Understanding Hong Kong

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Workshop: Understanding Hong Kong: The Protests, The Technology & Current Political Context

Date: Tuesday, June 16

Time: 09:00am EST / 01:00pm UTC+0

What: Since June 2019, Hong Kong has had over 1,000 protests, and more than 8,900 people have been arrested. Protest started because Beijing wanted extradition to mainland China, which undermined judicial independence and endangered dissidents. A year later, Beijing now wants to impose vague national security laws that punish activities that they deem "threaten national security. How has the role of technology evolved in the protests? Why the Hong Kong protests have to thank the great firewall? What can Hong Kong teach us about the future of internet freedom and digital rights?

Slide Deck:

  • Hong Kong and China had two separate Internets. One was governed under the Great Fire Wall, the other had free Internet. The internet is still relatively free, but many changes have taken place. What we are witnessing is China starting to colonize Hong Kong cyberspace.
  • The Internet has become of more importance, and played a key topic in the 2019 protests.
  • Uniquely, the Great Firewall has actually played a key role in helping Hong Kong movement. This is because social media companies have not been pressured to comply with Hong Kong. However, it also means that mainland audience is inaccessible to the movement because they are not on these platforms.
  • Currently, in 2020, Beijing is pushing institutions, companies, including international ones, to support new Security Law, though no details area available. They want them to essentially support or "sign" a blank check. More info about this below.

How Will the Government Restrict Internet in Hong Kong?


  • In 2003, Hong Kong started to see the rise of institutional surveillance. This means that more institutions started doing surveillance for Beijing, from schools to businesses. This happened after the failure of Article23, which was a national security law. The bill caused considerable controversy and a massive demonstration on July 1, 2003. In the aftermath, Liberal Party chairman James Tien resigned from the Executive Council and the bill was withdrawn after it became clear that it would not get the necessary support from the Legislative Council for it to be passed. The bill was then shelved indefinitely. As such, surveillance and censorship was shifted to a more decentralized model where institutions are forced to take part. For example, in 2019/2020 Cathay Pacific was a told that they couldn’t fly into China by the Chinese government because employees where showing support for the protestors, so they started suspended staff, because China is a big market for them.
  • Surveillance changes from passive from 2003 to active surveillance that started in 2019. Its not centralized, it's across all institutions. Even teachers, and principals are impliccit. What you say on social media can be used against you, even if what you posted was from years ago.
  • Until 2014, educational institutions and the internet were pretty free. However, after the Umbrella Movement they began to clean house, and educational institutions starting to became complicit in the surveillance.
  • In 2019, the Beijing has pushed institutions to support a new security law, and even universities have come out in support of it. Now, there is surveillance everywhere designed with the goal to arrest people. Surveillance is now used to collect and gather evidence to charge people. Before, it was just to enforce self-censorship.
  • Since a lot of the surveillance is now outsourced to the various institutions, nonprofit, education, industry etc, people are scared to go to jail AND also loose their job. As a result, 2019 protestors have started changing their name on social media, or de-activating their accounts.
  • In 2020, you see many more digital attacks, like phishing attacks. It's important that protestors start improving their digital security. Also, the police have been seizing mobile phones.


  • Until 2014, it was passive censorship. In 2019, they started implementing active censorship. As an example:
  • Victor Mallet was the former president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong kong. He hosted talk for Andy Chang, president of the Hong Kong independence party. The government put so much pressure on him to not host it, that when Mallet tried to come back to Hong Kong, he wasn’t given visa entry. The HK government didn’t give specific reasons why they did this. You can read about the controversy her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Mallet_visa_controversy
  • Apple supports and is dependent on China, so follows its policies. The app store is censored in Hong Kong now. Most recently a popular app ((https://hkmap.live/#)) that protestors were using to see where the police were, was taken down.
  • Hong Kong just passed a bill that you can’t disrespect the national anthem bill, meant to censor criticism of government.
  • There was a decline of free speech after 2003. During the umbrella movement in 2014, the Hong Kong government stopped listening to people. Before 2014, if folks came out in massive numbers, the government would listen and respond. Since 2014, people have come out to protest, but Hong Kong government has refused to listen. This has contributed to the violence in the streets.

