Joe Posner's "Isis Control in Iraq and Syria"

Source: Max Fischer and Zack Beauchamp, "14 Maps that Explain ISIS," (25 September 2014)
A few months ago Small Wars Journal published an essay by Gary Anderson titled "Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad."[1]  Al-Baghdadi, of course, is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), though in recent months he has dropped this nome-de-plure in favor of the more ambitious title "Caliph Ibrahim." Anderson's essay attempts to sketch the strategic principles that guided this man's successful campaigns in the Near East. The essay's introduction gives you a fair idea of its flavor:
There is both military art and science behind al-Baghdadi’s recent successes. His approach is different from western military leadership practices, but it is not unique in history. He seems to have borrowed some elements of the warfighting styles of the Prophet Mohammed and Genghis Khan as well as the some political-strategic approaches of Lenin and Hitler. Whether these were adopted from a study of history or the serendipitous outcome of pure talent is somewhat irrelevant. To date, al-Baghdadi has achieved significant results. We can’t fully understand his thought process but we can study his methods and the principles he employs. These are discussed below....
I am usually quite wary of historical metaphors of the sort Mr. Anderson uses here. Their use is certainly is not a new; parallel biographies have been used as a powerful analytical tool since the days of Plutarch and Sima Qian. Comparisons like this can be valuable if they are fully explored and carefully constructed. The danger of historical metaphors, however, is that they threaten to reduce complex events that require thorough study and reflection to understand into a set of superficial symbols that demand no thought at all. You can see this in the way words like 'Munich,' 'blitzkrieg,' and 'Pearl Harbor' are used today as a sort of historical short-hand for universal concepts (appeasement, maneuver warfare, surprise attack, and so forth) and the range of emotions or images we moderns attach to them.  By their nature, symbolic metaphors of this sort make communication easier and critical thought more difficult. As I argued in an earlier post:
Every metaphor is an attempt to apply the logic of one situation to the problems of another. The utility of metaphorical devices is easy to grasp: metaphors allow man to transform complex abstractions into ideas and images more concrete and familiar than the original. As a labor saving device, metaphors have no peers. If the logic of one situation can be applied to the other, no one need waste time learning the intricacies of both. [2]
The ultimate problem with many of the historical metaphors in circulation today, therefore, is not simply their lack of nuance, but the way in which they discourage meaningful critical thought. The statement "Conflict X would be another Vietnam" should launch a wide ranging discussion about the parallels between the international context, domestic perceptions, campaign aims, and military tactics of Conflict X and the Vietnam War. This does not happen. In American political discourse the word Vietnam is not an invitation to reflect but a signal that discussion has ended and polemic has begun. 

Mr. Anderson avoids most of these problems by focusing on a set of historical figures that are not referenced enough in American foreign policy discussions to become established short-hand for anything. His juxtaposition of al-Baghdadi and Chinggis Khan is the most fascinating of these comparisons. On the one hand the comparison is complete nonsense: Chinggis Khan single-handily created the most accomplished military machine in human history; al-Baghdadi is the head of a "a mid-size Sunni militia with a knack for child-rape and no skills against anyone who doesn’t fall for their death-metal hype." [3] Anderson does not deny this difference in the scale and scope of the campaigns led by these two men, but he believes that there are clear parallels in the strategic rationale behind both the  ISIS and Mongol offensives. To quote:
This deliberate use of terror [by ISIS] is selective as was the case with Genghis Khan. He massacred the populations of the first cities of any region that he attacked, and the word got around that resistance was futile. The great Khan conquered many cities, but based on his reputation, he had to lay siege to very few.

This moral and morale superiority has allowed fast moving jihadist flying columns traveling in light trucks that can mix with civilian traffic to strike their enemies where his forces are weak or non-existent. The collapse of whole provinces more closely resembled Hitler’s blitzkrieg through France and the Low Countries than the guerrilla war that Americans experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is also similar to the tactics of Genghis Khan who made advancing Mongol forces seem to be much larger  than they were and to be everywhere at once. Fear induced reporting turned battalions into regiments, regiments into divisions, and divisions into “hordes.”[4]

There is a very Boydian feel to Anderson's analysis here. To use the jargon Boyd is known for, Anderson is suggesting that both ISIS and the Mongols were successful because they were able to "operate inside the OODA Loop" of their opponents. [5]

This observation is correct but I am not sure it is particularly insightful. When John Boyd credited  Mongol victories to "subversive propaganda, clever stratagems, fast breaking maneuvers, and calculated terror [that] not only created vulnerabilities and weaknesses but also played upon moral factors that drain-away resolve, produce panic, and bring about collapse" in his famous presentation Patterns of Conflict, he was not describing what made the Mongol war machine unique, but was outlining  principles that any can be used by any commander wise enough to use them on the field of battle [6]. His commentary on the Mongols came midway through a review of strategic theory and practice that drew on everything from the troop formations used by Epaminodas 2,000 years ago to the battle plans of Yigael Yadin in Israel's wars with its Arab neighbors. In this review he explicitly places the Mongol campaigns in the same "category of warfare" as that practiced by Sunzi, Napolean Bonaparte Stonewall Jackson, Ereich von Manstein, Ramon Magsaysay, and Vo Nguyen Giap [7] Boyd's description of the Mongol campaigns--whose language Anderson echoes quite closely (though perhaps not consciously)--is an attempt to distill the critical elements of all successful asymmetrical maneuver campaigns throughout human history. [8] Acknowledging that ISIS pulled off a string of successful operations that fit into this category is recognizing that these elements were present--otherwise the operations would not have been successful. ISIS forces seemed "to be much larger than they were and to be everywhere at once" because that is what victorious maneuver armies doI am unconvinced that explicit comparisons to the Mongol experience add any marginal value to this observation.

