HONG KONG — As midnight approached on a decisive evening this week, protesters had paralyzed Hong Kong’s airport, but their movement itself was encountering turbulence.
Negative headlines about the airport seizure led international news. A frenzied mob effectively took two Chinese men hostage, ignoring pleas for restraint in the crowd, and then bickered among themselves about what to do. Clashes with riot police left a haze of pepper spray at the door of one of the world’s most vital transit hubs.
Protesters who have carefully curated their image — they’re known for clearing pathways for ambulances and for leaving civilian property untouched — sensed a defining moment for their movement, whose adherents say they are in the fight of their lives defending Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy against the mighty Chinese Communist Party. Now, they risked being branded as thugs, extremists and radicals.
A group of 70 protesters, motivated by an outpouring of posts on a Reddit-like chat forum, were among the first to step in to handle the image crisis. By dawn on Wednesday, they decided what was needed: They would apologize to the world.
Throughout the summer, a distinctive feature of the protests, sparked by a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, has been their lack of visible leadership — small factions organizing their own rallies, others setting up media groups, donating supplies, lending expertise on how to extinguish tear gas. Strategies and mobilization have been openly discussed and voted upon by tens of thousands of people on LIHKG.com, a messaging board, and chats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram have directed demonstrators based on crowdsourced information at rallies.
More recently, however, as protests have entered an uncertain new phase, a few influential groups of coordinators have emerged to subtly steer a movement that otherwise lacks a nucleus.
Distinct groups drive action
One of these influential groups, whose activities can be pieced together through recruitment ads, public statements and interviews with members and other protesters, is made up of about 1,000 contributors who analyze popular sentiment on the forum and communicate their consensus to the world through masked representatives and social-media pamphleteering.
The result, researchers of the Hong Kong movement say, is an almost platonic ideal of an Internet-driven movement: democratic, transparent, anonymous, without heroes or martyrs.
“You see the emergence of the truly decentralized, networked movement,” said Edmund Cheng, a professor of politics at Hong Kong Baptist University whose research group has interviewed 6,600 protesters this year. “We have to invent a new word for it. It’s closer to the ideal form than anything we’ve seen so far.”
The phenomenon is characteristic of a city with a 90 percent Internet-penetration rate — 95 percent of users access the Web with mobile phones — but also of its political dynamics, Cheng said. Unlike the Arab Spring or Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2014, local authorities have not shut down Internet access to cripple communications.
Activists’ tactics also have fueled a riskier approach by authorities and the police that differs from a pro-democracy uprising five years ago. Where authorities homed in on the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, eventually jailing them, their response this time has been to treat everyone as a provocateur. This blanket approach has led to huge numbers of arrests and the liberal use of tear gas by police, even in residential areas.
After police again declined to authorize marches planned for this weekend, many activists say they are worried about a sharp escalation in force. Online forums in recent days have lit up with discussion about how to deal with the increasing numbers of undercover officers dressed like protesters, a tactic authorities have acknowledged.
Chinese state media have been baying for ever-tougher measures to quash the dissent, pointing to the assembly of armed police just across the border from Hong Kong. Nationalist tabloid Global Times tweeted an editorial that said forceful Chinese intervention was clearly an option — though, in an unusual reference, it said any crackdown wouldn’t amount to a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
As demonstrations have devolved into running street skirmishes over the past two months, volunteer groups have created websites that aggregate video streams from news outlets and digital maps that show the location of police formations and exit routes, in case protesters are trapped by charging riot squads. Large groups on Telegram issue time-stamped updates to tens of thousands of users about where police have been sighted and where they are firing tear gas.
One protester, Gigi, who like many demonstrators gave only one name to protect her identity, said she does not plan where she joins each protest. “Depending on the information that is given ad hoc on Telegram channels or LIHKG.com, then I decide where and what time to join.”
Online debate leads to apology
The flat, digitally driven structure contrasts with the 2014 protests, when leading figures such as Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai and Joshua Wong, then a high school student, dominated megaphones and delivered speeches at a stage in central Hong Kong.
In June, as protesters lay siege to the police headquarters, Wong took to a megaphone again. But this time, many protesters seemed to pay more attention to the deliberations on their smartphones than to the icon of the 2014 movement who went to jail in 2017 for his activism, said Antony Dapiran, the author of “City of Protest.”
“There was a widespread feeling people didn’t like others onstage giving directions,” said Bonnie Leung, an organizer of the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that has organized logistics for massive parades this year, drawing up to 2 million people, but has otherwise avoided assuming any authority or leadership.
