The protestors in Hong Kong and Moscow are full of brilliant ideas - and may inspire our own democratic activism

We have been keen on (and we are inputting into) the non-violent direct actions of Extinction Rebellion, proving so far dramatically effective in bringing the urgency of climate change to the top of the agenda (with economists lining up to say their 2025 zero-carbon target is eminently credible).

But you’ll have noticed other eruptions of street protest across the world in your media. The dramatic clashes with Hong Kong democracy protestors are more covered, but the Moscow protests - similarly based on democratic demands, for fair elections - are also seemingly irrepressible. (We would also note the Istanbul “love-based” civic and political victories too).

What we want to point out in this post is the sheer creativity involved in the Hong Kong and Moscow generation’s protests tactics. More on them below.

But Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post is already wondering:

It may be that the young protesters of Russia and China are simply ahead of us. We’ve gotten used to the idea that political influence flows from West to East, but are we so sure that is still true?

A generation of Eastern dissidents has thought harder than we have about how to self-organize, about how to operate in a world run by secretive, kleptocratic elites who go out of their way to create distraction and apathy. Remember that they, too, are fighting regimes that seem in hock to moneyed interests and wrestling to cope with the pace of technological change.

It may be that we in the West simply haven’t thought about what tactics ordinary people need to deploy to compete in a world where money is offshore, power is invisible and apathy is widespread. It may be that we need to learn from people who have.

More here.

So what are these tactics? A piece in the New Statesman written by Antony Dapiran, a historian of protest in Hong Kong and clearly a participant-observer in the current struggles, outlines them.

We’d recommend you read the whole brilliant article (here’s a PDF of it, if you’re firewalled) - but here is a digest:

No more occupying – “Be Water!” 

“Hong Kong’s young protesters are eschewing the fixed, immobile occupation strategies of the past, in favour of a highly mobile, agile style of protest. A rally may turn into a march; a march may begin in one direction and abruptly change to another direction; the focus of a particular protest action may only emerge in the course of the march itself.

“In recent protests, small sub-groups of protesters dispatched themselves to carry out targeted ‘wildcat’ occupations of a government building, flooding the entrance lobbies, escalators and lifts. When the government declared the building closed and dismissed staff for the day, the protesters dispersed and moved on to their next target. As Bruce Lee said, ‘Water can flow, or it can crash!’”

Open-source protest

“The current wave of protests in Hong Kong is leaderless. This is partly a response to the Hong Kong government’s aggressive prosecution of past protest leaders… But the lack of a centralised leadership is also a result of online, organic tactics.

“Protesters use online forums such as LIHKG – a kind of local, lo-fi version of Reddit where users comment and vote on posts – as well as Telegram chat groups (the larger among these have tens of thousands of members), where the poll function enables participants to vote on next steps: should the protesters stay on or disperse? Protesters vote on the spot, and act accordingly. 

“Professor Francis Lee of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has called it ‘open-source’ protest. Volunteers with megaphones or walkie-talkies help to announce and coordinate, but they are not ‘leaders’.

“Protesters have also explained that this lack of leadership encourages everyone to get involved and contribute to the movement. In this way, the protesters are enacting the kind of participatory democracy they would like to see.”



The Hong Kong protestors use the strongly encrypted service Telegram to coordinate their messages - but this has both been cyber-attacked by the Chinese mainland, and itself can overload when too many use it in one space.

Writes Antony: “In response, protesters have turned to alternative peer-to-peer technologies, in particular the ‘AirDrop’ feature that every Apple phone is equipped with (AirDrop enables iPhone users to send images to each other over BlueTooth connection, without the need for a mobile connection).

Protesters have used AirDrop both to share messages with participants in the course of protests, and to spread the word among a broader community. Commuters on Hong Kong subway system may find themselves receiving unsolicited AirDrop messages with slogans promoting the protesters’ cause or advertising the next rally.

Prior to protests, Telegram chat groups carry the reminder “Remember to have AirDrop switched on!” Towards the end of a recent protest, as the protesters were preparing to again “Be Water” and disperse together, my mobile phone suddenly began to ping with AirDrop requests carrying the simple message: “Leave together at 7:00.”

