Lessons Learned from the 2019 Hong Kong Protests: The Role of Technology in Effective, Anonymous Activism

The 2019 Hong Kong protests were not the first instance of civic resistance experienced in the region. The 2013 Occupy Central and 2014 Umbrella Movement Protests had both occurred in recent memory but were largely seen to have failed to achieve the goals which inspired them. In 2019, protesters were determined to avoid the mistakes of the past and consequently organized around a firm set of core principles which would shape the conduct and remarkable sustainability of the protests: decentralized leadership, flexibility, and unity. Less explicit but equally important was the role of technology; it not only aided in greater adherence and expression of these principles but also proved essential in helping protesters protect their anonymity and fight the battle of information against the state. In the face of the overwhelming power of an emerging superpower, the Hong Kong protesters employed effective overarching principles and made resourceful use of technology to stage a valiant resistance against the odds which continues to inspire protesters and defenders of basic rights across the world.

Much of the relative success of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, especially as compared to previous protest

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movements, was the synergetic fusion of the core protest principles of decentralized leadership, flexibility, and unity with technology. In 2014, the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement had been led by a few well-known individuals; when they were promptly arrested or exiled, the protest movement suffered accordingly. In 2019, a “new model” of decentralized protest was employed, impeccably organized, yet essentially leaderless.[3] The success of this model was aided by the early initiative of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), who kickstarted the initial rallies, as well as logistical practices “in-built” from the recent experiences of previous protests.[4],[5] In the words of one local political group convener, “It’s just like a machine or a self-learning AI that can run by themselves”.[6] Beyond providing a fitting illustration for the principle, technology also facilitated the principle of decentralized leadership in more concrete ways; Telegram channels, online forums, and other social platforms enabled protesters to share information between them and, more importantly, compensate for the lack of a centralized leadership by deciding for themselves what to do via internet voting.[7] Of notable popularity was LIHKG, Hong Kong’s version of Reddit, where users could comment and vote on ideas for different and creative protest actions, from vigil gathering to making anti-extradition bill memes appealing to older residents.[8] Dubbed “open-source” protest, one student protester active on LIHKG illustrated the flexibility of this tech-enabled model thus, “Person A says something online, Person B says something else. Today more people support A’s idea, so we do it. Tomorrow we may agree with B instead of A.”[9] Another benefit of this model, in the opinion of some protesters, was that the absence of a famous leader figure allowed for greater emphasis on the fundamental issues behind the protest. “We express the ideals of freedom instead of idolizing a particular person,” said one.[10]This model of open-source protest also greatly enhanced protesters’ capacity for flexibility, their second key tenet. Protest actions in years past, inspired by the Occupy Movement, had static characters; in 2019 a rally could become a march; a march could begin in one direction and then change abruptly in another. Often, the focus of a march would only emerge in the course of the march itself.[11] Inspiration for this mode of operation came from the words of one of Hong Kong’s local heroes, Bruce Lee: “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot”

Decentralization and flexibility meant that protesters adopted a range of tactics from the totally peaceful to the starkly confrontational, yet this was also potentially a danger; many of the world’s past and subsequent protest movements had been undermined by internal divisions, where conflict between peaceful and radical wings of a movement had led to ultimate collapse. Thus, the Hong Kong protesters made unity the third key pillar of their overall movement. Moderates and radicals, each free to pursue their own chosen course of flexible, decentralized action, nevertheless came to understanding, agreeing to “cooperate, collaborate and tolerate each other’s methods.”[12] In other words, all sides adopted the principle of “I may not agree with what you do, but I promise that I will be there for you when you need it.”[13] This commitment to unity and mutual acceptance was further reflected in many of the popular slogans adopted during the protest movement, including: ‘we go down and up together’, ‘brothers climb a mountain together, each has to make his own effort’, and ‘no snitching, no severing of ties’.[14] Once more, technology proved invaluable in sustaining protest unity. Online maps and other relevant data were published online to help identify those locales and businesses in the city who supported the pro-democracy protest movement, labelled ‘yellow’, versus those who supported the Beijing government, labelled ‘blue’. For example, the yellow_ribbon_catering Instagram account, which amassed more than 190,000 followers within 5 months, showed and promoted ‘yellow’ businesses supporting the protests.[15]Another pro-protests restaurant put a QR code sticker on their window directing users to a Google Map revealing yellow and blue businesses throughout the city.[16] The resulting “yellow economy” helped reinforce the unity and mutual support the protests strove for, while also widening the spectrum for expressing dissent. In the words of one developer of a yellow/blue mapping site, “Not everyone is brave enough to come on the street…They can try to express their point of view without any risk because I don’t think the Government is going to ban us from visiting yellow shops.”[17]

