For all its courage, the frontline protest action of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement doesn’t have the power to beat China into agreeing to its five demands. The movement has to hope that, as China evolves over the next 27 years, it will change its attitude to democracy. But the pro-democracy movement must be ready to take up the opportunity of democracy, if it arises, by strengthening now its civil society institutions and developing its current and future community leaders. Community Organising offers a way to do this by building relational power, starting in local districts. Its participatory process will itself help to restore individuals’ mental health and wellbeing so they can thrive as healthy and productive citizens, thereby addressing a common interest of government and pro-democracy forces.
- PRIMARY COLOURS OF CONFLICT
- POWER AND SELF-INTEREST
- WHY THE ANGER?
- PROTEST HIGH ON HOPE
- FROM WAKENING TO WEAKENING
- NOT ENOUGH POWER IN PROTEST ACTION
- NEW STRATEGY NEEDED
- OPPORTUNTY FOR COMMUNITY ORGANISING
- TEST CASE: SHAM SHUI PO
- BENEFITS OF COMMUNITY ORAGNISING
- INVESTMENT NEED
- GOING BEYOND HOPE
I’m a Community Organiser with Citizens UK, back in UK from a 4-week sabbatical with Hong Kong Citizens. My goals were to learn about mass protest ‘mobilising’ and teach about structure-based ‘community organising’. In 20 one-to-one meetings and three workshops – with educators, local residents, NGO leaders and newly-elected district councillors – I talked to 50 Hong Kongers who have a strong interest in political change.
Some meetings and workshops were cancelled due to the corona virus outbreak. The frantic sourcing of face masks, and stock-piling of toilet paper and other household items, showed Hong Kongers’ current feelings of uncertainty, fear and lack of trust in their government. “We don’t trust the government,” a social worker told me. “We have to fight for ourselves.”
Many Hong Kongers are willing to fight, and their demands of government have been loudly and repeatedly stated. But the pro-democracy strategy is currently focused on anti-government protest, in hope of change, rather than relational power-building in readiness for it
Hong Kong Citizens a small non-profit organisation set up in 2014, by organisers who had trained with Citizens UK in London, has begun teaching the concepts, tools and process of community organising. With more resources, it can play a vital role in helping Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement to prepare itself for the opportunity of democracy by developing community leaders and strengthening civil society institutions away from the frontline – in the backbone of neighbourhoods.
I’ve learned about the primary colours of Hong Kong’s political conflict: the yellow and the blue and red forces whose fiery clashes at the frontline I’ve seen on TV news. Pro-democracy yellow takes on pro-government police blue, backed by China red. All Hong Kongers know what the colours mean. There are yellow shops and restaurants catering for pro-democracy supporters, listed on websites alongside blue and ‘neutral’ green. There isn’t much talk about the different shades of yellow and blue, although they exist. It feels binary.
Millions of yellow supporters have marched for democracy – at least a quarter of Hong Kong’s 7 million population. Wearing yellow ribbons, many march in black, symbolically mourning for the dream of a yellow democratic society. Thousands have been arrested for disobedience; hundreds have been involved in pitched battles with police.
In videos, men in white t-shirts attack with sticks people wearing black in a metro station. I met a mother who said she was attacked protecting her sons. A teacher, who knows well the area where that incident happened, told me those with sticks belong to triad gangs and were paid £300 each by the police.
I met a young woman who said she felt compelled to confront the police by her faith in Christianity. She said the Chinese Communist Party was evil. Her friend said she felt guilty for not returning to the frontline since her menstrual blood went black after she swallowed tear gas last time. Several young people told me they would fight to the death.
Some have already died in the struggle. Several I met said the number of young people committing suicide has risen dramatically in recent years because of the conflict. I can’t find reliable statistics. A former HK police officer sent me a link to a Taiwan News story about a man whose lifeless body was apparently filmed being pushed from the top of a tall building in Hong Kong. A young man told me his girlfriend’s best friend disappeared after being involved in frontline action, and that members of her family have disappeared too.
“Hong Kong is on fire,” said a former HK police cadet who graduated from a Hong Kong university last year and has now emigrated to the UK. “It’s been created by the US and the enemies of China’s President Jinping in the Communist Party. The protesters would rather die in the fire than give up Hong Kong to China.” A poster I saw on the Lennon Wall at a university read: ‘If you fight, you might lose. If you don’t, you’ve lost.”