The most interesting parallel between ISIS and the forces of Chhingis Khan is actually not one Anderson makes explicitly. He sets up this comparison in his discussion of the ISIS command structure:
Use Mission Orders to Enhance Operational Security. Telling subordinates what to do, not how to do it, is a basic tenant of maneuver warfare; but it also allows Baghdadi to command and control his forces with an absolute minimum of cell phone and radio communications that are subject to American intercepts which can be provided to Iraqi security forces. Baghdadi makes extensive use of runners and motorcycle messengers to keep his opponents in the dark.

American commanders talk a good game about Maneuver Warfare, but many take advantage of technology and secure communications to micromanage. It is not unusual for an American Colonel to be tracking squad sized units on his computer; worse still, it is not unusual to require American squad and platoon sized units to submit detailed patrol plans three days in advance so they can be plotted into computers. Baghdadi can simply say; “take this town and let me know when you have it”. It doesn’t make him a good guy, but he is a very effective military leader. Contrast this with Maliki and Karzai who will move or fire a commander who appears so competent or popular that he might become a competitor for power (emphasis added) [9].
And here is where things get interesting. I don't think it is possible to isolate one, single variable that can account for the epochal success of the Mongol military machine. But if I was forced to try and boil down the secret of the Mongol Empire to a sentence or two it would sound a lot like the one Anderson has written here. In contrast to both the kingdoms the Mongols destroyed and every other nomadic confederation that preceded or followed his empire, Chinggis Khan possessed the complete loyalty of his troops and his generals. The men under his command were absolutely, and to their enemies, terrifyingly, united. Chinggis Khan could wage simultaneous wars on opposite sides of the known world, erode the internal cohesion of every kingdom his envoys visited, and paralyze enemy defenses with a flood of independently commanded units only because of the fearsome unity and loyalty of his forces.

At the height of its power the Khwarezm Dynasty controlled everything between the Aral Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Khwarezm era was the golden age of Central Asia---when historians talk about the contributions of Islamic civilization to science, mathematics, poetry, philosophy, and art, they are almost always talking about men who were from this region or lived there before the Mongols took over.  It was the sorry task of the the Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvayni to record the story of this civilization's total destruction at Mongol hands and explain to posterity how a pagan warlord had over-whelmed the abode of Islam. His chronicle reads:
What army in the whole world can equal the Mongol army? In times of action, when attacking and assaulting, they are like trained wild beasts out after game, and in the days of peace and security they are like sheep, yielding milk and wool and many other useful things. In misfortune and adversity they are free from dissension and opposition… their obedience and submissiveness is such that if there be a commander of a hundred thousand between whom and the Khan there is some fault, the Khan dispatches a single horseman to punish him after the manner prescribed: if his head has been demanded, he cuts it off, and if gold be required, he takes it from him.

How different it is with other kings who must speak cautiously to their own slave, bought with their own money, as soon as he has ten horses in his stable, to say nothing of when they place an army under his command and he attains wealth and power; then they cannot displace him, and more often than not he actually rises in rebellion and insurrection! Whenever these kings prepare to attack an enemy or are themselves attacked by an enemy, months and years are required to equip an army and it takes a brimful treasury to meet the expenses of salaries and allotments of land. When they draw their pay and allowances the soldiers numbers increase by hundreds and thousands, but one the day of combat their ranks are everywhere vague and uncertain, and none presents himself on the battlefield [9].
I do not think Juvayni fully realized how powerful his explanation for the Mongol Empire's expansion was. It is probable that he developed it while reflecting on the ill fate of the house of Khwarezm, where his grand-father served as a court minister. The Mongols erupted onto the scene during the reign of Muhammad II of Khwarezm (r. 1200-1220), the last real Shah of Khwarezmia. The Shah's court was divided from the moment the Mongol invasion began, and a particularly sore divide arose between Muhammad and his son Jalal ad-Din about how to organize the empire's defenses. Many in the court argued that the Shah should mobilize the entire armed forces of the empire--who would have outnumbered the Mongol forces at least 3:1--and confront the Mongols in a decisive battle. The Shah shied away from such an approach, aware that he did not have the tactical genius needed to command such a force and afraid of giving so much power to any subordinate of his who did. Instead the army was divided amongst Khwarezmia's many cities; with its size thus diluted it was easy for the Mongols to sweep in and destroy each detachment one by one. Even after this process was well under way and the outlines of the Mongol strategy were clear to the Shah his court was too divided to commit themselves to a clear counter strategy. These divisions extended out into the hinterlands of the empire. The court watched with horror as first nomadic tribes, then cities, then entire regions of the Khwarazmia were isolated from the court and then declared for the Mongols. In less than two years the entire empire had disintegrated. [10]

Slide 26 of John Boyd's Patterns of Conflict presentation.

