16 January 2019
Benny Tai (second from right), Chan Kin-man (second from left) and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming attend a screening of the movie Selma last Friday. The film showing was organized by Amnesty International. Photo: EJ Insight
Benny Tai (second from right), Chan Kin-man (second from left) and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming attend a screening of the movie Selma last Friday. The film showing was organized by Amnesty International. Photo: EJ Insight

The power of perseverance

Glory, the theme song of the movie Selma, won the award for best original song in last week’s Oscars.

The movie is a historical feature film based on Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights for African Americans via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

In his acceptance speech the singer Common tipped his hat to the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong by saying that the bridge on which King led the march connected people across the world who were fighting for better lives, including “the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy”.

Although the song Glory is about how American blacks fought for their civil rights, its spirit also applies to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In fact, the experience of how African Americans fought for equal rights by non-violent means back in the ’60s might give us some insights as to how we can continue our journey along this long and tough path towards democracy in Hong Kong.

In order to topple the existing system through non-violent actions, one key element is the number of participants.

Since the threshold of taking part in any non-violent resistance movement is often lower, it can usually mobilize more people. In fact, the number of participants in the Umbrella Movement exceeded that of any previous social movement in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, since the number of people who took part in the 79-day movement was not large enough to reach the tipping point, the movement was unable to attain its goal at this stage.

By referring to overseas examples, it is reasonable to conclude that the number of participants is undoubtedly a key, but not necessarily the only determining element for a non-violent action to succeed.

Another key element is resilience, which refers to the ability of non-violent action participants to recover quickly from crackdowns by the authorities. Being resilient is especially important when we are dealing with a strong and ruthless regime, and when it requires endurance and wave after wave of actions to achieve our goal.

It is because when facing brutal, relentless and pro-longed suppression from the authorities, protesters are likely to become demoralized and pessimistic, and when that happens, mental toughness and resilience often prove the most effective weapon in helping us hold our ground.

On the other hand, in order to sustain the non-violent resistance movement, protesters need to resort to different tactics at different stages.

There are indeed two types of non-violent actions: direct and indirect.

Direct actions refer to open, political and disruptive actions such as protests, demonstrations, picketing, strikes, civil disobedience or even occupation, while indirect actions refer to some low-profile, non-political and non-disruptive actions in daily lives such as wearing resistance symbols like yellow ribbons, street performances, art exhibitions and group activities at the community level.

Unlike the violent resistance movement, non-violent actions don’t directly clash with the authorities in order to topple the establishment; instead they seek to remove the foundation of support for the regime and let it crumble.

To put it more vividly, violent resistance movement is like trying to smash a building with a giant hammer, while non-violent action is like trying to let the building itself crumble by removing its base.

While most governments rely on public support to maintain their legitimacy, some survive on ignorance, indifference, submission, fear and apprehension among the public.

Given that, one important mission for non-violent action participants is to raise public awareness of the illegitimacy of the regime and social injustice, and to awaken people to the civil rights they are entitled to as human beings, so that more and more people become unwilling to submit to the regime.

If we can sway some powerful political figures or factions within the regime, our chances of success will definitely be higher. When the regime feels it is threatened, it tends to get more brutal, and the more brutal it gets, the more likely that it will alienate its people.

Henceforth, when the active resistance movement cannot topple the system in one single attempt, then it must adopt another tactic and switch to indirect actions in order to undermine the legitimacy of the current regime and consolidate the strength of the movement itself until the next opportunity comes.

When the legitimacy of the regime undergoes another crisis, then the resistance movement should seize the opportunity and mobilize itself with a view to toppling the system again in one go. If that attempt fails again, then the movement should once again switch to the indirect mode. This process will need to be repeated over and over again until the ultimate goal is achieved.

History tells us that if participants of a resistance movement can persevere with their cause, use the right tactic at the right time and fight brutality with intelligence, they will have a good chance of success!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 27.

Translation by Alan Lee

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe