In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 may well be remembered for its vibrant and diverse protests around the world from the United States to Belarus to Hong Kong to Thailand. These protests have ranged from protests for racial justice to pro-democracy protests to anti-lockdown protests. The last time such massive protests swept around the world was 2011.
2011 was a year remembered in the social movement literature as a protest-filled year in large part because of the Arab Spring. Pro-democracy and anti-authoritarian protests spread throughout the Middle East after Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire in front of a government building. Shortly afterwards, massive protests unseated the longtime ruler of Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was cast off after around 30 years of dictatorial rule and eventually faced trial in court for corruption and murder. Protests also spread throughout Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan. While protesters had varying degrees of success, Gallup polling shows they were motivated by soaring unemployment, poor basic living conditions and infrastructure, and repressive, authoritarian rule. But protests were not only spreading in the developing world; they were also spreading in the developed world.
In the Global North, protests were growing at the huge wealth gap between the rich and everyone else. Occupy Wall Street was the campaign that coined the now ubiquitous “1%” as the ultra-rich who benefitted from corporate greed and exploitation of the other 99% of people. The Occupy Wall Street movement much like the protest movements of the Arab Spring were leaderless and relied heavily on coordination through social media and the internet. The feminist and anti-war movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s had led to the Occupy movement and its non-hierarchical nature. These were the “new” social movements, which the sociologist John Foran defines as movements where the protesters are fighting for a vision of a better world (where violence is not condoned because the ends do not justify the means). These movements are inherently transnational (or even global). No longer are pro-democracy struggles or feminist struggles limited to one country or one place. Rather, there is a globalized nature to these social movements that transcends space.
The internet is a key catalyst for the globalized nature of these movements, but particularly movements in 2020. The internet has fundamentally altered the amount of people who can be mobilized for action. Through sharing videos and posts, people all over the world can see what is going on and respond to injustice and suffering through mobilization. The lightning speed with which the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement spread around the world in the light of George Floyd’s murder is a testament to the world’s interconnectedness. I would now like to examine the Hong Kong protest movement (since I have some familiarity with it), the BLM protests, and then the Belarusian and Thai protest movements to show how the power of social media and the internet has galvanized these movements and allowed the leaderless, non-hierarchical style of protest to take root and flourish. I will conclude with a section on justice and the importance of social movements in realizing a better world.
The Hong Kong Protests
I will not delve deeply into the history of the protests (if you are interested in that, you can check out my medium post specifically on the HK protests), though I will go into the main outline of the protests here. On June 9, 2019, nearly one million Hong Kongers marched in protest against Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China to face their opaque legal system. On July 21, 2019 white-clad mobsters with possible links to the criminal triads attacked commuters in Hong Kong’s Yuen Long MTR station while police sat by and did little. This attack as well as police beating up Hong Kongers in Prince Edward MTR station on August 31, 2019 led to increasing hostility and distrust of the Hong Kong Police Force.
Increasing use of police teargas in demonstrations that followed on China’s National Day on October 1, 2019 and in the battle of the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that police were willing to use force to suppress the protests. The protesters began to call for five demands, not one less and these were 1) withdrawal of the extradition bill (which did happen) 2) for the cessation of the use of the word riot in reference to the protests 3) release of all protesters and the dropping of all charges against them 4) An independent inquiry into the police 5) genuine universal suffrage.
The protests continued with some force at the end of 2019 and into early 2020. However, the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic generally ended large-scale protests. Perhaps China saw the pandemic as an opportunity to impose its authoritarian rule onto Hong Kong (by ending one country, two systems), and so the Chinese Communist Party implemented the national security law on June 30, 2020, only slightly one year after the massive protests on June 9, 2019. The national security law has already been used to crack down on pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily through a police raid on their office and the arrest of Jimmy Lai, the owner of the newspaper. Hong Kong now faces a more authoritarian future as its freedom of press is eroded and as universities fire professors who have been critical of China.
LIHKG, Telegram, and the Global Nature of the Hong Kong Protests
LIHKG has often been dubbed the reddit of Hong Kon and was a major tool for protester organizing and mobilization during the 2019 anti-extradition bill movement. In July of 2019 alone, LIHKG was downloaded 120,000 times. The mostly Cantonese-language LIHKG was crucial for devising tactics in the Hong Kong protest movement as well as ensuring that there did not need to be any leader. Anyone could post on LIHKG and share his or her opinion and so Hong Kongers felt free to discuss tactics on the platform.
Telegram is another major app used by Hong Kongers to mobilize people to come out and protest. Telegram is primarily a messaging app and was a secure way for protesters to communicate with each other particularly when they were out on the streets running away from the police. There are also many groups on Telegram that send out updates and news about the protests. When I was in Hong Kong, I personally downloaded Telegram, so that I could receive English-language news from pro-protest sources, though most of the Hong Kong Telegram groups are in Cantonese. In July of 2019, Telegram was downloaded 110,000 times in Hong Kong. At the end of August 2019, Telegram announced that it would allow Hong Kong users to conceal their identity, so that authorities would not be able to see the user’s identity in large group chats. Both Telegram and LIHKG have allowed the protest movement to create the five demands through collaboration among different social media users without the need of a leader. They have also promoted the use of symbols like pepe the frog who may be an alt-right symbol in the West, but for the Hong Kong protesters, pepe represents a symbol of resistance to authoritarianism.