While none of the Mongol's other foes imploded so spectacularly, sowing dissension and division within the ranks of their enemies was an essential element of all Mongol campaigns. Whether they were fighting Hungarian monarchs on Pannonian plains or Song Dynasty navies on the Yangtze, the Mongols were masters at turning their enemies against each other. The same could not be said about the Mongol's rivals. No one ever managed to turn a Mongol. For the first three generation of the empire there were no secession crises, no infighting, and few traitors. Powerful commanders deferred to their leaders, even when, as Juvainyi hints, doing so meant to demotion or punishment. [11] This is really quite extraordinary when you consider the kind of positions these commanders were placed in. Consider the case of Muqali, one of the greatest but least known of the Mongol generals. While Chinggis was off fighting the Khawarezm Empire and other enemies in the West, Muqali was placed in charge of the war effort in Northern China. For six years he controlled all of Mongolia, Manchuria, and the North China plain and for six years he fought the Jin Empire without losing a single battle. He was a powerful and popular commander. But neither he nor his sons ever challenged the great Khan's authority. There is no evidence that Chhingis ever feared that they would. [12]

This stands in stark contrast to other empires of inner Eurasia. Earlier this year I wrote up a popular series of posts on the wars fought by the Chinese Han Dynasty against the first of these empires, the Xiongnu tribal confederacy. One of the striking things about that conflict is how common mass defections from one side to the other were.  Over the entire course of Han-Xiongnu relations the Han actively recruited and provided for Xiongnu turn coats. These turncoats eventually became some of the Han's best generals and soldiers. They also occurred on massive scales--more than 70,000 men and women at a time if Han records are to be believed. Likewise, it was Xiongnu disunity that allowed the Han to emerge victorious--only after the Xiongnu had descended into a civil war were the Han able to coerce the largest faction into a formal surrender. [13]

These type of divisions simply did not exist among the Mongols. The leadership class was deeply committed to the Mongol cause. Perhaps just as significantly, so were the front line troops. Though they came from different tribes, spoke different languages, and in many cases worshiped different gods, the Mongol campaign forces displayed a level of unity and discipline none of their contemporaries could match. The loyalty these troops displayed was significant for an empire created entirely out of whole cloth just a few decades earlier. The unity and obedience they displayed in their maneuvers was hardly less astounding. Contemporary observers marveled at the ease with which Mongol commanders were able to order their men and discipline those who broke these orders. [14]

This gave the Mongol forces a flexibility most of their opponents lacked.  Because units adhered to similar standards, responded immediately to orders from above, and were led by men whose loyalty was never under question, Mongol khans were free to create a decentralized command structure that allowed individual tumen latitude for independent action. Like al-Baghdadi, Chinggis could unleash a flood of units that appeared  "to be everywhere at once" because he knew he could leave them free to act on their own initiative and yet be absolutely sure they would be fighting for the same objectives.
The story of how Chinggis Khan created an empire whose many branches were unified in effort and whose many subjects were absolutely loyal to him is one of the most fascinating in world history. Unfortunately, it is only tangentially related to the topic at hand. A full investigation of that question must be reserved for a later post. For the purposes of this discussion what matters is that the conquests of the Mongol empire, the type of warfare it waged, and the methods it used to incorporate new peoples into its domains would not have been possible except for the unshakable unity of its commanders and warriors.

In this the Mongols are very much like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the warriors under his command. 

At this point I suppose readers could accuse me of falling into the same error I found in the earlier ISIS-Mongol comparisons. Haven't all successful conquests been executed by forces united and loyal to their leaders? The short answer is yes--the vast majority of successful military campaigns have been won by unified armies commanded by leaders committed to the cause. However, the relative importance of loyalty and unity to achieving victory has not been constant across  human history.  In the premodern world internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in many, if not the vast majority, of military campaigns. This has not been the case in the modern age.  The rise of mass politics and nationalism, as well as the creation of formal, bureaucratized offices and institutions for waging war and governing territory allowed old worries over loyalty and identity recede in importance.

When Kaiser Wilhelm's empire went to war in 1914 he did not  worry about whether or not Erich von Falkenhayn, Paul von Hindenburg, Erich Ludendorff, or Helmuth von Molke  would defect to the French or the Russians and bring along all the men under his commands along with him. Even in conflicts like the American Civil War, where contested loyalty was the matter of dispute,  political leaders expressed a surprisingly small amount of concern over the integrity and loyalty of either side's armed forces. The possibility of ships, fleets, battalions, field armies, or even individual commanders switching sides, or of a general disintegration of unified military command where each would leave to defend his home was not considered a real possibility. If disunity is what you sought, the best one could hope for in a modern war was to raise the costs the enemy must pay to continue waging it to the point where domestic opposition to the war forced them to cede for peace.

In places like Syria and Iraq this is no longer the case.  Commanders or entire units abandoning the field to protect their home tribe or city, or even mass defections to the other side are well within the range of possible outcomes of any operation. Unsurprisingly, the kaleidoscope of shifting alliances and identities at play in the modern Near East have a very medieval feel to them.

