Originally published here Opinion | Selling a revolution to Hong Kong — Opinion — DotDotNews
In 2015 the annual 1 July march organized by the NED-sponsored Civil Human Rights Front registered one of the lowest turnouts in recent years; the June 4 candlelight vigil at Victoria Park had seemingly failed to attract a large crowd. One can only guess the mood in Washington. Did these flops confirm that the 2014 Umbrella Movement had unequivocally fizzled out and Hong Kong was showing signs of protest fatigue?
Anyone with a finger on the pulse would have reached that conclusion but those who were intent on destabilizing Hong Kong and unleashing a hybrid war against China simply wouldn’t give up. Since they had invested so many resources in orchestrating and funding the Umbrella Movement, they’d rather see this setback as a case of “losing a battle to win the war.” Their clandestine networks were largely intact and agents of influence were still at their posts, but protest fatigue, infighting and blame games in an increasingly fractious pro-democracy movement could no longer be ignored. The situation demanded both a thorough review and remedial action.
The sponsors of this failed colour revolution elicited intelligence from their trusted partners on the ground, including academic informers. For a long time academics have been sharing and discussing their field-work, data collection, research finding, observations and personal contacts with the government and non-government organizations that form the regime-change apparatus. Often their careers are facilitated by their track record as ‘agents of change’ and informers.
One who could provide such information was James Buchanan, a PhD candidate teaching at City University of Hong Kong, often spotted marching and hanging out with Hong Kong activists allegedly for research purposes. He had already played a similar role in Thailand when he was embedded with red-shirt protesters.
In 2014–15 he offered a university course titled “Transnational Social Movement in an Age of Globalization”. To earn credits his students visited the offices of opposition groups (codeword ‘social movements’) that would later play a central role in the 2019 colour revolution, conducted role-play activities and scenario planning exercises “to understand how to formulate the goals of social movements and frame issues”, which is exactly what activists were trained to do in CANVAS and Oslo Freedom Forum workshops. Though Buchanan’s students didn’t receive financial incentives to take part in protests, their views and behaviour were probably influenced by Buchanan’s, as he would grade their coursework and essays.1
Students enrolled in another university, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), received HK$350 from professor Y.Jane Zhang to fill questionnaires about their participation in political rallies such as the July 1 march. Ms Zhang in collaboration with academics in the EU and the US, had elaborated a clever research project based on game theory to study “What drives individuals’ decisions to participate in political protests”. She conducted a field experiment to observe how participation in anti-authoritarian protests was affected by beliefs about the turnout of others and elicited participation in an incentivized manner. This bizarre experiment was launched in 2016 and repeated every year “to test whether participation in one protest within a political movement increases subsequent protest attendance, and why.” In 2019 riots and petrol bombs finally convinced the HKUST Human Participants Research Panel (HPRP) that maybe the experiment had gone a bit too far.
Those who are familiar with the observer-expectancy effect know that observers, either consciously or unconsciously, communicate their expectations for the outcome of the study to participants, causing them to alter their behavior to conform to those expectations. Well, in the HKUST experiment the expectations couldn’t be spelled out more clearly: they neatly coincided with the agenda of those who were hellbent on destabilizing Hong Kong.
Besides incentivizing student participation in anti-government protests, this research project served another sinister purpose: collecting data that would be analyzed to develop a better product than the Umbrella Movement and effective marketing strategies. Washington wanted to ensure that the second attempt at a colour revolution would be more successful than the previous one. The US, the world’s marketing experts, had a revolution to sell and needed market information to fine-tune it.
Y.Jane Zhang, an expert in Behavioral Economics, a discipline that draws on psychology and economics to explore decision-making processes, including irrational ones, prepared Likert Scale questions, one of the most widely used tools in researching popular opinion. Her questionnaire used psychometric testing to measure the appetite for protest, attitudes and opinions of students, their families and social networks. Respondents would indicate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements on a scale of 0–10, although shorter scales were also used. The main advantage of Likert Scale questions is that they are a universal method of collecting data, which means it is easy to draw conclusions, reports, results and graphs from the responses.
HKUST students were questioned on support for democracy, support for HK independence, HK identity vs Chinese identity, unhappiness with the political status quo, anti-CCP views etc.
The survey also contained very direct questions such as “Have you participated in the Occupy Central / Umbrella Revolution during September — December 2014?”, “Which party are you are you planning to vote for, during the 2016 Hong Kong Legislative Council Election?”, “Which political group’s crowd did you join during the march?”, “ How much money do you want to contribute to Demosisto?”
Dozens of probing questions were prepared to investigate risk tolerance, patience, altruism, conscientiousness, personality traits, neuroticism, extraversion, cognitive ability, economic status, family background, religious and political beliefs, media consumption, pro-democratic source of media, intensity of political support, aggressive pursuit of political rights (for example: “Some people support the use of violence to fight for Hong Kong citizens’ political rights, while others oppose the use of violence. Where do you stand on this question?”) 2
Market research was a preliminary and necessary step to develop an ad hoc product: the “Revolution of Our Times”, as recites a slogan coined in 2016. The 2019 colour revolution would be tailor-made for Hong Kong. It was therefore paramount to identify and establish needs, test the ‘product’, get feedback, improve its performance and distribution channels at every stage.
It’s therefore little surprise that immediately after the 2014 protest movement lost steam several ‘independent’ media outlets were launched to better shape the narrative. Hong Kong Free Press, StandNews, Factwire and some less prominent ones all appeared roughly at the same time.
This flurry of activity on the media front was matched by a similar frenzy in the political camp: localist and pro-independence parties, breakaway student unions were formed to radicalize Hong Kong youth, provide a platform for separatism and participate in the Legislative Council elections. Young leaders quickly converted their street credentials into political capital and attracted their peers to the polls with a new, trendier and rowdier style of party politics.
The Umbrella Movement had been defeated by the government’s decision to tolerate the tent camp that for 79 days occupied the main business and commercial districts instead of instructing the police to forcibly remove protesters. Those who had betted on some bloody repression that could trigger a citywide uprising and escalate into a PLA intervention were proven wrong. The following attempt at a colour revolution had to do more damage than simply cause inconvenience and financial losses if its objectives were to be met. In short, protesters would have to cross all red lines, set the city on fire and leave no room for dialogue. Something that only well-trained radicals could achieve. The tricky part was to secure the support of a large segment of the population for the kind of violent direct action that was being planned. That would be the job of agents of influence in the education, media and legal sector.
For five years law-abiding Hong Kong residents were subjected to a sort of neuro-linguistic programming: the highly respected and professional Hong Kong police were portrayed as brutal thugs, illegal activities and the use of violence were justified because they helped the ‘cause’, mainland Chinese tourists were dehumanized and described as a pest, the colonial past was nostalgically presented as a golden age, China was the root of all evil.
Educators, media pundits, experts and professionals from different fields were wittingly and unwittingly enlisted to sell the evergreen “freedom, democracy, human rights” combo in a new exciting packaging, revolution. Sit-ins, peaceful rallies, petitions were OUT. Petrol bombs, physical and verbal aggressions,urban guerrilla warfare were IN.
Marketing psychology provided a rich toolbox that would help manipulate the real needs and wants of people to suit the needs and wants of those who had a revolution to peddle.