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How Tech Savvy Helps Hong Kong Hold Off China

Several other factors help, including spirituality and a sense of unique identity as Hongkongers

Hongkongers have been energized by the dramatic recent win for democracy at the polls. But so have the police.

The protests against mainland Chinese inroads before the agreed takeover date of 2047 have been especially effective because they center on the universities, particularly The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University, which have strong student unions.

Science and tech students understand how the surveillance devices and weapons work so they also know how to hamper them. Popular Mechanics listed a number of methods recently:

This week, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced she would withdraw a controversial extradition bill to allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China, giving in to the protesters’ main demand. Lam’s climbdown signals victory for low-tech ingenuity over the police state, won with umbrellas, traffic cones, Allen keys, and the philosophy of Bruce Lee.

David Hambling, “7 Ways Hong Kong Protesters Used Low-Tech Hacks to Fight Back” at Popular Mechanics (Sep 5, 2019)

Hambling details specifics, such as smothering tear gas grenades in a thermos filled with mud and using umbrellas as a shield wall against pepper spray. Umbrellas can also be used to jam electronically operated doors in the open position and frustrate rubber bullet attacks. Laser pointers baffle the tens of thousands of CCTV cameras. Protesters are also adept at switching apps in order to continue to communicate when the police discover and jam the ones they are using.

Formlessness—as in Bruce Lee’s admonition to “Be Water”—is a key tactic that internet communications facilitate:

The whole protest movement is deliberately formless, so there are no leaders to arrest. And its fluid tactics—disappearing when the opposition is strong and appearing where they are weak— successfully outmaneuvered the police.

David Hambling, “7 Ways Hong Kong Protesters Used Low-Tech Hacks to Fight Back” at Popular Mechanics (Sep 5, 2019)

Texts are sent out at noon each day, announcing where the latest protest is happening. The protesters also maintain a public website that includes a section for tracking police misconduct.

A total surveillance state—such as mainland China is quickly becoming—can, it is true, shut down each of these sources of information. But the pro-democracy movement is, like the blogosphere, “loosely coupled.” Shutting down one node may not impact other nodes, still less prevent the rapid emergence of new ones. Each person who opposes the surveillance state is a potential future locus of protest. And there are millions of them.

Silicon Valley, despite liberal pretensions, seems to be laying low, perhaps to avoid upsetting valuable business relations with China:

Not only does Apple have a huge consumer base in China, but China serves as a manufacturing hub for much of its hardware. So it comes as less of a surprise that, during the Hong Kong protests, Apple removed a Hong Kong traffic and police monitoring app (HKmap.live) from the Hong Kong Apple Store for the dubious reason that the app posed a threat to police. The app doesn’t show real-time movement of individual police, only large areas of activity. Apple also removed several media apps, including the online magazine Quartz, which has been providing detailed coverage of the Hong Kong situation.

Heather Zeiger, “How business in China becomes ethically expensive” at Mind Matters News (October 16, 2019)

Google is helping to power China’s mass surveillance, prompting at least one senior scientist to publicly resign. And Microsoft does not intend to be left out either.

The police have recently begun raising the stakes by appearing at fast food joints, shopping malls, and churches to arrest people of interest to them. For example, a source reports that on November 11, police forced their way into the Holy Cross (Catholic) Church and arrested five people. According to a Cantonese speaker, when bystanders urged them to stop beating the detainees, the police threatened to beat the bystanders as well. When a church staff member eventually arrived, police yelled at her and would not admit her. Some people were pepper sprayed. The next day the church issued apologies for being “unable to protect people.” Some scenes are captured here (viewer discretion advised):

The source identified one woman as quoting the Ten Commandments, “Do not give false testimony!” during the melee. Later, some people were standing on a foot bridge chanting “Killers, killers” as the police drove away.

One thing that increases tensions is the new high speed train and the new bridge, the world’s longest, connecting Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China. While upgrades would usually be seen as a benefit, it enables an alien value system from the mainland to operate more efficiently among the Hongkongers.

For example, police reported earlier this week that they had arrested about 1000 people from the Polytechnic. Some of the detainees have, according to camera reports, been sent to a train heading north, that is, in the direction of China. Significantly, while Hong Kong law does not permit police to hold a suspect for more than 48 hours without laying charges, many of the missing are unaccounted for.

On American Thanksgiving Day (November 28), many demonstrators rallied with American flags as well as Hong Kong flags, in recognition of the recent American show of support for their efforts.

As Hong Kong experiences a recession, blamed by many on the turmoil, many ask, can the Hong Kongers hope to win? Can they get China to honor the agreement that Hong Kong is a separate jurisdiction until 2047?

A critical factor fuelling the Hongkongers’ determination is that they just don’t feel “Chinese,” at least not in the way China defines the term:

Simply put, most Hong Kongers feel alienated from China: Only 3.1% of young Hong Kongers ages 18 to 29 think of themselves as Chinese, according to a 2017 survey by the University of Hong Kong.

Some 71% of Hong Kongers told the university’s researchers last month that they are not proud to be part of China, but 90% of young people felt that way. The percentage of people identifying as Chinese sank to a record low, 11%, and the percentage identifying as Hong Kongers reached a record high, 53%.

Robyn Dixon, “A new protest generation in Hong Kong takes on China. Will Beijing let them win?” at Los Angeles Times

That’s not something China can fix by crackdowns or forbidding such surveys.

Similarly, the business district protesters are obviously not malcontents; they are people who have a stake in Hong Kong, which is known for its trustworthy banking system. Plus, the Hong Kong anthem is clearly the work of people with a well-defined sense of identity around Hong Kong’s own history, which has been quite different from mainland China’s.

Beyond that, the demonstrations feature a large spiritual component, reminiscent of the early civil rights marches in the United States, where prominent clergy were often leading the marches. As an aggressively atheist state, China can be counted on to see the clergy presence as aggravating the offense of protest:

The Hong Kong anthem warns, “Deep is the dread that lies ahead” but the Hongkongers so far seem to be counting that cost and preparing to meet it.

Further reading: Hongkongers: The dread that lies ahead They fear the fate of the Uyghurs, under “complete video surveillance” They dread 2047 when Hong Kong comes completely under the jurisdiction of the Communist Party and is subject to the CCP’s rule of law rather than Hong Kong’s own laws under the current “one country, two systems” regime.

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How Tech Savvy Helps Hong Kong Hold Off China