Hong Kong's protesters used low-tech street smarts to smash China's powerful techno-authoritarianism

  • Protesters in Hong Kong, numbering more than 1 million and skewing young, defeated the will of China’s powerful Communist Party by beating a bill that would have allowed China to make Hong Kongers face trial on the mainland.
  • China has delved into techno-authoritarianism, in which it uses technology to surveil virtually every aspect of people’s lives and then assigns them social-credit scores based on how good or bad the Communist Party finds them.
  • The protesters used low-tech gear and street smarts to defeat China’s many efforts to disrupt the protests.
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Protesters in Hong Kong, numbering in the millions and skewing young, pulled off the extraordinary feat of defeating the will of China’s Communist Party over the weekend, and they did it with little more than street smarts, household goods, and unbreakable determination and solidarity.

“More than 25 per cent of Hong Kong’s population of 7.4 million people protested this weekend. By proportion, these are the largest protests in modern history. Absolutely stunning,” Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society, tweeted of the event.

The threat that caused more than 1 million people in Hong Kong, an island off the coast of mainland China that was formerly under British rule, was not a war or corruption but the idea that the Chinese communists would gain access over its fiercely independent judicial system.

Hong Kong, formally a part of China that has its own more democratic government, enjoys freedoms not seen on the mainland. Hong Kongers can vote, protest, and speak freer than their friends and family across the water.

A new bill that would allow extradition to China for political actions and speech against the party proved a bridge too far.

China already has a sweeping surveillance state that it uses to detain and “reeducate” racial and religious minorities, some say by the millions. In China, facial-recognition technology employed on millions of security cameras watches every move of its urban citizens.


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A “social-credit” system measures every aspect of citizens’ lives and will punish them by not allowing them to buy train or plane tickets if they engage in unsatisfactory behaviour, like playing video games too much. If you’re calling your mother in China, and she owes money, a special message may encourage you to tell her to pay up once she picks up the phone.

Hong Kong, well-positioned to observe China’s blossoming techno-authoritarianism, rejected the idea of giving the Communist Party power to bring its citizens under Beijing’s watch. And they did it with street smarts and low-tech fixes.

“The Chinese government will do a lot of things to try to monitor their own people,” Bonnie Leung, a leader of the Hong Kong-based Civil Human Rights Front, told The Washington Post.

“We believe that could happen to Hong Kong, too,” she said.

How David beat Goliath

Many Hong Kongers had faced down police batons and pepper spray before during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, so they knew how to fight back.

Many steps taken by the protesters were simple and widespread, such as wearing masks to avoid being identified. But some steps required ingenuity not seen elsewhere.

“One thing we know is they are going to pepper spray us,” a protester told The Wall Street Journal. So the protesters handed out a sodium-chloride solution that would soothe eyes burned by the harsh spray, according to The Journal.

In a video posted online, as police shot canisters of tear gas into the crowd, the protesters would simply douse the canisters with water before they could spread the dangerous fumes. This appeared to virtually nullify the police’s weapon.

But it wasn’t only the physical danger the protesters faced; spying was also a problem. The protests had been organised on WhatsApp and Telegram, US-owned companies that promise free communication.

Telegram on Wednesday said a “state actor-sized” targeted distributed-denial-of-service attack from within China hit the service.

The solution, for many, was simple: delete all Chinese apps on their phones. Hong Kongers also told The Post they had a rule of not taking photos of each other’s faces, only wide shots of the scale of the protest, again to avoid identification.

The Hong Kong medical sector lawmaker Pierre Chan said at a press conference that through a “backdoor” in hospital computer systems, the police were able to access confidential medical information about patients wounded in the protests and arrest them at the hospital, the Bloomberg editor Aaron Mc Nicholas‏ tweeted.

But in the end, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive,bowed to the overwhelming public display, delaying the bill for an indefinite amount of time and apologizing for her actions.

Chinese media, for its part, depicted the choice as having been made by the Communist Party, perhaps in a move to save face after being heartily resisted by regular citizens.

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