Beyond reinforcing protest tenets, technology was also essential in helping protesters combat the considerable resources and capabilities of both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments and their supporters. Two of these online battlefields were the battle to protect protester anonymity and the battle for information. Mainland China is one of the world’s most highly surveilled states with large-scale internet censorship a part of daily life. It is little surprise then that the central government attempted to bring its powers of surveillance to bear on Hong Kong. Since protesters were known to use Telegram and other more secure forms of encrypted messaging, a distributed denial of service attack was launched against Telegram from mainland China during the most intense early clashes between police and protesters.[18] To counter such efforts, protesters turned to peer-to-peer technologies, including AirDrop and Bridgefly. Airdrop, a feature of every Apple phone, enabled protesters to share information over BlueTooth without having to use a mobile connection, not only amongst themselves, but with anyone else reachable via AirDrop.[19] For example, some AirDrop files had QR codes designed to look like free money from either AliPay or WeChat Pay, while in reality delivering messages about the extradition law.[20]Such tactics also helped counter the battle of information by deliberately messaging travelers from the mainland whose information access was entirely dictated by the government. Messages such as “Hope your [sic] have a pleasant journey and feel the freedom of assembly along the way. The tiny space for freedom is the reason why we fight,” written in the simplified character writing system of the mainland, helped to broadcast the reasons behind the protests.[21]Bridgefly, a BlueTooth based messaging app which worked without internet, also proved popular among protesters as an alternative to state-monitored messaging apps and email, with downloads increasing by almost 4,000%.[22]To counter the state’s digital recognition technology, and just its monitoring capabilities, protesters turned both the traditional tactics like black blocking, “where participants wear generic, all-black clothing to conceal their identity”, but also lasers.[23]Described by one observer as, “a cyber war against Chinese artificial intelligence”, lasers were used to confuse police, scramble facial recognition cameras, and deter people from taking photos.[24]Lasers were also used by protesters to message each other, as one pointed out, “[protesters] point them at the police officers to show other protesters where the security forces are located [but] also use them to signal when the police look like they are going to launch an offensive or take a picture of the protestors, for example.”[25]

The battle for information which formed a significant part of the Hong Kong protests can be explained as the conflict between protesters and government forces to control the protest narrative. Framing the narrative of popular protests in a way that facilitates their suppression is a tactic often used by authoritarian regimes and the Chinese government was no exception – employing its media apparatuses and pro-Beijing online trolls, dubbed the 50-cent-army by protesters for the supposed price they were paid for each post, to produce huge quantities of misinformation to portray the protesters as violent rioters and under the undue influence of foreign powers.[26]One way protesters countered these actions were by organizing the “Citizens’ Press Conference”. First proposed on LIHKG, this initiative quickly amassed over a hundred volunteers, some with valuable media experience, who organized themselves into expertise-based teams covering everything from media liaison to logistics to writing and translation.[27]Their goal was to serve as a direct voice for the protest movement, to communicate their demands, highlight police aggression, and help to give a human face to the pro-democracy movement.[28]One of the volunteers explained the activities of the citizens’ press conferences thus:

“We invent memes, GIFs [short, animated images] and hashtags for Twitter feeds to attract attention. On the other hand, we post more in-depth articles on online forums like Reddit and Quora, where we want to establish meaningful conversations for people around the world to understand the situation in Hong Kong…In terms of size, we can never compete with the 50-cent army. But I believe authentic interactions are much more powerful than spam comments.”[29]

Another way protesters communicated their message to the world was by crowdsourcing initiatives designed to gain international attention and support. Coinciding with the planned 2019 G20 summit, activists crowdfunded over $750,000 within hours to take out a series of full-page newspaper adverts in publications worldwide. Volunteers worked to prepare and proof the chosen text, “Stand with Hong Kong at G20” in multiple languages, booked the advertising space, and delivered the artwork to publications around the world.[30]