 It has become something of cliche to note that we are in a "post-Westaphilian" world where national identities and state control are weakening and that the shape of conflict in the future will not be anything like what we are accustomed to. However, the parallels discussed in this post suggest that we are not departing into uncharted territory so much as we are returning to lands but recently abandoned. The warriors who fought over the Near East in the 13th century share the same strategic concerns as the warriors fighting over it today--in both eras those who can use violence to bind together disparate tribes and peoples into one cohesive, unified, and loyal whole are those who have the advantage. This is one more piece of evidence for what Jakub Grygiel called “The return of ancient challenges" in an excellent essay he wrote for Infinity Journal earlier this fall. The introduction to that essay where serves as a fitting conclusion to this one:
We analyze international relations through the lens of modern history, and as a result we remain puzzled in front of current strategic realities that have no apparent historical equivalents. Instead of well-demarcated states jousting for influence and power by waging wars and engaging in diplomacy, we see fierce groups rising in ungoverned areas, revelling in violence and eschewing negotiated settlements. Modern history does not offer many analogies for such security conditions. We have to move farther back in time and study ancient history to find more appropriate parallels. The security landscape we face is, in fact, acquiring tints of ancient times, characterized by proliferation of lethality, the pursuit of violence as a social glue, and the existence of unstable frontiers. The length, the place, and the purpose of violence were different in ancient times, and we ought to start looking at current and future strategic challenges through the lens of ancient, rather than exclusively modern, history. (emphasis added) [15].


[1] Gary Anderson, "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad," Small Wars Journal (12 August 2012).

[2] T. Greer, "Pick Your Metaphors With Care," The Scholar's Stage (31 July 2010).

[3] Gary Brecher, "WarNerd: Let’s put Islamic State’s menacing advance into perspective by… looking at a map," Pando Daily (2 September 2014).

[6] John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict, ed. Chuck Spinney and Chet Richards (or. ed. 1986; rev. ed. 2007). slide 26.

[7] ibid., slide 111.

[8] Anderson, "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad,"

[9] Atā Malik Juvaynī, Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror, trans. John A. Boyle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 30, 31-32.

Despite the fact that almost all of the contemporary sources make similar observations, I have yet to see a discussion of this point anywhere in the historical literature. To my knowledge I am the first person to argue that the absolute loyalty of the Mongol leadership was the critical element in their campaign success for the better part of a millennium. However, as I do not read French, German, Russian, or academic Chinese, this judgment may be mistaken. 

[10] This account is primarily based around Juvaynī, The History of the World Conqueror, 12-110. See also Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. Thomas Haining (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 119-134. ; J.J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), 51-62.

[11] As happened to Toquchar in the Khwarazmian campaign. Secret History of the Mongols §257, Igor de, Rachewiltz, trans, The Secret History of the Mongols, Vol I (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 190-191.

[12] The best account of Muqali's campaigns in English is probably Thomas Allsen, "The rise of the Mongolian empire and Mongolian rule in north China." in Cambridge History of China: Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 710–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1994)” 357-362. 

[15] This street went both ways. The first conflicts between the Han and Xiongnu began because Han rebels fled to the Xiongnu for sanctuary. See T. Greer, "What Edward Luttwak Does Not Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of Han-Xiongnu Relations), pt. I" and "What Edward Luttwak Does Not Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of Han-Xiongnu Relations), pt. II" The Scholar's Stage (4  & 6 September, 2014) and the sources referenced there for more on that fairly fascinating conflict.

[14] Denis Sinor, “The Inner Asian Warriors,Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 101, No. 2. (1981), 138-139; Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War (London: Pen and Sword Publications, 2007) 29, 42-50. 

Interestingly, Sinor sees this as a trait common to all Eurasian nomads, but all the sources he uses to prove this point only describe the Mongols! Even professional historians are known to fall victim to the Mongol fallacy.

[15] Jakub Grygiel,  “The Return of Ancient Challenges,” Infinity Journal, Vol 4, Issue 2 (Fall 2014), 38.

"Books" by Leonid Afremov. 
Image Source

The last two months were far busier than I expected them to be. I apologize to the Stage's readers for the lull in posting--more than once I started post or essay during these weeks only to discover that I did not have the spare time to finish it. Now that the Yuletide is upon us my workload is much lighter and I expect to polish up and publish a few of the things that have been sitting in the queue since October.

Before I get into any of that, however, I would like to make a few book recommendations. Earlier this month Anton Howes---the proprietor of the excellent economic-history blog Capitalism's Cradle and a PhD aspirant over at King's College political economy program--asked his twitter followers for book recommendations on global economic history or other related macrohistorical topics.  In the thread that followed something close to 70 titles were recommended.  Participants tried to avoid the obvious choices (Braudel, Pomerantz, Acemoglu, etc.) for other important books that are easily overlooked or forgotten. If memory serves correct I recommended six or seven titles; at least half came from our mutual blog-friend Pseudoerasmus.

For those interested in seeing the full list without trawling through twitter's archives Mr. Howe created an Amazon wishlist that contains all the books recommended to him. The list is pretty neat. However, as I reviewed it earlier this week I realized that there are a few titles I forgot to suggest earlier that deserve a place on it. These are my suggested additions and a few comments on why I think they are worth your time:

Robert Kelly's Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum.

