Hong Kong's new struggle: the battle for digital rights

A year on from last year's umbrella protests, things in Hong Kong look calm. But beneath the surface, activists are taking the fight online

September 01, 2015
A woman poses with paper fold umbrellas during last year's pro-democracy "umbrella protests." © AP Photo/Kin Cheung
A woman poses with paper fold umbrellas during last year's pro-democracy "umbrella protests." © AP Photo/Kin Cheung

It was a late November evening last year, during the pro-democracy protests’ final phase, when I arrived in Hong Kong. As dusk set in, I headed straight from the airport to Admiralty district. Here was the core of the movement, where protesters had built a vast tent city across a multi-lane highway, cutting through the city's financial centre. Once I entered, the mood among the activists and academics steering me through was grim; they were anxious about rumours of an oncoming police assault. It could not have contrasted more with the free-wheeling displays of protest art all around us. I watched as activists debated under a giant suspended canopy, stitched together from 250 broken umbrellas, that had been used as shields against waves of tear gas.

Turnout at last month's pro-democracy march through Hong Kong, a rally led by the Civil Human Rights Front alliance and held annually ever since the 1997 handover of sovereignty from Britain to China, was at its lowest since 2008. Half a year on, the debate about the meaning of the 2014 "Umbrella Revolution" is inconclusive. It might be easy to assume that 2014 was an anomaly. But if the Hong Kong protesters unleashed one force, it has been an awakening online; a renegotiation of how the digital influences the political.

The Umbrella Revolution is our most recent example of the legacy left by the global social explosions of 2011, from the “Arab Spring” uprisings to Occupy Wall Street, when social media took centre stage as a source for both information and mobilisation. On the day that riot police deployed tear gas, pepper spray and batons on the protesters, 12 tweets about Hong Kong were being posted every second. The then 17-year-old student activist Joshua Wong, founder of the campaigning group Scholarism, observed: “Without Facebook there would be no Occupy Central, without Facebook there would be no Joshua Wong.”

The state has since initiated a crackdown. Unlike the surveillance that dominates digital communication on the mainland, freedom of speech for the 74 per cent of Hong Kong’s population who are internet users is protected by the territory's Bill of Rights. But since last year, at least nine activists have been arrested for comments made on social media, accused of violating cyber-laws. They have been charged under a vaguely defined portion of the criminal code, the notorious Section 161 of the crimes ordinance, which prohibits “access to a computer with criminal or dishonest intent.” This May, Tam Tak Chi was arrested over a comment posted on Facebook, satirically suggesting that the funeral procession of the ringleader of the city’s 1967 leftist riots be met with “home-made pineapples” (a reference to the homemade bombs used by pro-Beijing protesters during the 1960s). The arrest might have been viewed as a sarcastic online comment gone awry, had Tam not been a key radical within the 2014 protests that spread to Hong Kong’s working-class Mong Kok neighbourhood. Instead, Tam’s allies interpreted his detainment as a warning against his intended participation in a forthcoming vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

There is no regulation, no legal framework and no oversight around law enforcement’s requests for online user meta-data in Hong Kong, argues Jennifer Zhang of Hong Kong Transparency Report, a project run at Hong Kong University which reports on online surveillance. “It is based entirely on the discretion of law enforcement, and is a very disturbing trend,” she says. Zhang does a mixture of research and advocacy, tracking the government’s data-mining processes and internet service providers. She is most concerned about surveillance targeting activists. “Internet Service providers tend to just surrender information when law enforcement comes to them. But since the protests last year, there is a new awareness of the chilling effect this has had,” she says. The chilling effect was made all too apparent during the Umbrella movement, when Tam Hiu-fung was arrested for posting on the HKgolden forum, popular with the democracy protesters, encouraging the occupation of the city’s Mong Kok district. That evening, protesters poured into Mong Kok in their thousands. But in the morning, police charged Tam under Section 161. He was eventually sentenced to 100 hours’ community service in May. 

Joshua Wong was one of Prospect's world thinkers 2015

There has been a blossoming of activity from digital rights groups in the wake of the 2014 protests, such as Keyboard Frontline, who seek to train activists in encryption and online safety. The underpinnings of these groups lie in the city-state’s drive during the 1990s to become a technological pioneer in East Asia. One unintentional outcome was the formation of coder collectives. The slogan of one such group, CODE4HK, declares: “drive social change by code." CODE4HK have built up a reputation over the years for attracting socially-conscious developers to work on projects devoted to data transparency, including live-streaming and mapping protests across the city-state.

