The Battle for Hong Kong

Insights on Narrative and Resistance for the Army in Strategic Competition


Lt. Col. Steve Ferenzi, U.S. Army

Lt. Col. Andrew M. Johnson, U.S. Army, Retired

Lt. Col. Jason Mackenzie, U.S. Army

Nicole M. Laster, PhD

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A protester holds up the Hong Kong flag

It’s not just a Hong Kong problem. It’s an international problem. Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Japan. That’s why I come all the way from Japan to support the protest today.

—Sakura, Hong Kong protester from Japan

Narrative, oppression, and resistance are timeless aspects of adversarial competition. On 15 March 2019, all three were on display as Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, became a frontline battleground of the twenty-first-century competition between democratic and authoritarian systems. Members of a pro-democracy group stormed the Hong Kong Central Government Complex as guards rushed to lock the doors in a futile effort to stop them. It was too late—the first of the Fugitive Offenders Bill protests had officially begun.

The 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests indicate that competition is more about ideas and less about lethal hardware. Modern warfare is embroiled in a war of words and a battle to influence not only internal or regional communities but also global communities. The Army has a critical role to play in this information environment. There are lessons from Hong Kong the Army must apply that concern controlling the narrative to influence multiple audiences, such as exploiting information communication technology and leveraging proxies and partners, with special attention to nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism (see table 1). The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Exploitation of Strategic Conditions in 2035 study serves as an analytical framework, highlighting these elements as critical to achieving advantage over an adversary.


Moreover, narrative and influence are essential elements of irregular warfare. The United States is not shifting away from irregular warfare to great-power competition; irregular warfare is a constant and serves as a principal way to compete.1 Hong Kong reminds us why it is essential to think broadly about Army contributions across the entire competition continuum, especially using irregular warfare below the level of armed conflict to gain advantage in indirect competition.2

The Specter of Black Swans and Gray Rhinos

China’s biggest threat to stability is internal dissension. The Hong Kong protests not only confirm its worries but also offer insight into ways to impose political and financial costs on China. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has devoted vast resources since 2012 to prevent threats from the “five new black categories” that include “human rights attorneys, underground churches, dissidents, leading commentators on the Internet, and members of disadvantaged sectors in society.”3

In 2019, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized the need to “keep our highest alert about ‘black swan’ [i.e., unforeseen] incidents and take steps to prevent ‘gray rhino’ [i.e., known risks that are ignored] incidents.”44 Such events include the nonviolent, pro-democracy color revolutions of the mid-2000s in former Soviet states and the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.5 China’s 2019 National Defense in the New Era paper specifically highlighted the acute threat of separatism, like in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.6 Protesters and CCP leadership alike understand that the competition between democracy and authoritarianism is not just a Hong Kong problem.

The protests resulted from the Hong Kong government introducing the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill. Ostensibly intended to “plug loopholes” to prevent the city from becoming a criminal safe haven, the bill would subject activists and journalists to detention, unfair trials, and torture under Chinese laws by circumventing the “one country, two systems” construct.7 In reaction, the protesters issued five key demands: rescind the bill, resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, investigate police brutality, release all arrested protesters, and implement greater democratic reforms.8 These underlying ideas of criminality and oppression would find fertile ground in conditions afforded by the strategic environment.

Exploitation of the Strategic Conditions

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) G-2 published a study in 2019 titled Competition in 2035: Anticipating Chinese Exploitation of Operational Environments. A supporting effort for this study, and subsequent studies on great-power competition, was Exploitation of Strategic Conditions in 2035. This document concludes that a persistent state of competition will characterize the future strategic environment where global competitors seek to exploit twenty-four conditions to gain advantage.9 Hong Kong suffers from several of these conditions, but the three most significant conditions center on the information environment: competing narratives, information communication technology ubiquity, and the use of proxies (see figure 1).


Condition 1: Competing narratives. The TRADOC study defines “competing narratives” as the “explanation or interpretations of events/ideas originating from a particular perspective and presented to a target audience in order to gain influence.”10 From the outset, both Beijing and the protesters sought to exploit the factionalization of society in Hong Kong to advance their respective narratives.

