The protests in Hong Kong have been consistent and are inching towards ten weeks. This protest has been able to sustain itself without a visible leadership or any known organization. What are the methods of mobilization that have proved useful in the case of Hong Kong protests? Why is the intensity of the protest still strong and uncontrollable? How has protest-technology evolved since the 2014 movement?
Social media platforms facilitate the exchange of information that becomes vital to the coordination of protests. This could include legal support, medical services, police presence, information about transportation and the like. The platforms become the base for expressing anger, provoke the population and the promotion of emotional contents. However, the structural characteristics of these social media platforms and the attitudes of the population are indeed the driving factors of either the success or failure of a protest.
Methods of Mobilization
What started as a protest against the extradition bill has moved far beyond its initial purpose. The protestors do not want to stop despite knowing that the bill is most certainly dead. The efficiency of the protests in Hong Kong has taken the world by surprise. They have set new standards and seem to be thoroughly adapting to the upcoming changes. Millions of citizens in Hong Kong are on the streets, but there are also thousands of computer experts, journalists, college students, lawyers in the background providing support to the cause. Companies have allowed people to take paid leave and in some cases, police are known to have shown significant restraint in following the orders of the authorities in some places and taken a violent turn in the other places.
Media platforms like WhatsApp and telegram have secure encryption protocols and have become very important in spreading information without being traced. Telegram is exceptionally safe because it does not collect metadata even. Telegram has been the target of various political challenges in the past years, in 2018 it was banned in Iran and Russia because it stops the government from accessing the communications of their citizens and other users within their countries. This platform is extensively being used in the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
Sustaining without a leader
The protests in Hong Kong receive support from the news agencies and journalists. It is physically impossible to sustain these protests for such a long time without access to funds and high-power support. Large amounts of money are being donated by people from within Hong Kong and abroad to keep the movement going. What is also interesting is that multiple grassroots initiatives have popped up across the city who have been providing everything, right from the water, food, and equipment to the protesters, these without the need to know their identity. Simultaneously, people have been raising funds for lawyers to represent arrested protesters while also paying for medical bills or even to fund research and publicity of the happenings around them.
The level of coordination is undoubtedly not possible by mere technology alone. The attitudes of the population are reflected in the protests. People are organized, calm, supportive of each other and pretty aware of their surroundings. The maturity of the society and its ability to assume responsibility of the situation has led to a situation where there is no sight of a solution for Carrie Lam or Beijing.
“There are a lot of creative ways to support the movement,” said one of the supporters and co-founders of HKProtect, which sells protective gears to protesters who do not want to be identified. Everyone is using their profession or parts of their expertise to be part of the process. Graphic designers have created countless posters, website and internet experts are working round the clock to provide people with updates on safety and upcoming plans, architects have drawn floor plans of protest sites with escape routes. The coordination manner has assumed the leadership and the donation/funds, coupled with the support of media agencies, have become the driving factors of the protests.
Lessons from the past
LIHKG is a forum created for the cause, dubbed as the ‘Hong Kong Reddit’, has emerged as one of the virtual command centres. Much of the essential commands and plans are discussed on this forum. Formed in 2016, LIHKG is a news forum, site-based in Hong Kong which was formed by the creators of the now-defunct forum HKG+, which was formerly affiliated as a third-party application with another local forum site HKGolden. After HKGolden banned HKG+, LIHKG surged in popularity, in the same year. It replaced HKGolden as the go-to site for Hongkongers to discuss political content. LIHKG is often compared to Reddit, which is an American forum where users create threads and submit content of various interests through relevant subreddits that categorize the posts into different categories.
It consists of over 90,000 subscribers which mainly include expatriates, tourists or locals comfortable in English and since the extradition bill crisis, the subreddit has been reposting translated information from LIHKG for non-Chinese speakers. Protesters have been able to use LIHKG to call more people to the streets and request supplies to aid those on the front lines. The forum is known to be actively used for crowdfunding; one example is the backing of a bid for world leaders to address the extradition bill crisis during the G20 Summit. In the meantime, the forum lets the users remain relatively anonymous despite its demand for an email address by any prominent provider. Their goal is to ensure preparedness for what comes. #Be_Water.
The protests in 2014 began in July and managed to sustain till mid-December of 2014. By the end of the Occupy Central Movement, the prominent names, lawmaker Wu Chi-wai and Cardinal Joseph Zen, turned themselves in to face the consequences of their actions and despite their calls for the rest of the protesters to leave, the movement continued for a week before it fell apart. This time around, the police efforts have begun early into the movement. However, people are much more prepared to face their actions. One example is how they diffuse tear gas by pouring packaged water or cover them with metal boxes. The level of adaptability will continue to be another binding factor in the protests.
Despite the strong usage of technology and modern scientific tools, the movement is mainly sustained by the active participation of the citizens. The protests have the right amount of financial and political support to remain on the streets and support. Just like the death of the bill did not stop the protests, it is unlikely that the stepping down of Carrie Lam would stop them either. It will be a real test of the intentions of China, on one side, the extent at which Beijing is willing to tolerate this instability, and on the other a reminder to Hong Kong about who is in charge. Either way, China will have to display one of its weaknesses to the world.
Harini Madhusudan is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS