While activists have used the internet as a powerful organizing tool, web coverage on the Chinese mainland is defined by mass blackouts and systematic silencing.
The most widely attended protest in recent American memory, the Women’s March, brought about 1 percent of the population onto the streets. Last month’s protests in Hong Kong brought 25 percent.
By any standards, the anti-extradition campaign in Hong Kong, spurred by a proposed China-backed amendment that would allow for the extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China, was an astronomical success, engaging huge swathes of the population and eventually leading to the death of the proposal. Images of the demonstration depict unfathomable numbers of citizens exercising their right to peaceful protests, but something remains invisible in those photos: the constantly active, multilayered and multifaceted presence of the internet, which—through messaging apps, social media, and LIHKG (Hong Kong’s answer to Reddit)—allowed protestors to turn ideology into concrete action.
On June 12, the protest reached a milestone when tens of thousands of citizens surrounded the Hong Kong legislative building, spurring an initial suspension of the bill. In order to mobilize without attracting unwanted attention, activists created online events inviting people to a “picnic” in nearby Tamar Park, a cover-up for their actual intentions. Messaging services, too, helped with planning efforts. Particularly popular was the encrypted app Telegram—although the arrest of Ivan Ip for “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance” set efforts back, given that Ip was leading a group on the platform of 30,000 users. Still, Ip’s group was far from the only one: In a Baptist University poll of protestors, more than half of respondents reported using Telegram for broadcasting information and participating in discussion groups.
The survey also revealed the protestors’ widespread use of LIHKG, which lived up to its reputation of supporting free speech by subtly assisting activist efforts: Administrators removed ads from their site for about two weeks in June to shorten loading time and upped the number of replies allowed on some threads from 1,001 to 5,001, citing a need “for more convenient discussions.”
For protestors, the utility of social media and messaging platforms was far from over once planning progressed into action. During the demonstration on June 12, attendees broadcast real-time updates through countless Instagram stories and an hour-long livestream on the Twitter-owned service Periscope. In addition to spreading the word to Hong Kongers not attending the demonstration, protestors were able to communicate amongst themselves, using apps to request supplies, share the locations of food and water stations, and disseminate hand signals that would allow for discreet communication. Technical difficulties, however, thwarted efforts to some degree: Poor mobile signals made accessing the internet a challenge and threatened to spur chaos. “Without Telegram and WhatsApp, people did not know what they had to do,” Laura, 18, a student who volunteered as a first-aid staffer, told the South China Morning Post.
Limited connectivity was not the only tech-related hurdle facing protesters. Tech-savvy activists cautioned against using public Wi-Fi or swiping their Octopus public transit card, actions that could put users at risk of having their personal information picked up and employed to incriminate them. And protestors made sure to turn off Face ID and fingerprint ID on their phones so that police could not unlock their devices without consent, as well as enabling encryption on apps where it was not already automatic.
Across the border in China, however, such internet-driven activism would have been impossible. Hong Kongers have the privilege of a much more open internet—a dichotomy that has manifested starkly in mainland media coverage of the protests. As part of the mass censorship and limited access that has long defined the Chinese internet and that is sometimes dubbed the “Great Firewall of China,” the Communist Party has enacted a total blackout on protest coverage in newspapers and on TV, with television screens simply going dark when foreign news outlets show images of the demonstrations. Video footage of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologizing for her attempt to push through the extradition law never lasted long on social media, as censors would immediately delete the content each time it was reuploaded. And even a song that activists sang during the protests, “Can You Hear the People Sing” from “Les Miserables,” was inexplicably missing from QQ, a popular musical streaming site.
On social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, users devised strategies to get around the firewall, like distorting images of the protests or blocking parts of the image with giant smiley-face logos. In some cases, however, China’s tech power was simply too strong: Telegram reported on June 12 that it was experiencing a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which means that a number of computers were attempting to overload its servers with bogus requests, resulting in service slowdowns or outages. Telegram’s CEO, Pavel Durov, said that the IP addresses behind the attack were coming mainly from China, potentially suggesting a concerted effort by authorities.
By systematically silencing the voices of activists, China is able to spread its own narrative of the protests, which it portrays as violent events provoked by foreign elements amining to undermine Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” policy. The policy was formulated in the 1980s for the reunification of China by Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China Deng Xiaoping; in the interest of furthering Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center, it guarantees freedom of speech and protest for citizens. Yet Hong Kongers have long feared an erosion of their autonomy, a concern that most recently boiled over in the form of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, during which streets in the city’s business district were flooded by demonstrators for nearly three months. Throughout that time, mainland China busily erased all mention and images of the protests from its internet.
On July 8, Lam publicly stated that the bill was finally dead, describing the proposed amendment as a “total failure.” Yet Hong Kongers were not entirely satisfied, as questions remain about whether Lam will officially withdraw the bill or whether it might be revived in future. Either way, the anti-extradition movement of 2019 will stand as a landmark protest for the digital age: one whose scale and power could have only coalesced in an era of instant connectivity, and one that throws into stark relief the power of technology—for expression and repression alike.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.