Narrative is an enduring element of adversarial competition, apparent from the American Revolution through today. Social movement theory characterizes this competition in the information environment as “framing”—the process of constructing shared meaning from an event to inspire collective action.11 The murder of Jane McCrae by Native Americans allied with the British served this role in the American Revolution by convincing Loyalists to join the rebellion.12 The Arab Spring recently illustrated this phenomenon, as the self-immolation of Tunisia’s Mohammed Bouazizi catalyzed revolutions across the Middle East in 2011.13

In Hong Kong, the two factions competing for influence were China and the pro-democracy protesters. China uses the Hong Kong government as its proxy—not in a traditional military sense but rather as an arm of the CCP.14 Both groups were trying to advance their narratives to gain a favorable outcome from multiple audiences. These include state actors such as the United States, international organizations like the United Nations, and the undecided population groups within China, Hong Kong, and globally.

China used its state media to control the narrative by spreading disinformation. This involved claiming that foreign governments like the United States, as well as what Beijing labeled “criminal Hong Kong thugs,” incited the protests.15 State media targeting the younger Chinese population broadcasted a video of alleged protesters with U.S. military equipment combating police to reinforce this narrative. Additionally, Chinese state media, amplified by pro-Beijing bloggers using the official Twitter-like Weibo platform, sought to control the narrative by spreading messages like “Shame for Hong Kong” and “I support the Hong Kong police, you can hit me now,” following the harassment of a People’s Daily reporter by protesters.16

In opposition, the protesters’ narrative centered on the idea that the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill put Hong Kong’s citizens at the mercy of Beijing. To support this claim, the protesters tried to capitalize on any opportunity showing how China was behind the violent response by security forces. The opportunity presented itself in August 2019 when images began to circulate of a young woman lying on the ground, shot in the eye by police with a beanbag. The protesters used the incident as a symbol to frame the increasingly brutal tactics against innocent Hong Kong citizens.17

As both groups competed to advance their narratives, the protesters struggled to reach certain audiences due to the sheer volume of China’s counternarrative resources. For example, when the protesters attempted to refute China’s messaging on mainstream Chinese social media sites, China censored the protesters immediately. The ability for actors to quickly disseminate their narratives to the intended audiences and sustain them is very much dependent on the next condition.

A woman holds a drawing depicting an injured protester

Condition 2: Information communication technology ubiquity. The next condition from the TRADOC study is “information communication technology ubiquity,” defined as “near universal access to information and communication around the globe.”18 Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Telegram, TikTok, and LIHKG are just a few examples. The Hong Kong protests demonstrated that the use of near universal communication technology to advance competing narratives is the new normal, a trend extending back to the 2011 Egyptian Tahrir Square protests.19

China used mediums like Twitter to shape the narrative under the guise of third parties. Some accounts compared protesters to terrorists, while state-controlled and state-funded media outlets bought advertisements on Facebook and Twitter to negatively portray the protests. Twitter reported that it uncovered more than nine hundred accounts originating from China that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.”20

The protesters used social media to organize and assemble large-scale demonstrations. According to King-wa Fu of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University, platforms like LIHKG have enabled smaller groups to “initiate new agendas, campaign ideas, and strategies.”21 Additionally, Instagram served as a platform for protesters to share “visually-compelling campaign posters, slogans, as well as image/video evidence of police violence,” which differed from previous protests in Hong Kong.22

Another aspect of communication technology ubiquity is the ability for protest movements to remain leaderless and succeed without a figurehead. In the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, the student leader Joshua Wong became a target for the authorities and was jailed on numerous occasions.23 In contrast, the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests did not have an individual or organization claim leadership. This was an attempt to remain largely anonymous to avoid arrest and violent repression by authorities. When comparing the repercussions to clearly identifiable 2014 protest leaders like Wong, the 2019–2020 movement has appeared to be effective at reducing risk through information communication technology ubiquity.

Condition 3: The use of proxies. The third strategic condition is the use of proxies, defined as the “widespread use of surrogates by both state and non-state actors to further their interests indirectly and with reduced direct risk.”24 The most obvious use of a proxy in the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests was by China. Hong Kong also highlighted a missed opportunity for the United States to support the protesters as a resistance partner to counter Chinese influence.

