Why claims that Hong Kong protesters support escalating violence could be wrong… and dangerous

Demonstrations against an ill-fated extradition bill have become a protest movement with multiple strands now at play, united not by tactics but by shared grievances.

With a police crackdown already underway, the government is flirting with the idea of legislation under an outdated and controversial emergency ordinance that would plunge Hong Kong into martial law. Meanwhile, Beijing is continuing to forward the case for possible military or paramilitary help.

In light of this, a clear distinction must be made between a movement that is mostly peaceful and orderly, and the actions of a small and increasingly militant minority. Many of whom carry scars, both physical and emotional, from months of being on the front line. However, this distinction is increasingly being blurred.

September 15 china extradition

Photo: May James/HKFP.


A recently published study by a respected political scientist at Lingnan University found that more than half of its respondents advocated the escalation of protest tactics. The report was widely shared on social media and was the subject of an article in The Conversation.

This is because the line that protesters support violence plays to three important biases. Firstly, it reads like a good news piece. Second, it provides reassurance to radical protesters that their actions carry public support. Thirdly, blurring the lines between peaceful and violent protesters justifies an indiscriminate crackdown that has already had a chilling effect on civil society.

However, the study itself has important limitations and therefore does not really support this understanding. What the study shows is that of the 8,000 protesters surveyed over 19 demonstrations, with an 85 per cent response rate, an increasing number are choosing to either agree or strongly agree that over time “Radical protests can force the government to listen to the people.”

Conversely, during the same period, there has been a decrease in the proportion of respondents who agree or strongly agree that “Radical protests will alienate the general public.” Therefore, as the study itself concludes, the findings can only be claimed to “provide evidence of the strong solidarity among the protesters,” and that in July more participants agreed that “the use of radical tactics by protesters is understandable when the government fails to listen.”

The survey does not show that there is broad support for escalating violence; nor does it show that those who attended the extremely large mass protests at the beginning of the movement, in addition to many others who sympathise, increasingly support the violent tactics currently deployed by a minority of the most radical protesters.

Indeed, the authors of the study make it clear that the study population—the people whom the research is supposed to represent—are not the broader base of protesters but rather only those who have continued to show up to protests. Furthermore, the very substantial differences among various protests are highlighted:

In mass rallies (Type I), protesters were more evenly distributed across age groups… However, in the case of fluid demonstrations (Type III), which often involved more confrontations, the proportion of protesters aged 30 or above significantly dropped. That is to say, fluid demonstrations were mostly dominated by young people under the age of 30. As for static demonstrations (Type II), the age profile is in between Type I and Type III.

september 15 China extradition admiralty

Photo: Studio Incendo.


Then there is the issue of selection bias and the changing composition of the protesters surveyed. Consider the following possibility: let’s suppose that most peaceful protesters are actually against violent tactics. As protests become more violent, fewer of these protesters will attend. The surveys that have been conducted would not capture this dynamic, as these non-violent protesters drop out of the sample.

With one, albeit significant, exception, the protests no longer attract the massive numbers seen earlier this summer and have generally taken on a much more violent character. And while there is little doubt that a significant number of ordinary people continue to sympathise with the need to protest, it is misleading to claim from this study that such people support escalating violence.

Indeed the image of the protester has shifted from people from all walks of life to younger people in helmets and masks. As the authors themselves mentioned, the demographic composition of protesters has indeed changed.

Findings from another survey research study–one studying the attitudes of the entire range of Hong Kong residents, including both protesters and non-protesters–have been circulating quietly among academics and journalists. These findings appear to indicate that support for violent tactics may actually be quite low–even among respondents who strongly support many or even most of the five demands put forward during the movement.

This narrative fits the pattern of social media posts. In June, a much larger and broader base of individuals made Facebook posts in support of the protests. Today, a substantial but much smaller number of people are still posting pro-protest content. Whilst other factors are no doubt at play, not least the effects of what is accurately described as “white terror,” the falling numbers do seem reflective of what on anecdotal evidence seems to be happening.

My point is not that the protest movement is losing support as it grows increasingly violent, though this may be the case. Rather that it cannot be stated with confidence on existing evidence that there is increasing support for the tactic of escalating violence; and that this narrative is dangerous as it provides fuel to extremism on both sides, providing legitimacy to violent protests and for an indiscriminate crackdown in response.

What might provide a more definitive answer is the results from the mass rally on August 18, which represented a non-violent interlude in the protest cycle, and may have drawn up to 1.8 million people, according to organiser estimates. These results, however, have yet to be publicised by the researchers.

Such legal mass rallies—when allowed—highlight the distinction between a large, passive majority who continue to share the protesters’ grievances and are still prepared to mobilise to protest legally and peacefully, and a small minority of dedicated, violent and radicalised protesters, numbering no more than a few thousand, who now regularly take to aggressive protesting. We must continue to make this distinction.



最近一份備受注目的研究指暴力升級的策略越來越受抗議人士支持。這份報告由一名備受尊重的嶺大政治學者撰寫,内容在社交媒體上獲廣泛分享,且為刊於 The Converstion 的學術文章主題。這是因爲抗爭者支持暴力的論調有三大重要傾向。首先,街頭暴力正在發生,這是具新聞價值的報導。其次,它能使激進抗爭者安心,因公眾的支持能合理化他們一些越來越由情緒主導,且容易被理解的行為。第三,和平與勇武示威者界線模糊下,能令執政者在本已躁動的平民社會裏,找到理由進行廣泛而無差異的鎮壓。

但是,上述研究本身有重大局限性,因此以上理解未必正確。該研究表明,研究對象是參與 19 項示威活動的 8,000 名抗爭者,回應率為 85% 。隨著時間推進,越來越多人選擇同意或強烈同意「激進抗議活動可以迫使政府聽取人民的聲音」。相反,在同一時期,同意或強烈同意「激進抗議會失去廣大公眾支持」的受訪者比例則有所下降。因此,正如研究本身所得出的結論,發現只能提供了「抗爭者之間非常團結」的證據,以及在 7 月有更多被訪者同意「當政府未能聆聽訴求時,抗爭者使用激進策略是可以理解的」。



「在群眾集會(I 型)中,抗爭者在各個年齡段的分佈更均勻……但在經常涉及多種類對抗的流動示威(III 型)中, 30 歲或以上抗爭者的佔比顯著下降。也就是說,流動示威活動主要由 30 歲以下的年輕人主導。至於靜態示威活動(II 型),年齡分佈則介乎於 I 型和 III 型之間。」


除了 8 月 18 日那次較大集會外,近來的抗議活動已不能吸引到初夏看到的大量人群,而這些抗議通常呈現衝突加劇的現象。毫無疑問,至今仍有許多普通市民繼續同情及支持抗議,但僅從這項研究中就聲稱普通人支持暴力升級是誤導的。實際上,抗爭者的形像已經從各行各業的人們轉移成戴著頭盔和口罩的年輕人。正如研究作者提到,抗爭者的人口組成確實已發生了變化。




8 月 18 日的集會有大約 180 萬人參加,以和平方式進行。相信針對該集會的研究能提供更確切的參考答案,但現時這些研究結果尚未公開。


(The cover photo is credited to AFP)

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