Star Ferry: The Beginning of a New Social Movement?

(Ming Pao)  Star Ferry: The Beginning of a New Social Movement?  By Ivan Choy (蔡子強).  December 22, 2006.

[in translation]

During the clearing and demolition of Star Ferry, there were continual civilian protests.  A "new social movement" is apparently about to arrive.  What creates a headache for the government is that these protests are completely different from the "familiar" ones that the government is familiar with and had previously handled with ease.

There are five differences, minimally.

1. Ritualistic versus Cornered Styles of Protests

For the frequent Hong Kong protestors, including those who are labeled as relatively radical, demonstrations have become a form of ritual.  The goal is to seek some exposure on the television screen or in the newspapers pages, in order to show some results.  This falls into the trap of putting on a show when the "lights are turned on and the cameras are rolling" and then "leaving the scene" after the reporters "turn off the lights and shut off the cameras."  As such, there is only limited pressure on the government.

Those kinds of routine demonstrations are easy for senior government officials to cope with.  The most critical thing is that after the demonstration, the reporters will stick a microphone in front of you to get a reaction and you need to provide one or two choice sound bites for the enjoyment of the public.  The media and the public will then be quite satisfied, and there won't be any further questions.  You can easily get by -- unless you are like Tung Chee-hwa who was so hopelessly incompetent that he only knew to keep repeating, "Good morning."

But the problem with the Star Ferry protests this time was that the model and logic of the protestors were completely different and did not fall into the old framework.  On Wednesday, Terman Wong wrote an essay titled <The Long Hair Style of Protests Is Out Of Date> to sneer at the "Long Hair style of thinking" in which you "peacefully disperse" after the demonstration.  The new idea from the Star Ferry demonstrations is to repeatedly return and charge into the construction site, thus forcing the media to follow up and inspire more citizens to join their movement.  As a result, the nerves of the government, the politicians and even the entire sphere of politics have been pricked!

He also wrote: "During the incident, what amused this writer the most is when Long Hair and other members of the civic movement including Raymond Wong and Lo Wing-lok attempted to "intervene" in the incident, negotiate with the police and "manage the order at the scene."  They asked the protestors to back off multiple times, but got no results."  I believe that Terman Wong as well as the public could see the funny episode on the television that Long Hair attempted to be the "peacemaker" to separate the demonstrators from the police.  There was also bizarre scenes in which the "professionals" trying to be "well-meaning" to convince those "inexperienced" and "amateur" demonstrators that they will only injure themselves if they struggle when the police carry them off forcibly.

When the demonstrators do not behave routinely and ritualistically and when they genuinely want to take over the Star Ferry site and prevent the demolition (including getting arrested, posting bail and returning to the site again to continue the fight), they transform a game-like media show into a genuine political crisis.  The government also has to change from the sound-bite-oriented "political public relations campaign" to adopt a more serious "crisis management mode."  On one hand, the forced eviction at the scene could trigger more clashes, violence and even bloodshed.  On the other hand, if they did not do that, more people will gather at the scene and create more uncertainty.  The government was therefore trapped in this dilemma.

The biggest reason for the disarray on the part of the government this time was that they were facing a brand new set of opponents whom they know nothing about.  Instead of the usual Democratic Party and Long Hair, they were dealing with the unfamiliar Chu Hoidick (InMediaHK) and a different set of action logic.  Instead of dealing with the traditional show put on by political parties, the government found themselves cornered by this new action logic.

If you want to know more about the thinking of these people, you can go to InMediaHK.

2. Total versus Single Issue

Previously, when the government come to grips with political parties, their opponent is an organization with multiple goals and issues.  Thus, there is some space for negotiation and bargaining.  Thus, you can use the Tamar government headquarters to trade for the school voucher system, or offer a minimum wage for outsourced government labor in exchange for support of the government budget.  The cards in your hand are just as many as those on the other side.  Thus, it is hard to be stuck in an impasse.

But the problem this time is that the government is facing a group of people who came out of nowhere (at least, that is the case as far as the government was concerned) who only embrace a single issue.  They only want Star Ferry, and there is no space for compromises and political trading.  That was why the "wheeling and dealing" government officials were at a loss.

3. Repeated Games versus One-shot Games

The biggest difference in these two forms of games is that the former always leave some room for the other party because there will always be another encounter in the future.  This is a burden for party politics, because you will have to meet your opponent frequently and so all of you will observe the "social rules," such as not employing extreme language, or taking personally directed action (such as posting the opponent's home telephone number on the Internet and asking the public to call to complain).

But this time Suen Ming-yeung was facing opponents who did not share the concept.  They only want to fight you over Star Ferry this time and they don't want to engage with you over the long term.  That is why they did not care who you were and they employed many extraordinary methods.  I believe that this is what has been creating the most headache for the government.

4. Internet Mobilization versus Traditional Organizing

Traditionally, the democrats call for demonstrations through the various levels of organizations (such as through the Teachers Association, the local district branches of the political parties, etc) and publicity in various "democratic" newspapers, including using the newspaper front page to boost attendance.  Thus, the government was able to foresee what was coming down and be adequately prepared.

During this Star Ferry affair, the principals said that many decisions were made at the spur of the moment and the information was distributed by Internet postings and SMS messages to ask for people to go to the Star Ferry site.  There was no command headquarters and there was no commander.  Every demonstrator could stand up and take the lead through Internet-based mobilization.  The government could not see what was coming down.  A politics based upon the Internet and SMS has provided an unlimited space for social movements, endowing them with flexibility and agility.

5. Class versus Post-Materialism

Actually, the idea of the "New Social Movement" emerged in the 1970's and 1980's in Europe.  As society became more prosperous, the social issues are gradually transformed from class-based ones to issues based upon post-materialism, such as environmental protection or the collective memory as represented by Star Ferry.  When the nature of the issue includes ideology, it is harder to find room for the kinds of compromise and negotiation that existed in the old framework based upon political parties.

I don't know if the Star Ferry affair represents the emergence of a new social movement.  Will the next stops be the Queen's pier, Lee Tung Street, Yaumati police station ...?  If there really is a "paradigm shift," then the government, the media and the former social movement will also need to undergo a fundamental transformation in their thinking.