Occupy Central and Gene Sharp’s work on nonviolent struggle

Over the last days, I have asked several Occupy Central activists if they have ever heard of Gene Sharp. Nobody did.

The nearly 90-year-old American scholar published extensively on nonviolent struggle. It all started when he was drafted to fight in the Korean War in 1953. He refused and spent nine months in prison. Later, as he said himself, he had an “Eureka” moment while studying in Oxford, which would determine his future career.

He describes it as follows:

“If you can identify the sources of a government’s power, such as legitimacy, such as popular support, such as the institutional support, and then you know on what that dictatorship depends for its existence, and since all those sources of power are dependent upon the good will, cooperation, obedience and help of people and institutions, then your job becomes fairly simple. All you have to do is shrink that support and that legitimacy, that co-operation, that obedience, and the regime will be weakened, and if you can take those sources far away, the regime will fall.”
– Gene Sharp

Sharp kept on studying and writing about nonviolent struggle for his whole life and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Price several times. His bibliography is long and academic, but Sharp’s most famous piece of work is probably the hands-on handbook From Dictatorship to Democracy (English/Chinese), which is less than 100 pages long. Sharp wrote it as a guide for the Burmese opposition under the military regime in the early 1990s. It has since then been widely translated and reprinted.

In the appendix of his little book, Sharp lists 198 methods of nonviolent action. They have been used by movements all around the world, for example the Colour Revolutions in Eastern Europe or the Arab Spring. Likewise, many elements of Occupy Central’s campaign are also found in Sharp’s book. Here are some examples:

6. Group or mass petitions: A Million Sign Hong Kong Petition
18. Display of flags and symbolic colors: March in black clothes
19. Wearing of symbols: Wear Yellow Ribbon!
24. Symbolic lights: Protesters switch on their mobile phones
28. Symbolic sounds: Protesters play the drum
38. Marches: March in black clothes
62. Student strike: Students say strike is final warning
119. Economic shutdown: HK faces financial district shutdown
122. Speeches advocating resistance: “Era of civil disobedience”
158. Self-exposure to the elements: “Protest” practice
159. Hunger strike: HK democracy activists start hunger strike
162. Sit-in: Hundreds of protesters at Chater Road sit-in
195. Seeking imprisonment: “We want to get arrested!”

The booklet is quite unique in offering a cookie-cutter approach of fighting against authoritarian regimes and dictatorships in a nonviolent way. I am always astonished how Sharp’s ideas and methods are found in so many movements around the world.

One of the best overviews about Sharp’s work gives the prize-winning documentary How To Start A Revolution. I strongly recommend to watch it and to read this interview with director Ruaridh Arrow.

This version on Youtube has Chinese subtitles. At 19:55 he mentions and comments on the student protests on Tiananmen Square and in other cities in China in 1989.

If you want to delve into Gene Sharp’s other works, his non-profit Albert Einstein Foundation has a lot of free resources available for download.

1 Comment

  1. Many of them actually have heard of Gene Sharp. The book 198 methods of nonviolent action has been brought up and discussed both online and offline by many OCLP and pro-democracy activists. It would be great to look around and see what people are reading – many of them bring along books to protests. It’s beautiful to see people read quietly or talk about books in groups at protests.
    Nonetheless, lovely piece and looking forward to reading your future posts on HK’s democracy movement.


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