The Economist (February 13th) reports Syrian dictator Bashir Assad’s forces are making a comeback. The Syrian army encircled Aleppo and took other cities to its northwest. If Assad ends up winning and reestablishing control over Syria, it will be because the opposition was divided.

It is a common problem in movements. Donald Trump leads the Republican primaries early on, despite over 50 percent of the electorate voting against him in each contest, because the Republicans haven’t united behind an opposition candidate. On the night of February 8, the streets of Mongkok, the most crowded neighborhood of Hong Kong, were ablaze with fires and bullet shots from the police rang out. Mongkok had been the site of some of the rowdiest protests during the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, and in 2016 it was once again, as localists fought police, ostensibly in the name of unlicensed snack vendors the police tried to ticket.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has long suffered from fissures between various groups and parties about how best to achieve democracy—and what “democracy” should mean in practice. In its fractured political system, the 16 parties represented in the Legislative Council are basically divided in “pan-democratic” and “pro-Beijing” camps rather than being divided by left-right ideology. Thus radical socialist democrats partner with upper-middle class free-market democrats. In 2013, I attended a deliberation day with Left21, where labour organizers talked about organizing around workers’ grievances, a few weeks after observing traders in suits talk about the importance of rule of law for business.

When localists threw bricks and bottles at police on February 8, they raised a question that has and will continued to fracture the democracy movement. How much resistance and violence should they use?

Some argue they are perfectly justified to throw stuff back at the police, when the police sprayed them with pepper spray and (later that night) fired two or three shots in the direction of the crowd. Others will argue the police were merely enforcing the law, or that even if the police (and the government that ordered them) were wrong, the protesters must maintain the moral high ground. Occupy Central taught its participants not to use violence and not to physically resist arrest. Its guidelines said, “Using violence against violence will only intensify bias and fear, provide the government the excuse for suppression, and further empower the suppressors. … The participants should face sufferings with dignified attitude…”

Those arguments take place both on a primary level, as activists hash out what they themselves think is moral and justifiable and useful, and also on a meta level, where activists consider what tactics will be most effective at influencing the public. Thus, even if someone thinks a radical approach is right and just, they might not want to take that approach if they think it will cause the majority of the public to turn against their movement.

As sociologist Anthony R. Oberschall (University of North Carolina) has observed, protest movements can be analyzed through a rational choice model.

The goals of the protesters are a public good that the whole public could benefit from (or suffer from). Each individual’s choice of whether or not to participate in a protest depends on a lot of factors, but Oberschall argued that those factors can be summarized into a value equation that weighs the expected value of participating versus the expected costs.

The success of a movement will ultimately be determined by how much power that movement has versus how much its resistance (often the government) has. For the sake of simplicity, one can simplify power as the number of participants, since each participant adds power. “[T]he crucial resource for obtaining the collective good is the number of participants of contributors (N), which the chooser has to estimate,” Oberschall wrote in his 1994 paper “Rational Choice in Collective Protests.” “Even with a known N, the outcome is not known for certain, because it also depends on the authorities’ reaction,” so it is a probably (also estimated by the chooser).

Oberschall’s equation looks like this: VP(N+1)-VP(N)=V∆P(N), where V=value of the collective good the protest is after, P=probably of success, and N=the number of participants.

So when it comes to the Hong Kong pan-democratic movement, V could be the value of the public directly electing Hong Kong’s chief executive (and other specific policies the movement is after). In the Syrian civil war, V could be the value of overthrowing Assad.

Since a movement needs enough participants to be successful, a rational actor wouldn’t want to join a movement if he perceives it will never build enough participants in order to be successful. By the same token, one also might not join a protest if he thinks it already has or will even without his support. In either case, the value of him joining would be too minimal to sway the outcome, if his perceptions were correct.

At the upper and lower end of number of protesters, there is little change in chances of success with small increases. In the middle, a protest should have the greatest chances of increasing in size quickly.  Potential costs also decrease with size, as protesters could find moral

At the upper and lower end of number of protesters, there is little change in chances of success with small increases. In the middle, a protest should have the greatest chances of increasing in size quickly.
Potential costs also typically decrease with the size of the protest.