From the vivid colours, harrowing stories and startling statements, it’s hard for an outsider to draw strong conclusions about the effectiveness of mass protest or the tactics of the forces against it. As a Community Organiser, I try to understand the world as it is in terms of power and self-interest.
It is clear that most Hong Kong people want change. A record 71% turnout in November’s District Council elections saw a landslide victory for the yellow pan-democratic parties, united behind the protest movement’s five demands: withdrawal of Extradition Bill (achieved), release of imprisoned protesters, removal of riot charges, enquiry into police brutality and, most important, universal suffrage.
It’s clear the blue HK government wants stability and doesn’t want to concede to the yellow demands (apart from the first). Carrie Lam, who leads the government as Chief Executive, has a reputation for not backing down.
They may be poles apart, but the interests of yellow and blue are clear. Neither wants to back down.
What power does each side have to compel the outcome it desires? The protesters don’t appear to have the power to achieve the five demands soon. They are up against a world super-power, red China, which controls the Hong Kong government. In 2047, Beijing will rule Hong Kongers, who make up just 1/200 of its population, directly. Under the current ‘One country, two systems’ Basic Law agreed at handover from the British in 1997, Beijing has dominant power over HK government’s Chief Executive and stands ready to call in the Chinese army if HK police can’t handle law and order.
It’s not easy to find yellow supporters who have a positive word to say about HK police.
I asked a soft-spoken 15-year old who plans to study Maths at Imperial College in London. “I hate them,” he said repeatedly. He couldn’t see why someone would join the police except to attack pro-democracy protesters.
It’s not surprising many Hong Kongers, especially young people, feel powerless and angry about it. They face serious economic problems including an acute shortage of affordable housing. Many in their 20s live with their parents. Accommodation is tight.
In Yuen Long, 20 miles north of Hong Kong harbour in the New Territories, residential properties sell at £1000 per square foot.
And there’s growing competition for jobs, with 150 mainland Chinese people per day coming across the border to live in Hong Kong. There’s also growing competition for places in Hong Kong universities from mainland Chinese who have better secondary school grades.
As well as worrying about their future livelihoods, Hong Kongers feel their culture is under threat. The look of the streets is changing as more shops gear up for mainland tastes. Beijing is in the process of making Mandarin, rather than native Cantonese, the main language of teaching in schools.
Teachers feel their power to teach properly is under attack. One told me he had been demoted from his position as head of his school’s Liberal Studies department because parents complained his students were taking part in frontline protest actions. He told me he had taught carefully both yellow and blue perspectives, as required by the curriculum, and some of his students wrote pro-yellow conclusions.
“I feel helpless,” said another teacher. “I don’t know how I can work with students who are excited by the frontline because of the restrictions on what I can say. They go fast, I can’t catch them.”
Another teacher said she thought that the government mistook ‘teaching of critical thinking’, a requirement of the Liberal Studies curriculum, for ‘teaching students to criticise those in power’. Research shows the opposite to be true: learning to think critically makes students more moderate. During my visit, HK Government’s Education Board sent a directive to all schools forbidding any chanting or singing or sloganising by students.
Young Hong Kongers feel as though the walls are closing in. Another teacher told me most of his better off students were planning to emigrate. Only a few, like the student aiming for Imperial College, have the power to get out. In the context of Hong Kong’s rigid, exam-based school curriculum, young people feel they have few choices. Many school students are driven to attend academic booster classes after school, some to sports or music lessons too, then have hours of homework to do when they get home. “Why put in all this effort now,” said one, “when there’s no chance of getting a good job and a home of my own?” It’s not surprising they feel angry and why some, emboldened like David against Goliath, feel drawn to the frontline.
The David here is not an individual. This mass movement shuns leaders because a) they can be picked off by the police, and b) they can do wrong, can let their followers down. This movement is ‘like water’, massive, durable and fearless. It is modern, shaped by social media with access to information that wasn’t previously possible. Is this type of movement a welcome paradigm shift in political change making?
This may be a refreshing idea for those who live in established democracies and who also feel let down by political leaders. But how powerful is Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? What has it won?