(If you are to read one book on hunter-gather lifestyles, living standards, or decision-making models, this should be it. Unlike many cultural anthropologists, Kelly is a committed social scientist not afraid to model human decisions or present falsifiable theories. Also, the book teems with data). 

Vaclav Smil's Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems and Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature.

(It is hard to dig into one of Vaclav Smil's encyclopedic tomes and see the world through quite the same lens ever again. Smil has a deep appreciation for the physical stuff that civilization is made up of. He bridges the natural and social sciences with descriptions of human society and economic exchange as flows of energy and material. These books should be in your library as reference works, if nothing else).

Mark Elvin's The Pattern of the Chinese Past

(This book is almost forty years old. It should be outdated, but I have not been able to find a better one-volume introduction to China's institutional history or the Song dynasty's "Medieval Economic Revolution"). 

Fransesca Bray's The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies.  

(Both the opening and closing chapters of this book, which discuss the domestication of rice and the "Asian development model," have been outmoded by newer research. The meat of the book--including a nuts-and-bolts description of rice agriculture in its many forms and a survey of the different agricultural models used to grow rice across East and Southeast Asia over the last two thousand years--is still very useful. Particular strengths are Song China, Tokugawa Japan, and early modern Malaysia).

William McNiell's The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since AD 1000

(I am reading this right now. As is always the case with McNiell's work, this book is a panoramic presentation of the human past--a bird's eye view of human civilization, so to speak.  It is both a history of armed conflict and a history of market exchange; his thesis is that neither one of these can be separated from the other. It will make you think).

Chester G. Starr's The Roman Empire, 27 BC-467 AD: A Study in Survival. 

(I reread this book once every few years. It is a slim work and the best introduction to the structure of Roman society and Roman imperial institutions I know of. Read it before you jump into anything on the Roman economy).

Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why.

 (This book is not about economics or history. However, I think it is important for people working on comparative history, economics, sociology, etc. to be familiar with the research Nisbett summarizes here. For the last three decades social physiologists have performed dozens of experiments to find out if people from different parts of the world think the same way. Turns out they do not. Travelers have always known this, of course, but now there is a large body of replicable evidence to prove the point. Some of these differences are fascinating. Whether or not these differences are related to economic or technological development in these particular regions is still an open question--but people participating in the debate should be aware of these differences. Often they are not

This field of study has really exploded over the last decade; hopefully Nisbett will publish a second edition that incorporates this newer research. Readers might also be interested in the longer review of The Geography of Thought I wrote for the Stage last year).

That is it! This is the time of year people start posting book lists as Christmas gift recommendations. I suppose this list is good as any I might come up with, especially if comparative macro-history is your thing (and lets face it, if you are reading the Stage it probably is. Macro-history is what we do here). 

On the odd chance that macro-history is not your kind of thing, I also invite you to review the books listed in "Quantum Libraries"  and the bolded items in "Every Book I Read in 2013" for some excellent books or novels on history, strategy, contemporary affairs, and other topics discussed here. 

Are there are any books you recommend for the holidays?

Note by the author: I cannot take credit for most of the ideas and observations I present below. The protests in Hong Kong are now in their eighth day. Since they began last week a great amount has been written about why these protests are happening and what their eventual outcome may be. It has been disappointing to see astute voices and analysis  drowned out by fairly insipid primers and listicles. This post aims to remedy the situation by blending the best insights from the best China hands into one essay. If you would like to explore the material that inspired this post (or follow this story more closely in the future), I invite you to consult the “Further Reading” section at the bottom.

At the time of this writing Hong Kong has returned to a semblance of normalcy. The protests may flare up again before the week is over, but we can take advantage of the present lull to assess what has been accomplished thus far and what hope the movement has of compelling the government to meet its demands in the future. The last eight days have been an emotional affair. Most of the discussions I have had about the protests have also been emotional affairs—especially when someone from the mainland or from Hong Kong is participating. This post is different. I am not interested in arguing about which side is right or wrong but in assessing the probability of either side forcing the other to cede to its demands.

Lets start with the protestors.

What are the protestor’s demands?
  1. When the protests began the protestors rallied around two demands:
    Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying (hereafter CY Leung) will step down.
  2. .
  3. Hong Kong will institute a democratic system where candidates for popular election are  chosen by voters, not a committee selected by the Communist Party of China.

The original body of protestors who demanded these things were organized by two groups, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (香港專上學生聯會, abbrv. 香港學聯, or just 學聯), composed of Hong Kong university students, and Scholarism (學民思潮), headed by 17 year old Joshua Wong and mostly composed of youth about his age. The famous photos of umbrella clad youth being pepper sprayed as they charged government lines were of these folks.

They were joined by a third group, known as Occupy Central with Peace and Love, or Occupy Central for short (讓愛與和平佔領中環, abr.佔中), on the second day of the protest. Occupy is a different sort of beast than the other two organizations; it is run by seasoned political activists and university professors who have been planning a civil disobedience campaign to protest the 2017 election reforms since early 2013. They had planned to start the protest on October 1st (the PRC’s National Day, the closest equivalent China has to the 4th of July), but when the clashes between students and police escalated on Friday (Sept 26th) they decided to abandon their original plan and join the protestors. Had they been in charge of the show from the beginning I am not sure they would have made the same demands—at least in the beginning—that the students did. But they came late to the party and have to deal with what the students' demands hath wrought.

