Hong Kongers Tech to the Streets in Protests

Young, tech-savvy people are leading the storm of dissent in Hong Kong

It’s all kicking off out East. Anyone interested in civil disobedience, Chinese politics, technology trends and the future of that rocky outcrop in the South China Sea known as Hong Kong will have been glued to the news over the past couple of days. The pro-democracy movement known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) was meant to start on Wednesday, National Day in China, but a student demo on Friday carried such momentum that protesters began several days early.

Now, many have adopted new technology platforms to continue their fight for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, while on the other side of the border, Beijing’s vast censorship apparatus has been in overdrive.

Erasing history… as usual

Occupy Central was always going to be a tricky one for the Chinese government to handle. Its decision to point-blank refuse direct elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017 – instead allowing elections only from a shortlist of pre-approved candidates – has incensed locals who feel they have replaced one colonial master with another. They think the ruling contradicts Deng Xiaoping’s historic “one country, two systems” model and promises made in the 1980s about universal suffrage.

The Occupy movement was meant to hit Hong Kong where it hurts, the central business district, but it’s ended up spreading out to Causeway Bay and even across the harbour to Mong Kok on the Kowloon side. Pepper spray and tear gas fired by police into the crowd on Sunday has only galavanised Hong Kongers even more, encouraging greater numbers to turn out in support.

Or at least that’s the story locals are being shown by media. Inside the Great Firewall, the only reference to events in Hong Kong is a fallacious tale that a few thousand people gathered in Tamar Park in support of the government, according to The Guardian. Instagram has been banned in China after scenes of unrest flooded the platform, while keywords like “Occupy Central” and even “Hong Kong” are being blocked on Weibo, WeChat and other microblog and messaging platforms. On Weibo, the country’s most popular Twitter-like service, “permission denied” notices more than quadrupled since Friday – from 35 per 10,000 published posts to 152, according to Hong Kong University (via Quartz). As is always the case, this whack-a-mole approach to censorship encourages users to find ways to circumvent the Great Firewall, for example by using English characters.

It’s more disheartening, though, to read about self-censorship from Reuters China and Wall Street Journal.  Non-profit anti-censorship body Greatfire.org called out the two for failing to report anything on the protests on their China sites.

A lose-lose situation

The smart money suggests the protestors won’t get what they want. The Communist Party has never caved in to people power before – it’s only major test previously ending in a bloody Tiananmen Square massacre which occurred before many of the weekend’s Cantonese protestors were even born. It will be hoping that after a few nights sleeping on the streets of downtown Hong Kong, most of them will shuffle back to their homes, point made.

However, this is a young, relatively affluent, polite, well-educated and tech savvy bunch. Hong Kong has one of the highest broadband and smartphone penetration rates in the world and its citizens are avid consumers of media. Like their brothers and sisters in Taiwan, they’re exposed to uncensored global news and they’re allowed to communicate freely with each other and friends and family abroad. Also, government warnings that widespread protests will harm the city’s commercial interests matter little to them – in fact it is the student-aged Hong Kongers who are most disillusioned with China’s rule, to the point some carry colonial-era British-Hong Kong flags when protesting.

In short, they’re Beijing’s worst nightmare.

A case in point is the emergence of FireChat as a new online tool used by the protestors to organise and communicate. A little-known iOS and Android app before now, downloads rocketed by 100,000 over the weekend as many fear network connectivity may deteriorate, or even be deliberately switched off by the authorities. It allows users to communicate via Bluetooth and Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework, as well as Wi-Fi and 3/4G, a feature which has also appealed to protestors in Taiwan and Iraq.

As Tech In Asia reports, connectivity remained strong over the weekend while WhatsApp, Facebook and other traditional platforms had a few difficulties - although there are complaints that it is difficult to sift through the noise on FireChat.

Whatever happens, Hong Kongers have shown that direct political action can be well ordered, peaceful and inspiring. Protestors are even said to be cleaning up after themselves as they go. It’s also shown the power of technology to unite those on one side of the border fighting for their democratic freedoms, and keep the much larger mass of humanity on the other side in the dark.


UPDATE: Since writing this, China seems to have turned up the heat even higher. Security researchers at Lacoon have discovered an iOS trojan targeting jailbroken devices, and an Android trojan disguised as an app to help Occupy Central protestors. Both are designed to eavesdrop on device owners by monitoring SMS, email, IMs and location data as well as revealing log-ins, call logs and contact info. Greatfire.org has also noted that the main Yahoo site has come under a Man in the Middle attack – an increasingly common way for the Chinese authorities to intercept data and block access.


Phil Muncaster has been writing about technology since joining IT Week as a reporter in 2005. After leaving his post as news editor of online site V3 in 2012, Phil spent over two years covering the Asian tech scene from his base in Hong Kong, writing for The Register, MIT Technology Review and others. Now back in London, he always has one eye on what's happening out East.