In 2016, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal—a Buddhist Thai student activist—invited Joshua Wong—the devoutly Christian Hong Kong protest leader—to come to his campus. Netiwit wanted Wong to speak as part of a gathering commemorating the 40th anniversary of a famous 1976 massacre of students that took place in Bangkok. The Thai authorities blocked Wong from entering the country, presumably due to pressure from Beijing. Netiwit felt a deep connection to Wong: they were not just about the same age and devoted to opposing authoritarian rule, but each saw his activism as linked to his religious faith. Instead of giving up on getting Wong to his campus, Netiwit invited his Hong Kong counterpart to come to Bangkok virtually and speak to local students via Skype. In 2017, after the Thai activist founded a grassroots press, Samyan, he deepened his connection to Wong by publishing Thai translations of his writings as well as those by other critics of the Chinese Communist Party. Samyan’s list also includes original books on Thai politics and Thai editions of works by foreign authors on feminism, environmentalism, and resisting tyranny in various parts of the world.
I had several interactions with Wong in the 2010s, when he was in his teens and early twenties. So, when I visited Bangkok in 2022, I hoped to meet Samyan’s founder. I was curious whether the Hong Kong and Thai pro-democracy movements had stayed connected since darkness fell in the former city and Wong and many similar if less globally known figures disappeared into jail cells, while some of their colleagues went into exile. In the end, I could not meet Netiwit, but I had conversations with some of his Samyan colleagues. They assured me that connections between Thailand and Hong Kong continued, sometimes taking direct and sometimes taking more purely symbolic forms.
Most intriguingly, these Thai publishers of international protest writings spoke passionately of their attachment to the Milk Tea Alliance: a loose network of activists originally born in—and now either still based in or exiled from—different parts of East and Southeast Asia (where varieties of the eponymous beverage are ubiquitous, unlike in Mainland China). What makes members of the MTA feel connected is a concern about the CCP’s policies and influence, both within and beyond the borders of the People’s Republic of China. They have no formal organization, but they make use of common symbols (such as the three-finger salute used by the rebels in the Hunger Games film series), shout related slogans, and take pride in striving to draw attention to one another’s actions. They express solidarity on social media or in physical posters and banners for those in varied places the CCP would like to see forgotten and silenced.
How powerful is the MTA, which became known by that name only at the start of this decade but has roots in the last one? This is hard to say. But what is certain is that belonging to the alliance inspires pride among pockets of youths in Asian locales, ranging from Taiwan to Myanmar, and in exile communities elsewhere. Moreover, actions linked to the MTA have been taking place continually in Bangkok and sporadically flaring up and flaming out in other places. But how the Milk Tea Alliance fits into the broader story of global protests, divided by borders and distance and language, no one can yet say.
How do social movements begin? And when do they end? This is a central question in Gal Beckerman’s new book, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas (Crown, 2022). Straddling the line between journalism and social science (Beckerman, literary editor at The Atlantic, bases his book partly on work he did while getting a doctorate at Columbia), The Quiet Before is a lively and engaging read. It is also a work with much to offer anyone who has been involved in or simply is fascinated by daring efforts to effect change, both the eclectic mix of struggles Beckerman discusses and ones like the Milk Tea Alliance protests that he does not. “Change—the kind that topples social norms and uproots orthodoxies,” the book begins, “happens slowly at first. People don’t just cut off the king’s head. For years and even decades, they gossip about him, imagine him naked and ridiculous, demote him from deity to fallible mortal (with a head, which can be cut).” This vivid prose clearly highlights Beckerman’s concern with pacing. We are riveted by moments when a “crowd coalesces on the street,” but these are only the “third acts” in movements, he writes, drawing on a famous theatrical metaphor by Saul Alinsky.
