriates those who are in power, and they need to find an explanation and an excuse.”
Hong Kongers are not the first to eschew leadership.
In a 2003 peer-reviewed article, computer scientist Simson Garfinkel traced the concept to at least the 1980s, when white supremacist Louis Beam popularized the term “leaderless resistance” in an essay.