HONG KONG – A crowd of protesters in T-shirts and masks sprinted through the streets, tear gas mushrooming behind them.
Suddenly, a cry came from behind: “Inhaler!”
Everyone froze, spinning on their heels.
“Inhaler! Inhaler!” they chanted in unison.
Within twenty seconds, two young women sprinted forward, pulling inhalers from their bags and passing them along.
“OK!” yelled the youth in the distance. The paused protesters spun and ran again, smoke fumes licking at their backs.
Hong Kong’s protesters had mobilized on Wednesday as if they’d been trained for years. Anyone who needed a helmet, mask, or umbrella would yell to the sky. Those around them would stop, passing the message instantly through the crowds with unified chants and matching hand motions: patting their heads for a helmet, cupping their eyes for goggles, rolling their arms for cling wrap.
An outsider might assume there must be some administrative genius at the core, directing the tens of thousands of protesters who surrounded the legislative building to prevent discussion of an extradition bill that – if approved – would send people to China at its request.
But Hong Kong activism has evolved.
Five years after the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014, in which high-profile individuals led mass occupation of the city center, only to be arrested or exiled in the aftermath, Hong Kong’s youth have decentralized their protests. They are impeccably organized, yet no one is in charge.
“This is a new model of Hong Kong protests,” said Baggio Leung, 32, convener of Youngspiration, a localist political group formed after the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Leung was elected to the legislative council in 2016, but disqualified for deliberately mispronouncing “China” in his swearing-in oath.
Several other pro-democratic legislators have also been disqualified from serving in the legislative council, some imprisoned along with civil society and student leaders after having participated in the Umbrella Movement.
This time around, protesters are deliberately leaderless, Leung said.
“It looks quite organized and well-disciplined. But I’m quite sure you cannot find anyone managing the whole thing,” Leung said, adding that the protesters’ logistical practices – bringing supplies, setting up medical stations, rapid mass communication – were “in-built” from the last few years of practice.
“It’s just like a machine or a self-learning AI that can run by themselves,” he said.
Many groups are participating in a growing wave of grassroots dissent. Unions, student associations, churches, and activist organizations like Demosisto, a non-violent resistance group led by Joshua Wong, the now-imprisoned face of the Umbrella Movement, have all called on members to marches, rallies, and other forms of direct action.
On Friday morning, Demosisto activists flooded into a metro station at rush hour. Seven protesters knelt on the floor, calling the white-collar workers walking by to join a planned anti-extradition bill rally on Sunday.
“Add oil!” some passers-by called, as police checked the activists’ IDs.
But Demosisto is only one of many groups protesting. None have stepped up to claim leadership.
“We are just one of the participants. It’s leaderless, autonomous,” said Nathan Law, 25, founding chairman of Demosisto and a former legislator who was also disqualified for the way he took his oath.
Most participants in the protests are not coming as part of any organization, Law said, but finding out about different activities through social platforms online.
“People are receiving information through social platforms, Telegram channels, online forums, and they decide by themselves (what to do),” Law said. “People are voting on the Internet.”
One popular online forum is LIHKG, a Hong Kong version of Reddit where anonymous users are posting ideas for creative protest: disrupting the subway station, gathering for vigils or “picnics,” making anti-extradition bill memes that appeal to conservative values so that older Hongkongers will get involved.
“You can choose thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and people discuss whether they support or are against it,” Law said. If momentum gathers behind one idea, people act.
“Person A says something online, Person B says something else. Today more people support A’s idea, so we do it. Tomorrow we may agree with B instead of A,” said Philip Leung, 21, a student protester who’s active on LIHKG and other social platforms.