Two years after their outbreak, the 2019 Hong Kong protests call for enquiry into a new season for social movements behaviour. In addition to being one of the largest and longest sustained episodes of protests challenging authoritarian rule in the 21st century, the movement may set an interesting precedent for anti-authoritarian movements elsewhere, as it appealed to the potential of digitally enabled communication to nurture a sense of community based on collective, horizontal, and participatory decision-making.
The 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy movement: a brief overview
On June 9th, 2019, one million Hong Kong citizens marched on the street to protest a proposed extradition bill that would allow the city government to extradite suspects to mainland China. It marked the beginning of a protest movement that extended into 2020. The conflict was triggered in 2019 by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s introduction of what has been known as the extradition law amendment bill (ELAB). As the purpose of the bill was to establish extradition agreements with Mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau, its proposal led to concerns that Hong Kong residents and visitors could be detained in mainland China and be subjected to its jurisdiction and legal system. The scale of the protests forced Chief Executive Carry Lam to concede legislative defeat, first by suspending the bill on June 15th and then by declaring it ‘dead’ on July 9th. The bill was officially withdrawn on October 23rd. However, by then, the movement had evolved to incorporate broader demands of meaningful democratic change in the city. Large-scale protests unfolded throughout the summer and fall of 2019, marked by police brutality, indiscriminate attacks on citizens by pro-government thugs, and the government’s refusal to back down. Eventually, they turned into a series of recurring weekly protests until early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic put the movement on hold. Since 30 June 2020, after China’s imposition of the National Security Law, Hong Kong has been experiencing an even more unfavourable political climate, with protests activity coming to a halt.
Moving away from Facebook and Twitter: online media in the Hong Kong protests
The anti-ELAB protests exhibited certain features of modern, decentralized, ‘networked’ social movements: the refusal of leadership, the decentralization of protest activities, and the instrumental reliance on social media-based communication. Following a trend started during the large-scale mobilizations of the early 2010s, such as the Arab Springs and the Occupy movement, Hong Kong’s anti-ELAB protesters embraced the leaderless claim and used social media to favour the loss of organizational structures and embrace participatory horizontality. The spontaneity of participation and the movement’s leaderless structure – manifested in the slogan ‘no central stage’ (無大台 wu datai) – appealed to the public as the ultimate source of the movement’s legitimacy.
However, while Facebook and Twitter were the most popular platforms during the Arab Springs, and for a few years after that, in 2019 Hong Kong they were replaced by new forms of communication and social media platforms – most notably, Telegram and LIHKG.
As early research around the protests suggests, this shift could be linked to the new platforms’ design and convenience: Telegram messaging app, for instance, has been conceived to be particularly suitable to protests. Besides providing users with enhanced privacy and security, it allows huge, encrypted chat groups that make it easier for people to organize. Telegram channels also allow moderators to disseminate information quickly to large numbers of followers in a way that other messaging apps do not. LIHKG, a multi-category forum website launched in Hong Kong in 2016, is also well known as one of the anti-ELAB movement’s central platforms to discuss strategies and organize activities. The forum looks like a virtual community space featuring ‘channels’ and ‘lists’, through which users can easily glance through the most popular ideas on the forum and express their own opinion.
As protesters moved away from ‘traditional’ social media-based communication, observers started to enquire into the influences of Telegram and LIHKG-based communication on the movement’s organizational dynamics: as it turns out, new platforms may be serving, if not even prompting, the need for participatory and decentralized decision-making.
Digitally enabled movement dynamics
The analysis around Telegram and LIHKG, their specific conveniences, and the communication practices they enable, can provide insights into the anti-ELAB movement’s internal dynamics. Among the characteristics of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, at least three may be associated with the employment of Telegram and LIHKG: leaderless-ness, radicalization, and unity. These three aspects are intertwined with one another.
First, analyses of both the Telegram-sphere and LIHKG’s protest-related content have shown that virtually no user could continually take on the role of the top-opinion leader, suggesting the idea of a de facto leaderless movement. Researchers generally recognize there may be mismatches between online and offline movement dynamics. But the idea of a decentralized process of negotiation of the collective narratives, strategies, and tactics is still noteworthy for a large-scale protest movement – even if it is in the virtual domain alone.
Second, online platforms bear witness to the quick evolution of protest tactics, showing a trend towards radicalization. Radicalization generally produces a strong need for orientation among participants. As protesters started violently clashing with the police, the movement’s supporters needed to make sense of increasingly radical views and tactics. In the absence of a central leadership, a recognized central communication platform became especially useful to satisfy this need. With Telegram and LIHKG, participants were given a shared space to discuss their opinions and feelings about the movement’s way forward. This may have helped the movement community to make sense of, and even show solidarity with, the growing trend towards radicalization and militancy among some groups of protesters, especially in light of police brutality and the refusal of the government to make concessions.
Third, such needs for unity and solidarity among protesters are linked to the ability to maintain a coherent set of narratives and highly participatory decision-making processes. Such slogans as ‘do not split’ (不割蓆 bu gexi) and ‘we fight on, each in its own way’ (兄弟爬山，各自努力 xiongdi pashan, gezi nuli), found their fulfilment in social media-based communication, where emphasizing horizontality may have worked to legitimize the movement at large, including its violent fringes.
Beyond Hong Kong: anti-authoritarian movements and a ‘digitally shaped’ new idea of society
The use of Telegram and LIHKG by Hong Kong protesters in 2019 has interesting implications on the movement’s internal dynamics: the two platforms’ specifics may have provided protesters not only with a space for coordination, but also for negotiation and collective deliberation. As such, technology appears to have played a big role in sustaining the movement and avoiding disaggregation. But beyond the recognition that social media communication affects movements’ organizational logics, further questions need to be addressed. In a leaderless networked movement, where communication and organization coincide, the choice of where and how to communicate with the rest of the movement may be as crucial as the content that is being communicated. Such preferences entail a substantial meaning of the ideal of society the movement is aspiring to. Since collective deliberation is more likely to arise if the technological features of communication platforms stimulate users to constantly appeal to the community at large, Telegram and LIHKG may have been chosen by protesters to enact, in internal movement dynamics, the kind of participatory democracy they would like to see in society.
Importantly, many communications and organizational practices that were first tested in Hong Kong in 2019 are now increasingly being adopted by protesters in other non-democratic settings:. includingBelarus, Thailand, and, more recently, Myanmar. Given the extent to which these movements are more national than global, they necessarily reflect the specificity of their national cultures. Despite these differences, however, there are also remarkable elements of commonality, which may allow us to see them as part of a common pro-democratic protest wave that shares a similar protest culture. As such, deepening our knowledge of communication practices and internal dynamics of the 2019 Hong Kong movement is essential to understand the future of digitally aided protest behaviour.
 For a definition see, inter alia, Castells, M. (2012). Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity Press; Gerbaudo, P. (2012) Tweets and the streets: social media and contemporary activism. Pluto Press.
 See, inter alia, Lee, F. et al. (2021) “Affordances, movement dynamics, and a decentralized digital communication platform in a networked movement”. Information, Communication & Society (2021): 1-18; Urman, A., Ho, J.C. and Katz, S. “‘No Central Stage’: Telegram-based activity during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.”, online first (preprint 2020).
 Public opinion polls on this issue are available in Lee, F. (2020) “Solidarity in the Anti-Extradition Bill movement in Hong Kong”. Critical Asian Studies 52(1): 18-32.
 Walker, S. (2020, November 7) ‘Nobody can block it’: how the Telegram app fuels global protests. The Guardian. Accessed 03 June 2021.