Hong Kong and the Deep Memetic Evolution of Protest

Hong Kong Waterfront

I don’t need to tell you that it’s a great time on the planet if you’re into upheaval. Yeah, it’s hard to tell what’s really going on — old news sources are not as reliable as they used to be, and the new ones were never very reliable to begin with. Before we get going on the main subject, I’ll give you a Jedi Master tip on how I read the news. 1. Read widely. 2. Never believe (at least a priori) the main premise of any article. 3. Store secondary information (it’s probably with far less bias than the primary point of the story) and use it to construct your own narratives as history rolls on. This is challenging — I used to have an extremely sharp memory (almost eidetic — I could play back whole vision sequences in my mind) but as I age, it DOES get harder. Still, the point is valid. Reading widely and storing secondary information will help you decide if you can trust any given journalist or source.

Lots of news out of Hong Kong is giving me renewed hope that the dystopian Authoritarian views propagated by so many science fiction authors are simply wrong. Empathetic development can, and does recede and build in the context of history. But barring large scale catastrophe, our species keeps evolving ever upward.

The short version — China imposed a new maxim regarding extradition of criminals from Hong Kong, which operates as part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under its own, more democratic system. For those that have forgotten, Hong Kong is also differentiated from mainland China through language (Hong Kong people speak Cantonese) as well as a separated colonial history. This backgrounder from the BBC is useful. Hong Kong also has a long history of protest, so suffice to say, they’re well-scaffolded as far as a separate Tribal identity in the context of Chinese politics.

In the last round of pro-democracy protests, in 2014, China came in, cracked down, arrested protestors as well as protest leadership. Though protestors managed to occupy major infrastructure in Hong Kong for over 79 days, in the end, holding ground became too costly, and China broke up the protests. Still, Hong Kong people were inventive, even then. The protests became known as the Umbrella Movement protests, as protesters would deploy yellow umbrellas to deflect the pepper spray doused on them by Chinese riot police.

For the current round, the Hong Kong protesters realized holding ground was too costly — besides not getting the job done. In this excellent piece by Anthony Dapiran, he profiles seven ways the protests changed from the 2014 events. These are:

  1. No more Occupying — “Be Water!” After the famous Bruce Lee quote, protestors would hold a given site only until Chinese officials would show up. Then they would uniformly flee to fight another day.
  2. Open Source Protests — Communication was organized on low-fi bulletin boards similar to Reddit. At a protest site, more senior individuals might have a megaphone. But for the most part, individuals were encouraged to have agency and act on their own, in the circumstance.
  3. Airdrop, the feature on the iPhone that allows point to point transfer of files and other information, was used en masse in the protests for coordination. Unlike posting instructions on a generic website, which can be subject to denial of service, Airdrop is truly distributed, and people would use it on subways to the protest to understand exactly what logistics would be.
  4. Supply lines and hand signals. From past experience with the protests in 2014, protesters learned exactly the kind of supplies would be needed at the front lines of conflict with the police. As such, they invented an elaborate set of hand signals that could be used to ripple backward to supplies in the rear of a crowd so they could be deployed quickly at the front.
Photo of sign by Anthony Dapiran

5, 6, and 7 — Neutralizing tear gas methodologies; avoiding a stampede; and crowdfunding advertisements around the world for the G20 summit were all techniques you can read about in Dapiran’s article. Of particular interest from an empathy perspective is ‘avoiding stampedes’ . Chinese ‘Raptor Battalions’ would often charge at crowds of protestors. Instead of responding by fleeing and potentially causing a devastating stampede, protestors would start chanting “One, Two, One, Two!” to stage an orderly retreat.

From an empathetic evolutionary perspective, all these change in tactics constitute a major evolution in protest dynamics. Moving communication in a noisy crowd to empathetic relays of signals, realizing that a failure of status-based assertion of holding ground was counter-productive toward the goal of system disruption, using low-tech, appropriate communication modes, instead of more complicated modalities – all of these are great examples of memetic empathetic evolution. The result was that the Hong Kong government, in synchrony with the Chinese government, had to suspend the extradition change.

What was also interesting, because of these Performance/Goal-based changes, more people of different abilities were able to plug into the protests. Old people could be part of the supply chains, holding up the rear, while the younger and more fleet of foot could be on the front lines. And with the disavowing holding ground — China would have no moral problem putting anyone in jail, so the standard principle of using civil disobedience to make your oppressor feel guilty because of moral violation just doesn’t work — working class people who simply could not afford to be sent to a Chinese prison camp could participate. As a result, protests numbered close to 1.7M people. Considering that Hong Kong has nominally 7M people, that means 1 in 3/4 people who lived in Hong Kong was involved. Amazing.

As my collaborator, Ryan and I have said before, we’re not going to be smart enough without the wisdom of an aware crowd. You can’t get a better example. Leveling up protest from a status-based hierarchy to a flowing, Reflective, Performance-based Community means that Authoritarianism, down at least 3 v-Meme steps, can at least be held to a stand-off, if not defeated.

Before I finish this, besides tagging the power of Empathetic Evolution yet again, there are two important things to ponder.

  1. Hong Kong is an evolved, creative society. I’ve been to Hong Kong once, for four days. It’s as modern a city as any I’ve ever been to, and I always found Hong Kong people to be nice and friendly. I had been expecting an overcrowded, colonial-themed backwater. Nothing could be further from reality. I’m glad I went. As such, they have access to their own independent creativity and agency. I’ve participated in organizing a large Civil Disobedience campaign, and I have to tell you, they’ve got me totally rethinking the tactics we used.
  2. What happens if you’re not as evolved as Hong Kong? Unfortunately, over 2000 miles away, in Xinjiang Province, we’re seeing the result. The Chinese government is rounding up Uyghurs, about 1M of them, and putting them in re-education camps. Yes, there are differences in outside scrutiny of this crime, and raw authoritarianism operates far more easily without global scrutiny. But the base fact is that a modern Authoritarian state is going to have a far easier time dealing on a primarily Tribal society. The Uyghurs simply don’t have the information processing in the value system to adapt quickly to the challenge posed by the Communists. If they survive, they will also evolve — long-term occupation has never worked very well, and spawns all sorts of long-term violence. But there’s also no question many more people will die, and the human misery will be multiplied.

The protests have been really forcing me to rethink some of my own old biases, and push my own evolution. I’ll keep writing — and thinking. There’s a whole Arab Spring tie-in (which was defeated) that I’ll have to do some more reading on. Stay tuned.

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