An interesting day in HK today (and this may change at any time, given the fluid nature of the situation). The government had said that the protesters must leave by Monday morning, with an implicit threat of force. The movement responded by allowing access to government buildings, thus facilitating a return to some normalcy, while still maintaining their presence. Each side has thus made a demand (earlier, protesters had called for the resignation of the CE, which did not happen) that has not been heeded by the other and the situation has settled into a stalemate, while both parties circle each other warily, preparing for negotiations.
What, then, should be the longer term strategy of the movement? This kind of question is hotly debated now among protest organizers, who are in a difficult spot: they want to gain something tangible for the activists who have been out on the street for over a week, but they must be careful not to push too far and lose sympathy of the wider community. A tricky situation.
I will not second guess choices made by the leadership of the movement (just as I am loath to "blame the students" for the 1989 protests in Beijing), because I respect the difficulties they face in terms of political management and communications. They are in a position of relative weakness against the state (here defined as not just the HK government but also the PRC apparatus that stands behind it). But let me offer some thoughts drawn from Sunzi.
Chapter VI, "Weaknesses and Strengths" (Griffith trans.) seems particularly apt here. One key concept is "shape" or "form" - 型. Sunzi points out that the shape of one's army, its physical appearance on the battlefield and its ascertainable form (ascertainable, that is, by the adversary's surveillance) is a critical strategic variable:
The ultimate in disposing of one's troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wise lay plans against you (6.24)
By settling into quasi-permanent positions, the HK demonstrators are taking on a certain shape, and that could make it easier for the government to counter them. Rather than static defense of particular locations, Sunzi suggests a shape more like water:
Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strengths and strikes weaknesses.
As as water shapes its flow in accordance with the ground, so an army manages its victory in accordance with the situation of the enemy.
As as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions. (6.27-29)
The HK movement may want to consider a more fluid dynamic for its actions. Melting away from current positions could allow for a significant flow into other areas, where the government and police least expect it. Then, as the government responds, another shift in strategic shape could open up a new area for action.
Notice above that Sunzi mentions avoiding strengths and striking weaknesses. This is an important aspect of chapter 6, as here:
To be certain to take what you attack is to attack a place the enemy does not protect. To be certain to hold what you defend is to defend a place the enemy does not attack.
Therefore, against those skilled in attack, an enemy does not know where to defend; against experts in defense, the enemy does not know where to attack. (6.7-8).
Now, it must be said that the protests in Hong Kong are not a battle in a military sense. The protesters are not attempting to overthrow the government, but simply trying to pressure it for a specific political change: an open nomination process for the next CE election. The PRC government is unlikely to give in on that goal, but if the demonstrators can keep up the pressure, play a longer strategic game, they could influence the composition of the nominating committee or create conditions for a change in the nomination process in the future.
Thus, it is important to have a longer term strategy, and that is what Sunzi offers above. At present, the demonstrators are occupying a location that the government wants to attack: most notably in Admiralty. It might be smart to yield that ground and flow into a place that the government does not protect. I'm not sure what that place wouldb be, but I'm sure the leaders of the movement would have ideas. If the government then shifts to defend an area it is not thinking of defending, that could open up other opportunities for short term occupations. The point, again, is moving and shaping one's self in a manner that keeps the adversary off balance.
If that sort of fluid approach is taken, another large scale demonstration could be possible in the not too distant future:
The emeny must not know where I intend to give battle. For if he does not know where I intend to give battle he must prepare in a great many places. And when he prepares in a great many places, those I have to fight [against] in any one place will be few. (6.14)
The point here is to maximize the strategic possibilities for a movement that, in material terms, is relatively weak. If Hong Kong people want to shape their political future, they must continue to press their claims, they must play the long game. And Sunzi provides some ideas for how to do that. He even waxes poetic when thinking about an apparently insurmountable adversary:
Of the five elements, none is always predominant; of the four seasons, none lasts forever; of the days, some are long and some short, and the moon waxes and wanes. (6.31)