Protest TechHong Kong
As protests continue to roil Hong Kong, the fervor of the broad public defiance of both the territory’s government and the People’s Republic of China – and the cycles of increasing repression and violence – have been a primary focus.
Yet the high political stakes of these protests – and the vivid images accompanying them – obscure an equally consequential global impact created by the territory’s tenacious pro-democracy movement: The streets of Hong Kong have become a teeming laboratory for the future of organized protest in a surveillance state.
The WTO protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s exerted an outsized imaginative influence on Occupy movements and other protests around the globe, including providing inspiration for the “Occupy Central in Love and Peace Protest” in 2014 in Hong Kong.
Governments also drew lessons from the so-called “Battle of Seattle” of 1999 and other actions, seeking to deter the property damage often associated with anti-capitalist protests – and blunt the effectiveness of even peaceful mass gatherings through tactics such as “kettling” (or confining) protestors to particular areas.
Hong Kong’s role as a workshop for a new era of protest takes shape amidst broader global assertions of state power that have resulted from almost two decades of deadly terrorist activity that followed 9/11. These powers are underpinned by rapid advances in the technologies used to track the movements and activities of citizens.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement – named for the umbrellas used by protestors as a shield against tear gas – had already demonstrated the formidable resolve of the city’s pro-democracy protestors. The protests that broke out again in Hong Kong in 2019, spurred by proposed changes in the territory’s extradition law, have taken the city’s residents into new terrain as the tides of fortunes have shifted back and forth over ensuing months.
The laboratory of protest in Hong Kong is not only shaping innovative responses to technology and repression. Some observers suggest that the protest movement is harnessing the unique landscape of the city. It is also reshaping traditional elements of protest, reviving successes of global protests past, and deploying simple tools in the battle for the streets.
Hong Kong protesters are learning from others, but Hong Kong protest methods are now circling the globe. And it is technology that is transforming the face of protest in Hong Kong and beyond.
On December 25, 2019, Quartz reporter Mary Hui retweeted a picture of graffiti in the city: "We can't return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem."
One crucial element in any mass protest is the safety afforded by numbers. Large crowds not only exert power by their sheer size, but also allow individuals to shed identity and blend into a group.
Surveillance states facing large demonstrations now deploy the vast array of technologies (cameras, AI) usually used to deter criminal activity to identify, harass, and detain particular individuals in a protest or movement.
In Hong Kong, the struggle to ferret out or protect the identity of police and protestors alike has been intense. One particular focus has been high-tech camera towers that capture demonstrators in real time. Citizens involved in protests have splattered such security cameras with paint, or aimed laser pointers at them. Some have succeeded in attacking and toppling the towers upon which cameras stand.
Indeed, a September article in the MIT Technology Review noted that demonstrators who felled one such tower scrambled quickly to deduce its components, which were then published on Facebook by pro-democracy organization Demosisto.
Masks and Armor
Attacking technology is one battlefront in Hong Kong’s protests. Masking oneself – to protect one’s body and identity – is another stage of clashes between authorities and protestors.
The ferocity of some encounters has created increasingly mirrored images of opponents in the streets, with each side determined to defend themselves against the other side.
In August, the territory’s government trumpeted the arrival of Robocop-style body armor from mainland China for its officers. Along with sophisticated helmets, the gear helps police ward off a wide array of improvised weaponry used by protestors – from bricks to Molotov cocktails.
Police suppression of largely peaceful marches led citizens – who have caught persistent uses of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, as well as beatings in the street (and worse) on video – to find armor of their own. Surgical masks and goggles have given way to gas masks and body armor, and protestors increasingly resemble the officers they are battling. Last month, Wired described the city as a “Mad Max tableau.”
Since August, many police deployed to battle protestors have been permitted to remove their identification, leading many to identify the move as a key element in a lack of confidence in law enforcement in the territory.
At the same time that police are hiding their identities, the local government also has attempted to ban citizens from wearing masks.
Protestors have not only defied such bans, but they have also used holidays such as Halloween and other occasions to mock the government’s actions.
Protesters challenged the mask ban in court and it was overturned as unconstitutional, though the matter is now on appeal.
The war over identity in Hong Kong’s protest takes on added ferocity because of the capabilities offered by social media to reveal the real names of those on both sides of the battle lines.
The so-called “doxxing” – or posting of revelatory details about particular individuals online – has reached deep into every strata of Hong Kong society, including police, government officials, protest organizers. Even journalists covering the protests have been swept up into the wave of public disseminations of information.
On numerous social media platforms, including local channel LIHKG, protestors have been able to post personal information about government officials and police. Yet the doxxing in Hong Kong cuts both ways. Leaders of the territory’s pro-democracy movement – as well as journalists – have found their personal details on a site called HK Leaks. In November, an investigation of HK Leaks by Agence France Press revealed that the site was a highly sophisticated operation hosted in Russia and with significant ties to groups associated with China’s Communist Party. The official Chinese media went so far as to expose the personal details of a U.S. diplomat they accused of meeting with democracy protesters.
The web battle in Hong Kong is not just over individuals, It is also over maps and information. Demonstrators have found the HKmap.live app an essential means of crowdsourcing information about protest flash points, police deployments, and other useful information. Yet after wrangling between the developers and Apple, the U.S.-based company removed HKmap.live from its App Store in early October.
Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the decision, but pro-democracy demonstrators pointed to a negative editorial about the company in the People’s Daily – the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party – that was published the day before the app’s removal.