If it is an anti-government protest, then the government will also have its own equation regulating how it reacts. The V for the Hong Kong government and its backers in Beijing is the ability to have a great deal of control over election outcomes. The V for Assad is, of course, staying in power.

A non-democratic government’s first reaction, in many cases, would be to clamp down on the protesters, but as Oberschall wrote, that could have a backfire effect, motivating more of the public to support the protesters. In terms of the equation, that would increase the value (V) of the goods the protester’s seek. For example, when Hong Kong police reacted by using tear gas on protesters on the day Occupy Central began, the value many of the public attached to democracy rose, as the public saw the government as being tyrannical, and tens of thousands of more people joined that night. Syria’s use of the military against protesters resulted in the rebels turning to civil war.

The public's values can shift based on circumstances, including actions taken by the government or the protesters, and change the outcome.

The public’s values can shift based on circumstances, including actions taken by the government or the protesters, and change the outcome.

Hong Kong’s government quickly changed tactics and stepped back somewhat from the occupation zones in Admiralty and Causeway Bay (while continuing to disperse and arrest with force activists who took part in illegal occupations of streets elsewhere). After weeks of commuters, shop owners, and other citizens being inconvenienced, caused support for the protests to flag, and minibus and taxi companies won injunctions from the courts to have the occupations moved, the government finally cleared the remaining occupations.

Would a more violent approach by the pan-democrats work? In Baltimore, the prosecutor announced charges against the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest and transport five days after protests turned riotous with looting arson. Similarly in Hong Kong, the fishball vendors were left alone on the street the next few days after the riot, a change attributed by some commenters the riots. But the protest was really about democracy/autonomy, and it could go to hurt the broad pro-democracy movement.

Even non-violent occupations aren't inherently popular in Hong Kong. Support for Occupy Central was consistently a minority, according to polls conducted by Ming Pao and HKU's Public Opinion Programme.

Even non-violent occupations aren’t inherently popular in Hong Kong. Support for Occupy Central was consistently a minority, according to polls conducted by Ming Pao and HKU’s Public Opinion Programme.

A protester also has to consider the potential for backfire against the protest movement if they appear too violent. The Hong Kong and Chinese governments savor any opportunities to paint democracy activists as violent. Violence gives them an excuse to clamp down or to deny their demands, and much of the public agrees with them that violence is wrong. Beijing happily took the opportunity to condemn “separatists,” and you can bet they will try to connect the broader pan-democratic movement to “separatists” if they can, just as the Global Times attacked some Occupy Central leaders for having met with Taiwanese independence activists. The word “separatists” is politically-charged, because it connotes Xinjiangese who want to split apart from China, including violent terrorist groups.

Still, some of the localists really do hold more radical views than mainstream pan-democrats. The group Voice of Hong Kong yelled racial slurs at mainland Chinese shoppers at a protest in 2014. Civic Passion supported an attempt to break into the Legislative Council during Occupy Central, one of the few actions during that time that diverged from the non-violent strategy, and criticized elected pan-democratic leaders who condemned the LegCo break-in attempt.

Already there are diverging views among the broad pan-democrat community on the Mongkok riots, with basically the elected political parties criticizing the violence of the protesters while outside activists defend the protesters. The Democratic Party, which faced criticism for cooperating with the government in 2010 to pass an election reform bill, said that violence and arson should never be tolerated, while the Hong Kong University Students’ Union said, “Forever we stand with the rebels,” and Hong Kong Indigenous’ Ray Wong Toi-yeung said that throwing bricks really isn’t very violent.

If a large enough group of protesters begins to think that lighting fires and throwing objects or worse is justified and the other large group continues to think it is unjustified, then they will disagree with each other and will never be able to form the large enough N (number) to wield power. On one side, the opponents of non-violence can say we tried that in 2014 and it didn’t work, so why should we continue trying non-violence when we know it won’t work?

