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Václav Havel : The Power of the Powerless

Experience, especially insights into the workings of the communists, helps to keep Hong Kong ( HK) protests effective and on track.


None more so than those of Czech playwright turned politician and President Václav Havel who termed the phrase 'The power of the powerless.'


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HAVEL Selfish Project | Lau Sai-leung

Apple Daily 25 May 2021 (format added)


After the merciless crackdown on the Prague Spring by the tanks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1968, the Czechs were deprived of their freedom for 20 years until 1989, when students in Tiananmen Square rose against the CCP to demand democracy and freedom. The protests inspired resistance movements across Eastern Europe, and communist regimes crumbled like dominoes. In December 1989, the communist regime of Czechoslovak was overthrown. Václav Havel, a playwright and leader of the opposition movement, was elected president.


Havel had insisted on telling the truth on the radio when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovak during the Prague Spring. After the crackdown, he launched Charter 77, and was accused of subverting the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and imprisoned multiple times. During the two decades of darkness for the Czechs, Havel was the embodiment of an unyielding intellectual. He lost his freedom of creation. The ruling party arranged for him to work in a winery. Facing the extremely mundane work, he was full of helplessness.


At a time of darkness with no end in sight, Havel argued that no more opposition parties should be organized. Instead, he proposed “the power of the powerless” as the principle of resistance.


He knew inside and out how a totalitarian regime operates. First, the regime relies on the state apparatus to instill fear into the people. Police from the national security department conduct mass arrests across the country, and citizens are stripped of their rights. This results in collective panic.


Then the propaganda machine begins its open or cloak-and-dagger operations, promoting a feeling of powerlessness, i.e., “I know too well the way of the world” and “I can’t do anything about it”. At that time, the totalitarian regime is at the second stage, when it is spreading “learned helplessness”. After all, is it really possible to rely on arrests by riot police or national security agents every day to build a totalitarian society? Absolutely not, as the cost of governance would be too high. The regime needs masses of obedient people who obey of their own volition.


At this stage, it must find ways to turn people’s resistance, anger and persistence into a sense of “learning powerlessness”. The regime’s methods include arranging for protesters to confess their crimes on TV, making them renounce their political power on their own, inciting strife between people, and promoting the feeling that everyone in the resistance camp is immoral. All this is the process by which people learn to feel powerless.


At this stage, the suppressive machinery gradually steps aside, and it becomes less and less costly for the regime to rule. This is the third stage, the stage of “business as usual”. Propaganda machines blast out the notions that “Hong Kong is back on track” and that “everyone is working hard to build a new Hong Kong”.

From 'living in reality' to 'living in truth'


Targeting the workings of a totalitarian operation, Havel suggested that people should “live in reality” by integrating resistance into their daily lives and their daily lives into their values.


This is something Hong Kongers have been practicing over the past two years. When Hong Kong Customs and national security police raided AbouThai and Chickeeduck respectively in their selective enforcement of the law, Hong Kongers leapt to their defense. They refuse to watch, discuss or acknowledge the existence of any TVB production.


Havel’s second rule is to “live in truth”. This means facing the absurdities of a totalitarian society squarely instead of escaping from it, whitewashing it or pretending to be someone else. This means adhering to what we believe, speaking our minds and upholding our standards of decency instead of becoming an accomplice of the totalitarian regime.


After the June 4th massacre [1989], I was a volunteer teacher at Tiananmen Democratic University in Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai. It was when I began to read Havel’s essays. I know that Gary Fan, who is in jail because of the primary election, is also reading the selected writings of Václav Havel despite a temperature of 34º Celsius. But I never thought that I would actually see a Havel moment in the final episode of “ERROR Selfish Project”:


“Don’t flee from what you see. Live your life with your eyes open no matter how powerless you feel.” “To triumph over absurdities, first you have to accept the inevitability of absurdities. Civilization will always prevail. Have faith!” “Belief is a value, because values are subject to our subjective definitions. It will always be there as long as you believe it.”


From Mirror to Error, Hong Kong people have begun another war - a cultural war.


(Lau Sai-leung, political commentator)


Click here for Chinese version



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CCP 'truth' (part 2): CCP has no legitimacy to rule over China

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