There are two important things about these groups we must remember when assessing the protestors’ strategy and the government’s response to it:

1. As should be clear from the description above, these protestors are not like the pro-democracy groups that massed in Tiananmen square (and every other public center of every other major Chinese city) in 1989. To quote Peter Lee:
“Tiananmen 1989 was a remonstrance/petitioning movement that eschewed disobedience beyond passive resistance and had no political endgame beyond hopes that the regime would respond to its moral suasion by implementing democratic reforms. If there were political calculations to utilize the demonstrations to advance a concrete agenda, they came from reformers inside the elite.

Occupy Hong Kong is a carefully planned program of civil disobedience, escalation, and provocation meant to provoke a political crisis that will polarize Hong Kong opinion on behalf of the democracy movement and force the elite to support the demands of the movement in order to maintain their local positions of power and prosperity.” [1]

This is an important point to remember. These protests are not a spontaneous eruption. The leaders of Occupy have contingency planned and red teamed these protests for a year. While it is quite possible for events to spiral out of their control, our baseline assumption should be that the movement is following a strategy and they have a game plan for a wide range of government responses. 

2. Opinions polls from before the protest began suggest that only a bare majority of Hong Kong’s population support Occupy. There is a substantial portion of Hong Kong—mostly an older portion—that truly despises all of this ruckus and wants nothing to do with it. Popular feeling is in the students favor only because the government was dumb enough to try and stop the first wave of protests with pepper spray and the second wave with tear gas. [2] Had the government not made this mistake, there would be far less outrage among the populace and the protests we saw this week would be much smaller and far less newsworthy.

Approval ratings for the Occupy Central, Beijing's electoral reform plan, and so forth. Click for larger image.

Sample sizes and details about the methodology of the survey can be found here. The graphic was created for South China Morning Post article, "Half of Hong Kongers Say Government Should Veto Beijing's Electoral Reform Plan" (15 September 2014).

What have the protestors done to compel the government to meet their demands?

The short answer: they have flooded the streets with Hong Kong citizens and paralyzed many essential areas of the city for six days.

What have the results of this been?

In many ways, nothing. CY Leung is still in power. Popular democracy is no more likely to be implemented than it was before the protests began.

The protestors are in a very difficult position. It is hard to force other people to do things they don't want to do. Usually you have to inflict great pain—or threaten to inflict even greater pain—to compel anyone to do anything. Shutting down a few streets and neighborhoods does not inflict enough pain on CY Leung or the government to force change. If the protestors want to succeed they must escalate.

But how?

That’s the rub. The most obvious answer is "violence." But violence won't work—remember, the protestors only gained strong popular support after they became 'innocent' victims of the government's violence. They lose their support—and with it their ability to pull off big protests—the minute they are seen as a violent movement.

Moreover, if they became violent and destructive the government has full license to act violent and destructive back. This is a game of tic-for-tac Beijing would not mind playing. Hong Kong is an island dependent on the mainland for its food, water, and electricity. Its citizens do not own guns. If either side decides to communicate through “the diplomacy of violence”[3] the government wins.

Thus the easiest way to escalate affairs is broaden the scale or the scope of the protests--for example, by shutting more of the city down or denying the government (or their tycoon supporters) access to its more important parts.

If they successfully pull this off, what will happen?

Nothing. This an essential point. The citizens of Hong Kong could make CY Leung’s life a living hell, they could freeze the entire city and throw all of Hong Kong into chaos, and this still would not be enough. Why? Because the decisions that matter are being made by the government in Beijing, not the government in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong have the power to inflict significant pain on CY Leung and even more damage to Hong Kong’s economy. They do not have the power to do anything to the CPC leadership sitting warm and snug in Zhongnanhai.

This is the trouble with editorials like Chris Patten's latest, which says that communist leaders will regret ruining "their country's most successful city."[4] Back when Mr. Patten turned Hong Kong over to the People’s Republic that statement would have been self-evidently true. Now it isn’t. In those days Hong Kong was 16% of China’s total GDP. Now it is a bit less than 3%. Hell, given the growth we have seen in Guangzhou and Shenzhen over the last two decades, it isn't clear that Hong Kong is the Pearl River Delta's most successful city. The cold, hard facts of the matter is that China’s economy grows by two Hong Kongs a year. The region's economy is not important enough to Beijing for the protestors to use it as a bargaining chip.

Hong Kong's GDP as a percentage of China's national GDP, 1997-2013.

From: 施济津,王笑哲,郁夕之 [Shi Jijin, Wang Xiaozhe, and Yu Xizhi], “智谷趋势:待到2017普选,香港已成“二线城市”?[“Trigger Trend: By the 2017 elections, will Hong Kong already be a Tier-2 City?,],” 观察者  [The Observer] (28 September 2014).

This is the crucial weakness with the protestor’s place at the bargaining table: they have nothing to bargain with.

