Mainland tourists to Hong Kong are used to having ads and discount vouchers pinged to their phone through Apple’s phone-to-phone AirDrop file-sharing system as they disembark at the high-speed railway terminus. But in the past few weeks, they’ve received far more subversive material: details of political prisoners, descriptions of the 1989 crackdown on and around Tiananmen Square and explanations of why hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets to oppose a proposed extradition law.
AirDrop is just one part in the toolkit of Hong Kong’s protesters, who are waging a multilayered information battle that is playing out in cyberspace as much as in the streets.
In this burgeoning information war, the protesters have had to draw upon all their ingenuity to reach the public because they lack access to an important tool: the media. With the exception of just one mass-market newspaper, Apple Daily, and a few digital outlets, Hong Kong’s newspapers and television stations are under mainland ownership or controlled by conglomerates with extensive business interests in China. As such, coverage of the protests has been skewed toward the government line, showing understanding for police violence, criticizing protesters and omitting key context.
In June, a major Chinese-language newspaper, Ming Pao, adopted the Hong Kong government’s description of the June 9 protest that was brutally dispersed by tear gas as “a riot.” Its staff subsequently rebelled, with a translator quitting in protest, and disgruntled reporters even pasted up the editorial on the chief editor’s office window with their own corrections. The city’s main television station, TVB, is widely seen as a mouthpiece for the government. Even its premier English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, bought by Alibaba’s Jack Ma in 2015, has been criticized for the frequently government-friendly nature of its coverage.
More than two decades after Hong Kong’s return under Chinese sovereignty, the deep dichotomy between popular sentiment and the pro-Beijing establishment’s views is obvious in the media. Concerns over coverage is part of why, when protesters stormed the Legislative Council and vandalized the emblems of power, they argued for a continued occupation. “If we retreat, we will be the ‘rioters’ tomorrow,” said 25-year-old Brian Leung Kai-ping, the only protester to reveal his identity in his impassioned plea to remain inside the chamber. “They will be filming the destruction and mess in the Legco building and condemn us as rioters.” His prediction was correct: Two days after the protesters voluntarily left, the government did indeed invite the media in to film the mess in the chamber.
So, lacking access to traditional channels of communication, the protest movement has exploited high-tech and low-tech ways of spreading its message. Activists have harnessed international media, crowdfunding enough money to place advertisements in 19 newspapers in 13 countries, urging world leaders to raise Hong Kong’s plight at the Group of 20 summit last month. They raised the necessary money, about $850,000, in just 12 hours. They have channeled funds for independent media outlets at home, too. At a single march, street stands for the digital outlet Stand News raised almost $300,000 in donations.
Protesters have also relied heavily on social media to organize and share information. They have become masters of the meme, custom designing viral messages for different demographics, ranging from edgy black-and-white anime cartoons for kids to large-print messages on floral backgrounds for grannies. Amongst themselves, protesters use online forums and messaging platforms such as Telegram. But these have built-in vulnerabilities. Telegram was the victim of a “whopper” distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattack, mostly emanating from China. And the authorities are watching these sites closely: A day before the first protest, the Hong Kong government arrested a 22-year-old Telegram administrator, Ivan Ip, who had warned people to bring sunscreen and umbrellas to the protest. Protesters have had to navigate a difficult landscape where their digital footprint could easily sign their own arrest warrants.
Perhaps that is why the movement is also falling back on low-tech tools, most visibly “Lennon Walls” covered with Post-it notes. The name is a reference to a wall in Prague that became a posthumous tribute to John Lennon, then a symbol of anti-authoritarian defiance. In Hong Kong, more than 50 Lennon Walls have bloomed on pillars and subway tunnels, pedestrian bridges and billboards. These carry messages of encouragement and support, as well as political slogans, including “Go, Hong Kong people,” “Hong Kong is not dying” and “Hong Kong is not China.” These Post-it walls have become the latest sites of contention. This week, more than 100 police officers in riot gear were sent to remove posts about one officer from a wall, while other walls have been torn down by government supporters. But, as one popular message now warns, “You tear down one, ten more will appear.”
By tightening its control over Hong Kong’s freewheeling media, Beijing handicapped civil society’s ability to use traditional communication channels to inform. But Hong Kongers want to tell their own story — and have found innovative ways to do so against all odds. Hong Kong’s activists have managed to accelerate changes to the city’s media ecosystem and, in doing so, could reshape what modern protest looks like in the face of authoritarian regimes with a chokehold on information.