How technology is helping fuel the Hong Kong protest movement

Protests in Hong Kong intensified this week as protestors stormed the city-state’s Legislative Council building, shattering glass and destroying furniture. This is the latest move in an ongoing demonstration that has seen up to 25% of Hong Kong’s population take to the streets. 

The best attended protest in recent American memory, the Women’s March, while a wild success by American standards, drew only roughly one percent of the population out into the streets. Not only is this protest significant to Hong Kong and China, but it is a demonstration on the intensity of civil disobedience that social media makes possible.

What has brought so many people into the streets?

It began when Carrie Lam, the China-backed leader of Hong Kong, proposed an amendment that would allow for the extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China. This was just the latest salvo in what many in Hong Kong view as a crackdown from Beijing. 

To the people of Hong Kong, extradition is an important issue; many consider it a matter of life and death. Provisions insulating Hong Kong from Chinese laws are baked into their constitution. Despite these safeguards, and a guarantee of a “one country, two systems” policy from Beijing, citizens of Hong Kong have been extrajudicially seized by authorities, only to later turn up in custody on the Chinese mainland. The so-called Bookshop Five Incident of 2015, in which booksellers were abducted and jailed for selling books critical of the Chinese government, weighs on the minds of Hong Kongers.

Hong Kongers fear that this amendment would make such incidents far more common. The backlash from the people of Hong Kong has been furious. Amid threats of a general strike, one million people took to the streets. The amendment was tabled. Hong Kongers took the streets again a week later, this time two million people strong, and word spread the amendment would be totally withdrawn and that Lam would resign. 

When it was announced that the amendment was merely tabled and that Beijing wouldn’t accept Lam’s resignation even if she offered it, protests once again intensified. This news, coupled with escalating police repression, led to the storming of the Legislative Council building.

Though this protest is a product of long-simmering tensions and the financial pressures on a younger generation enduring soaring housing prices and austerity measures, a unique blend of technology and politics has allowed for a mass movement that simply wouldn’t be possible before the era of social media. 

The umbrella movement

One key to the turnout at these protests is that Hong Kong’s activists had a “trial run” in 2014, which allowed them to test various social media platforms as a means for organizing. Protests erupted when China backtracked on its promise of universal suffrage and announced that candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive would only be drawn from a particular wing of political and business elites. A half-million protestors took to the streets, a sizable forerunner today’s larger protests.

Thousands of people staged a nearly 80-day occupation of main arteries throughout the city. The occupation came to be called the Umbrella Movement, after the yellow umbrellas protestors used to avoid the effects of pepper spray. Journalists reported that more sophisticated social media apps allowed for more organized and better-attended demonstrations than Hong Kong had seen just a decade earlier.

Organizers leveraged social media successfully in that campaign, spreading their message through apps like WhatsApp and FireChat. But they also dealt with some setbacks. The group that served as the face of the Umbrella Movement, OccupyCentral, is fairly moderate, which led to distrust from more left groups. Teenager Joshua Wong (now 22) became the international face of the movement, which generated sympathy for the cause but also made Wong a target for arrest. Wong was serving a two-month sentence when he was released from prison earlier this week. 

He immediately returned to his role in the pro-democracy Demosisto party and joined the protests.

When it came time for this anti-extradition action, activists opted for a leaderless, decentralized movement that would inoculate them from infighting or having specific group co-opt their message. The “leadership” of this protest is spread among the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of 50 pro-democracy groups. Representatives of the group have been careful to deflect praise away from their group specifically and towards “the people of Hong Kong.”

Same platforms, new uses

Protestors in Hong Kong aren’t on platforms that are much different than what the rest of developed world has access to as they organize protests. These actions were organized on Facebook, likkg [similar to Reddit], and encrypted apps like Signal, WhatsApp, and most importantly, Telegram. 