Following intense frontline action last year, the controversial Extradition Bill was withdrawn (although like much of the National Security Bill resisted in 2003, it may creep back in different legislation). The other four demands have not been won.
Those of a darker yellow hue, especially young people, argue all that’s needed is persistence and solidarity. Organise military-style support teams for the frontline, fight ferociously and the government will relent. Battles at three universities in autumn showed students can mobilise quickly and equip imaginatively. But what was won?
The pro-democracy movement was buoyed in November by the Hong Kong district council election results and the US Senate’s passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which threatens sanctions against China and the Hong Kong Government in case of human rights abuses in Hong Kong. Some yellow supporters have high hopes of game-changing intervention by the US.
“Hong Kong yellow will get the support of the international community,” the owner of a small yellow restaurant told me confidently. His sweet and sour tasted great, but he didn’t convince me about the international support.
Most adults I’ve spoken to are less confident. In the world as it is, Hong Kong is part of China, China will remain a world super-power, wielding its economic muscles across the globe, and will not be pushed around by its own Special Administrative Region. Western ‘powers’, including old ruler UK, are unlikely to muster the power and interest to help Hong Kong protesters battle with China.
Yet yellow supporters of all hues remain united in hope and solidarity. A social sciences lecturer at a Catholic college told me: “I don’t think (the protest movement) is winning but it’s important that it continues because it shows hope for Hong Kong people.”
Hope for Hong Kong? Will China allow Hong Kong to become a stand alone free-voting democracy, when in only 27 years it will become just another city in China, like Shenzhen nearby? Only if China chooses.
During Chinese New Year in January, and now the virus outbreak, there haven’t been many frontline clashes. It’s a good time to reflect on the gains and losses from the tactics of mass protest in Hong Kong.
For hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers, young and old, the Umbrella Movement in 2014 marked a major awakening of political consciousness, leading to massive turnout in marching actions. This was accelerated by the anger felt deeply after key incidents last summer, widely shared on social media, when unarmed protesters were met with excessive police force and, in separate incidents, attacked by gangs in white shirts.
Since last summer, frontline protesters have become more violent, more masked, and more distant from talks with government. Universal suffrage, the systemic change most desired by the protest movement, seems no nearer. The Hong Kong heritage protests of the 2000s and Umbrella movement of 2014 gave protesters the opportunity to hone their protest strategy and build a community of activists supported by a community of civil society groups. But today many civil society institutions are in retreat.
Churches have become more conservative. “We don’t talk about politics in our church,” said the minister of a large ecumenical church in busy Kowloon. “We don’t really dare to get involved in politics,” a Baptist pastor said. “We’ve seen what happens to churches who do that in China.”
In recent years Catholic priests have been disappeared or arrested in Hong Kong. “Many of the Chinese priests who entered the HK Catholic Church between the protests or 2013 and 2019 didn’t want to get involved in the politics,” a Catholic social worker said. “They took the position of green, not wanting to divide the church, and from then on, any social actions were on an individual basis. It’s easier to focus on delivering services to the poor, deliver food parcels to old people at Chinese New Year, than organise action for social justice.”
“In Hong Kong, the idea of neighbourhood is missing,” said another social worker leading an ethnic minorities support project. “Faith and other civil society institutions are in retreat.”
Schools, with their large numbers of students and parents, have also become more cautious. I met a teacher who had just stepped down from his post as Liberal Studies department head following a public argument with a colleague who said he was too liberal. “I was trying to teach blue and yellow perspectives by bringing different people into the classroom,” he said. A professor said he was worried about increasing self-censorship in his teaching and writing because of increased scrutiny from the university authorities, led by mainland Chinese appointees of Hong Kong government.
Civic institutions are weakening, resulting in fewer relationships between individuals, less support, and more likelihood of individual attitudes and behaviours which are not rounded by real communities and are neither effective nor safe.
“Young people have been radicalised,” said the CEO of one of HK’s largest charities. “They don’t demand dialogue, they demand surrender. Hong Kong people no longer believe in peaceful advocacy.”
Individually, the frontline is having an impact on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Teenagers and their teachers talk about a growing problem of mental ill-health among young people due to pressure from home and school to achieve academically, combined with post-traumatic stress from involvement in protest actions.