Be Like Water
Technology has also greatly influenced the tactics of Hong Kong’s protests.
One of the key mantras of the pro-democracy movement is Hong Kong-born actor and martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s assertion that one must “be like water.” Amnesty International even tweeted a video that explicitly connected Lee’s saying to events in Hong Kong.
Yet for a movement to flow, scatter, evaporate and form again, it needs information. As the fight over HKmap.live demonstrates, those who oppose the pro-democracy movement will try to frustrate communications.
Protesters use platforms such as Telegram to communicate, and Air Drops to pass along information. They have also developed an intensive and highly-networked cyber landscape – including gaming, anti-disinformation efforts, and crowdfunding – to connect and strengthen bonds. Protesters have even ran major ads in international newspapers such as the New York Times through crowd funding. Demonstrators are even making video statements against suicide to those filming their arrest, to ensure pushback against authorities should they die in police custody.
Many have observed that the Hong Kong protest movement is “leaderless.” A number of factors – including fear, encryption, and the democratizing impulses of social media – have come into confluence to make the Hong Kong movement. Yet the resilience of the movement launched into the headwinds of a surveillance state – seems to require it. As one organizer told ABC News in October: “[N]o matter who they arrest, there are no leaders. Hence, the others can still organize themselves.”
Some of the most striking images from Hong Kong’s protests seem like an outtake from Star Wars. The use of laser pointers by demonstrators has fashioned that impression.
A simple laser pointer is small. It costs under ten dollars. Yet it has been a powerful tool for protestors in the territory – and the use of laser pointers is spreading now to other recent protest movements, including those in Chile.
One key use for laser pointers is to confound and disable facial recognition technology. They can temporarily “blind” a camera, but with sustained deployment, they can even damage the sensors permanently. Yet they have also been pointed directly against the eyes of authorities to distract them or deter their gaze. (The effects of such use are uncertain and highly debated.)
These uses of laser pointers also led the Hong Kong authorities to brand laser pointers as an “offensive weapon” – a designation that led members of the pro-democracy movement to hold a laser light show in August to protest arrests for carrying them, as well as to demonstrate their aesthetic beauty.
Boycotts are a staple of protest. (See: American Revolution and British tea.) Yet their effectiveness has been widely debated by academics. While a mass refusal to buy certain products or patronize a particular business can extend the reach of a protest into the economy of those in authority, it requires an extraordinary discipline on the part of a large group of individual consumers.
Hong Kong’s polarization has proven that it is easy to establish a boycott, but the jury remains out on how effective it has been.
The Hong Kong boycott movement relies on consumer refusal – as well as proactive purchasing from protest sympathizers. The boycott is color coded. Businesses are labeled “yellow” for supporting the pro-democracy movement, or blue for alliance with the police and Hong Kong authorities. (The categories of “red – for association with mainland China – and “black” –for Mafia businesses, have also been added, but have much less prevalence.)
Media accounts have focused on the tangible effects of the effort, such as consumers going out of their way to buy lunch at yellow businesses. It is difficult to measure the overall impact, however. At the same time, such boycotts do offer ordinary people an avenue to support the movement without putting their personal security at risk, though the yellow businesses must more openly declare their support.
Others have linked boycott efforts to a larger movement by elements in the city’s business community to help effect change. One of Hong Kong’s largest caterers, the Maxim Group found its restaurants — including Starbucks — a particular target of boycotts after the founder’s daughter denounced the pro-democracy movement at a UN Human Rights Council hearing.
What is certain is the Hong Kong boycott is also a new front in an overall warfare for and against particular brands, ranging from coffee to banks to the video game industry. This warfare is situated in larger trade and human rights disputes between China and the United States and other democracies. A company’s stance on Hong Kong may have its costs.
The Baltic Way in Asia
Fracture, conflict and violence have stolen much of the global focus on Hong Kong’s protest movement. Yet nonviolence remains a strong component of the pro-democracy movement. Peaceful marches continue in the city, attracting hundreds of thousands of residents. Elections in November provided a resounding victory for reformers at the district council level of Hong Kong government.
Writing in The Guardian in August, Hong Kong lawyer Antony Depiran noted in a city “overwhelmed by disenchantment…. Sites or moments of enchantment, such as the Hong Kong Way, offer a solution to Hong Kong’s political and social ennui, helping to lift the fog of cynicism and disenchantment, and encouraging hope and engagement in civic life.”
On August 23, 2019, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong’s citizens came out into the streets to form a human chain – the Hong Kong Way – that demonstrated the power and solidarity of their movement.
Was this another Hong Kong protest innovation? No. It was actually the revival of a civic action called “The Baltic Way, which was among the key protests held in 1989 – a tumultuous year in Eastern and Central Europe.
A reported two million citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania gathered on August 23, 1989 to form a human chain that extended over 600 kilometers through those three nations. The countries demanded independence from the Soviet Union, and the action brought the plight of these Baltic nations to world attention. Eventually, these nations were granted independence.
Hong Kong protestors also have repurposed the concept of the Lennon Wall – a space created by activists in Prague before the 1989 Velvet Revolution – fashioning their own spaces of free expression.
Writing in The Guardian in August, Hong Kong lawyer Antony Depiran noted that in a city “overwhelmed by disenchantment…. Sites or moments of enchantment, such as the Hong Kong Way, offer a solution to Hong Kong’s political and social ennui, helping to lift the fog of cynicism and disenchantment, and encouraging hope and engagement in civic life.”