Protesters at Hong Kong International Airport on August 12 chant “police shot the girl, an eye for an eye” and hold up signs saying “give back the eye”, after a young woman was seriously injured during police firing of beanbag rounds in Tsim Sha Tsui the previous evening. Photo: Joanne Ma
by Ming Ming Chiu
by Ming Ming Chiu

For Hong Kong protesters, the choice is clear: be violent and fail, or use peaceful pressure and succeed

  • Violence may have greater impact, but its rate of success is lower, the history of civil resistance shows
  • Hong Kong protesters have to choose between surrendering to anger and violence or committing to peaceable ways to pressure the government
After the violence against Hong Kong protesters advocating the withdrawal of the extradition bill, they face a strategic choice: violence or non-violence? Violence, such as wounding or killing people, is more forceful. However, non-violence, such as picketing or blocking traffic, is more successful.
A few violent movements have succeeded, like the 1917 Russian Revolution and the 1949 Chinese Revolution. However, many more non-violent movements have succeeded, such as the 1974 Portugal Carnation Revolution, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and the “colour” revolutions of former Soviet states.

Of 323 political movements, only 23 per cent of violent ones succeeded, whereas 53 per cent of non-violent movements were successful, according to a study of civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. They studied political movements involving at least 1,000 people each from 1900 to 2006, and deemed a movement successful if protesters achieved their goal within a year from their peak event.

So, why do violent movements fail? Violent protests often have few members, elicit strong government actions against the protesters, and have less force to repel them. Many people believe in a movement’s goals but their morals or fears prevent violent participation. Driven by religious beliefs, such as “thou shalt not kill,” or a belief in human rights, many people are morally against violence.
Others are vulnerable, like the elderly, sick, or children, and fear imprisonment or violent retribution by the government’s police, military or paramilitary. So, violent movements often have far fewer adherents than non-violent ones, and governments can more easily dismiss them as outliers and eliminate them.
Furthermore, protester violence can injure people, which alienates the movement’s supporters, requires police action and ignites stronger government tactics against protesters. When people get injured as a result of violent protests, opinions turn against the protesters.

First, relatives and friends of a victim will often value his or her welfare over the protest cause. Second, some protesters and supporters see the violence as tainting or even poisoning their cause. Third, angered government supporters intensify their advocacy for suppression of the protesters.

In the face of protester violence, the police are duty-bound to uphold the relevant laws. They must detain and arrest such protesters, which reduces numbers, drains resources and disrupts cohesion.
If violent confrontations between protesters and police escalate into armed conflict or war, governments typically have more firepower than protesters and often crush violent movements. If a government jails, disappears, or kills many protesters, fear will often stop sympathisers from replacing them, thereby killing the movement.

Peaceful march change of strategy for Hong Kong protesters

Not surprisingly, governments have used agent provocateurs to discredit non-violent movements as violent and destroy them. In the United States in the 1960s, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police infiltrated a major civil rights organisation, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The FBI pushed the SNCC towards advocating violence, which alienated its supporters and facilitated its demise.

Why do non-violent movements succeed? In contrast, non-violent movements attract many more supporters and benefit from government violence. While hundreds of Hong Kong protesters have been violent, millions have demonstrated peacefully.

Furthermore, millions more supporters will not demonstrate but will donate money, strike, boycott or share information on social media, such as photos of police beating protesters.

Within around 24 hours on August 13, over 24,000 donors had given HK$14 million to Hong Kong G20 to support protesters. When millions of people dedicate their passion, money and action to a cause for long enough, they can paralyse a government until it meets their demands.

The government could conceivably jail – or even – kill hundreds of violent activists, but not millions of peaceful protesters and supporters without destroying Hong Kong.

Hong Kong extradition law protests: is this a colour revolution?

Even if a government punishes only a few people through beatings, jailing or state executions to deter non-violent resistance, it often backfires and spurs greater opposition. Angry at government violence, government supporters become bystanders, bystanders become supporters, and supporters become protesters.

After police used tear gas, fired rubber bullets and beat protesters on June 12, millions more people demonstrated against the government on June 17. After police failed to stop white-shirted triad members from beating 45 protesters and bystanders on July 21, government workers and former supporters of the administration publicly protested on August 2.

However, a government’s violence can also ignite protester violence, entice them to become a violent movement, and thereby excuse the government’s own violence as anti-terrorism.

Here, the police allegedly shot a woman protester in the eye with a beanbag round on August 11, which deeply angered many protesters and enticed them to seek “an eye for an eye” revenge. On August 12, Yang Guang, China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office spokesman warned of “ signs of terrorism” in Hong Kong, setting the stage for a brutal crackdown on protesters.
So, Hong Kong protesters have a choice. Will you surrender to your anger, commit violence and, more likely, fail? Or will you commit to non-violence, pressure the government and, more likely, succeed?

Ming Ming Chiu is chair professor of analytics and diversity in the Department of Special Education and Counselling at the Education University of Hong Kong