Notifications for the “War Room” WhatsApp group ping relentlessly as an organiser of Hong Kong’s biggest political rallies in decades explains the challenge of keeping an exhausted, battle-weary protest movement on the streets.
The semi-autonomous city is in its third month of pro-democracy demonstrations, as Chinese rhetoric against them hardens.
“We’re mentally and physically strained, (but) we’re still here,” said Bonnie Leung, 32, one of the few public faces of the avowedly leaderless movement.
“We’re talking about saving our home. The campaign is too important for us.”
Armed with smartphones and imagination, Leung and a handful of fellow volunteers from the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) have repeatedly organised huge protests.
Their planning is thrashed out over WhatsApp — an encrypted messaging app — with the most important decisions taken in the “War Room” group.
Hundreds of thousands attended the June 9 rally they organised as a kickback to a bill that would have allowed extradition to China.
Three months later, in a sign of the deepening political crisis, they say they got 1.7 million people marching on the streets again on Sunday.
But despite the continuing protests Hong Kong’s government, buttressed by Beijing, has refused to give ground.
Fears are mounting that the stalemate may gradually deflate the protest movement, especially as students — who have driven the demonstrations — return to university in September.
But Leung hopes the creative ideas of the young demonstrators, most crowdsourced and voted on in online forums, will keep the campaign alive.
Those include preparing for a “human chain” across the city on Friday to calling for a boycott of university classes.
Meanwhile, she said “millions and millions of Hong Kong dollars” have been raised to pay for adverts in global newspapers, as the movement seeks international support.
“I’m sure Hong Kong people will come out again… there will be another peak… and another peak,” said Leung, who is carefully splitting her time between protest planning and her day job as a district councillor.
But Leung knows becoming a recognisable face opposing Beijing is dangerous, and has ruled out ever returning to the mainland.
Hail the ‘braves’
The last few days have seen a respite from widespread violence, from both police and demonstrators.
But organisers urge the “braves” — radical frontline protesters prepared to use force — and peaceful marchers, described as “the spine” of the movement, to stay united.
While the momentum currently remains with the protests, some activists say the most likely outcome is continuing political unrest as China slowly tightens its grip.
“I don’t see any reason for Hong Kongers to give up the freedoms we have always cherished,” activist and head of the CHRF Jimmy Sham said.
“But I also don’t see how mainland China will give us freedom.”
In that context, Sham says the protests are little more than a brake to unavoidable change.
“If we can make it deteriorate slower, then we are quite successful.”
In the short term, Leung fears a return to radical protest is inevitable, especially as the government has refused to bend to any demands.
“If peaceful demonstration doesn’t work, some people will get more and more radical until our voices have really been heard,” she said.
“It’s horrible to imagine but I think if the government continue with their attitude, horrible things may happen.”
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