Professional destabilizers worked with activists for years to distort reality in Hong Kong, writes Phill Hynes. And there’s a specific reason why the destruction of the reputation of the city’s police became a key target
WHEN THE PROTESTS in Hong Kong broke out in 2019, they became the focus for sustained and intense international media attention.
The saturation-level coverage of Hong Kong blanked out other major events elsewhere in the world—even though the other stories were often far more newsworthy, involving larger events with far more fatalities. Populism and right-wing politics were moving center stage in Europe, the Middle East was on fire, as was South America.
In other riots around the world, the military were called out and many protesters’ lives were lost. In contrast, Hong Kong police killed not one protester in six months of violent protest.
Yet the city received the sustained glare of the global media circus—and unrelenting coverage which was reprehensibly biased, particularly against the police.
In particular, not one mainstream media outlet reported the quickly obvious fact that the protests were well-organized, well-funded, and clearly using a long list of specialized techniques associated with a shadowy sector known as “the revolution industry”. It’s worth setting that right.
DOING THE ARMY’S JOB
In particular, one key fact was rarely acknowledged: Under-prepared, under-experienced Hong Kong police officers found themselves forced to do an incredibly difficult job that was done everywhere else by fully equipped armies with military vehicles and an bottomless supply of lethal weaponry.
Who was standing in the shadows, stirring up the protests? No one, apparently. Just try and find a single mainstream media article that mentioned the Albert Einstein Institute (AEI) and/ or the Center for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategy, (CANVAS). Who are they?
This topic will be considered in three parts. First, we’ll look at some of the players in the revolution industry. Second, we’ll look at the strategy and tactics used in Hong Kong. Third, we’ll look at their focus on delegitimizing authority, and particularly the city’s police force.
PART 1: THE REVOLUTION INDUSTRY
There have been many civil disobedience movements, uprisings, colour revolutions and protest movements in the past 20 years—and several organizations that have had direct involvement in the majority of these movements. The AEI, founded by Gene Sharp in 1983 in the US, has been at the forefront of inspiring hybrid wars. CANVAS was created in 2004 in Serbia by Srđa Popović and the CEO of Orion Telecom, Slobodan Đinović, former founding members of Otpor, the precursor to CANVAS, the group that toppled Serbian president Milosevic. There are a number of other groups in this area, such as the Oslo Freedom Foundation (which, despite the name, is headquartered in New York). The Azov Battalion from Ukraine sent a team from its Gonor Group to Hong Kong in 2019.
The revolution industry developed techniques now associated with various terms, including “psyops”, “color revolution”, “hybrid war”, and so on. In simple terms, the western powers trigger a battle in which conventional physical fighting is supplemented with an underhand media saturation campaign to humanize one side and demonize the other. This causes the general public to take the pro-US side and enables politicians to easily syphon public funds to the coffers of arms-makers.
NO CONSPIRACY THEORY
It is no conspiracy theory to talk about their involvement in the Hong Kong protests. In a 2014 BBC report from an Oslo Freedom Foundation meeting, street protest specialists admitted they had been working to prepare Hong Kong activists for almost two years, and had distributed materials to a thousand activist leaders in the city.
Furthermore, Hong Kong protesters have been widely observed using revolution industry techniques (such as marginal violence) and even admitted to it.
The Albert Einstein Institute (which has no direct connection with the scientist of that name) was founded by Gene Sharp, a US academic specializing in street protest strategies and regime change. In 1993, he published the book From Dictatorship to Democracy. Updated versions of the book are accompanied by a tactical training manual with 198 meticulously thought-out steps within structured sections.
MAKE IT SEEM HOME-GROWN
AEI and CANVAS both encourage localization by activists: indigenous elements are seen as a key component of success. The protests need to look home-grown and spontaneous, but this can be superficial. As we have seen, journalists will not dig a centimeter below the surface to check.
The CANVAS organization has its own publications designed for social movements and revolutionaries, including:
- Canvas Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Non-violent Struggle
- Making Oppression Backfire
- Non-violent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points
CANVAS has merged its tactical guidelines with those of the AEI to create a “manual of chaos” for protest movements that is shared freely among interested parties. Moreover, a plethora of US sponsored NGOs offer training to organisations, leaders and movements on the techniques featured in the manuals, and on how to set up, fund, recruit, manage, and run protest movements and revolutions. This is now happening on an industrial scale.
CANVAS played a different role to AEI in Hong Kong. If AEI was the inspiration, providing a philosophical and strategic basis for the orientation of a movement, then CANVAS was the tactical source or engine to drive the movement’s objectives. (The initial creation and formation of such movements rests with other NGOs – a topic for another time.)