While Hong Kong is officially a Chinese “special administrative region,” the CCP exercises control through the Hong Kong government to enforce its policies. This allowed China to separate itself from perceived direct involvement and provided a way to counter the protesters’ key narrative of Chinese responsibility.25 “Delegating” security functions to third parties in an effort to avoid prohibitive intervention is a defining characteristic of proxy warfare.26


The protesters’ narrative and communication ability resulted in tangible success toward degrading China’s proxy. In November 2019, pro-Beijing political parties suffered a staggering defeat in the Hong Kong district council elections. Democratic candidates won 87 percent of the council seats, up from less than a third.27 This loss caused China to reevaluate how it continues to use its proxy after clear public support for the pro-democracy movement.

American involvement took the form of limited legal action, and it did not materialize until eight months after protests began. Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in November 2019, authorizing sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials for human rights abuses.28 This contrasted with assistance to democracy activists involved in the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in the early 2000s.29 Understanding China’s use of proxies is important, but a broader examination of the Army’s potential role in supporting nonviolent “resistance partners” deserves special attention.30

Violent or Nonviolent? Options to Oppress and Resist

Why did China not just use its massive military to crush the protest movement quickly? The protests would have ended within days like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The answer: because of the audience. Not only are actors in direct competition with each other, but they also compete to gain cooperation from multiple audiences. The choice to employ violence, by both the state and the resistance movement, is a function of how to best achieve a position of advantage over one another vis-à-vis the relevant audiences.

China cannot afford a bloody repeat of Tiananmen as it attempts to promote itself as the global partner of choice. Important for the Army is understanding the role of nonviolent resistance, not just in the context of Hong Kong but for broader application to competition. Of note, nonviolent resistance is nearly twice as effective as its violent counterpart.31 Moreover, perhaps counterintuitively, the Army has a critical role in providing support to nonviolent resistance partners.32 The Army must understand how to navigate violence and nonviolence in planning for such support.

Both violence and nonviolence often appear in resistance campaigns. Social movement scholars discuss this in the context of “radical flank effects” (see figure 2).33 A positive flank effect occurs when a radical group with extreme goals increases the leverage of moderate elements by making its demands appear more reasonable. On the contrary, radicals may create a negative flank effect that undermines moderates by discrediting the entire movement.34 Furthermore, radical flanks may manifest as either intra- or extramovement violent challenges.35

Early observers thought radical flanks resulted in increased state acquiescence to policy change once deemed far too radical by legitimating the bargaining position of moderates or pushing them to adopt more extreme positions.36 However, recent studies are more ambiguous, concluding that violent flanks do not positively impact nonviolent campaign success rates. In certain cases such as the antiapartheid challenge in South Africa from 1983 to 1994, positive flank effects contributed to successful resistance outcomes.37

So what does this mean for the Army? Soldiers may play a crucial role in supporting resistance partners through capacity building (technical and financial assistance) and by connecting (facilitating planning, communication, and linkages across indigenous activist networks and transnational actors).38 However, the Army must contend with two choices when supporting such resistance partners: (1) rejecting the use of violence or (2) deliberately planning for the use of violence. For the latter, this is a parallel effort to capitalize on a flank effect (or a contingency when nonviolence fails). These aspects have significant implications for planning.


Rejecting Violence

Violence may be a contaminant to nonviolent resistance campaigns, as it offers the government a convenient reason to brutally retaliate under the guise of security.39 If the Hong Kong protesters decided to escalate to organized violence, the democratic outcome would have been less favorable. Practitioners accordingly stress strict nonviolent discipline to reduce the barriers to entry that prevent mass mobilization, as well as to capitalize on “political jiu-jitsu”—the backfire that occurs when the regime attacks peaceful protesters and sparks more popular mobilization.40

Both nonviolent discipline and backfire are key factors contributing to the success of nonviolent campaigns.41 But what happens when armed opposition emerges from within or external to the movement or in the form of regime-sponsored “agents provocateurs” seeking to escalate violent retaliatory responses, as seen in Syria in 2011?42 The Army presumably has three options: (1) prevent violence, (2) marginalize the radicals employing violence, or (3) terminate support to the resistance partner altogether (see table 2; and figure 3).