“Many of my students don’t sleep well,” one teacher said. “I can see they are tired in the lessons because of the social issues. They don’t want to do schoolwork.” He estimated that attendance rates in his school had dropped by 10% over the last 10 years. He said teachers in his school couldn’t access official data to prove it.
Another teacher said many of her students felt they weren’t loved by their parents. “We teach them to talk to their parents when they have a clash of views. We think that, if we don’t let students talk about it, they will experience depression.”
An increase in suicide cases among young people has deepened concerns. It isn’t certain whether worsening mental health is due more to academic pressure or experiences of frontline protest activity, but everyone agrees that living in a time of conflict is stressful and not good for individual health and wellbeing.
For several reasons, the anti-government protest has not had the power to win the five demands of the pro-democracy movement.
China is mighty and Beijing distant
Carrie Lam may be physically close enough for a relationship, but she is ruled by an autocratic state which makes decisions 1,300 miles away and has 1.3 billion other citizens to think about. It’s difficult to relate and negotiate with someone you can’t meet in person. Throwing missiles at HK police and government may give protesters some satisfaction, but it is Beijing who must be moved. In terms of the five demands, the power of Hong Kong’s protest does not appear to be moving China.
Lack of structure, leadership
In This is an Uprising, Engels & Engels argue that “successful movements, if they are to be sustained for any length of time, require some form of organization: leadership, administrative structure, incentives for participation, and a means for acquiring resources and support.” The protest movement is determinedly leaderless, ‘like water’, so no leaders can either mis-lead or mis-represent their followers or be picked off by the police. But leaders can grow people power and organise intentional action. Collective leadership can grow it more, and more sustainably. The current protest movement lacks collective leadership.
Weak civil society
Hong Kongers have had what Hong Kong’s last British Governor Chris Patten called ‘liberty without democracy’. They have not had a chance to enjoy the free assembly, free speech and other rights of a representative democracy, where protest is just one of various ways to express political views. In City of Protest, Antony Dapiran argues that Hong Kong’s precarious balancing of high level freedom and low level representative democracy is an unnatural state. Since handover 23 years ago, Hong Kongers have not had enough opportunity to build up civil society institutions and develop leaders with enough power to deal with powerful government.
Hong Kong is divided, yellow versus blue and red (mainland Chinese). This makes it harder to negotiate with government. Some say there are more blue sympathisers since the frontline violence begin last summer: more people either frustrated by the disruption of protest actions or worried that provocateurs are taking focus away from the pro-democracy goals. Divide and rule? It’s easy to imagine Beijing watching the street battles between yellow and blue and quietly counting down from 27.
Generally yellow supporters do not criticise frontline protesters. But when I asked teachers what these brave young people can win, they don’t have quick answers. They realise a gap may be growing between the fiery determination of the frontline warriors and the light yellow ‘Wo Lei Fei’ ( ‘peaceful, rational, non-violent’) who stand behind them. These yellow supporters don’t want to replace mass protest, but they do want ideas for new approaches to achieve their goals. Many are not hopeful that China will listen to pro-democracy demands in the short-run, but they realise 2047 is still far enough away for the possibility of Beijing becoming more interested in meeting new pro-democracy demands from mainland China’s growing middle class.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has shown it has the support of millions and can mobilise for mass protest. To win its goals, it must build another power, relational power.
Hold the anger, be patient
Anger, as grief over social injustice, is important for driving change. And violence has its place. “People don’t turn to violence because they are wicked or hateful,” wrote Gene Sharp in Theory of Nonviolence, “but because they see no other option for resolving intractable conflicts”. But violence is not the only way to express anger and can be counter-productive. “Anger must be channelled into something constructive and collaborative,” wrote Matthew Bolton wrote in How to Resist, “because anger without power tends to lead to rage.” The challenge is to apply the energy of anger to a longer-term, relational power-building strategy. Hong Kong’s protest actions to date have shown a high level of collaboration. This can be applied now to building relationships, sharing dynamic and effective power analysis, and patience.
Share disciplined power analysis
Yellow supporters have other powers beyond mass protest action. As well as being collaborative, the Hong Kongers I’ve met are kind, curious, creative and courageous. “You can’t scare Hong Kong people!” shouted the restaurant owner. These are essential qualities for effective community organising. Pro-democracy activists can meet, listen and act together to address local issues of common interest. But before any action, they must engage in disciplined power analysis, making plain the power and interests of both yellow and blue. This must be practised at neighbourhood level now if pro-democracy activists are to be equipped for relational actions at a higher level in future.
Re-organise non-violent action
Internationally, strategic nonviolent conflict has been critical in helping to overthrow undemocratic rulers from Chile and Poland, to the Philippines and Serbia, to Benin and Tunisia. Sharp wrote: “Violent crackdowns against unarmed protesters end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates. But nonviolent action demands of its ‘soldiers’ courage, discipline, and sacrifice.” What’s needed is to apply these strengths, which Hong Kong’s protesters have, to a new strategy.
Build relational power in common interest
A new strategy should be based on relational power and collective leadership, starting at neighbourhood level. “We need to strengthen our communities,” said the Catholic social worker, “otherwise we can’t change the political situation. We have to move beyond the church walls. It’s hard to focus on social action in the community when you’re focused on the next feast day.”
Although it’s rarely spoken, the colours of the flames in Hong Kong’s fire – both yellow and blue/red – have common interests. Both basically want healthy and productive citizens. And both yellow and blue/red have their own different shades, representing different interests. All shades must be heard, with fierce determination if necessary, to have their interests understood.
Watching a TV documentary about student leader Joshua Wong, who rose to prominence in student protests six years ago, I saw a meeting he had secured with the then Chief Executive of Hong Kong Government, C Y Leung. In the meeting, Joshua spoke loudly and repeatedly about the movement’s demands. He didn’t ask questions. Neither did C Y Leung. No relationship was built. I don’t know if anything was won. In one school, a Liberal Studies teacher, who had taught this as a case study, was warned by the Education Board not to do so again.
The Hong Kong government may, like China’s government, be more fundamentally motivated by paternalism than simply interested in protecting the power of the state. Dragging a billion people out of poverty in 30 years is a considerable achievement and China may evolve into a more liberal state, as South Korea has. Beijing wants to rule a harmonious and productive society, not one that is divided and economically declining, and this is in the interest of the Hong Kong government too.
Hong Kongers of yellow and blue have a common interest in Hong Kong being a good to place to be. They are divided now, with both sides counting losses, but a way must be found to act together for the common good.
In 1950s USA, typical church institutions were not bold in their push for civil rights. Most black ministers opted for a safer, less confrontational political path. There was division within black communities. For the civil rights movement to succeed in the 1960s, it was vital to mend fences within divided black communities, win over previously reluctant leaders. A way must be found to mend faces between yellow and blue.
Red mainland Chinese people must be included too. Anti-China xenophobia is strong in Hong Kong, manifesting recently in an impassioned campaign to close the border with China as soon as possible to keep out the mainlanders in case they are infected with the corona virus. A toxic social atmosphere exists in which much that is wrong in Hong Kong is blamed on China. Memories of Mao’s Communist China, from which many mainlanders fled to Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s, are still raw in many families. Mainland Chinese immigrants must be included because they will eventually be the majority.
Fight for Liberal Studies in school
‘Critical thinking’ was not taught by the British when they ruled Hong Kong. It needs to be learned at school and also through experiences of community organising in the neighbourhood. Students need experiential learning about political relationships, talking to powerholders. This can be done in Liberal Studies, where it is currently a school curriculum requirement. But it’s not easy. One teacher said it was hard to teach Liberal Studies because ‘Chinese culture doesn’t believe in impartiality, non-bias’.
“Our exam culture is rigid,” said a secondary headteacher, “but students need life skills building for a harmonised society.” A teacher in another school told me: “We teachers need to learn we should not control students but nurture them. We must help students exercise their political muscles.” Another said: “Our students talk about politics anyway. They argue yellow versus blue, and this leads to bullying. If we talk with them, we can avoid polarisation.” Teaching about holding power-holders to account is an important part of civic education, so Liberal Studies, which has been subject to regressive government revisions in recent years, needs to be defended.
