'If we storm, we lose moral high ground,' Hong Kong protesters warn

A day after a 15-hour siege of police headquarters and guerilla-style sit-ins that paralysed several government premises, protesters against the contentious extradition bill lay low as they conducted a postmortem of their actions and explored ways to sustain public support.

Soon after thousands of protesters left the police headquarters around 3am on Saturday, a post summarising lessons from Friday's protests and proposing future strategies was published on the online forum LIHKG, one of the virtual command centres of the apparently leaderless movement.

The post suggested the next moves ought to be "peaceful guerilla warfare" with relatively small crowds at government offices that did not deliver key public services, to minimise the wrath of the public.

"The warfare in fact consists of serial non-cooperative campaigns and besiegement, which aim at slowing down and even paralysing the government, to force it to meet people's demands," it said.

After the government did not meet the demands of the protesters, thousands took to the streets on Friday and besieged police headquarters. 
Photo: South China Morning Post

Each action should need only 2,000 to 3,000 people to allow sufficient rest for participants, according to the post, and effective information hubs should be established to allow short notice for them to gather and protest.

"We have to minimise impacts on ordinary people to avoid losing the battle of public opinion," the post read.

The proposal received nearly 1,500 likes on the forum and was reflected in a joint statement issued on Saturday evening by eight Telegram groups that had been active behind the movement.

"In the following non-cooperative movement, we will try our best to avoid targeting official departments that provide services around the clock and emergency relief," the statement went on.

"We will also try our best to reduce impacts on ordinary citizens, lower the consumption of frontline comrades' energy and raise their morale."

The groups, including localist party Youngspiration, vowed to show the government "endless creativity in non-cooperative movement" if it continued to turn a deaf ear to its demands.

These were part of the efforts to retain public sympathy for the movement that started on June 9, when an estimated 1.03 million people marched to oppose the extradition bill.

The march was followed by violent clashes between the police and protesters outside the Legislative Council building on June 12, when the opponents of the extradition bill tried stop the resumption of the debate on the legislation, which was to allow fugitive transfers with jurisdictions that Hong Kong lacks an extradition deal with, including mainland China.

As the city's leader refused to declare a withdrawal of the bill and meet other demands, such as retracting all references to the clashes on June 12 as being a riot, the latest protest kicked off around noon on Friday.

Hundreds of protesters cut off Harcourt Road in Admiralty for the fourth time in two weeks, and quickly moved to congest the streets around police headquarters. The siege - which included verbal abuse, egg pelting and a blockade of all ground-level entrances - lasted for 15 hours before thousands of protesters left peacefully.

Three major government offices, including the Inland Revenue Department and the Immigration Department, were also paralysed by protesters on Friday afternoon.

Protesters march alongside vehicles as they begin to occupy Harcourt Road in Admiralty on Friday. 
Photo: South China Morning Post

The government later appealed to protesters to express their views rationally and listed the services disrupted by their actions while police strongly condemned the siege at its headquarters and vowed to follow up on the illegal activities.

The police also accused protesters of obstructing an ambulance from accessing the force's headquarters, but were later rebutted by protesters who said officers took a long time to open the gate.

As tensions heightened late on Friday night, an online poll was started to gauge the protesters' will and most voted for leaving at 11pm. Meanwhile, anonymous posts were circulated on social media platforms like Facebook, urging people not to charge at the police.

"Hold your horses. If we storm, we will lose the moral high ground. Watch out for reversal of public opinion," one of the posts said.

Although the siege ended in peace, grumbles began to emerge amid the understanding and support.

A Wan Chai bookseller, surnamed Yu, said she was "very angry" about the protests and accused them of spurring violence.

"I supported them before, but on the days they protested, I lost half my business," Yu said.

Samson Ng, one of the thousands who besieged police headquarters on Friday, suggested his peers stick to peaceful means and to avoid negative labelling by the police and the government.

"Even though they say we are rioters, we should remain peaceful and put what we did online so everyone can see for themselves," Ng said.

Michael Choi, who works in a commercial complex near the police headquarters, said the protests had so far been "less disruptive" than the Occupy Movement of 2014.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a politics lecturer at Chinese University, warned protesters of losing public support.

"The leaderless, fluid protests may allow some maverick protesters to storm government facilities, which will cost them the moral high ground and may turn the tide of public and international opinion against them," Choy said.

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Jaco Chow Nok-hang, vice-chairman of League of Social Democrats, said that while there was no sign of public opinion reversing, the movement's participants should communicate better with the public and focus their actions on clear targets.

"It will be better if actions can be announced and explained to the public - even the potential participants - in advance. Targets of the disruption should be specific instead of, say, paralysing the subway," Chow said.

"But it's rather difficult for a leaderless movement to have a representing voice."

Neither the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised the two recent mass protests, nor the pro-democracy political parties, appear poised to take up this role.

Bonnie Leung Wing-man, deputy convenor of the front, said the group's hands were tied because they were not the leaders of the movement.

"When people want to join forces and make some contributions, we can help coordinate," Leung said.

Leung was also concerned that the government and its allies would want to tarnish the movement's reputation, with the condemnation by police on Saturday a warning signal.

"Starting from Saturday, some lawmakers and us will set up street booths across the city to tell the public what actually has happened," Leung said. "Facts speak louder than words."

Francis Lee Lap-fung, director of the school of journalism and communication at Chinese University, said the movement participants had been doing a good job in dispelling rumours.

"As long as the media are willing to report the facts and the truth, it is not that easy for the government to produce fake news," Lee said.

But Lee said protesters had to consider how long the broad majority of society would remain sympathetic.

"If the government doesn't make further mistakes, then at some point, the public may really want the protesters to retreat, but the point might not be immediate," Lee said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.