The movement's only real hope is that those who do have bargaining power—say, the United States or Europe —will become so concerned with the situation that they start putting pressure on Beijing to compromise with the protestors.

In the end this is the essence of the Occupy strategy: cause such a ruckus that international community gets involved and all of Hong Kong has to choose between supporting them or Beijing. Afterwords, accept whatever face-saving concessions the government offers them.

Let’s shift gears now and look at the other side of the equation.

What are the government’s demands?
  1. They want the protests to stop. 

I have suggested that the government does not attach much value to Hong Kong’s economy, so it is important to understand why the government cares about the city’s protests in the first place. The government in question is not CY Leung’s administration, which has an obvious stake in the conflict’s outcome, but the upper echelon of the Communist Party of China, especially the General Secretary of the Party and President of the People's Republic, Xi Jinping.

Many have suggested that the Party fears pro-democracy protests could spread to the rest of China if this succeeds or lasts too long. There is precious little evidence for this view. On the one hand, news of what is happening in Hong Kong is heavily censored and most mainland Chinese have only a fuzzy idea of what is happening there. They have not been seeing the pictures you have been seeing. More importantly, very few of the mainlanders who do know about the protests support them. David Wertime had an excellent piece up at Foreign Policy on the way mainland Chinese “netizens” have been framing the protests that discusses this point at some length. As he reports it, folks on the mainland have reacted to the protests with cynicism, anger or disgust; they characterize the Hong Kongers involved in the protests as spoiled, snotty, unpatriotic, or treasonous. What Wertime describes is exactly what I have seen in my own social network—including most of the Chinese nationals I know living in America who have seen the exact same news reports and photographs you and I have. Most mainlanders look at the demonstrations and see anti-China, not pro-democracy, protests.

The protestors' problem here is that a fair deal of their rhetoric is anti-China. Many (perhaps most) of the Hong Kong kids out there protesting think mainlanders are uncouth barbarians locusts whose pooping children and appetite for real estate have ruined the city. Out of the dozens of young Hong Kongers I have met, only one has ever introduced herself to me as Chinese. The most recent numbers from HKU's Public Opinion Program paint a similar picture: only one in five Hong Kongers identify first and foremost as Chinese nationals. [5]  This cultural split provides a lot of emotional fuel behind these protests. It should not be surprising that mainlanders—treated with the same sort of disdain liberal urbanites in San Francisco reserve for rednecks from Kentucky—are disinclined to view protests against their government charitably. As long as the protests carry this anti-China flavor the Party has no need to worry about them spreading to the rest of China.

Xi Jinping’s stake in the movement’s outcome is more personal. To understand why we must step back and look at the broader set of challenges facing the CPC's leadership. Their great test is the liberalization of the Chinese economy. They know as well as any Western economist that China’s economic growth will fall to pieces if real economic reform does not come soon. The window for reform is short—if it does not come in the next year or so China will see its own Japanese-style “lost decade.” There really is no other way out.[6] But reform is hard. To reform China’s broken financial and SOE system is to slaughter the cash cows of many powerful men. Liberalization cannot succeed unless the Party finds a way to shift the distribution of power within the country so that those who opposed liberalization can be silenced and the reforms can be forced through.

This is where Xi Jinping comes in.

The general consensus among Western “China hands” is that Xi Jinping is the strongest leader China has seen since Deng Xiaoping. The aggressive anti-corruption drive Mr. Xi has directed—which has imprisoned (or driven to suicide) more than 200,000 officials since it began two years ago—is probably the most visible symbol of Xi’s zealous centralization campaign, though signs of Xi’s power can also be seen in less trumpeted changes to Party’s internal structure. Whether the scheme has succeeded and Xi’s hand is strong enough to implement the reforms needed is still an open question. But for our purposes the most important aspect of the centralization drive is the political message that accompanies it. Xi Jingping has made it clear that economic liberalization does not mean political liberalization and that criticism of government policy will not be tolerated. The zeitgeist of the CPC in the Age of Xi is captured by his obsession with the Soviet Union’s collapse. In a now famous address to Party cadres on what lessons China can learn from Soviet failure he declared that the ultimate reason the USSR fell apart was "there was not one person man enough to turn back the tide." [7]

There you have it. Xi Jinping is the guy who has committed to be “man enough” to face down any challenge to the Party’s rule. The creditability of his entire project relies on his ability to maintain his reputation of a tough authoritarian. He cannot let any set of Chinese protestors “win” without suffering severe audience costs. He has skin in the game.

How can the government compel the protestors to meet its demands?

The Communist Party of China has two options. Option one is force and violence. This will work, especially if it is truly violent. Events havee shown that limited violence just make the protestors stronger. Real bloodshed, on the other hand, will end things. 

Option two is…wait. Think of it this way: the protestors have to eat. They have to pay their rent. Many have to feed their families. They are blocking off the businesses of many other people who also need to do these things. Given all of this, how long can they continue their occupation?

Only as long as it takes for the protestors to get tired, worn out, hungry, and hot. If nothing seems to be happening for long enough then the momentum will be lost and the main mass of protestors will slowly melt away.