Build relationships with district councillors
Following Hong Kong’s district council elections in November, there is a new opportunity to organise civil society leaders to have powerful relationships with newly elected district councillors. “District Councillors need to know they can’t just spend time on political posturing,” said a widely respected CEO of a large Hong Kong charity. “They need to deliver something concrete.” The district councillors I met are positive about this idea. “There’s not enough platform for those who want to make a change”, said one of those newly elected. “We as councillors should do more to promote ways to do it.”
A prominent leader in the 2014 Occupy Central movement told me he thought broad-based Community Organising could play an important role in supporting newly-elected district councillors. “It’s good to work on issues which affect blue as well as yellow,” he said, citing the success of a recent neighbourhood campaign against a golf course development on Hong Kong Island. “We should work with the new district councillors as they are inexperienced and want to find new ways of representing people democratically, including working with them between elections.” This protest leader talked positively about winning democratic change in Hong Kong and went further: “This will ultimately serve as a model for China as it transitions from its current authoritarianism.”
Community Organising offers a vital strand of a new strategy for the pro-democracy movement. It is focused on strengthening civil society institutions, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, rather than only fighting at the frontline of conflict with government.
Hong Kong Citizens was set up in 2014 with a small team trained by Citizens UK.
Like other pro-democracy organisations, it wants political freedom in Hong Kong. But its colour is violet.
Its primary interest is to build relational power for a stronger civil society that can win systemic changes – through a series of social justice wins at neighbourhood level – through dialogue. Its aims are to develop leaders and effective citizens, strengthen civic institutions and create systemic change.
A healthy democracy needs all three aims to be achieved so that civil society institutions and leaders can take their rightful place alongside the market and the state. This means embracing leadership, not abandoning it.
The Community Organising approach isn’t soft. It requires the tactical brilliance and resilience of any powerful military campaign. It’s not water or fire, it’s a disciplined method with its own concepts (power and self-interest), tools (one-to-one meetings and power analysis) and process of talking to power-holders through a broad based alliance of diverse member institutions. This is a method developed in USA 80 years ago and now practiced in several countries, including UK.
By engaging in Community Organising, yellow supporters can plan now and win soon a series of neighbourhood actions – neither simply yellow nor blue – which build the power of civil society to negotiate with the state for universal suffrage.
Community Organising would be part of a three-pronged strategy.
1. Long term: wait for systemic change opportunity
Wait for an opportunity to arise as China changes over the next 27 years (the deadline for delivering the ‘ultimate aim’ of universal suffrage). 27 years is a long time. A strong civil society will be needed to grab the opportunity when it comes. It won’t be built overnight.
2. Medium term: strengthen civil society
Plan on building a broad-based alliance with diverse member institutions, contributing people for social action and money for a professional Community Organiser to train and support them. Institutions, and the social relationships within and around them, are important. This is especially true in an age of digital communication, where spontaneous face-to-face meetings happen less often, and there is more actual social isolation.
3. Short term: develop individual leaders
Now have one-to-one meetings with local people who you think are interested in creating social change and have, or have the capacity to have, followers. Develop them as leaders. Give special attention to young people because they are the future and their leadership inspires schools, which have lots of people power, to take and enjoy social action locally.
The diverse district of Sham Shui Po, where Hong Kong Citizens has already begun to build an alliance, could become a test case which demonstrates the powerful impact of local community organising. Click here.
There are many potential benefits to Community Organising in Hong Kong:
- Delivery of student learning outcomes required by Hong Kong schools’ Civic, National & Moral Education curriculum, particularly developing social responsibility and respect for institutions.
- Developing citizens’ understanding of society and leadership skills which can be transferred to leadership roles in industry and civil society.
- Improving mental health through fulfilling outside learning experiences to compliment classroom-based studies and reduce academic exam stress. “Leadership is good for mental health,” one of the teachers said. “My students have seen a lot of injustice and think they have no power to change anything.”
- Strengthening existing civil society institutions by making them more visible and appealing to people who are feeling lonely and unconnected in an increasingly digital world.
- Reducing xenophobia towards mainland Chinese people by forming and strengthening relationships through shared actions.
There are barriers to Community Organising in Hong Kong, but also ways to overcome them.
- It’s counter cultural. Some sayCommunity Organising works only in established democracies, where individuals can vote and civil society can flourish; that Hong Kong people are not used to talking to people they don’t know; that the very idea of one-to-ones is counter-cultural. But i you observe Hong Kongers role-playing negotiation with power-holders – given permission and time to work themselves into the roles – it’s clear they are skilful at it and feel fulfilled by it.