The 2014 protests were fractured by infighting between nonviolent demonstrators called the “wo lei fei” — meaning peace, reason, nonviolence — and militant radicals nicknamed “braves.” This year, there is a consensus that the movement’s various wings should resolve differences on chat platforms and refrain from descending into public, internecine conflict, Leung said.
As chaotic scenes unfolded at the airport Tuesday night, LIHKG, the Cantonese-language hub for protesters’ chatter, erupted with concern in real-time. New threads were created seemingly every minute, and posts by anonymous participants piled up by the second about the wisdom of blocking passengers from boarding flights and, later, holding hostages.
Many protesters worried about their international image, pointing to headlines on websites such as the BBC. In a popular thread, someone pasted two contrasting wire agency photos — one of the huge sit-in in the arrivals hall, another of an angry passenger clutching her luggage while confronting a sea of demonstrators — pointing out the one that looked “ugly.”
Some resisted an apology because it would cast the entire movement as in the wrong, but a consensus emerged that the protesters faced an image problem. “If we don’t do public relations, we’re dead!” said one poster, as others began seeking people knowledgeable in French, Korean and Japanese to draft multilingual apologies.
Hui Fung Chung, a researcher in the Baptist University group, said LIHKG offered a real-time glimpse into the amorphous movement’s thinking as they upvoted (or “pushed”) viewpoints they supported. One apology thread received 4,000 pushes.
“The deliberation is actually nearly simultaneous with what’s happening in the airport,” Hui said.
As the public debate unfolded Tuesday, heated deliberations raged in private Telegram groups to which more active protesters attached themselves. Michelle, 25, who is part of a 6,000-strong group that mostly handles Chinese and English publicity for the movement, said her group deliberated for about six hours, starting at midnight, to verify photos and videos from the standoff and debunk disinformation before they agreed to issue an apology.
By 6 a.m. Wednesday, some members began drafting the basic statement, while others were tasked with translation, proofreading and graphic design to make an image that would be shared on social media.
Rita, an administrator of the Guardians of Hong Kong, a collection of about 70 people that translates and broadcasts news in English on Twitter as well as a popular Telegram channel, said her group was also gripped by heated disputes. But members agreed to support the apology when they saw letters emerge from other groups and a majority view on public forums, she said.
“It is a leader-full movement,” said Johnson Yeung, an activist and former student leader who was arrested at a protest last month. “There are so many movement centers in this movement. Each different center of movement consists of several [areas of] expertise, and they will suggest strategies that will contribute to the larger goal.”
Different loosely organized “cells,” for instance, offer legal or public relations expertise, Yeung said.
A secretive club comes closest to forming movement's core
One of the most authoritative groups has been a secretive “citizens” club that has held several news conferences this month to speak on behalf of the movement. At each event, the group puts forward a different panel of masked speakers who sum up the consensus put forth by netizens on LIHKG.
The citizens group members were among those who issued apologies this week for “radical” actions at the airport.
The group, which consists of about 50 to 60 core members, recently started using algorithms to gauge sentiment on online forums, said a 23-year-old who spoke at a Thursday news conference and asked to be identified as Mr. Kam.
Although the group tries to accurately convey the movement’s sentiments, its rotating spokespeople acknowledge that their group cannot be the definitive voice for thousands of people.
“We cannot be a representative of every protester, for example, about the apology,” said one of the masked spokesmen who gave his name on Thursday as David Ho. “It is normal to have arguments about these issues.”
Although an array of groups — including organizers who planned the airport demonstrations — eventually issued apologies for this week’s mob-style clashes, several researchers said the citizens club appeared to be the closest the movement had to a core.
“They are, if not the actual core, then very close to it,” said Claudia Mo, a leading opposition figure and pro-democracy lawmaker. The group’s members are so concerned with security, Mo said, that they have turned down her invitations to lunch.
Although the movement apologized this week for affecting civilians, Mo said there seemed to be a greater tolerance for clashing with police in this leaderless, online-driven uprising compared with 2014, when the protest leadership disavowed violence.
“All Hong Kongers know the fact that it’s thanks to the violent or radical young that the extradition bill is actually dead now,” she said, referring to the now-shelved proposal that triggered the wave of unrest. “The Umbrella Movement petered out. But this time they’re fighting for their future; they’re fighting the way they want to fight.”
As the movement looks toward this weekend, when clashes with police are widely expected, radical “braves” on LIHKG have debated whether to establish a code called “militant rules.” One post recommended that everyone agree not to hit journalists, paramedics and civilians. If somebody catches a suspected undercover spy, they should alert people on Telegram immediately.
“If we’re fighting a war, then troops must prioritize discipline,” said the post, which received 5,700 “pushes.” “One or two numskulls can destroy the whole movement.”
Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin contributed to this report.