Now you can see the contours of the conflict ahead. The government will do everything it can to keep tensions low—they will try and wait this out. The protestors, on the other hand, are going to do everything in their power to get the government to over react. They want to be bludgeoned and pepper sprayed. Repression like this polarizes the Hong Kong people, bolstering Occupy's support among their fellow Hong Kongers, and it seizes the international spotlight. The protestors are quite aware that in the eyes of a Western liberal nothing sanctifies a movement quicker than a baptism of pepper spray and tear gas.

Over the past eight days we have already seen this dynamic at work. Earlier in the week the protestors leveled an ultimatum demanding CY Leung resign or they would lead students to storm and occupy government buildings. Earlier this year the Sunflower Student Movement  proved that this is an extremely effective way to prolong and escalate a stand-off. Had the students in Hong Kong managed to pull off what the students in Taiwan did last spring it would be a big deal. They did not pull it off. The government managed to deflect the threat by proposing "talks" with the protestors. The talks never panned out--but the ultimatum was not renewed. Now, as the Golden Week holiday ends and businesses and schools reopen, the government is trying once again to open talks with the protestors. It is an effective stalling tactic ideal for sapping the protestors' stamina. At the time of this writing, most of the protest sites are manned by a few hundred protestors a piece.

I don't expect this lull to last.

To succeed the protestors must play a perverse kind of game. They have a strong incentive to do everything they can to push the government to just under the point where real military power is used against them. They will try to poke the dragon without provoking its flames.

It is a dangerous game to play. It also has little chance of success. Notice the poll numbers cited in the first infographic above; the overwhelming majority of Hong Kongers don't think Occupy's campaign can or will make a difference. I asked a friend who spent most of the last week protesting at Causeway why so many students were showing up to protest when so few of them believed the protests will change anything. She replied with a quotation from Alex Chow, one of the protest's main student leaders:

 "We do not act when we see hope. We see hope when we act." [8]


It is hard to point readers to specific sources for many of the ideas presented here because a great deal of it comes from Twitter. Thousands of tweets have been fired off over the last week and I regret to say that I have not saved the most important ones. Most of my thoughts on the matter developed as I read and tweeted with the folks listed below.

The South China Morning Post is the best source in English for clear updates on the situation on the ground.  It has has an active "live updates" page and posts a summary of all the day/night's major events every 12 hours.

This live video stream is superior. It includes simultaneous live coverage from NOW, Apple Daily, and another local channel. It appears to be deactivated until things get hot again.

The best people on twitter for a steady stream of updates from the field tend to be reporters and free lancers working there. Alan Wong (@byAlanWong), Carmen Ng (@Carmen_KaMan), and Joanna Chiu (@joannachiu) are all solid picks.

For broader analysis of Chinese politics as a whole I recommend a few names from my blog-roll: Bill Bishop (who runs The Sinocism Newsletter and tweets at @niubi), Jamie Kenny (blogs at Blood and Treasure and tweets with @jkbloodtreasure), and Peter Lee (blogs at China Matters, writes articles for Asia Times Online, and tweets at @chinahand).

If Adam CathcartAnanth Krishnan, Eric Hundman, Gady Epstein, or Jeremy Goldkorn had blogs I would read them. The last fellow has a pod-cast however, and the backgrounder they did on Hong Kong's growing protest movement a few months ago may be useful.

Conservative readers may notice that the China-watching community leans left.  You'll just have to deal with that. 

Finally, Facebook or Wechat chat threads, e-mails, and face-to-face conversations with friends from or in Hong Kong and the mainland have also shaped my views of the situation. I thank all of my Chinese friends for being willing to talk to me about such an emotional and uncomfortable issue.


[1] Peter Lee, “Beijing Reaps Bitter Fruits in Hong Kong,” Asian Times Online (29 September 2014).

[2] Hong Kong has never had universal suffrage, but freedom of association is a liberty Hong Kongers have long enjoyed. I submit that most Hong Kongers are far more alarmed with the erosion of this liberty than they are with the election laws--after all, most of them never expected popular suffrage anyway. This might explain why the reaction to HKPD's tactics was so explosive.

[3] The phrase comes from Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 1. Yes, I am not using it quite as he intended.

[4] Chris Patten, "The Hong Kong Government Must Listen to its People," South China Morning Post (28 September 2014).

[5] The terms used in these surveys can be a bit tricky, for in Chinese there is a linguistic distinction between people who are ethnically or culturally  "Chinese" and those who are nationals of China. The survey asked Hong Kongers to identify as: "中国人,香港人,中国的香港人 香港的中国人 or 其他。”

See University of Hong Kong POP, "HKU POP releases latest survey on Hong Kong people’s ethnic identity" (17 June 2014). Their breakdown of the strength of Chinese identity by age is also worth looking at.

[6] My views on this question closely follow those of Michael Pettis, who explained the important details in depth in a brilliant essay last month:."What Does a "Good" Adjustment Look Like? China's Financial Markets (1 September 2014).

[7] Willy Lam, "No. 1 is Key: Xi Jinping on the Art of Leadership," Jamestown Foundation: The China Brief, vol 14, iss 15 (13 July 2014).

[8] In Chinese that is "不是看見希望才行動,而是行動才會看見希望" 

For the original source, see "港學運領袖周永康:勿寄望溫柔換來變革,"  自由时报 (29 September 2014).