In explaining this metaphor, Beckerman quotes Alinsky, an enduringly influential theorist of protest, as claiming that social movements typically, like plays, have a “first act” that introduces the “characters and the plot” and a “second act” that develops the “plot and characters” in an effort “to hold the audience’s attention.” These two acts take place before the time comes for “good and evil” to have “their dramatic confrontation and resolution” in act 3. To jump to act 3 is to take a “shortcut” that is “not actually a short cut,” according to Alinsky, and the result is a “confrontation for confrontation’s sake.” After “a flare-up,” we go “back to darkness.”
Beckerman sees the protests after Trump’s election as an example of jumping to the third act. It is natural, he writes, to be captivated by “deafening chants” and iconic photos of “a policeman on horseback chasing down a lone protester or a man standing up to a tank,” but focusing too much on these sorts of episodes can lead us to underappreciate the importance of the slow buildup to them. The conversations and debates in the first and second acts that help to move novel notions from the fringes to the center are crucial. This is a point Beckerman stresses in both his best chapters, which zero in on protest surges as different as the British Chartists of Victorian times and contemporary Black Live Matter activists—as well as in others that struck me as less compelling—that deal with what could be better described as artistic, literary, and scientific rather than social movements. Mindful of past works championing the idea of slow food and slow reading and so on, I think of The Quiet Before as above all a plea for slow activism. Its great strength is a chronological sweep reaching back to the 17th century that is matched by a bracing geographic range, which brings in two parts of Africa and Russia as well as parts of Western Europe and North America.
And yet, The Quiet Before is also limited by its handling of space, tending as it does to stick to specific parts of the world in specific chapters, and its handling of time. Who’s to say when to start the clock on what counts as slow activism? And might hasty shortcut protests in one setting be third acts in a protest wave that began far away?
Beckerman sees jumping to third acts as becoming too common in the current era, but his own analysis in some early chapters alerts us to how hard it often is to be sure in the short term which “act” in the play is taking place. For example, from the vantage point of the early 1840s, the famous 1839 Chartist Petition calling for expanded suffrage could have seemed like a premature “third act” spectacle that failed. By the 1870s, by contrast, it could be seen as part of a “first act” followed by a “second act” that resulted in a “third act” success in 1867. How can we be sure with recent events that what seems like a dead end in the early 2020s will not someday seem merely a lull instead? If what happens in hidden corners can be crucial, as Beckerman suggests is often the case, how can we know whether actions are taking place behind the scenes that will eventually transform what seems a dead-end pursuit into something else?
More surprising and worrisome is a kind of geographical narrowing between the beginning and end of a book whose first chapter looks at a scientific movement involving exchanges of letters between Europeans in difference countries. It would be easy to imagine the case studies becoming more rather than less globally minded as we get to the age of the internet and iPhones, but Beckerman’s later chapters often focus in tightly on specific locales. Recent works on the 18th century, such as Micah Alpaugh’s Friends of Freedom: The Rise of Social Movements in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2021), have highlighted the degree to which participants in upheavals in disparate locales long before the era of new media could stay aware of and influence one another via exchanges of letters, pamphlets, and newspapers. But surely one distinctive feature of recent transformations in communication technologies has been that they keep extending the reach and increasing the speed of the circulation of words and images. Beckerman is clearly aware of this, but in later chapters he tends to pay attention to the implications of increases in speed more than spread.
Does this matter? I think so. Paying attention to digital-age diffusion can alter our sense of the impact struggles have or fail to have. It is curious, for example, that Beckerman’s study of Black Lives Matter does not consider how images of protests in the United States helped to spur demonstrations on related issues in European and African cities in a way that could not have happened as quickly in earlier media environments. If a full account of many struggles of the past and present requires tracing the lead-up to and aftermath of dramatic moments in a chronologically capacious way, it seems more important than ever when assessing contemporary movements to place them into robustly transnational contexts. Crucial in sharpening understanding of events in individual countries has been recent work on the “global 60s” that is attentive to both locally rooted variations between youth movements and how slogans and strategies were shared partly through direct interactions and written texts but also through televised footage. Since the rise of the internet, the issue of cross-border flows has been even more important. The case of the budding Milk Tea Alliance, which I was aware of before my trip to Bangkok but got a better sense of while there, underlines the need to think beyond national borders in the 2020s.