On the other hand, advocates of non-violence will say non-violent protests had worked in 2003 to kill a security law, and more over, violence will work even worse, that governments try to radicalized groups of protesters so that they can destroy the whole movement’s credibility, and radicalism only plays into the government’s hands.

As long as the contingent of the public that supports radicalism is small enough so as to be controlled easily, the government has little to worry about. The proponents of violence can argue: If only you non-violent protesters yourselves would riot with us, then the scope of the protests would be too big for the government to control and we would finally be successful.

This is similar to the quandary the Republicans are facing now.

Most Republicans don’t want Trump, but they have to decide what tactic they should pick to fight Trump—in the context of a primary nomination, the tactics are the opposition candidates they have the choice to vote for. There are now four anti-Trump candidates appealing to voters with different interests: Cruz, for hardline conservatives and Tea Partiers; Rubio, who has conservative Tea Party credentials as well as “mainstream” attraction for his positive message; Bush and Kasich, for Republicans of moderate temperament for whom experience is paramount.

Imagine you are an anti-Trump voter who likes both Rubio and Bush. Looking at the national polls, you see Bush is at 4.0 percent, while Rubio has 20.3 percent (Real Clear Politics as of February 17). Considering that Rubio is leading by a wide margin, you will support Rubio, because you want to take down Trump, and voting for Rubio has a much better chance of making that happen. Each added N (number of votes) to Rubio’s total has a better P (probability) of obtaining the V (value) of the collective good that is Trump losing the nomination.

For the situation to have reached this state, already a lot of people have had to decide to support Rubio, possibly for different values. The V for Rubio’s early voters wasn’t simply denying Trump the nomination, but affirmatively supporting Rubio to win the nomination. Early in 2015, when Bush was leading the polls, the V for a lot of “anti-Establishment” voters was denying Bush the nomination.

A voter in the Republican primary has a lot of factors to consider when determining what is their V, and each voter will make different assessments of and assign different weights to these factors. Which candidates do they support? Which candidates will be able to win the primary? Which candidates will be able to win the general election?

Does a voter who loves Bush but merely likes Rubio end up voting for Rubio because they assign a higher value to being able to win the primary? Does a Cruz voter end up voting for Rubio because he values winning the general election and polls show Rubio doing much better against both Clinton and Sanders than Cruz does?

The argument, then, is not just over what is the best tactic, but also what the V value is in the first place. If V is simply “anti- Trump winning the primary,” an argument could be made the Cruz would have the easiest shot, based on the early states being in the South, but a lot of Republican primary voters are “anti- Trump or Cruz winning the primary,” because they also don’t like Cruz, or “for a Republican winning the general election,” which would also exclude Cruz and Bush if you consider their negative approval ratings with independents.

The state of the Republican primaries.

The state of the Republican primaries.

Each non-Trump candidates also has to determine how much resisting each other will hurt their chances of stopping Trump. Chris Christie was criticized by Rubio voters for harshly attacking Rubio in the pre-New Hampshire debate, which contributed to Rubio placing fifth in that primary. While apparently hurting Rubio, Christie’s attack did nothing to help him, and he dropped out after placing sixth. As long as the Republican primary remains divided, preventing any of the candidates from obtaining a critical mass of N (number of votes), the anti-Trump coalition will have a hard time defeating Trump in any single election, and as long as no members of the anti-Trump coalition can do well enough to make it look like they will have a high P (probability) of defeating Trump in the whole thing, they will have a hard time picking one to unify around.

As supporters of democracy in Hong Kong look at their options, they will face the same kind of choices. Instead of asking what candidate will give them the best chances of winning, their question is what tactic(s) will give them the best chance of winning and what exactly it is they want to win–whether it be a public nomination in chief executive nominations (a sticking point the government declined to negotiate in 2014), a party nomination, or, as some anti-mainlander localists want, restrictions on mainland travel and immigration.

The choice for them is even harder because they don’t have polls to give them a general idea of how successful each tactic might be if adopted, as Republican primary voters do. As long as there is no consensus on a winning set of tactics, they will not be able to summon the collective force to get democracy done.


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