Hong Kong no longer sees mass protests of the kind that swept the city in 2019, and under a sweepingly repressive national security law, it’s unclear that it will again anytime soon. But the body of knowledge citizens built over months of leaderless and “leaderful” protests lives on.
Now there’s an effort underway to crowdsource an archive of that invaluable know-how as a manual for future protests, before it fades from memory.
The project, dubbed “The HK19 Manual,” is publicly available on Google Docs. In the latest iteration of the #MilkTeaAlliance—the solidarity campaign that took shape last year between activists in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—the protest manual has already been partially translated into Burmese and widely shared among protesters in Myanmar, who are demonstrating against the Feb. 1 military coup.
Quartz spoke with a key contributor to the manual, who declined to be named and will be identified here as HK19 because such activities are potentially liable to criminal prosecution under the security legislation. (Even without such draconian legislation, activists in Asia can face repercussions for working on protest toolkits.)
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
QZ: Why did you decide to put together a protest manual?
HK19: When you’re looking into the literature of what’s being written about Hong Kong, you’ll see reporters reporting about the “what,” you’ll see analysts and talking heads talking about the “why,” but you’ll see very few people talking about the “how.” You don’t really see the nitty-gritty of how you would manage [the protest movement].
With something like the school buses [an underground network of trusted getaway cars for protesters], if you think about it it’s logistically quite difficult to match a few hundred [drivers] with a few thousand [protesters], and all of this needs to happen quite securely…
I’ve been thinking about this since last summer, and started working on it in December. But it really came together because there’s a need, because I know people in Myanmar.
There are two levels in the reaching out to Burma. There’s the citizen to citizen, person to person kind of moral support. As someone from Hong Kong, I remember the times when people from other countries held up the signs that offer support. It doesn’t do very much in reality but it is encouraging. And of course, this is just paying it forward to a different group of people. So, one stone, two birds.
QZ: The manual is extremely detailed. It lists 60 different roles, from frontline protesters who put out tear gas canisters and build barricades, to translators and public relations people, to medics and mappers. How did you collate all this information?
HK19: [Different Hong Kong protest groups] all have very similar methods. Other groups that I’ve spoken with also have this constant improvement or maybe obsession. So what we are able to put down now is definitely very different from what we would be able to put down in October 2019.
One thing that struck me is how all groups take it very seriously. It’s like running a business. You need to find good people, you need to keep good people, you need to make them better people. You often need to find the resources, maybe its funding, cars, supplies. And they are fairly boring elements, I suppose. But they are precisely the thing that you need, and you need to do that in a secure way for a long time, while juggling maybe your actual business.
QZ: What have been some initial reactions to the manual?
HK19: One of the first responses I saw [on social media] was something about arrogance—that these are people who feel they have all the solutions. And of course that’s also associated with the perception that the Hong Kong movement is a failure. People usually don’t mind arrogance when someone succeeds.
That feeling [of whether Hong Kongers are in any position to teach others how to protest] has come across my mind many, many times. But I am quite optimistic despite all of this. When you’re talking about changing the society, if you were to look at civil disobedience movements, they have a success rate that is a coin toss after five years. So it’s too early to tell.
A lot of what we’re seeing—the national security law, the increasingly draconian legislation, the distortion of what we used to know—don’t strike me as a signal of strength from the central government. But once you start seeing a social movement as not an explosion, though initially it looks like one, but as a slow burn…the longer we can sustain our unity, the longer we can keep it burning, and the better our chances are…
The reality is that not all of us will be around to see [the final outcome]. So that’s really the original intention of all of this: to leave something for someone to pick up where we left off. And it’s equally good if it can be used elsewhere. Having read about other social movements and protests, I know that what people have done has a direct impact [on later generations]. For example, Hong Kong’s human chain was a direct echo of the Baltic Way people did 30 years ago to the day.
“The longer we can sustain our unity, the longer we can keep it burning, and the better our chances are.”
QZ: Could you talk more about the importance of documenting the “how” of protest movements?
HK19: You’ll see an obvious division of labor like medical supplies and how medical supplies are coordinated in Tahrir Square [the site of massive protests in Egypt in 2011] or Gezi Park [in Turkey], but that’s mostly the extent of examples you get. Of course you’ll have people who bring food or supplies. But the organization there is a mystery.
Probably it started out as a mystery for us as well. You might start by bringing supplies to Harcourt Road [in Hong Kong]. But once you last past the second month…everything has very careful planning going into it. If they don’t have that organization, they will need to go through trial and error. There are operational issues that we haven’t solved, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to communicate what we haven’t been able to solve. Because that is as valuable for people to know and think through, instead of being an unknown-unknown.
QZ: What broader lessons about social movements and civil society have you learned from this project?
HK19: If there’s one thing that’s striking to me, it would be how important it is to participate in a society even well before a community gets into a crisis.
Because time and time again what you see is groups forming, not because people want to do one thing together but because they already have a community built, and that community happened to have an aspiration. And a lot of these groups are apolitical. They are just people who knew one another and they have built a network, bridging ties among unlikely friends.
Maybe that says something about how a healthy and resilient society needs to be structured. And I suppose it can go both ways. You can structure a society that has the capacity to come together when you need to, but on the flip side if you can atomize society, then it can be a very good thing for a government that wants to stay in power forever.