Paying attention to digital-age diffusion can alter our sense of the impact struggles have or fail to have.
Beckerman is right to highlight the long and winding nature of protest and social change. The Quiet Before discusses fascinating figures like Nnamdi Azikiwe, an iconoclastic intellectual who traveled from West Africa to America to study and teach and then returned to run an anti-colonialist newspaper in Accra, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a poet turned activist who was hounded and committed to an insane asylum by the authorities for her work documenting human rights abuses in mimeographed samizdat. One thing linking these and other figures in The Quiet Before is that their struggles often seemed for long stretches of time to be quixotic. Another thing they had in common, however, is that they ultimately helped destroy windmills, in Gorbanevskaya’s case by contributing to the emergence of underground civil-society networks that barely survived for decades but then flourished once Mikhail Gorbachev rose.1
Or take “loudmouthed” Feargus O’Connor. When this Chartist leader submitted a signed document to Parliament in 1839 demanding voting rights be extended to laboring men, the tactic was hardly a novel one. For centuries, people in many places had used petitions. But there was nothing typical about this one. Presenting it was like “depositing a keg of dynamite on the floor of the House” due above all to its sheer size. It had grown steadily as the “bombastic” and “magnetic” O’Connor “maniacally” crisscrossed the British Isles speaking to crowds. It became an object of “shocking and unprecedented” dimensions, comprised of “pages upon pages pasted together and crowded with signatures,” more than a million in all. It “extended nearly three miles” when unrolled and had to be transported in a specially created cylinder. One parliamentary response to the gargantuan petition and its curiously constructed container was incredulous laughter. Yet, it worked. Laboring men got the vote, starting a process that changed a partially democratic system into a robustly democratic one.
But, as Beckerman makes abundantly clear, initially the petition didn’t work. The 1839 drive failed. Suffrage was not secured until decades later. The House’s laughing response to the petition preceded a rejection of its demand. It was also not until after many other speeches and petitions and O’Connor’s death that the pivotal 1867 Reform Act was passed. And while the Chartists help pave the way for suffrage being extended to women decades later, to achieve that, there needed to be more tactical tinkering and bold actions by new generations of feminist figures who used a mix of innovative methods and ones the Chartists had added to the protest repertoire. The biggest payoff for O’Connor’s tireless traveling was ultimately not the signatures gathered but the establishment of a network of local cells, scattered across Britain, that endured and laid the groundwork for establishing the “first working-class political party in history.”
The admiring profiles of quixotic protagonists that open Beckerman’s chapters on struggles that succeeded in making the jump from moments to movements are well turned and gripping, but they turn out to be MacGuffins. Beckerman uses them to grab our attention, but his main goal in each instance is to convince us that we should not put too much stock in leaders and lightning-strike events like the Chartist petition presentations. Doing so, he argues, blinds us to the less visible aspects of movements that can matter most. The lead-up to and aftermath of headline-grabbing actions can change everything, and the individuals whose daring stands out are able to achieve impressive things only if they succeed in finding or building a community of kindred spirits with shared obsessions to collaborate and scheme with, to hector and listen to, and to learn from and argue with for extended periods.
A key argument at the heart of the book, which relates to the often overlooked but important role pacing can play in shaping the course and degrees of success of social movements, really comes into focus when the book reaches Cairo in the Arab Spring era. Seeing Egypt transformed from a dictatorship into a democracy only to become a place ruled by new autocrats left Beckerman with a nagging sense of social media as something that, in seductive but contradictory ways, often both facilitates getting people out onto the streets quickly and makes it harder even for spectacular mass actions to lay the groundwork for change that endures.
