"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"Even the unqualified may sometimes have quick success, but even the most clever must fail in a protracted war. Prolonged warfare is never beneficial."
History tells us that leader-less movements fail. That is the dominant thinking amongst strategists, military planners and social scientists.
But, some doubts are developing in my mind, given the success of the current Hong Kong 'anti-extradition' movement.
Students and others are operating with a leader-less model while using social media to coordinate their actions. It's difficult to gainsay their success to date.
Let's get one thing out of the way; the extradition bill is no longer the core issue. While it remains a pretext, broader issues get drawn in. Democratic representation, social mobility and a government beholden to a few are some of the problems.
And in all fairness, the people are right to express their displeasure. The government has failed to address these matters.
Getting back to the thrust of my article. Throughout human history, our societies needed differentiation of functions to coordinate our efforts. While some people reject the idea of a hierarchy, groups and cultures of any size or complexity have such structures.
Even our near evolutionary animal-relatives have ‘alphas’. We see that leaders emerge to coordinate and then dominate groups. In human society, these 'alphas' either appear by default, seize power or get appointed by formal or informal processes.
The utility of authentic and effective leadership is well-recognised. That's unquestioned. In assessing the current movement, I've used my old friend 'Sun Tze' as an anchor. He provides helpful insights, although he never had to deal with social media.
Sun Tze identified five principles for success in a campaign.
Spirit of the mission. Sun Tze recognised that you need a 'firestorm' of commitment to keep going because you believe your purpose is morally sound. No one can doubt the protesters believe in their cause. You have to give them 100% on that front.
Climate and weather. Sun Tze observed that climate and weather impact morale, plus the ability to sustain operations. In response to the hot weather, protesters are setting up feeding and water stations to maintain their people.
Terrain. Sun Tze asserts you need to select your area of operations with care. The protesters, for the most part, have chosen wisely, avoiding blocking roads for a protracted period. This tactic caused a loss of support during Occupy. They’ve also moved around the SAR.
Command. Sun Tze cites examples of the importance of capable commanders. In essence, he asserts that without a single or unified control, you give up a crucial pillar to success. We've already seen signs of this deficiency in the ‘anti-extradition’ movement. Random, unfocused actions, such as disrupting the lifts at Immigration Tower, discredited the campaign.
Organisation and discipline. Sun Tze says this flow from leadership, although the protesters have sought to achieve this without a leader. To date, they've had mixed results. The 'doctrine' of the campaign is part of this element. The protesters have a stated adherence to 'civil disobedience' principles.
They purport to be a non-violent movement. Unfortunately, without tight discipline, violent elements asserted themselves. The attacks on police and trashing of LegCo garnered the headlines, and with that public support waned.
Sun Tze has sage advice on strategy and tactics. He emphasises that to act in unison requires strict discipline. We've seen some examples of group discipline illustrated in this Reuters article.
Protesters are achieving high levels of coordination and cooperation, even using simple hand-signals. They've also deployed encrypted messaging, helping overcome some of the disadvantages of a leader-less movement.
On the other hand, some exercised poor control in protecting sensitive information. Thus material leaked to open social media platforms. Then in a gradual process, their discussions and planning moved onto public channels.
The leader-less model has the advantage of giving the protesters the flexibility to mount sudden actions. Yet Sun Tze noted that 'there are places you should not attack or besiege'. The storming and wreaking of LegCo come to mind.
Sun Tze and many other strategists recognise the import of choosing your battles. 'When to fight, and when not to fight' is a crucial tenet of any endeavour. Without a leader to decide such matters, sub-groups can choose to engage in actions that weaken the broader movement.
Finally, Sun Tze states there is a hierarchy of methods for success. At the top is defeating your enemy by strategy without actual fighting. Next is beating them by an alliance, third is a battle and last is besieging. He views the latter as a waste of human resources, time and effort. In Sun Tze's thinking, it can lead to the eventual collapse of the army.
In consideration of these factors, the protester's strategy is imprecise beyond the five demands. Moreover, the alliances they've formed are tenuous. Overseas support remains mixed.
Some countries have expressed backing, although economic interests trump everything, as few wish to cut-off from China. Beyond words of encouragement, it's unlikely foreign countries will commit overt acts of assistance.
With a leader deploying a long-term strategy, the movement could have avoided some mistakes. For instance, he or she would recognise the symbolism of keeping LegCo intact to make the movement look rational and non-violent. Significantly, the one leader who did emerge during the LegCo sacking has fled overseas. He faces a life in exile.
Let's accept that a leader spends a great deal of time and energy reconciling the conflicting elements within a movement. Thus, without that leader, the movement eventually fragments.
The lack of a leader also makes it difficult for the government to negotiate. Who do you speak with, do they have enough clout to make a deal and enforce it? If not, then you are wasting effort. Although, such does ease a 'divide and conquer' approach.
Which bring us to the big question. In the end, can the leaderless model succeed? History suggests it will fail as the constituent parts jockey to have their views asserted. When they feel their status and esteem goes unrecognised, cooperation breaks down. Political movements see this time and time again.
The protesters have latched on to Bruce Lee's famous quote "Be like water". An elegant and laudable sentiment, which has some tactical utility. Beyond that, the protesters must resolve substantial matters to agree on a unified way forward. For example, are there any grounds for compromise?
Perhaps predictions of the success or otherwise of the leader-less model are exaggerated. But for now, having killed off the bill, how to move forward? More street protests, more violence and more mayhem?
I'll give Sun Tze the final say because he makes many observations that resonant today and have relevance beyond their age.
“Make time your ally”. In essence, Sun Tze asserts that long campaigns will falter as prolonged operations take their toll. If an opponent with superior resources can blunt your efforts to draw you into a protracted campaign, defeat is inevitable.
Yes, that was the approach adopted by the Hong Kong government in 2014. It worked. "Move only when it benefits you"; this is the most critical piece of advice from Sun Tze that the protesters ignored. The sacking of LegCo was a gratuitous act of violence that did not benefit them. With that, they've fallen into a trap.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.