In Hong Kong, “neither the government nor service providers have properly addressed the mounting public concern over whether the government’s requests are legitimate”, Glacier Kwong, co-founder of Keyboard Frontline, tells me. “There is no avenue within or outside the system that allows citizens to raise their concerns. And the government does not have to disclose the method nor the types of devices used to monitor citizens.”

But Kwong argues that an awareness of the threat to digital liberties came to the fore in the wake of the 2014 protests. Another digital rights group, Keyboard Warrior, was active during the Umbrella Movement, offering a prescient warning about cyber-crime regulation becoming “tools for political persecution." And among the new professional organisations advocating political reform and universal suffrage that proliferated in the aftermath of the Umbrella Revolution, there is the Frontline Tech Workers Concern Group, drawn from workers within the information technology sector.

The global unrest of 2011 also saw a flourishing of digital rights campaigns, from the encryption guides produced for Occupy Wall Street protesters, through to experiments with bespoke social media platforms. In fact, to see where Hong Kong’s fight for digital space may lead to, Occupy Wall Street is a good place to start. Occupy played with the idea of building a "grassroots" conversation platform. They produced an Android app, and then Vibe, an anonymous open version of Twitter. Hong Kong also saw similar attempts at bottom-up digital organising, with CODE4HK launching an online platform that hosted live-mapping for activists on the ground to tap into.

In Europe, online dissent has also burned bright. You could see it in the frustration over Greece’s new bailout—the eruption of the #thisisacoup hashtag on Twitter last month protesting the European Union’s conditions, for example. But the repertoire of online protest has also extended to far more powerful demands, and it is in Europe where the left have been most adept at harnessing the power of our plugged-in lives. In Spain, those who protested in the squares four years ago are now approaching the gates of power. Radical party Podemos look set to be serious contenders in the country’s General Election later this year.

They are riding on a wave of empowered digital activism. That includes the Xnet cyber-team (not affiliated with Podemos) who last year created the "Mailbox Against Corruption," an online drop box designed to facilitate anonymous leaks to journalists. It was this tool which helped bring to light the revelations that senior officials at the Caja Madrid bank had allegedly used undeclared "black" credit cards to spend over 15 million euros on holidays and luxury goods. Over 100 politicians and bankers are now being brought to trial.

The movement that took over Hong Kong’s streets, and the online counter-culture that emerged, was an undeniable turning point. But activists and academics I have spoken to over the last month are understandably cautious about predicting future unrest, noting the still underdeveloped consciousness around digital rights in the region. Debate about the direction of any renewed protest remains in flux. Perhaps it is not Wall Street, or Spain, Hong Kong’s activists should ultimately look to.

Over the last few years, Taiwan has been swept by a wave of networked dissent, beginning with the 2012 Anti-Media Monopoly campaign which protested the encroachment of pro-China editorialising within the country’s domestic media outlets, and was driven by smart social media campaigning. Digital activism continued with the 2014 student-led "Sunflower" protests against perceived pro-Beijing sentiment among local elites. Among those who stormed the Taiwanese parliament in March last year were members of g0v, a Taiwanese hacker collective, who set up internet access for the protesters and fed live-streams of the occupation to the g0v website. As in the work of Spain’s Xnet collective, the crucial concept at the base of g0v is a philosophy of "open-source" activism, which aims to marry a DIY attitude towards political dissent with our collaborative, connected times. Since the ‘Sunflower’ protests, g0v have actively advocated for accountable government, calling on the public to join them in digitizing political donation records. Over the space of one day, 9000 people worked together to digitize 300,000 campaign donation documents, previously only available to view in hard copy at a government office. They call it hacking into society.

Hong Kong’s political activists have turned to their Taiwanese counterparts for technical help in the past, especially during the live-streaming of the July pro-democracy rally last year. And they should look again to the ways in which Taiwanese dissidents are now using the full collaborative power of the internet to demand open-source governance. The challenges faced by both activist communities hold strong similarities. Both are struggling for government transparency in a context in which press freedom is in free-fall.

“The fight is an uphill one,” Glacier Kwong tells me. Technological determinism aside, to resist apathy and stagnation, dissenters in Hong Kong must learn to reimagine their cause. They must not fall into the trap of recent global social explosions in fetishising the local, and following a path in which protest becomes a ritualistic routine. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Umbrella protests, the streets remain emptied of unrest. On the final night of the Umbrella protests, activists in Admiralty district hung yellow banners declaring: “we’ll be back”. If they are to do so, they will have to fully embrace the digital turn. It is open-source activism, as it is practised from Madrid to Taipei, which offers a world of strategic gain, of emboldened citizen journalism through to transparent and participatory government. The battle is moving online, and Hong Kong’s activists must look across borders, both geographical and virtual.