To Lead or Not to Lead: Campus Standoff in Hong Kong's Water Movement


Hong Kong’s 2019–20 Water Movement has two distinctive features, expressed in Cantonese as “no main stage” (leaderless) and “no mat-cutting” (do not split). Drawing on original sources and firsthand experience on the ground, this paper reviews the campus standoff of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in November 2019 in relation to the principle and strategy of the leaderless movement. I argue that the imposed emphasis on the principle of “no main stage” has created another type of invisible power, discouraging individuals who possess experience, knowledge, and skills from contributing  to the movement. In the name of avoiding “main stage,” the more radical populist voices that do not necessarily represent the majority of protesters became, in effect, the “main stage,” and made uncompromising decisions that would further limit political space. While the Water Movement as a protest movement has temporarily come to an end with the imposition of the National Security Law, as a social movement it is still an unfolding story.

Rowena He
October 29, 2020


On 11 November 2019, in the heat of the Water Movement sparked by the Anti-Extradition Bill protests in June, people in Hong Kong woke up  to learn that one of its finest universities, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK, or CU), had become a battleground. Even for a city ablaze with escalating violence, it came as a shock—especially for members of the university community including myself, a professor of history—to watch our students, who would normally be in classrooms, dorms, or libraries on a Monday morning, fighting what they called “a battle to defend CU.” On 12 November alone, police reported that 1,576 rounds of tear gas, 1,312 rubber bullets, 380 beanbag rounds, and 126 sponge-tipped rounds were fired. The campus standoff lasted five days, bringing an abrupt ending to an already dramatic semester, and leaving the university community traumatized and the campus destroyed.

The signature tactic of the Water Movement before the campus standoff was to “be water.” The approach was inspired by Hong Kong martial arts icon Bruce Lee’s philosophy that water is shapeless and formless, able to flow and crash, which captured the essence of the decentralized movement. That image of the power of water ultimately derives from the classic Daoist text Dao de Jing, traditionally ascribed to Lao Zi. “Be water” as both a strategy and a principle is vividly expressed in Cantonese as “no main stage” (mo dai toi)—everyone can be a leader, but there is not and should not be any central leadership. Main stage events, by contrast, connote a center or focal point. Occupying a fixed location, such as a university campus, is quite the opposite of “no main stage.”

Instead, the occupied campus itself was the stage, with a performance captured by the journalists from around the world stationed 24/7 at Bridge No. 2, the key “military point” between the police force and the protesters. Even if the participants wanted to leave, they felt that doing so would dis- appoint their supporters: those pouring into campus to bring them food, those watching from afar, and, most importantly, those fighting on the frontline. But when police tried to cross the bridge and enter campus, or when radical outside protesters damaged the school facilities while rushing to the students’ rescue, neither force recognized how closely connected the CU campus space was to the students’ concept of home.

This article draws on original fieldwork conducted under highly unusual conditions—first an ongoing mass social movement marked by large-scale demonstrations, escalating violence, and disruption of normal academic routines and daily life, then the overwhelming concern for academic freedom after the imposition of the National Security Law on 1 July 2020, and the subsequent arrests and trials of pro-democracy leaders and activists. Students no longer felt safe speaking online or over the phone, and the pandemic prevented social gathering.

I have taken a hermeneutic approach, integrating ethnography, anthropology, and oral history to present my observations as both an insider and outsider. The research process consists of first-hand examination of the November battlefield; conversations with students to help them process the immediate aftermath of the occupation; learnings drawn from informal dis- cussion groups among students who returned to the university; and formal interviews with groups and individual students who had participated in earlier dialogues. By illustrating the interpersonal dynamics on the ground during the campus standoff, I argue that while the lack of authority to articulate coherent demands is not unusual in a leaderless movement, the imposed emphasis on the principle of leaderlessness created another type of invisible power, discouraging individuals who possess experiences, knowledges, and skills from contributing to the movement, and lending primacy to radical populist voices, who limited the space for negotiation.

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