Instead, Beckerman wants us to appreciate how valuable it can be for activists and innovators to make time for deliberation around tables, to try one thing and then regroup and try something else. He insists on the productive payoffs of “incubation,” a term he feels is too resonant and revealing to reserve for metaphoric use only in discussions of Silicon Valley startups. “Slavery exists. And then a small group of people begin worrying among themselves about the moral blight of humans owning other humans, weighing what might be done. Their talking transforms them into a group with a purpose, abolition, and discussion eventually bubbles up into action and then into the changing of minds and, eventually, laws.”
Beckerman urges activists committed to progressive causes to find ways to slow down. The fast pace of internet-driven news cycles works against incubation, so those eager to effect change need to find novel ways to replicate somehow in a new fashion the intense slow-building discussions and debates that were more common in earlier eras—and, ironically, have been happening recently as right-wing militants feeling isolated, persecuted, and in need of secrecy have found and are scheming with one another in hidden sections of cyberspace.
Whereas there were clear leaders in earlier stages of the struggle, the activists decided via online discussions that this one would strive to be leaderless, in part to stymie repression.
I have spent the last few years focusing on one place, Hong Kong, that was a big part of arguably the biggest year of global protest since the Arab Spring—2019. I therefore found Beckerman’s book stimulating, helpful, and problematic all at once.
The Quiet Before was helpful in assisting me in placing some Hong Kong events and personalities into historical and comparative context. Due to thematic connections, several of Beckerman’s case studies resonated with particular power, none more so than that of the Chartists. This is because Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014—which built on the success of the 2012 protests that had succeeded in blocking efforts to bring mainland-style patriotic education into Hong Kong, and laid the groundwork for the 2019 uprising—was an effort to make a political system that was only partially democratic much more so by making the chief executive someone chosen via an open election rather than a rigged selection.
The book was valuable in providing a new lens for viewing Hong Kong. Even so, the city’s protest surge of 2019 illustrates the problem with assuming that it is easy to place events along a first-through-third act progression, as well as the limitations of zeroing in on a single locale when assessing digital age activism.
At first glance, Hong Kong’s 2019 protests might seem a perfect example of a struggle that, thanks to the mobilizing magic of social media, moved quickly to a stage of stunning spectacles that proved unsustainable. There were marches of over a million people in a city of fewer than eight million, making them, in per-capita terms, among the biggest in the history of the world. And yet, by the end of 2020, there was no space for mass actions. Many activists were in jail or in exile. The speed with which the struggle took off and the lack of talks around tables left no space for slow organizing, one could assume, though its demise was clearly largely due to other factors as well. These included the harsh methods local police used, the intransigence of local officials in 2019, and Beijing imposing a severe new national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, taking advantage of the globally distracting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that minimized international attention and outrage.
There is, however, another way to tell the story. The protests did not come out of nowhere. They were preceded by earlier upsurges, including the 2012 ones spearheaded by teenagers such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow and the 2014 one that became known as the Umbrella Movement, due to that ubiquitous-in-Hong-Kong implement that protesters put to novel use as a blocker of pepper spray and tear gas. This struggle was cosmopolitan minded from the start: borrowing some tactics from Occupy Wall Street, naming a giant bulletin board that became a central symbol of the struggle after the Lennon Wall in Prague, and taking inspiration from recent Taiwan protests.
After the 2014 mass actions ended with no change in the chief-executive selection process—which limited local input to a handpicked nomination committee of fewer than 2,000 people, and ensured the winner would be agreeable to a Beijing government that had become a successor colonial controller to the British one of old—activists experimented with many strategies. They formed new grassroots political parties, for example, to compete for district council seats and those legislative council positions that were openly contested, as not all were. They also staged short-lived protests, usually after word came of a new encroachment on local liberties by Beijing or plans for one. And they kept conversations going.