Prevention. The Army may be able to pressure a resistance partner to maintain nonviolent discipline via the mechanisms of capacity building and connecting discussed earlier. However, divergent goals are difficult to mitigate in the absence of sufficient influence over the movement.43 This may be troublesome if U.S. policy rejects violence, but an intramovement radical flank decides to transition to violence. The Army must understand that the resistance partner maintains its own agency, and the United States is only in a position to support, not control the outcome.

Marginalization. Maintaining clear separation from the armed movement may allow the core nonviolent movement to mitigate the negative effects of violent flanks. Returning to the importance of narrative, the challenge becomes how to signal that differentiation to the appropriate internal and external audiences.44 One factor is the movement’s ability to maximize the “signal-to-noise ratio” by cutting through regime efforts to suppress the movement’s voice via censorship and disinformation.45 An example from Hong Kong was China’s attempt to portray the protesters as violent agitators using military equipment. In such a situation, the Army may be uniquely suited to provide the technological support and information dissemination capacity to tip the balance in favor of the nonviolent movement.


Termination. Finally, the Army may cease support when a resistance partner engages in unacceptable levels of violence. Terminating support may mitigate the escalatory dynamics with an adversary inherent in support to a violent insurgency, but it may also damage U.S. credibility if it is perceived to have abandoned its partner.46

Planning for Violence

Nonviolent campaigns ideally offer asymmetrical strengths over those employing violence. Reality, however, demonstrates this may not be feasible in practice. If the United States seeks to secure its interests by supporting resistance partners, it must plan for all contingencies (see figure 4). This may manifest as parallel efforts (supporting simultaneous violent and nonviolent wings to capitalize on potential positive flank effects) or sequential efforts (planning for violence in case the population perceives nonviolence as a failure).

Parallel violence. Simultaneously supporting violent and nonviolent wings may be risky. The Army can do this by coordinating activities between an intramovement flank element and the core nonviolent component or by enabling an external armed insurgency without the knowledge or consent of the nonviolent movement. While violence may be statistically associated with lower levels of popular participation in resistance activities, it may still contribute to success under certain conditions by capitalizing on spatial and psychological dynamics.

Violence on the periphery may draw regime resources away from urban centers where nonviolent resistance is most effective. Traditional insurgencies adopting the Maoist approach focus on rural guerrilla warfare. Replacing the regime requires time, which is acquired by capitalizing on space—opening the struggle in areas where the regime is weakest. This is typically in the countryside where many states lack security capacity.47

While Hong Kong does not fit this situation, the Philippines’ “people power” movement is a good example. Prior to the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 by the nonviolent EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue), violent leftist and Islamist insurgents operating in the north and south drew large concentrations of military forces to the periphery, relieving pressure from EDSA in Metro Manila.48


The psychology of violence may also play an important role in mobilization. In South Africa, the nonviolent antiapartheid struggle benefited from the culture of resistance created by the violence of the African National Congress. The African National Congress’s “armed propaganda” contributed to the “diffusion of oppositional consciousness” throughout the broader nonviolent movement.49 This dynamic is a product of framing processes discussed earlier strategic efforts to create powerful narratives that facilitate collective action. The symbolic use of violence can function here as a motivational frame, which may be especially effective in societies with collective memories of historic rebellion.50

Sequential violence. What happens when nonviolent action fails or a critical mass of people believes it is not working? Nonviolent campaigns typically succeed or fail within three years, compared to nine years for violent insurgency.51 Despite statistics, some may view violence as a way to achieve results more quickly, particularly if the target regime is brutally repressing the opposition and demands to “do something” to reach a climax. Discussing factional strife in movements, James DeNardo finds that the tendency to abandon nonviolent approaches and utilize violence arises from “political impatience.”52 When this tide shifts, the Army reaches a decision point to either terminate support or transition efforts to enabling a traditional insurgency to achieve U.S. objectives.

Lessons for the U.S. Army

The most significant lesson from the Hong Kong resistance is to gain as much control over the narrative as quickly as possible. Whether state or nonstate actors, adversaries will attempt to control the narrative from the start to influence multiple audiences. These audiences include not only state actors but also empowered individuals and groups.