Telegram is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app that allows for massive group messaging. It is often compared to WhatsApp, but allows users to reach massive groups. Just out of prison and busily taking media requests, Wong found a few minutes to speak with the Daily Dot about the virtues of Telegram, remarking that “Telegram has become the main place for people to have online discussions [around the protests]. People share their opinions there and encourage each other to have more organic discussions.”

Facebook has also been surprisingly useful. Now that younger generations have had access to these platforms for years, they find ways to propagandize and sneak their appeals past would-be censors. For example, some of the Facebook memes that were targeted at middle-aged protestors intentionally mimicked Chinese propaganda and protest events were listed as “picnic” or “meditation”  activities.

There is some censorship, but China’s commitment to keep up the appearance that it wants Hong Kong to remain an autonomous state has made Xi Jinping’s government less repressive. Hong Kongers currently enjoy a far more open internet than mainland Chinese citizens, which makes their organizing possible.

That isn’t to say that these organizing tactics are totally safe. Ivan Ip, the administrator of a Telegram group, was arrested for conspiracy to commit public nuisance last on June 11. He was a moderator of a groups chat of 30,000 people. Allegedly, conversations about and instructions for demonstrations were discussed in the group.

Lessons on the ground

Not only does social media help with organizing, but it also helps protestors refine their tactics. One example of this went viral in Asia and in the West. 

Videos of protestors dousing tear gas cannisters with water spread via social media and became a hallmark of the Hong Kong protests. Water kills the charge of a tear gas cannister, so no particles can be released. As a result, the protestors maintain order and reduce the ability of law enforcement to interfere on grounds that the scene has become chaotic. 

This is just one of the many logistical aids that protestors have come up with through social media. Protestors use social media to request additional supplies, including riot gear and first aid kits. They communicate the location of supply stations that distribute water and snacks. They even help spread predetermined hand signals that allow for silent communication amidst chaos.

Demonstrators even use social media to tell each other how to stay safe on social media. Activists are encouraged to turn off Face ID and fingerprint ID on their phones so that police can’t use these tools to open their phones without their consent. They also remind each other to turn on encryption on apps that don’t automatically have end-to-end encryption.

This sort of advice goes beyond protestors’ phones. Many Hong Kongers make sure not to use Octopus, an contact-free payment card often used to pay for public transportation, when they take to the streets. The card requires personal information that could be used to incriminate protestors. Demonstrators also avoided using public Wi-Fi.

Leaderless movements

These protests have been called leaderless movements. A leaderless movement is incredibly useful in an authoritarian context because the police can’t simply jail a cadre of radicals and paralyze action. This formation also would be incredibly difficult without social media.

Wong extolled the virtues of a leaderless movement when we spoke with him. He said, “Social media enhances our movement and helps it become more organic. A leaderless movement encourages people to have an awareness [of their power] and shows that there is power for people. This demonstration and rally showed that Hong Kong is  not just a kind of finance city. It is also a protest city.”

This isn’t to say that activists aren’t working with prominent groups and figures to drive turn out. One radical group, the Student Labor Action Coalition, focuses heavily on linking up student and workers’ groups. These demonstrations have been accompanied by a call for a general strike, a tactic that had been used by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions during the Umbrella Revolution.

Leftist activist and writer Au Loong Wu added that protestors who may not be interested in more traditional or intensive activism might be open to organizing via social media. He told the Daily Dot, “Hong Kong social movements are very weak and young people don’t like organizing. It is the communication revolution that makes it possible to under such restraint we can still do something big.”

The nature of social media has allowed for a protest that is at once leaderless and highly organized. Various groups of students, workers, and activists can keep in touch with each other through Facebook and Telegram, so they also don’t need a clear leader behind a megaphone or charging at the head of a crowd. 

Just as Occupy in the United States, the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and the Yellow Vest movement in France have provided both lessons and cautionary tales to future organizers, the massive turn out and relatively low-risk mass organizing in Hong Kong will likely resonate with activists all over the world.

Though it remains to be seen if their immediate goals will be achieved, the organizing that Hong Kongers are currently undertaking will have reverberations anywhere that people with an internet connection want to make a stand against oppression.

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Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.