The Umbrella Movement had been a discussion-driven struggle. There had been many in-person debates, speeches, and open-air classes on democracy, posters put up on both the Lennon Wall in the Central Occupy Zone and on campus Democracy Walls that expressed competing views. There were also continual exchanges on electronic bulletin boards, a process that made networks established online as important at times as those established via face-to-face conversations. These laid the groundwork for conversations that continued between 2015 and the major renewal of mass actions four year later, which was triggered by the chief executive proposing to change extradition rules in a manner that would make it easy for those the mainland wanted to punish to be tried in mainland courts rather than the far more independent Hong Kong ones. The new movement began with the annual vigil held in Hong Kong to commemorate the victims of 1989’s June 4 Massacre, during which soldiers killed civilians near Tiananmen Square—an event that could not be commemorated on the mainland. As a larger-than-usual vigil led to massive marches later in June 2019, this dispelled the sense of despondency in activist circles that had deepened in the mid-to-late 2010s when the authorities arrested activists and had progressives from the new parties who won elections barred from serving, disqualifying them on political grounds.
One can weave all this into a script in which the 2012–2014 protests serve as the first act, introducing characters such as Wong and Chow and tactics such as using creative means to defend oneself from noxious substances. The events of 2015 through May 2019 then serve as a classic second act of character development and plots twists. Then the resurgence of major street actions is a third act that came along at the right time and exceeded everything that had come before.
This time, there were many Lennon Walls covered with political and artistic expressions, bigger marches, and new online debates about strategy. There was also a shift in tactics developed during reflections on past roadblocks that fit Beckerman’s vision of incubation and debates around the digital equivalents to wooden tables. This time around, the protesters would be “like water” (this became a movement mantra), flexible in where they would gather to make it harder for police to harm and disperse them. In addition, whereas there were clear leaders in earlier stages of the struggle, the activists decided via online discussions that this one would strive to be leaderless, in part to stymie repression.
Now, unfortunately, it is dangerous in Hong Kong to commemorate not just the 1989 anniversary but also the anniversaries of 2019 marches and acts of repression. Indeed, doing any of these things can lead to instant arrest, with little chance of fighting the charge successfully in what are now tightly controlled courts. Hong Kong, still a special city in many ways, has in terms of protest options become a place much more like neighboring mainland cities than it was until 2020.
Third-act battles can end in victory or tragedy. Hong Kong, now experiencing a dark phase of intense repression, falls into the latter category.
And yet, if we bring in transnational flows, there is a way to look at Hong Kong’s 2019 that does not treat the crackdown that followed the protests as the moment that the curtain came down at the close of a tragedy—or, rather, does not treat it as just that. Hong Kong activists in exile are organizing new groups, exchanging ideas, debating, and gathering on anniversaries associated with their city’s past and China’s. In addition, the strategies Hong Kong activists used in 2019 have been cited as inspirational by protesters in other parts of the world, some of whom learned of them via direct conversations while many others did so via videos that zipped around the world. It is always hard to tell how much one movement influences another, but demonstrators in Bangkok and Belarus have referred to the “be water” notion as one they adopted and adapted; there has been talk in Myanmar and Minneapolis of using Hong Kong–style methods to neutralize police tear-gas cannisters; and while the leaderless movement ideal has a complex lineage, it is now sometimes associated with Hong Kong.
In Bangkok, one young man mentioned a direct connection. When Thai youths began a series of street demonstration late in 2020 and police used tear gas against them, some Hong Kong activists sent them apparel and goggles that they had found useful in their own monumental protests in 2019. A young woman told me proudly that to reciprocate—and knowing that there could be no commemorations in Hong Kong now of Tiananmen—she had joined with others on her campus to light candles in Bangkok for the Beijing martyrs of 1989. This was, she felt, a way of helping make sure, in a metaphoric and literal sense, that a flame in danger of dying continued to burn.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.
- It is worth stressing that The Quiet Before is not devoted only to actions and actors the author admires. One late chapter provides a disturbing look at how white supremacists managed to get their efforts rebranded as “alt-right” activism and the menacing moves they made in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. ↩