The Army cannot afford to misunderstand the nuances of what messages resonate with various audiences. Cooperation of these stakeholders has a significant impact on an actor’s ability to achieve a position of advantage. If the Army does not anticipate, identify, and shape the narrative for a potential crisis or conflict before it occurs, it will quickly find itself disadvantaged. The Army must have the capability, capacity, and authority necessary to initiate narrative action, reaction, and counteraction.

A screenshot of a Facebook account associated with the Chinese government

Second, adversaries and resistance partners will utilize multiple forms of communication technology and internet platforms to communicate internally amongst themselves as well as externally to advance their narratives and flood the environment with disinformation to distort competing narratives. Communication technology and online platforms will constantly evolve, requiring the Army to understand and exploit existing and emerging capabilities rapidly.

Third, the Army must be prepared to support nonviolent resistance partners within an integrated U.S. government competition campaign. This requires the Army to understand who the potential partners are, to build their capability and capacity, and to develop the long-term relationships necessary for trust. It is equally important for the Army to realize an adversary will attempt to do the same. Therefore, the Army must understand how to leverage the appropriate interagency entities, partner nations, and international organizations to counter an adversary’s use of proxies.

Finally, the Army must achieve tighter integration across its multi-domain formations now in support of the geographic combatant commands—specifically the multi-domain task forces and 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne)’s Information Warfare Center.53 Defeating adversary systems that deny cognitive access requires full convergence of information-related capabilities across the electromagnetic spectrum and in the virtual environment to dominate the narrative.

Exploiting Narrative and Resistance: Not Just a Hong Kong Solution

Conditions in Hong Kong suggest that the information environment is today’s new battleground. Factionalized societies, weaponization of information, and oppressive authoritarian regimes create ripe opportunities for exploitation by adversaries and partners alike. The competition between democratic and authoritarian systems is not just a Hong Kong problem but permeates other arenas—like Tibet and Xinjiang, where the CCP faces internal threats to its control.54

Competing narratives are the weapons of choice in this war. They can deploy armies of information at quicker speeds and at cheaper costs. The U.S. Army must hone its capabilities to exploit information communication technology rapidly and support nontraditional partners to compete and win. Using irregular warfare in this way expands military options for decision-makers to extend U.S. influence in ways that lethal weaponry cannot.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Special Operations Command, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