Supply lines and sign language 

“The experiences of the Umbrella Movement and recent clashes with police have taught protesters what equipment they need at the front lines. To ensure new supplies can reach the front lines quickly, Hong Kong’s protesters have developed a unique system of hand signals, to send messages through the crowd about what equipment is required.

“A sign is passed onwards through the crowd back to the supply depots where goods have been transported near to the protest site, and the requested items are then passed through the crowd along a human chain back to where they are needed. These human supply chains have stretched as far as a kilometre in length, and are an impressive sight to behold.”

See Antony’s video tweet thread on how this hand-sign system works

Neutralising tear gas 

“The deployment of tear gas on Hong Kong’s streets has become all-too commonplace. Indeed, over the past weekend alone tear gas was fired by police in dense, residential neighbourhoods on both Saturday and Sunday, and on Sunday evening almost constantly over a period of some four hours.

“Part of the reason for the increased amounts of tear gas is that protesters have learned how to neutralise it.

“Small mobile teams of ‘firefighters’ wait at the rear of the front lines equipped with traffic cones. When a tear gas shell lands among the crowd, they race in to cover the shell with the traffic cone, creating a “chimney” that contains and funnels the smoke away. Another team member then moves in to pour water into the cone to douse the shell, putting it out.

“When a traffic cone is not available, water or wet towels are used to smother the tear gas shells, or a nimble protester wearing heat-proof gloves will snatch up the shell and throw it, either back at police or to the side of the crowd out of harm’s way.”

Avoiding a stampede 

“One of the greatest risks of injury or death in a crowd arises from the dangers of a stampede.

“This threat is compounded by the urban geography of Hong Kong: recent protests have taken place on narrow, winding back streets in the old Sheung Wan neighbourhood, or on mazes of overhead crossings and walkways that are interlaced across Hong Kon

“When police fire tear gas into tightly-packed crowds, or the rapid-response ‘Raptor’ police teams launch one of their lightning baton charges, the risk of the crowd panicking – and a stampede forming – is acute. Aware of these risks, crowds of protesters chant ‘One, Two, One Two…’ in unison as they retreat, and march in time to the count. This ensures the retreat is orderly and avoids what could otherwise become a deadly crush.”

The Revolution will be crowdfunded 

“Activists took out a series of full-page advertisements in newspapers across the world to publicise their struggle. They crowdfunded the adverts with a campaign that had raised over £600,000 within a matter of hours. Volunteers prepared and proofed the text in multiple languages, booked the advertising space and delivered the artwork to newspapers across the world.

“In the days leading up to and during the G20 summit, striking full-page black and white advertisements reading “Stand with Hong Kong at G20” appeared in newspapers across the world, from the New York Times to The GuardianLe Monde and Süddeutsche ZeitungThe Australian and the Asahi Shimbun, the Globe & Mail and the Seoul Daily.”

Dapiran’s full article - and another, earlier piece from the New Statesman - are both here.

And on the Moscow protests, from Applebaum again:

In Russia, where propaganda also attacks the West and derides democracy as chaotic and anarchic, protesters have focused very directly on the most fundamental of democratic institutions: They are demanding the right, simply, to vote for independent candidates in local elections.

Just as in Hong Kong, Russian protests are being led by younger people, none of whom can remember any other leader except Vladimir Putin: “I am 20 years old, and in my entire life there has not been a single day of freedom,” one of them told reporters, according to Meduza, an independent website that covers Russia.

They, too, are well organized, using up-to-the-minute apps to keep in touch with one other, deploying a phalanx of lawyers and a carefully planned social media campaign. Like the young Hong Kongers, young Russians aren’t just dedicated; they are organized, thoughtful and well prepared.

See also this piece from Peter Pomerantsev on the Hong Kong and Moscow protestors: “Around the world, authoritarian governments have been using disinformation to disrupt protest movements. The protesters are evolving to take them on.”