The reward for being an informant: $25,500 to $127,500, a staggering sum for a domestic worker whose legal minimum wage is $590 a month.
It’s not certain whether the tips-for-money offer was genuine or simply a new type of anti-protester screed. This much is clear: The bitter information wars in Hong Kong keep taking new turns since pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in June.
This time it is Hong Kong’s domestic workers being drawn into the political tensions. The leaflets, which first appeared last month, did not specifically call out domestic workers. But the use of Bahasa made their target evident.
The fliers — whether real or not — have accomplished at least some disruptions and indicate an intent to sow distrust and paranoia among Hong Kongers.
Suddenly, domestic workers feel under more scrutiny. Meanwhile, their employers — mainly expatriate workers and well-off Hong Kong families — are left wondering whether they might be watched in their own homes.
“Information war is a psychological warfare. Divide and conquer is a proven strategy,” said Masato Kajimoto, a disinformation expert and assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center. “It is hard to go on protesting if one cannot trust the people who live with him or her at home.”
Hong Kong’s nearly 400,000 domestic workers — about half from Indonesia — have largely been on the sidelines in the unrest. The community has come into sharper focus since police shot an Indonesian journalist, Veby Mega Indah, with a projectile on Sept. 29, blinding her right eye.
Hong Kong’s Muslim community — which includes many from Indonesia — also came into focus on Sunday after a police water cannon sprayed the entrance of the city’s largest mosque with blue dye while clearing an anti-government protest. Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, visited the mosque on Monday to apologize.
Targeting domestic helpers as potential informants carries an eerie resonance with China’s Cultural Revolution, a decade of political upheaval that began in the mid-1960s and included public denunciations of those considered at odds with the state.
It also highlights one of the central fears of protesters: that China will systematically erode the freedoms granted to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” policy promised when Beijing took control of the former British colony in 1997.
“Cultural Revolution again! For consideration of safety, please don’t let your domestic helper know if you participate in the protest or not!” said one Facebook message about the fliers. The post had more than 1,200 shares.
Nuraini Hasan, 27, a domestic worker from Indonesia’s Lombok island, called the leaflet dangerous. She also said he believed it was fake, intended only to ripple fear through communities of domestic workers in Hong Kong led by Indonesians and Filipinos.
“We Indonesians don’t believe this,” Hasan said.
'Throwing a bunch of seeds'
The flier’s architect remains unknown. It lists a website, 803.hk, with a domain registered under the name of Leung Chun-ying, a former leader of Hong Kong who is considered supportive of Beijing.
The site was launched after protesters threw a Chinese flag into Hong Kong’s harbor on Aug. 3 and offers rewards for information. Leung advertised the site multiple times on his Facebook page. In another post, he called on “drivers, maids, fast-food store staff, convenience store staff” to be whistleblowers.
The hotline linked to 803.hk did not return messages for comment left by The Washington Post. Leung’s office did not reply to requests for comment.
The challenge in quashing dissent in Hong Kong is pinpointing it.
With all protest activity orchestrated anonymously online, the movement is largely leaderless. This leaves pro-government groups without an “obvious place to look” for targets, said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California at Irvine.
“The power of that means it’s much harder to break the back of the movement,” Wasserstrom said. “But from the side of oppression, it seems to have led to the idea of using any means to find who’s participating.”
Puja Kapai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong and expert on minority rights, called the fliers “a call to essentially participate in covert spying activities.”
“Maybe [the creators of the flier] are just throwing a bunch of seeds out there to see which one shows the sign of blossoming,” said Kajimoto, the disinformation expert.
Despite the brief social media frenzy it sparked, the flier, with its sloppy translation and sketchy presentation, failed to woo domestic workers.
Among dozens of Indonesian migrant workers approached by The Post, few recognized the leaflet. Those who did called it fake and said they would never jeopardize their job. By and large, indifference was the prevailing sentiment.
Hong Kong is home to more than 174,000 Indonesians, 95 percent of whom are domestic workers, according to 2018 immigration figures provided by the Indonesian Consulate in Hong Kong.
“Some Facebook posts are not real. I don’t care about that,” said an Indonesian domestic worker, Rina, 33, when shown the flier.
“I come here just as a domestic helper. I just want to work,” said Rina, who asked that only her first name be used to avoid potential problems with authorities.
In August, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube identified more than 200,000 China-based accounts linked to what Twitter described as a “significant state-backed information operation . . . deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.”
The Indonesian Consulate had no information pertaining to the flier, calling it “quite unprecedented.”
“During this social and political crisis in Hong Kong, we have encountered a lot of unconfirmed or even false information . . . that are circulated among Indonesians living in Hong Kong,” Erwin M. Akbar, consul for Consular Affairs, wrote in a statement to The Post. “Our effort in the Consulate is focused on ensuring that the Indonesian Migrant Workers are not involved in the current situation in Hong Kong.” This includes not sharing any views on social media.
“Some care, some don’t know,” said Hasan, the worker from Lombok. “We don’t want to be very close, but need to know what is [happening]. This our workplace.”
Shibani Mahtani and Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.