Decline of Free Speech

  • Now all the censors are looking retroactively to what you said in your social media in the past. The problem with the decentralized model is that when businesses do it, they can do whatever they want to their employees. In response, what we are seeing is a lot of workers organizing themselves in unions during the 2019 protest. This is very recent development and new.
  • They are also pressuring even large companies such as HSBC bank, which has come out in support of the new Security Law Beijing is pushing.
  • Alarming, universities have come out saying they support national security law. This happened in June 2020. "The heads of the governing councils of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities have backed a plan announced by Beijing last month to impose a national security law on the city, in an act that many academics see as ‘doing Beijing’s bidding’ https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200602174432310

What does the future look like:

  • National Security Legislation is being pushed but there is no draft, so they are telling people to support a blank check essentially.
  • While its still unclear, what it may do is:

- to disqualify people form running in elections - Prohibit June Fourth commemoration - Prohibit civil society orgs seeking to promote democracy in China - Prohibit protest songs at schools - Prohibit shouting "down with one party rule"

How will impact the security law impact internet freedom

  • will it increase censorship?
  • will it require data localization?
  • will it ban vpns, encryption?
  • will global platforms may have to leave Hong Kong?

Why should you care?

Hong kong is the canary in the coal mine. There are so many global companies that have been pressured to complying what Chinese government wants. including NBA, Apple. There is Chinese influence in elections such as in Australia, New Zealand, and all over the world.

This is a long list of companies under china's censorship: https://www.reddit.com/r/HongKong/comments/dfg1ce/list_of_companies_under_chinas_censorship_orders/

What can the world do to help?

How to improve your digital security:


Continue to lobby for Internet Freedom where you are

Hong Kong need allies that are strong on democracy, human rights, and IF


  • Goverment put pressure on technology companies. This doesn’t mean that companies will comply, companies push back. This is ongoing battle. There are multiple voices in a company also. So they battle internally whether to comply with government request. To what extent does the government have leverage? Does the company have assets on the ground, employees there? If so, then it makes it more difficult to push back. Currently, since big platforms have limited things on the ground in China, its hard to pressure them.
  • VPN have became more popular recently after national security legislation was pushed. There was fear of what this will do to the internet, so lots of inquiries and installing. But VPNs are a small part of the solution. Protestors have to improve digital security.
  • What apps have folks been using on the ground: Telegram is used a lot. WhatsApp. Facebook. Instagram. They all have different purposes. Mostly a decentralized movement. Anyone can put a poster together and organize a protest. So they use these networks to help organize. The movement keeps adapting to the challenges the government puts on them. (https://hkmap.live/#), that was super used, but now blocked in Apple store. It is a crowd sourced tool that tells you if there is cops in a a specific neighborhood. Since they are seizing phones, it's better to have apps that have disappearing messages.
  • A huge telegram channel was “busted” that had over 30,000 people. Since then people have been scared to both moderate and also/or join protest focused channels. They have been advising folks to get a burner phone if they are going to do that.
  • Facial recognition is not something that is on the direct horizon right now. But we have also seem companies retro-actively use material that people have bene posting. So you don’t know if pictures will be used in the future, so in that sense it is concerning. In protests, its better to blur people’s face or take it from behind.
  • How are platforms handling disinformation from china. There is a very diverse response from different platforms. For example, the government says there are thousands of people that support the security law. This is gaslighting and not true, and what it does it makes people question themselves. Twitter has been the most aggressive in countering it.
  • What role shadow banning or “reduced visibility“ deployed by platforms have impacted protestors? When people are not able to use Twitter in the same way. For example, Youtube have been demonetizing videos about the protest. And comments get flagged, as they didn’t get flagged. However, platforms are trying to do the right thing here.