Technology and the Hong Kong protests

02 Oct

Have you been following the Occupy Central protests? Political questions aside, I find them very interesting.


The Hong Kong protesters give the impression of being prepared, organized, and incredibly polite. They faced tear gas and pepper spray wearing laboratory-style goggles augmented with plastic wrap and using the ubiquitous umbrellas as shields. They moved off Internet-based chatting applications — because of network traffic, though they had anticipated government intervention — to an app that can communicate in a limited radius, passing messages through the crowd. FireChat doesn’t protect against surveillance by nearby police, but it does allow messages to be passed when they otherwise could not be.

Occupy Central with Love & Peace seems to have studied the US Occupy Wall Street protests and taken away some very useful things. Before the protests, they prepared a Manual of Disobedience that emphasized non-violence, solidarity, and responsibility. Masks and tents were discouraged. The Manual clearly explained the goal of the protests, what laws they would be breaking, and what legal and police action consequences they should expect to face. It also advised protesters to prepare SMS messages with their full names in English and Chinese, as well as ID numbers, to be sent to the OCLP hotline in case of arrest. A New York Times story had this quote, where the participant’s attitude can be starkly contrasted with the drum circles and disorder of Occupy protests in the US:

“If we take rash actions, we may lose people’s sympathy,” said Niko Cheng, a recent college graduate and protester in Mong Kok, a densely populated area of Hong Kong on the Kowloon Peninsula. “But if this drags on — it’s already turning into a carnival, with people dancing, singing and all that — people may forget what they’re here for.”

The group has some branding confusion: umbrellas, yellow ribbons, code numbers, black shirts, etc. Not as clear as “the 99%”, and actually quite important in a time of social media hashtags and keywords. The multitude of icons associated with the protests could be cultural; Chinese citizens have had to develop and evolve crafty ways to talk about the Tienanmen protests, which is forbidden by the government. I can sit in my living room in Michigan and know more about what’s happening in Hong Kong than a Chinese citizen in Shanghai, thanks to Chinese government censorship. I’ve read vague reports of up to 20 mainland Chinese people being detained for showing support for the protesters, but so far I’ve only seen detailed information (in English) about two detentions.

As I write this, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has agreed to meet with the protesters although there is no schedule for that meeting. The protests have gotten smaller, but the crowds are surrounding the two main government buildings and both the protesters and the police appear to be making preparations for conflict. Let’s hope for a peaceful outcome for everyone, protesters and police alike.

Update: I couldn’t resists sharing a couple images from Hong Kong artists, via the Hong Kong edition of the South China Morning Post. The first shows proper umbrella position for dealing with pepper spray vs rain and is by an artist named Lin. The second, from artist Car, is a comic-style illustration of current events. The contrast of the pose of bold defiance and the humble, uncool compact umbrellas is an irresistible image. Most media are using the Xaume Olleros photo showing the face of the protester. I like the inversion that Car makes, so we as viewers are standing behind him, looking at the police riot shields and flying tear gas canisters. Perhaps in our own rain slickers and backpacks, clutching our own nylon bumbershoots.



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Posted by on October 2, 2014 in In the News


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