Another way that was used to communicate the message of the movement was through Hong Kong’s Lennon walls and these were a transnational symbol of resistance. These Lennon walls formed all over the city in the wake of the protest movement and were comprised mostly of post-it notes with messages of support for the protesters and barbs directed at Hong Kong’s leaders. The Lennon wall movement was also a way to express solidarity across borders between Hong Kong students with walls springing up at universities in Australia and Taiwan among other places. This transnational solidarity among Hong Kongers living abroad was not only limited to Lennon walls. Hong Kongers organized marches and speaker events in support of the Hong Kong protest, though these Hong Kongers often faced harassment from mainland Chinese students. These Lennon walls and social media mustered a global effort to oppose the extradition bill and allowed the Hong Kong protest movement to remain leaderless. The five demands may now be impossible to achieve, but the Hong Kong protesters were fighting for a vision of a better Hong Kong with freedom of assembly and free and fair elections. However, the most global movement in 2020 has arguably been the BLM movement.
The Black Lives Matter Movement
According to the Black Lives Matter website, the movement was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of the murderer of Trayvon Martin, and its mission is to eradicate white supremacy and counter violence against the black community. Social media was key in promoting the BLM movement initially and especially in 2020 with the hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. The movement also gathered steam after the death of Eric Garner in New York and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 where no police officers involved in their deaths were indicted. Black Lives Matter shed light on the violence perpetrated by the justice system upon black and brown bodies and was a concerted attempt to challenge the subconscious (and sometimes conscious) assumption all too prevalent in the United States that a black life is not worth as much as a white life. In 2020, the movement has blossomed into a worldwide call for justice for black, indigenous, and other people of color who have too often been brutalized by the society that is supposed to be protecting them.
The catalyst for the explosion of the BLM movement was the eight minute and forty-six second video of police officers kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, while he said “I can’t breathe.” The United States is a deeply racist country, and this viral video was a wake-up call that racial injustice cannot be allowed to last any longer. People around the country and around the world could no longer content themselves with being silent, and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, marched in the streets to challenge white supremacy. The protests against George Floyd’s murder began in Minneapolis, and quickly spread to major US cities and even small towns. By early July (more than one month after George Floyd’s murder), the Black Lives Matter protests had spread to 550 places in the United States with estimates of around 15 million — 26 million people having participated.
The protests did not stop at the borders of the United States. The BLM movement became truly global in nature. The video of George Floyd’s murder made many people stand up to say enough is enough of police brutality. In June, protests were held in Brussels, London, Seoul, Sydney, and Rio de Janiero among other cities. People around the globe were protesting for George Floyd but also for racial injustices within their own countries. For instance, in Brussels, BLM protesters were protesting against statues of King Leopold II, who oversaw his personal colony in the Congo where forced labor and torture were widespread. In Bristol, in the UK, protesters tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. In countries across Europe, Black Lives Matter brought a reckoning with their colonial past and involvement in slavery. In Seoul, protesters marched to show solidarity and support for George Floyd and to protest against South Korea’s lack of legislation on racial discrimination.
Why did BLM go global?
One of the reasons that BLM went global is that racial discrimination and mistreatment of others based on race is a global phenomenon. There is a shared experience of discrimination across the globe. Truly, the Black Lives Matter movement represents a “new” social movement in the sense that it is fighting for the vision of a better world. A world in which people do not have to face discrimination for the color of their skin. In that sense, BLM is a very idealistic movement, but it is hugely important because it forces us to recognize how our society is structured and why the status quo can never be good enough. The status quo has perpetuated structural inequality, police brutality, and general mistreatment of our fellow humans around the world. Many people (and I include myself among them) see the cause of ending such injustice and inequality as a cause worth fighting for, and this has helped draw people to the protests who otherwise were content with the status quo. The murder of George Floyd brought the truth, that our societies all over the world are built upon injustice and inequality and it is up to us to fight for a better world, crashing home for many people.
However, the truly global nature of the BLM movement would not have been possible with social media and without symbolism. Twitter, in particular, has been a powerful platform for activists and protesters to share posts.
These kinds of tweets like by the journalist Kirsten West Savali, amplify the power of the movement and keep emotions strong. 13.2 thousand people retweeted that tweet or commented, and so the news and activism can spread quickly. The recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin at the end of August 2020 highlights the continued urgency of the fight against police brutality and white supremacy. Twitter means that shootings like those of Jacob Blake are immortalized and can be retweeted by activists who are galvanized into action. That tweet in particular transcends borders because almost every single person can relate to wanting to treat children with respect and dignity. While there is a lot of disagreement about how to achieve a better world, the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement boils down to creating a world free from fear and oppression where people can live in peace.