  1. Kevin Bilms, “The Defense Department Just Published a Summary of the National Defense Strategy’s Irregular Warfare Annex. Here’s Why It’s So Significant,” Modern War Institute at West Point, 2 October 2020, accessed 23 April 2021,
  2. Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, Competition Continuum (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, 3 June 2019), accessed 23 April 2021,; Keith Pritchard, Roy Kempf, and Steve Ferenzi, “How to Win an Asymmetric War in the Era of Special Forces,” The National Interest (website), 12 October 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,; “The Army in Military Competition” Chief of Staff Paper #2 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Army, 1 March 2021), accessed 6 May 2021,
  3. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, “Xi Jinping Warns against the ‘Black Swans’ and ‘Gray Rhinos’ of a Possible Color Revolution,” The Jamestown Foundation, 20 February 2019, accessed 23 April 2021
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Anthony H. Cordesman, China’s New 2019 Defense White Paper (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 24 July 2019), accessed 23 April 2021,
  7. “Hong Kong-China Extradition Plans Explained,” BBC, 13 December 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  8. Tara John, “Why Hong Kong Is Protesting: Their Five Demands Listed,” CNN, 30 August 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  9. Exploitation of Strategic Conditions 2035 (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2019), accessed 23 April 2021,; see also Andrew M. Johnson, “Competition in 2035: Training for Multi-Domain Operations in Competition with China,” Red Diamond 10, no. 3 (July-September 2019): 3–7, accessed 23 April 2021,
  10. Exploitation of Strategic Conditions 2035.
  11. Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (August 2000): 611–39,
  12. Steve Ferenzi, “Proxy Blowback in the Revolutionary War? The Curious Story of Jane McCrae and the Battle of Saratoga,” Modern War Institute at West Point, 18 July 2016, accessed 23 April 2021,
  13. Rania Abouzeid, “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire,” Time (website), 21 January 2011, accessed 23 April 2021,,9171,2044723,00.html.
  14. Hong Kong: What Is the Basic Law and How Does It Work?,” BBC, 19 November 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  15. Teddy Ng, “Chinese State Media Denounces Hong Kong Protesters Seeking U.S. Support,” South China Morning Post (website), 9 August 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  16. Brenda Goh and Huizhong Wu, “Chinese State Media Urge Action, Voice Support for Hong Kong Police after Clashes,” Reuters, 13 August 2019, accessed 8 May 2021,
  17. Tim McLaughlin (@TMclaughlin3), “The young woman who was shot by Hong Kong police in the eye with what appeared to be bean bag round quickly becoming the latest image of tremendous anger with police and their tactics. Calls for a mass rally at the airport this afternoon,” Twitter, 11 August 2019, 7:22 p.m.,
  18. Exploitation of Strategic Conditions 2035.
  19. Benjamin Haas, “The New Battle in Hong Kong Isn’t on the Streets; It’s in the Apps,” MIT Technology Review (website), 10 September 2019, accessed 21 April 2021,; Lara Logan, “The Deadly Beating That Sparked Egypt Revolution,” CBS, 2 February 2011, accessed 23 April 2021,
  20. Donie O’Sullivan, “Twitter Cracks Down on State Media after Unveiling Chinese Campaign against Hong Kong Protesters,” CNN, 20 August 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  21. Grace Shao, “Social Media Has Become a Battleground in Hong Kong’s Protests,” CNBC, 15 August 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  22. Ibid.
  23. Shelly Banjo et al., “Hong Kong Democracy Flourishes in Online World China Can’t Block,” Bloomberg, 23 August 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  24. Exploitation of Strategic Conditions 2035.
  25. Keith Zhai, James Pomfret, and David Kirton, “Exclusive: China Sets Up Hong Kong Crisis Center in Mainland, Considers Replacing Chief Liaison,” Reuters, 26 November 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  26. Idean Salehyan, “The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 54, no. 3 (7 January 2010): 493–515,
  27. Shibani Mahtani et al., “Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Parties Sweep Pro-Beijing Establishment Aside in Local Elections,” The Washington Post (website), 24 November 2019, accessed 4 May 2021,
  28. Anne Gearan and David J. Lynch, “Trump Signs Legislation Designed to Support Pro-Democracy Protesters in Hong Kong,” The Washington Post (website), 27 November 2019, accessed 23 April 2021,
  29. Matthew Collin, The Time of the Rebels: Youth Resistance Movements and 21st Century Revolutions (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007), 153, 185. This often took the form of U.S. government-financed organizations such as the National Democratic Institute providing millions of dollars of “technical assistance” to democracy activists.
  30. Army Techniques Publication 3-18.1, Special Forces Unconventional Warfare (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office [GPO], 2019), Glossary-4, accessed 23 April 2021, A resistance partner is “a partner conducting resistance with whom the United States Government mutually establishes agreements to cooperate for some specified time in pursuit of mutually supporting specific objectives.”
  31. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 6–7. Results reflect empirical analysis of 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006.
  32. John Chambers and Lionel Beehner, “Competing below the Threshold: Harnessing Nonviolent Action,” Military Review 100, no. 3 (May-June 2020): 116–26, accessed 23 April 2021,
  33. For similar depiction of a resistance spectrum, see Jonathan Pinckney, Making or Breaking Nonviolent Discipline in Civil Resistance Movements (Washington, DC: International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, 2016), accessed 23 April 2021,
  34. Kurt Schock, Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 46–47.