PART 2: STRATEGY AND TACTICS
In Hong Kong, which has a very complex political landscape, the protest movement benefited significantly from CANVAS tactical know-how, but CANVAS and their sponsors also benefited from the protesters. Sharp wrote: “Movements adapt the core principles and localize them to their particular circumstances on the ground.” In Hong Kong, protesters were very adaptive, refining techniques, and adding new ones.
As a result, the Hong Kong protest movement, working with a supportive western media, was hugely successful in distorting reality. Out of all the protests around the world at that time, the authorities in Hong Kong were least violent, and most likely to continue to hand out protest permits – yet the impression given was the opposite, with the Hong Kong police painted as brutal and the authorities being characterized as unwilling to allow public demonstrations.
This level of success in news manipulation meant that Hong Kong became a benchmark for tactical developments for other revolutionary movements globally, and an incubator for enhanced tactical learning, with new and modified tactics being visibly exported to other countries. The revolution specialists could add to their list of techniques.
SIX STAGE ESCALATION
In the now combined AEI and CANVAS chaos manual, there are six distinct stages to achieve the movement’s objectives. They start from the final objective and work back in a system known as “Inverse Planning”. (This is critically important to understand the Hong Kong protest movement, as they had a clearly established timeframe for attainment of their objectives.)
The six key stages are:
- Non-violent Protest and Persuasion
- Social Non-cooperation
- Economic Non-cooperation – Boycott
- Economic Non-cooperation – Strike
- Political Non-cooperation
- Non-violent Intervention
Why were the Umbrella Movement techniques cast aside for an alternative system? Evolution, baby! Not to mention a revised agenda. These changes were not in any way spontaneous, or reactionary. The new techniques were planned and designed to take control of the messaging and control the communications, assisting in building a movement.
LONG TERM PLANNING
Indeed, the evidence points to the 2014 Umbrella Movement being a stepping stone in a much larger game plan. The architects knew in 2012 when they were planning for Occupy Central that it had a limited possibility of success in achieving the ultimate objectives. The time was not right for a bigger assault. Using their own inverse model, the target now looks to have always been for a bigger event between 2019 and 2022. As Dr. Simon Shen put it in November 2019 in the publication Think China: “Hong Kongers need to be in it for the long game.”
ALIGNMENT OF CONDITIONS
What 2019 presented was the alignment of conditions, circumstances and events that lead to the escalation and implementation of the next phase of the program.
According to the CANVAS model of non-violent protest communications, control of communications, harmonizing messaging, security and delivery are critical to success. Tactically, it does not matter how strong you are. If your control of communications is flawed, you will lose. The Hong Kong government was surely in the right to clamp down on the huge amount of violence and destruction of public facilities – but with no communications skill of its own, and the media arraigned against them, the constructed narrative portrayed them as the bad guys, and continues to do so.
PART 3: REMOVING A PILLAR
Gene Sharp’s theory of power identified the pillars on which governments retain their authority. These became strategic targets for attack, so that governments can be undermined, toppled, removed and ultimately replaced. See the image below for reference.
The process of undermining the government in Hong Kong had been started long ago using precisely this strategy. Civil society, education, media, and religion, had long since been penetrated and compromised. However, the city presented a unique opportunity to undermine one of the most important pillars of support – number one in the diagram is the military.
Hong Kong does not have a military. Thus it was a weak point.
In theory, the People’s Liberation Army provides military defense. But leaders in both Hong Kong and mainland China chose not to use them, showing an unexpected level of patience.
For that reason, attacking and destroying the Hong Kong police force’s legitimacy became an imperative. Once such an important pillar starts to crumble, the others will be weakened, and the whole structure will fall. Hong Kong will descend into chaos—or so the powers behind the scenes hoped.
DEMONIZING THE POLICE
Thus, there was a clear strategy to demonize and dehumanize the Hong Kong Police Force. When the protests started, activists had but one demand, the abandonment of the extradition bill. However, that was quickly achieved, so the protest continued with its infamous “five demands, not one less” chant.
Even supporters of the protests admitted that the five demands made little sense (and were hard to remember), but the second of the five became the focus. It was the anti-police clause. Initially, it called for an independent body to be set up to review police behaviour. In fact, such a body had already existed for years, and was well trusted by the Hong Kong public.
Nevertheless, this demand was repeated ad nauseum and evolved to call for the jailing of officers and then the complete defunding of the police force itself.
From the first moment of the first outburst of violence on the evening of 9 June 2019, the police were the direct target of aggression. The police had been expecting large numbers of protesters—but were not expecting the level of violence that came with them, nor the media onslaught that turned attacks on police into attacks by police.
