Young, Articulate and Encrypted: Hong Kong Protestors Win Hearts and Minds in Middle East

Published August 21st, 2019 - 10:19 GMT
/AFP
/AFP


Following its recent release on Netflix in Hong Kong, the Ukrainian documentary ‘Winter of Fire’ proved surprisingly popular on the streaming service.

The film, which documents the trajectory of the pro-European, anti-Russian Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2015, has resonated with protesters in the Special Administrative Region of China, who see parallels in their own struggle against political interference by mainland authorities.



In a recent letter posted on the online discussion website Reddit, director Evgeny Afineevsky pledged support to the people of Hong Kong, declaring ‘I would love to voice my solidarity with you. I would love to encourage you to stay strong and stay united.’

As much as overseas and domestic precedents furnish protesters in Hong Kong with courage and hope in their ongoing contestation, they also provide useful strategic lessons for the successful organisation of popular protest. The wide array of popular revolts which have shocked authorities in North Africa, Eastern Europe and Hong Kong this decade provide a useful repertoire of strategies on which demonstrators may draw in advancing their own causes.

As much as overseas and domestic precedents furnish protesters in Hong Kong with courage and hope in their ongoing contestation, they also provide useful strategic lessons for the successful organisation of popular protest.

Protests in Hong Kong entered their 11th consecutive week on Sunday as protesters marched from the popular shopping area of Causeway Bay to the city’s Central Business District. What began as an opposition movement to a controversial extradition bill which demonstrators argue would have allowed suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China has become a popular pro-democracy campaign targeting political interference in Hong Kong and the city’s embattled Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.

Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong based writer and lawyer and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong argues that protesters have drawn valuable lessons, in particular from the 2014 Umbrella Movement on useful protest strategies.

The Umbrella Movement of 2014, precipitated by a decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s chief legislative body to screen candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, leading to a 79 day occupation of the city as activists demanded more transparent electoral practices.

The movement showcased particularly important innovations in the use of digital technology for protest purposes. Several YouTube channels broadcast the protests to domestic and international audiences, whilst messaging services allowed for quick and spontaneous organisation. Yet, recent protesters have been wary of a number of the tactical failings of the 2014 movement and others like it.
 

In the first instance, the existence of easily identified leaders in 2014 proved a point of vulnerability.

In the first instance, the existence of easily identified leaders in 2014 proved a point of vulnerability. In order to dampen the energy of the movement, Chinese authorities arrested key figures including activist Joshua Wong and the leaders behind the so-called Occupy Central Movement, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-Man.

Secondly, occupation strategies, whilst proving symbolically potent, have distinct disadvantages: activists can often be easily identified, occupations can be cordoned off and localised, and they require a high level of resources and high degree of motivation and endurance from protesters.

Finally, while technology and social media has certainly proved a boon to activists the world over, it has easily been seized upon by authorities for more nefarious purposes. The existence of public accounts, with non-secure information has allowed authorities from Cairo to Kiev to trace activists movements, their likely whereabouts, and their networks of associates.

 

Hundreds gather at the Hong Kong Space Museum for a 'laser protest'.
The anonymity, mobility and technology powering the Hong Kong protests has echoes of the Arab Spring /AFP 


Savvy to these limitations, protesters in Hong Kong have proved highly innovative.

Mr Dapiran notes that protests have largely been ‘open-source’. The creative use of social media, peer to peer technologies, and mass encrypted messaging services has allowed the movement to remain highly organised but effectively leaderless. This more egalitarian arrangement has helped grow the movement beyond traditional political opposition groups and made targeting movement leaders more difficult.

Mr Dapiran notes that protests have largely been ‘open-source’. The creative use of social media, peer to peer technologies, and mass encrypted messaging services has allowed the movement to remain highly organised but effectively leaderless. This more egalitarian arrangement has helped grow the movement beyond traditional political opposition groups and made targeting movement leaders more difficult.

Protesters have also moved away from traditional strategies of occupation. Heeding the advice of Hong-Kong martial artist Bruce Lee, protesters have chosen to ‘be water’, favouring a highly mobile style of protest.

Building occupations have proved temporarily very effective, as proved by the recent occupation of the city’s main airport, yet small-scale ‘wildcat’ occupations have proved more devastating. As Mr Dapiran argues, activists have preferred to flood lobbies, elevators and offices, and wait for buildings to be closed and staff dismissed before moving on to new areas of occupation.
 

Building occupations have proved temporarily very effective, as proved by the recent occupation of the city’s main airport, yet small-scale ‘wildcat’ occupations have proved more devastating.

Most importantly, activists have become more acutely aware of the cyber-security risks posed by digital media. Mr Dapiran argues that ‘the protests have been organised almost entirely through online means’.

Preferring more anonymised services to more public Facebook and Twitter profiles, activists have increasingly resorted to the use of Telegram, an encrypted messaging service and LIHKG, a Reddit like forum in which activists report on police movements, raise funds to provide resources for front line demonstrators, and organise locations to meet and catch authorities off guard. First time downloads of the LIHKG app grew by a striking 900% in June and July as the service added 120,000 new users. Kwan Kung Temple, a popular telegram message channel posts and regularly updates protest schedules and arrangements on Google Docs, a collaborative online work space.

activists have increasingly resorted to the use of Telegram, an encrypted messaging service and LIHKG, a Reddit like forum in which activists report on police movements, raise funds to provide resources for front line demonstrators, and organise locations to meet and catch authorities off guard

The use of Apple’s AirDrop function has been particularly important has been of particular importance. The service, which uses Bluetooth based file sharing technology, allows users to anonymously share information with those in their immediate vicinity.

In densely populated Hong Kong, information can be rapidly spread through such a mechanism to hundreds of passers-by. Protesters have reportedly been using the popular dating app tinder to arrange political meetings, and the ride share app Uber to organise drivers to pick up demonstrators in potentially dangerous situations.

The use of Apple’s AirDrop function has been particularly important has been of particular importance. The service, which uses Bluetooth based file sharing technology, allows users to anonymously share information with those in their immediate vicinity.

Demonstrators have also become aware of the risks posed by more mundane forms of digital technology. CCTV cameras have been mapped and their locations distributed over LIHKG, whilst protesters have been encouraged to cover their faces, wear dark clothing, and use laser pens to distract monitors.

Fears of tracking have led many to stop using Octopus, a contactless payment card widely used for public transport in the city. Octopus cards are linked to data such as names, dates of birth and identity card numbers. Instead demonstrators frequently buy paper tickets on the city’s Metro, leaving them behind for others to use later.

Fears of tracking have led many to stop using Octopus, a contactless payment card widely used for public transport in the city. Octopus cards are linked to data such as names, dates of birth and identity card numbers. Instead demonstrators frequently buy paper tickets on the city’s Metro, leaving them behind for others to use later.

The obstacles encountered by Hong Kong’s several million strong movement remain primarily political. The intransigence of Chinese authorities and the looming threat of action by the world’s largest military force prove formidable obstacles in the path of movement success. Yet in the organisational sphere, protesters remain one vital  step ahead. 


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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