- We don’t trust leaders. The social movement doesn’t trust leaders, it moves ‘like water’, it won’t support a leadership-based model. This is a significant barrier, particularly among young people. When they see collective leadership in action, they will experience its protection against individual leaders either leading badly or being led away by the state.
- We can’t find leaders. “There are a lot of community leaders, but you must convince them you have a better strategy,” said the CEO of a large charity. “They tend to be either protesting or service delivery. They are not very bargainable.” Organisers must find them, listen carefully to them, be realistic about their power and self-interest and, if they are powerful, negotiate hard for their inclusion in a broad-based alliance.
- We can’t leave the frontline. This approach is too soft, we must fight physically for attention (as well as self-defence). Accept that violence for good ends be justified, but argue for a cold analysis of the results against intended goals. Good energy must be put to good use. A multi-pronged strategy is necessary.
- Our civil society institutions are too scared. It is hard to strengthen a civic institution through local social action when the state feels challenged politically and has the power to cut vital funding. It is important to work on less political approaches based on common interest. Talking with like-minded people, confident that you’re acting in a power-holder’s interest, helps to build courage. Leaders must be audacious.
- We are too busy with work. Community Organising does not require lots of time from everyone. Individuals can make important contributions, like joining an issues workshop or joining a team to meet with a power-holder, which can be done in a few hours. But it will require some time and commitment, like the front line. It’s not a soft touch.
- Our young people must not leave their studies. Some parents and teachers are concerned that a few hours of community organising will be bad for their students’ academic outcomes. But breaks from desk-based studies are proven to be important for effective study and experiential learning in the community is a requirement of the Liberal Studies curriculum.
Community Organising involves training in the core concepts of power and self-interest, the tools of one-to-one meetings and power analysis, and the process of research, action and evaluation.
One million Hong Kong dollars (UK£100,000) is needed to employ a professional Community Organiser to work for two to three years, with training and support from Citizens UK. This Lead Organiser will build a network of broad-based alliances, district by district, each served eventually by a District Organiser.
To attract a funder, a strong case study is needed to show the positive impact of broad-based organising in action: healthier and more responsible young people, more confident and effective schools and faith organisations, more improvements to local community facilities and inclusion of marginalised groups. This case study will be one of the intended outcomes of a broad-based action to reduce the mental health and wellbeing issues faced by young people who live or go to school in Sham Shui Po district. It will show that building relational power is good for the community and good for its government.
In order to demonstrate the broad-based alliance in Sham Shui Po, $HK200,000 (UK£20,000) is needed to deliver a Round table project with district councillors in 2020, their first year in office. This can be funded directly by a district council which is interested in receiving broad-based presentations of neighbourhood issues in order to assist its own decision making. Some of the funding can be used to train people in churches, schools and other civil society organisations, in the process of community organising (draft funding proposal).
Hong Kong’s anti-government protests do not on their own have the power to move China. Sticks and stones won’t break its bones. The pro-democracy movement must hope that China, over the next 27 years, will move towards democracy of its own accord.
But hope is not enough. What’s needed is the hope of China moving towards democracy combined with a new, intentional organising of civil society to prepare for the opportunity of democracy.
The process of organising neighbourhoods to experience power, by negotiating with power-holders on local issues, will increase the political capacity of individuals and institutions by building the relationships, skills and power they will need to engage effectively in democracy when the opportunity arises. Democracy is not just about having and using a vote.
The effect of participation in local campaigns for change will be to reduce the stress and anxiety experienced by individuals who feel powerless, thereby addressing a growing health problem in Hong Kong.
Community Organising can help Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement go beyond its current position of hopeful protest to a stronger position of preparedness for the opportunity of democracy. Neither momentum-driven protest nor structure-based community organising can guarantee winning universal suffrage and the pro-democracy movement’s other demands. But together, with organising following on the heels of protest, they can increase the probability of realising those outcomes and simultaneously deliver a series of positive political experiences for individuals and institutions at neighbourhood level. It’s about building relational power that is broad-based and enduring.
Community Organising can go beyond hope of change by delivering real experiences of democracy in action, building now for a better future in Hong Kong.