This idea of peace is encapsulated in the slogan of “no justice, no peace.” While there is injustice against black people and other people of color, there will be no end to the protests. Such a slogan is powerful as well because most people believe in a just world even if they disagree about what a just world would look like. Even in Syria, which has been devastated by years of civil war, there was a mural of George Floyd. The idea of a better world that justice for George Floyd represents is so powerful that it can bring hope to war-shattered Syria. Ultimately, then, the BLM movement is about hope and creating a better world, and this message of hope and justice, embodied in the symbolism of slogans and murals, has resonated with people around the world. I would now like to move onto looking at two other movements about hope for a better future. These are the more well-known Belarusian protests and the less well-known Thai protests.
Belarussian and Thai Protests
I have grouped these two protest movements together because they are both essentially anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy movements that have sprung up fairly recently. I will first talk about Belarus and then move onto Thailand. Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 26 years as dictator, though he has tolerated a hybrid model with rigged elections, similar to Russia’s system. During the recent election in August, there was an internet blackout, many reports of voting irregularities, and the final results improbably showed that Lukashenko won with 80% of the votes over his opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. There have been huge protest rallies held in the Belarusian capital Minsk, and even state workers booed him on a visit to their factory, indicating that he has lost a lot of support. The opposition leader, Tikhanvoskaya claimed to have won the vote, though she was forced to flee to Lithuania after the election. On Sunday, August 23, there were an estimated 150,000 protesters in Minsk who came out to protest even in the face of threats by Belarusian officials to send the army in to crush the protests. The protesters are driven by a sense of hope that their country can become better if they can overthrow Lukashenko and implement democratic reforms. Lukashenko has repeatedly claimed that there are foreign forces helping the protesters or that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops are about to intervene (in an eerily similar way to the Hong Kong government’s baseless accusations of foreign interference there). Both the Arab Spring and now the protests in Belarus indicate how difficult it is to overthrow an entrenched dictator, and the Arab Spring offers a warning that democracy may not be easy to achieve even if Lukashenko is overthrown.
The Thai protests are less-well covered in Western media largely because they are not as big as the Belarusian ones and do not pose as large a threat to the Belarusian government. The protests are predominantly organized by young people (though without distinct leaders) as students lead rallies of up to 10,000 people in Bangkok. In 2014, in Thailand, there was a military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha who dissolved the constitution and imposed curbs on the media in a direct attack on Thailand’s political system. The new constitution implemented in 2017 reserved a permanent place for the military in the seats of power and ensured that those who opposed the military coup would not be able to get elected again. The new king of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn, ensured that his power would also be strengthened under the new constitution. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power through the coup, was elected as Thailand’s prime minister, and is a major target of protester wrath in 2020 along with King Vajiralongkorn who the protesters feel has too much power. However, under Thai law, criticizing the monarchy can carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison. However, protesters have been emboldened, and the fact that thousands of protesters have gathered together means that they feel more comfortable criticizing the monarchy and calling for a new constitution.
The Belarussian and Thai protests are both, at their core, resistance movements against repression and authoritarianism. They have also inherited tactics from the Hong Kong protests with Thai protesters singing the Les Misérables song, “Do you hear the people sing?” and Belarussian activists spreading videos on Telegram. Now more than ever before, protest movements against authoritarianism are able to grow through social media and observing tactics in other places. A Belarussian activist can watch how Hong Kong protesters dodge tear gas while adopting similar tactics at home. A Thai activist can watch the huge gatherings in Minsk and find solace in the fact that they are not alone in their struggle. Activists can watch videos on the internet and realize that those who resist authoritarianism are not alone. There are people all over the world fighting for a better world and creating “new” social movements that are transnational and even global.
Social Movements and Creating a Better World
What I hope has been clear throughout this piece is the hope that social movements bring for creating a world free from tyranny and oppression. The idea of creating a better world is encapsulated in the idea of justice. The philosopher John Rawls argued in Theory of Justice that if people were to put on a veil of ignorance (where they did not know their gender, race, sexual orientation etc.) and step into the original position where all goods (resources) were distributed, people would choose a fairly even distribution. Yes, those in the original position could choose a world where there were a few rich people and many poor people (like the world now) and hope they got lucky and ended up as a rich person. But most people, Rawls theorized, would be relatively risk-averse and choose a society where the goods were much more evenly distributed. The original position would be a great tool to implement in theory. In reality we cannot put people into a veil of ignorance. Their qualities, biases and presumptions will always cloud their decision-making.
The reason I bring the whole original position idea up is that social movements are a way of achieving a more equal and just world since putting on a veil of ignorance is not possible. As we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, social movements transcend space if they appeal to hope and are intending to improve the world. The Hong Kong, Thai, and Belarussian protests all seek to improve the world by removing authoritarianism and promoting democracy and human rights. Social movements are so hopeful in part because they are so large. You may think that you can do nothing when you act by yourself. What about when you are joined by 10 people, by 100, by 1000? There is real power in mass movements and even if the social movements here do not fulfill their goals, they have still helped to make the world a better place. They have made us examine what is wrong with the societies that humans have created, and in so doing, have given us the capacity to improve our societies to make them less racist, less authoritarian, less oppressive, and less patriarchal. Most importantly, they have allowed us to conceive of a better world that may one day be made a reality.