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Rumors of internet curbs highlight flaws in Hong Kong government’s game plan

Riot police stand off against protestors at Wong Tai Sin district on August 05, 2019 in Hong Kong. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images/TNS)
August 30, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Internet service providers (ISPs) in Hong Kong on Thursday hit out at reported plans by the city authorities to force them to pull the plug on selected online applications, such as those used by anti-extradition protesters to coordinate their actions.

Media reports have cited anonymous sources as saying that the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam is considering ordering ISPs to block certain online services.

The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers’ Association (HKISPA) said the plan wasn’t viable without affecting internet access across the whole city, however.

“Technically speaking, given the complexity of the modern Internet including technologies like VPN, cloud and cryptographies, it is impossible to effectively and meaningfully block any services, unless we put the whole internet of Hong Kong behind large scale surveillance firewall,” the group said in a statement in response to the reports.

“Any such restrictions … would start the end of the open internet of Hong Kong … [but] would not deter nor stop determined users from accessing their desired services,” it said.

Hong Kong’s position as a place to do business relies in large part on open access to the internet, and the city is the largest core node in the region’s fiber optic cable network, the statement said.

“Restrictions imposed by executive orders would completely ruin the uniqueness and value of Hong Kong as a telecommunications hub,” it said. “The HKISPA strongly opposes selective blocking of internet services without consensus of the community.”

The reports appear to indicate growing unease in Lam’s administration over how best to bring a mass, leaderless movement which has Bruce Lee’s “be water” maxim at its heart, to a peaceful close without being seen to cave in to its demands.

Reliance on apps

Both the peaceful mass protests and frontline resistance against plans to allow extradition to mainland China that have gripped Hong Kong since early June have relied in large part on apps like Telegram and the online forum LIHKG, where ideas for new forms of protest are mooted, discussed, then voted up or down by users.

The forum sees tens of thousands of new messages and suggestions every day, many of which get discussed and commented on simultaneously, with some eventually reaching consensus on what action to take next.

Jacky So, president of the Chinese University Student Union, who has participated in a number of anti-extradition events, said LIHKG users can rate posts differently, with options that include just liking something, disliking it, or judging it “hot.”

The “hottest” posts rise to, and remain at, the top of the forum, where they attract more attention and more approvals, while the less popular ideas sink further down the order of display.

“Everyone has different positions and different roles to play, but everyone makes decisions together,” So said. “Deliberative democracy and direct democracy are the best way forward for the movement.”

He said that there are sometimes no prior announcements at all, however, and that protest actions are determined by whatever is foremost in people’s minds on the day.

“On June 21, for example, no one announced that they would be surrounding police headquarters, but everyone knew that they had to go to police headquarters that day,” So said.

The result is a movement that has self-organized to deliver frontline resistance fighters, who wear masks and carry tools to make barricades, supply depot managers, and supply line coordinators who ensure that umbrellas, helmets, water bottles, and other necessities are sent quickly to where they are needed, as well as a system of hand signals to influence the behavior of a crowd in a short space of time.

The movement has also seen the emergence of regular media briefings in Chinese and English complete with sign language interpreters and masked speakers, yet there are still no obvious leaders, and no attempt at a chain of command.

Lessons learned

Assistant professor Ma Ngok, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the anti-extradition movement has learned some lessons from the 2014 pro-democracy movement, where a hard core of participants were eventually worn down by the Occupy Central strategy of camping out on major highways for weeks at a time.

“They don’t feel the need for a traditional social movement and all that entails, the ‘big stage’ approach,” Ma said. “And they don’t think that approach is necessarily going to work.”

By contrast, the anti-extradition movement has opted for a more anarchistic approach that can accommodate many forms of struggle and resistance, from peaceful mass marches, human chains and disruption of major transportation arteries, to armed resistance against riot police using petrol bombs by frontline fighters undeterred by tear gas, rubber bullets, and a squad of militarized police known as “raptors.”

And there is continuing public support for the movement, which is widely seen as a last-ditch fight to protect Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms in the face of growing interference by Beijing.

“Crowdfunding has been very effective, as some people may not have the energy for demonstrations, but are willing to donate money if asked,” Ma said. “People are continuing to participate and to come up with new forms of protest.”

‘Protests should continue’

A recent public opinion survey carried out by researchers at several Hong Kong universities found that around 80 percent of those interviewed believed that the protests should continue if the government does not make further concessions beyond the current verbal promise that the planned amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance are “dead.”

It found that anger over police violence meted out to protesters was the second most commonly reported motivation after opposition to extradition to mainland China.

Nonetheless, the main driver of the movement has been the intransigence of Lam and her officials in the face of protesters’ demands, according to a number of analysts who have spoken with RFA in recent weeks.

While the majority of people might be happy with the formal withdrawal of the extradition plans and an independent inquiry into police violence, the government has dug itself still deeper into an already entrenched position with Lam’s insistence on not upsetting the police force, observers say.

Traditional methods of policing that focus on the “restoration of public order” by riot police once a protest has started have done little to deter protesters so far.

Many have noted that the arrival of riot police has generally been an indicator that violence is about to begin. On days that police have stayed away, most people have eventually gone home peacefully.

But police have been focusing instead on making large numbers of arrests in a bid to deter further protests, according to local media reports, so they have a vested interest in provoking clashes with protesters.

War of attrition

A recent report on the HK01 news site said the government believes that it can decimate the frontline protesters through a war of attrition, and that the rest of the movement will lose momentum as a result.

Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of social policy at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said it is unclear whether this approach will work, however.

“Many of the so-called frontline heroes have been arrested,” he said. “The next step is to prosecute them.”

“But the question is, can you really scare everyone else off? It is difficult to estimate how many more people are willing to be frontline heroes,” he said.

“Even if they arrest a couple of thousand people over a couple of months, then they’ll have to bring politicized charges against them, some of which won’t stand up,” Chung said.

“Some will wind up getting released .. is this really a long-term security strategy?”

Threat to city’s status

The anti-extradition protesters are calling for the formal withdrawal of planned amendments to extradition laws, an amnesty for arrested protesters, an end to the description of protesters as rioters, an independent inquiry into police abuse of power, and fully democratic elections.

The amendments to existing extradition laws are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong’s way of life, which was supposed to have been protected under the “one country, two systems” framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and extradited to face trial in mainland Chinese courts.

Reported by Zheng Liyan and Lu Xi for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.