Shocked, the police reacted largely in self-defense and continued to act in this way for the next few weeks, or until it started to become apparent that the protests were not spontaneous and were coordinated and well-planned. The protest architects had a hidden objective: the Hong Kong police force had one of the best reputations of any regional police force in Asia. This had to be attacked, undermined and discredited as a matter of urgency.
‘GET THE POLICE TO HIT YOU’
One method was the use of Marginal Violence Theory. Protesters use aggression to provoke the police into any type of response, which the media could then present as police attacks on peaceful protesters. This created escalating hostility to the authorities. One protester, Fred Chan Ho-fai, even described the strategy in a 2019 New York Times article called “A Hong Kong Protester’s Tactic: Get the Police to Hit You.”
Chan wrote: “Such actions are a way to make noise and gain attention. And if they prompt the police to respond with unnecessary force, as happened on June 12, then the public will feel disapproval and disgust for the authorities. The protesters should thoughtfully escalate nonviolence, maybe even resort to mild force, to push the government to the edge.”
Creating hate (“disapproval and disgust”) for ordinary men and women trying to do their job became the deliberate intention of large bands of masked protesters carrying petrol bombs for many months, with the media eager to play their part in the process. Protesters were directed to provoke confrontation with the police at every available opportunity. To further blacken the name of the force, they brought in school pupils, young people, mothers with children, and the elderly, for photo-opportunities.
POLICE NOT BLAMELESS
But let’s be fair. It is inevitable in such a long and sustained conflict that individuals in the police force did likely respond on occasion more aggressively than perhaps they should have. Tear gas was used at times when it was not necessary, and sometimes they seemed to have forgotten that it was not an offensive weapon, but a tool for crowd control. Rubber or plastic bullets were used incorrectly on too many occasions, firing directly at targets as opposed to ricocheting off the ground. Some individual officers behaved deplorably in the conduct of their duty.
However, it is all too easy for the layman to judge them harshly from the comfort of a secure, remote perspective.
The present writer has served front and center in such situations, while bricks, bottles, Molotov cocktails and all manner of improvised objects rain downed upon us. But of course, as an officer of the authorities, you have to stay within the limits of professionalism and discipline. The throwers of petrol bombs have no such constraints.
BY COMPARISON, RESTRAINED
Hong Kong soon descended into months of sustained protests, rioting, arson attacks, destruction of property and businesses owned or associated with mainland Chinese. Protesters threw thousands of Molotov cocktails, committed vicious assaults against civilians, and there were undeniable attempts to harm or kill members of the police force. Compared to how other countries’ police forces would have behaved, the Hong Kong contingent were, by and large, remarkably restrained.
The media played an irresponsible role in the nurturing and cultivation of this narrative. “Citizen Journalists” (some as young as 12 years old) would at times insert themselves between the police and rioters, thereby making themselves willing victims of police actions. This would be duly reported as police brutality. Video footage was carefully edited to show the police as the aggressors. Rarely did the truth of a particular situation make it into the mainstream media. The wanton violence of the rioters would be omitted, leaving only the apparent brutality of the police. Even photographs of an innocuous interaction between public and police would be mispresented as evidence of barbarity.
POLICE BECOME FOCUS
Since it was plainly ludicrous for that level of destruction to be justified as a call for the abandonment of a bill that had long been abandoned, the chorus of calls for the disbandment of the Hong Kong police became the main theme of the protests. However, when protest leaders were questioned on how to proceed with this, there were no answers.
None of this made any sense. But it didn’t have to. The protesters had taken the strategic objective of removing a key pillar of support from the government. The Hong Kong police force was not merely collateral damage: destroying their legitimacy was one of the objectives of the protests.
ULTIMATELY, IT FAILED
Ultimately, the campaign to cause Hong Kong to descend into chaos, goading the PLA into take control, and killing the “one country two systems” policy, failed. The Chinese government was too patient.
No matter. The Western media still blamed China for everything that went wrong, and refused to acknowledge any involvement by outsiders. But in Hong Kong itself, people on all sides of the debate did become more fully aware that there were underhand forces at play, and realized that their home was being used as a political football. For them, the national security law makes much more sense than the international media will acknowledge. You have to have tools to deal with wrongdoing when the games are being played below the surface of dark waters.
And the people of Hong Kong have a continuing concern, too. The game, they worry, may not be over. For the international media, the revolution industry doesn’t exist at all. For many traumatized citizens of Hong Kong, it is very real indeed. And the forces behind it are still very much at work.
Phill Hynes is a geopolitical analyst based in Hong Kong and specializing in Asian affairs.