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Hong Kong 2019 protests Peter Y. Chuang Unsplash peter-y-chuang-LWzjqzhLjiA-unsplash

Can China Really Silence Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is tech-savvy and the protesters are adept at defeating even high-tech terrors

The news flashes around the Hong Kong protests underplay the human struggle. They started with an extradition bill that would allow mainland China to seize accused criminals to face trial—including those accused of political crimes. Hong Kong is in a precarious position as a democratic, capitalist territory within a communist, socialist country.

Britain had “leased” Hong Kong from China for 99 years, ending in 1997. Hong Kong used its comparative freedom wisely in the meantime. By the 1980s, it had become one of the wealthiest cities in the east. In anticipation of the British handover to China in 1997, the Hong Kong Basic Law was ratified in 1990. The law called for “one country, two systems” for fifty years afterward.

But since 1997, Hong Kong and mainland China have been uneasy with each other. Hong Kong has long been a refuge from communist rule and fears of the Chinese Communist Party’s encroachment into the Hong Kong way of life fuel the protests.

For example, unlike mainland China, Hong Kong has uncensored internet access. Even after the handover, Hong Kong residents (sometimes called Hongkongers) have enjoyed rights and freedoms guaranteed under British law. That included the right to read about subjects banned in China online, for example, democracy, human rights, and critiques of the Chinese government.

The recent protests have brought out mainland China’s characteristic attempts at repression. But it has not worked so far in Hong Kong: “By attempting to apply mainland-style repression in a city with entrenched political freedoms, the Chinese Communist Party has needlessly alienated an entire generation of Hongkongers.” (Vox, August 29, 2019)

We’ve seen how the repression works in the Xinjiang province where the Chinese government amped up their technological repression after Uyghurs protested in Urumqi and the city turned into violent chaos. Via digital surveillance technologies, the government can keep tabs on its citizens, imprison them for “political crimes,” threaten their families, and erode their cultural background. In the wake of the protests, many Hongkongers fear that they are now the target. However, the protesters, many of whom are highly tech-savvy, have developed unique strategies against the government’s digital panopticon.

Good luck trying to ID protesters who know how to evade AI

The Wall Street Journal offers coverage of the ways in which protesters evade surveillance:

One of the protesters’ fears is that the government will use facial recognition technology to identify and then “dox” them—publish personal ID online. Thus some use umbrellas to block the view of newly installed surveillance cameras while others dismantle the electronics. Others completely obscure their faces. As one anonymous protester explained, “Even your ears will be evidence to arrest you.”

Another tactic is the use of laser pointers to blind the cameras, including hand-held police cameras. As John Lyons points out in the Wall Street Journal video above, “Hanging over all of this is the fear that their identities will get swept up digitally and end up in a database, perhaps in Beijing that tracks them and follows them for the rest of their lives.”

To exchange information, these tech-savvy protesters mobilize using AirDrop, an anonymous file-sharing app, and Telegram, a messaging app that sends anonymous encrypted messages. When police try to infiltrate one of the group messages, the protesters have ways of “capturing the ghost” and kicking that police “ghost” out of the messaging group.

But what if a protester’s phone is confiscated by the police? Professor Loman Tsui of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, an expert in personal data protection and security, says (in the WSJ video), “Here in Hong Kong you have the right to not reveal any knowledge that might incriminate you. So a pin code is knowledge but your fingerprint or face is not necessarily knowledge that you reveal to the authorities.”

By using a password or pin to lock their phones, the protesters protect their incriminating personal information, a personal right that mainlanders do not enjoy. Many devices can be unlocked using facial recognition or fingerprint readers but, as in Western countries, the technology has outpaced the laws, leaving biometrics as a legal gray area when it comes to privacy.

Many people in Hong Kong also have “smart Ids,” ID cards that are equipped with RFID (radio-frequency identification). Many credit cards and subway cards also have RFIDs and protesters fear that they could be read by the police. To circumvent that, many of the protesters wrap their cards in tin foil and pay for subway tickets with cash.

The Hong Kong police seem to be caught in the middle. They have said that ID cards can only be read by authorized sensors that must be within two centimeters of the card. They have also pointed out in a recent statement that they do not want to involve Beijing and are trying to de-escalate the situation. The protesters, however, do not trust the police and have asked for an investigation into police corruption.

Clumsy spin-doctoring fails the mainland Chinese authorities

The Chinese government has tried spinning the narrative against the Hong Kong protests on global social media spin, going so far as to blame protesters for injuries that were actually caused by the police. However, the CCP, used to simply having its way, lacks the finesse to convince a global audience.

And their story sounds hard to believe: the protesters are a foreign-backed movement that uses “thugs” to threaten the mainland’s sovereignty? That narrative might work within the Great Firewall of China. Outside? Not so much.”

For example, analysts sifted through over 900 Twitter accounts, suspended as fraudulent, that spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests (Facebook and Youtube also suspended pages and videos deemed fraudulent). These accounts paint a picture of the protesters as militant and violent, even though reports show that the protests, up until the past week or so, have been relatively non-violent. Many of the suspect accounts had been active at various points since 2016, coinciding with political events in China, but they were obviously inauthentic.

The suspect tweets sound stilted and abrupt compared to typical examples of the genre. They lack nuance, seemingly oblivious to Hong Kong’s complex history with mainland China. Instead, they are blandly nationalistic and simplistic in their message:

China’s Communist Party has been very successful at shaping public opinion at home, thanks to a blend of online censorship, patriotic trolls, and directives to state-run media that have intensified under president Xi Jinping… When China tries to adopt the same blueprint outside the country, with ads and messaging from state-run media working alongside troll accounts on overseas platforms, these efforts run into competing narratives.”

Echo Huang, “Why China isn’t as skillful at disinformation as Russia” at Quartz

The suspended accounts have, however, been helpful. They have allowed analysts to peer into the Chinese government’s spin game and see how they try to sway public opinion. But even in mainland China, some people use VPNs to circumvent the Great Firewall and read very different takes on the Hong Kong protests.

Further reading on high-tech surveillance/digital oppression in China by Heather Zeiger:

The unadvertised cost of doing business with China: It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules. In China, censorship includes democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.

China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.

The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uighurs, a strategically critical minority.

Featured image: Hong Kong 2019 protests/Peter Y. Chuang, Unsplash

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Can China Really Silence Hong Kong?