Tag Archives: China

Anthony Kwan | Getty Images

Are Hong Kong Protestors Caught in a Box Canyon?

Ponce   The Hong Kong protests continue unabated as the year ends, having begun on March 15, 2019, and definitely serving as a benchmark for the year.  Over Christmas, the protests moved once again into the neighborhoods.  Although the numbers have waxed and waned over the nine months, the protests still have the ability to pull out hundreds of thousands on some weekends.  Another mark of their staying power was the sweep of 80% of the allotted seats in the city council election by the pro-democracy forces.  Although the police have been brutal at times and the threat of surveillance and arrests are ever present, the protests have been unabated.

During this period, I’ve shared the tactical and technological lessons the Hong Kong protestors have taught us all, and they have been impressive.  Their ability to persist as a movement that mobilizes with an opaque structure and no externally observable leaders has been widely reported as an asset, allowing them to continue as they dodge potential oppression by the more powerful Chinese state.  One of their organizing principles worth remembering has been to “be like water,” meaning able to move to find its own level and to be porous and fill the gaps with protests.

A historian of the protests, Antony Dapiran, a lawyer interviewed in the New Yorker, noted the “phases” of the regular protests that would begin as peaceful marches and demonstrates and then evolve into more violent confrontations with a harder core as the numbers decline.  An estimated 1.7 million have participated in protests at one time or another constituting about 20% of the Hong Kong population.  One activist interviewed by the New Yorker “…estimated that there were about ten thousand who could be considered frontliners.  Of those, perhaps eight thousand had set up roadblocks, painted graffiti, or neutralized tear-gas cannisters with traffic cones [with] the hard core – some two thousand ‘proactive’ protestors who were willing to escalate confrontations with the police and to engage in activities, such as throwing Molotov cocktails or sabotaging surveillance cameras, that could result in serious prison sentences.”

There cannot be any question about the consistency or courage of the protestors, but any organizer would ask two questions.  The first would be “How long can they continue?”  The second would be “Where can they get a win?”  The first level victory was a withdrawal of the bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be taken to mainland China for trials.  The problem is that the government has lost any credibility and protestors don’t believe that if they stop, the government will not look for a time to reintroduce the measure.   Organizers also know that there is a point where protestors will tire without victories, the economic impact will turn those at the bottom against the action, and that the middle will oppose the violence.

Worse, the strategy beyond the protests and their deep public support is unclear.  There seem to be no obvious parties to negotiate anything seen as fair by all parties.  From thousands of miles away with limited information, it is hard to not worry that this may be yet another situation where the tactics could devour whatever is left of the strategy.


Hong Kong Teaches Risks in Social Media Mobilization

Protesters attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong’s leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China, June 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu – RC12BDB5C070

New Orleans       Don’t get me wrong.  Any group of organizers that can pull the trigger and pull out hundreds of thousands, then a million, and then possibly two million protestors on the streets out of a total population of seven million deserve wild praise and total respect.  Such organizers can teach all of us a huge amount about how to do our work and make a difference.  All of which makes it worth following closely the courageous campaign in the autonomous province of Hong Kong to block the order from the central Chinese government to extradite individuals charged with a crime to the mainland for trial, undercutting the Hong Kong judicial system and the self-government of Hong Kong, and potentially its base as a commercial and banking center as well.

Even if you have no interest in the issue, the technical lessons are worth careful study. Undoubtedly social media tools were critical implements to the mobilization. So much that I myself believe that my choice was to simply buy Facebook likes to make things quicker when one of my social media businesses was failing. But one of the key lessons involves the perils of relying on social media for both organizers and participants unless precautions are taken.

A secure messaging application popular there called Telegram was bombarded by China in a DDos or denial-of-service attack by multiple computers meant to overwhelm the site with high volume traffic and put it out of business.  The apps founder, Pavel Durov, was quoted saying this kind of attack on Telegram was not unusual.  The New York Times reported that a monitor of a Telegram chat room with 20,000 members was arrested by Hong Kong police even though he was not part of the demonstrations and was in fact miles away at his own home.

The police are using digital tools to track protestors and identify organizers, including facial recognition capabilities, that police are also advocating for wide use in Europe and the United States. Protestors are shielding their faces with masks, hats, and glasses to prevent easy identification that could be used for arrests by police later.  On the mainland, the government often stops protests preemptively by monitoring social media.

Telegram does not have what is called end-to-end encryption on their chat rooms, which the even more popular and widely used WhatsApp has.  Protest organizers have resorted to VPN networks and pay-as-you-go SIM cards and have registered foreign and Google numbers to enter chat rooms or communicate.  To skirt WhatsApp encryption, malware disguised as an app has been found phishing users that the Times reported was likely for spying on organizers.

Protestors have been advised to buy individual tickets on the subway so that digital payment cards would not be tracked.  They have tried to stop people from taking photos of the protests or selfies since once they show up on the internet, they might lead to identification and arrests.

At ACORN, we used to constantly warn, “if you live by the press, you will die by the press,” to underline the principle that the face-to-face work in the streets and neighborhoods was our lifeblood and would keep people together whether the press was good or bad about an action or the organization.  Live by the internet and social media, you die by the internet and social media might be the warning worth heeding from the lessons on the streets of Hong Kong for organizers everywhere.