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The anti-extradition bill protests which overtook Hong Kong in 2019 and into 2020 were notable not only for the courage with which protesters confronted the power and resources of the Chinese government but also for the ingenuity of their tactics, their cohesion around a set of core principles, and the part technology played in helping further their goals. Facing the tremendous power of the state, protesters’ use technology such as online forums, social media, crowdfunding, Bluetooth, and even laser pointers became powerful tools in manifesting the principles of decentralized leadership, flexibility, and unity in more effective and innovative ways; in the short term, their efforts were successful. Faced with a groundswell of opposition, Hong Kong’s indirectly elected government suspended and then fully withdrew the anti-extradition bill. However, the overwhelming coercive power of Beijing exacerbated by the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in 2020 put Hong Kong even more firmly under the central government than before. With the passage in June 2020 of the Hong Kong national security law criminalized protests and most forms of political organizing, while authorities also used coronavirus restrictions as a convenient means to further restrict mass gatherings and freedom of movement and arresting those who participate in or organize unapproved events.[31] While the future success of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong remains uncertain, the curtailing of freedoms and grievances which led to the mass protests remain unaddressed. Moreover, the conduct, strategies, and actions of the protesters continue to serve as a source of inspiratio

[1] Kwan, Shawna & Lung, Natalie. “Hong Kong’s Despair Runs Deeper Than Protests“. Bloomberg. July 24, 2019.

[2] Rife, Roseann. “Why Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill was the final straw”. Amnesty International. September 26, 2019.

[3] Su, Alice. “A new kind of Hong Kong activism emerges as protesters mobilize without any leaders”. Los Angeles Times. June 14, 2019.

[4] Lam, Oiwan. “The organisation and future of Hong Kong’s ‘open source’ anti-extradition law movement”. Hong Kong Free Press. July 21, 2019.

[5] Su

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] Lam, Jeffie, Ng, Naomi & Xinqi, Su. “Be water, my friend: Hong Kong protesters take Bruce Lee’s wise saying to heart and go with the flow”. South China Morning Post. June 22, 2019.

[12] Kuhn, Anthony. “In Hong Kong, Moderate And Radical Protesters Join Forces To Avoid Past Divisions”. National Public Radio. August 25, 2019.

[13] Man Hei, Chan Jacky & Pang, Jun. “The untold story of Hong Kong’s protests is how one simple slogan connects us”. The Guardian. July 10, 2019.

[14] Lee, F. L. F., Yuen, S., Tang, G., & Cheng, E. W. (2019). Hong Kong’s Summer of Uprising: From Anti-Extradition to Anti-Authoritarian Protests. China Review, 19(4), 1–32.

[15] Saiidi, Uptin. “Hong Kong protesters are voting with their wallets.” CNBC. January 16, 2020.

[16] ibid

[17] Miller, Barbara & Cumming, Brant. “Hong Kong protesters are using apps to avoid restaurants they suspect are pro-China.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation. December 22, 2019.

[18] Dapiran, Antony. “Be Water!: seven tactics that are winning Hong Kong’s democracy revolution.” The New Statesman. August 1, 2019.

[19] ibid

[20] Fingas, Roger. “Hong Kong protesters turn to Apple’s AirDrop to bypass Chinese censorship.” AppleInsider. July 9, 2019.

[21] Mayo, Benjamin. “Hong Kong protesters using AirDrop to share images opposing Chinese extradition bill.” 9to5Mac. July 9, 2019.

[22] Koetsier, John. “Hong Kong Protestors Using Mesh Messaging App China Can’t Block: Usage Up 3685%.” Forbes. September 2, 2019.

[23] Groundwater, Colin. “Pack an Umbrella: Hong Kong Protesters Share Their Best Strategies and Tactics.” GQ. June 4, 2020.

[24] Jacobson, Adam. “Hong Kong protesters use laser pointers to deter police, scramble facial recognition.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. August 11, 2019.

[25] Mas, Liselotte. “Hong Kong protesters use lasers to confuse police and damage cameras.” France24. August 6, 2019.

[26] Chan, Michelle. “From Hong Kong to the NBA, how China is losing the media war.” Nikkei. October 23, 2019.

[27] ibid

[28] ibid

[29] ibid

[30] Dapiran

[31] Wong, Josie, Lo, Chloe & Marlow, Iain. “Hong Kong Protests Fall Silent Under Never-Ending Covid Rules.” Bloomberg. June 1, 2021.