  35. Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock, “Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Outcomes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?,” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 20, no. 4 (2015): 427–51, Intramovement violent flanks emerge from within the campaign. Extramovement violent flanks are separate, contemporaneous challenges in the same country.
  36. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing Processes–Toward a Synthetic, Comparative Perspective on Social Movements,” in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, ed. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 14; for a discussion on how radical Black activities increased external material support for U.S. civil rights movements, see also Herbert Haines, “Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970,” Social Problems 32, no. 1 (October 1984): 32,
  37. Chenoweth and Schock, “Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Outcomes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?,” 446.
  38. Veronique Dudouet, “Sources, Functions, and Dilemmas of External Assistance to Civil Resistance Movements,” in Civil Resistance: Comparative Perspectives on Nonviolent Struggle, ed. Kurt Schock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 168–69. Third-party actors can support nonviolent resistance movements through a number of mechanisms: informing, connecting, promoting, capacity building, protecting, monitoring, and pressuring.
  39. Robert L. Helvey, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2004), 117.
  40. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 30; Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (Dexter, MI: Extending Horizons Books, 2005), 405–7.
  41. Pinckney, “Making or Breaking Nonviolent Discipline in Civil Resistance Movements.”
  42. Helvey, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, 123; Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf, “The Syrian Resistance: A Tale of Two Struggles,” openDemocracy, 23 September 2013, accessed 23 April 2021, Planners must account for regime informers penetrating movements, provoking violence, and promoting dissension.
  43. Steve Ferenzi, “Want to Build a Better Proxy in Syria? Lessons from Tibet,” War on the Rocks, 17 August 2016, accessed 23 April 2021, This challenge stemming from principal-agent dynamics is also present in external support to violent proxies.
  44. Chenoweth and Schock, “Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Outcomes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?,” 441–42.
  45. Devashree Gupta, “The Strategic Logic of the Radical Flank Effect: Theorizing Power in Divided Social Movements” (paper presentation, 71st Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, 11–14 April 2013).
  46. Chambers and Beehner, “Competing below the Threshold.”
  47. Gordon McCormick, “People’s Wars,” in Encyclopedia of Conflict since World War II, vol. 1 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999), 23–34.
  48. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 149–50. The Armed Forces of the Philippines faced simultaneous challenges from the New People’s Army (the armed wing of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of the Philippines) in the north, and an Islamist independence movement in the southern island of Mindanao beginning in 1969 and 1971, respectively.
  49. Chenoweth and Schock, “Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Outcomes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?,” 444–45.
  50. Benford and Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements,” 617; Eric Selbin, “Agency and Culture in Revolutions,” in Theorizing Revolutions, ed. John Foran (London: Routledge, 1997), 76–78. Motivational framing is a core-framing task that provides a “call to arms” or rationale for engaging in collective action.
  51. Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf, “The Syrian Resistance: A Tale of Two Struggles, Part 2,” openDemocracy, 24 September 2013, accessed 23 April 2021,
  52. James DeNardo, Power in Numbers: The Political Strategy of Protest and Rebellion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 257.
  53. 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), A Vision for 2021 and Beyond (Washington, DC: U.S. GPO, 2021), 8, 16–17, accessed 23 April 2021,; Mark Pomerleau, “Special Forces to Build ‘Influence Artillery’ for Online Campaigns,” C4ISRNet, 18 February 2021, accessed 23 April 2021,
  54. Josh Rogin, “China’s Atrocities in Tibet Are Growing Too Big to Ignore,” The Washington Post (website), 24 December 2020, accessed 23 April 2021,; Alden Leader, “China’s Recipe for Insurgency,” War Room–U.S. Army War College, 18 September 2020, accessed 23 April 2021,


Lt. Col. Steve Ferenzi, U.S. Army, is a strategist in U.S. Special Operations Command Central. He has served previously in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s G-5 and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Lt. Col. Andrew M. Johnson, U.S. Army, retired, is a senior research analyst for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command G-2’s Global Cultural Knowledge Network. He has authored multiple research publications focused on different operational environments and is codeveloper of the Exploitable Conditions Framework. He holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Washington and a Master of Security Studies from Kansas State University.

Lt. Col. Jason Mackenzie, U.S. Army, is a Special Forces officer serving as the special operations liaison officer to France. He previously served in the U.S. Army Mission Command Center of Excellence’s irregular warfare force modernization proponent.

Nicole Laster, PhD, is the lead social scientist for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command G-2’s Global Cultural Knowledge Network. Laster conducts sociocultural research and analysis for the U.S. Army. She was the codeveloper of the Exploitable Conditions Framework as well as a number of tools and methodologies used for Army analysis. She earned a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in organizational communication and behavior with an emphasis in influence.


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September-October 2021