Hong Kong Protests are Nothing New, and It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye.
The subway station is a stroboscopic nightmare of rapidly flashing lights and cameras. Police officers wear body armor and sunglasses, with medieval style targes strapped across their forearms. The opposition carries mobile phones and cheap LED torches, their faces covered by air filters or surgical masks.
Outside in the streets of Hong Kong, public spaces are packed to capacity with protesters, and in shopping malls, crowds pump the air with their fists and sing patriotic songs.
These are the closing days of the Hong Kong rebellion 2019, a struggle which saw ordinary people rise up against their own government, and seemingly, against the might of Beijing, and win. At least for now.
This has been no ordinary uprising, and certainly no repeat of the 1989 pro democracy protests which saw tanks and 300,000 troops deployed on the streets of Beijing, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. But for Hong Kong, this is business as usual.
The Fugitive Offenders amendment bill placed before Hong Kong’s lawmakers on April 3rd 2019 was straightforward, and was formulated in response to a pressing legal issue. The previous year, Chan Tong-kai, a student, had allegedly murdered his pregnant girlfriend while in Taiwan, hidden her body in a suitcase, and fled home across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. As no extradition treaties existed between the two territories, Chan could not be prosecuted.
The Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment, or FOO as it was known, would allow for extradition from Hong Kong under certain very specific circumstances, and on a case-by-case basis – meaning that ne’er-do-wells could be returned to the scene of their crime to atone for what they had done. It would also mean that Hong Kong residents could be extradited to mainland China.
Hong Kong belongs to China. There’s no argument about that, and it’s right there in the official name: Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. But the Special Administrative part of the name means that it isn’t ruled directly from Beijing. It has its own currency, own laws, and own government – albeit with a Chief Executive appointed by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.
The region has a strong pro-democracy, pro-independence movement, and when the Special Administrative status ends in 2047, the movement is anxious that Hong Kong becomes an independent democracy, rather than returning to the suffocating embrace of the mother country.
The FOO amendment could end those dreams, protesters say, allowing Beijing to make pro-democracy agitators disappear into China’s vast interior. They could even find themselves as unwilling organ donors.
And so, the uprising began.
The battles were fought on social media as well as in the open, with dozens of accounts appearing on every network, dedicated to providing a narrative from the protesters’ point of view. The ubiquity of cellphones equipped with cameras meant that everyone could be a journalist. Everyone could get the news out. Nothing could be done behind closed doors, hidden away, or swept under the oriental rug.
Hence the scene at the subway station. Cameras don’t perform optimally when exposed to rapidly flashing bright lights. Rather than a disco, or an attempt to blind the opposition, it’s a gambit to prevent footage from leaking out and being published online. Both sides use it with varying results.
No-one can say for sure how many high definition CCTV cameras cover Hong Kong’s 427 square miles, but it’s estimated to be one for every 140 people – nowhere near the UK’s one per 11 citizens, but easily enough to identify demonstrators screaming defiance at the dragon.
And China’s facial recognition algorithms are legendary, able to detect individual facial features regardless of glasses, hats or masks, and positively identify 98.1 percent of human faces in under one second. If the extradition bill stayed in force, it seemed almost guaranteed that some of those who had protested against it, whether or not they were disguised, would eventually find themselves staring into a surgeon’s mask from the wrong side
Not everybody in Hong Kong is hot for democracy, and pro China demonstrations have been nearly as well attended as the pro-democracy ones. Not everyone is wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and among the anti-China agitators, typically aged between 18 and 30, an impromptu parallel lexicon has developed. Like Cockney rhyming slang, which allowed 19th century criminals in London’s east end to discuss their nefarious plans in public, the new Hong Kong argot empowers protesters to plan and coordinate without incriminating themselves or others.
Plans and accounts of deeds are sprinkled with negatives, which are to be discounted by the listener. Don’t meet me outside your apartment block tonight, would be an invitation to meet outside the speaker’s apartment block. A conversation which mentioned shopping or magic indicates protests or starting fires. I dreamed that I stabbed a policeman last night translates as I totally stabbed a policeman last night*. It’s not particularly sophisticated, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s old school infosec, which speaks to the paranoia of not knowing who to trust, and whether the old lady standing next to you at the bus stop is an informer for the state.
Government Surveillance of Hong Kong
Compared to the mainland, Hong Kong has fairly robust electronic privacy laws. A warrant is required for authorities to snoop on stored communications and for real-time monitoring, although not for examining metadata or basic personal information. From a strictly legal standpoint, Hong Kong’s data protection laws are similar to those in the UK. But regardless of the actual law, campaigners have been convinced that for a long time that their communications, social media accounts, and even their phone calls are being monitored from Beijing.
Their evasion tactics are amateurish and almost laughable: They use cash for purchases, Telegram for individual and group chats, and ensure that the location function on their smartphones are switched off.
But avoiding an audit trail is pointless when you’re being monitored constantly by CCTV. Telegram has been proven insecure again and again, most recently revealing phone numbers of people who are in public groups – such as the ones used to organize flash mobs across the territory. It’s trivial for a state actor such as China to match up phone numbers against a subscriber’s real name and address. And switching off a phone’s location function means nothing when an individual handset can be found through triangulation off cell phone towers.
For protesters who may be in genuine fear of their lives, even owning a cell phone is a liability.
But let’s not pretend that the Hong Kong protests are in any way serious. Yes, there has been violence. There has been police brutality: tear gas and baton charges. There have been injuries, and possibly (or possibly not), deaths.
China knows that eventually it will regain full control of Hong Kong if it wants it, and it can afford to wait. Routine military rotations, which happen at the same time every year, did not see shock troops deployed on the streets or in the subway stations. No-one was crushed to death by tanks.
Because for the residents of Hong Kong, protesting for democracy is something of a national pastime. It’s an annual event and is tacitly allowed by the state. Organizers are routinely put on trial under public nuisance laws, and receive a light custodial sentence rather than the theoretical maximum of seven years.
The 2018 protests had a historically low turnout due to warm weather, and saw somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 demonstrators setting fire to photographs of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, wearing Carrie Lam masks with amusingly elongated noses, and demanding more opportunities to recycle plastic bottles.
The 2014 protests were more serious, lasting from July through to December with 100,000 protesters on the streets at any one time. It resulted in three of the pro-democracy organizers being eventually jailed for between six and eight months, and the entire movement later being nominated for the Nobel peace prize.**
For the young people of Hong Kong, the annual protests are an opportunity to blow off steam, and to feel the thrill of rebellion against what is a largely benevolent, permissive administration which allows them to do such things. It’s an occasion to indulge in spy vs spy paranoia, speak in secret code, and try out tricks they’ve learned from the internet – secure in the knowledge that they’re very unlikely to be hurt or arrested – and to practice counter-surveillance measures which are both ineffective and unnecessary. They even get to wave flags.
There were injuries in the 2019 protests, sure. But that’s what happens when large numbers of people indulge in a fantasy Live Action Role Play version of Watchdogs***.
Chan was convicted of money laundering after stealing cash from his dead girlfriend’s bank account, and is expected to be released from prison in October this year. And on September 4th, Carrie Lam announced that the government would be withdrawing the controversial extradition bill amendment. When it finally happens, foreign fugitives can breathe a sigh of relief, and the protesters can all go home.
Until next year.
*No policemen were stabbed during the protests.
*** Full disclosure: The author has never actually played Watchdogs