Дата публикации

A smack of «color revolutions» : Hong Kong 2019 – one of the most digitalized protests of recent years

During the first after the twentieth CPC Congress meeting with Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Xi Jinping said that the countries faced "a very difficult international situation, serious risks and challenges." China and Vietnam have agreed to unite efforts to solve foreign policy challenges, including the "color revolutions" and the politicization of human rights issues. It is about such challenges that our international project "The Smack of Color Revolutions", organized by the EcooM Analytical Center, together with the "Belarus Today" publishing house, is about. Dozens of leading political scientists, analysts and publicists from more than 20 countries present their vision of the "color revolution" phenomenon, which had deeply embedded in the world politics and destroyed the previous picture of the world. What it is like, what antidote can cope with it, and why this phenomenon, honed on a dozen different states, proved untenable in Belarus — the "Smack of Color Revolutions" is dedicated to the search for answers to these and other relevant issues of our time. Today's conversation is about new technical and political technology tools in the context of protest activity in Hong Kong.

Привкус цветных революций: Гонконг-2019 — один из самых цифровизированных протестов последних лет

The "creative class" rebellion

Modern information and political technologies demonstrate great opportunities for the rapid transformation of local discontent into large-scale protest actions. This is evidenced by the dynamics of thousand- and even million-strong protests observed in 2019 in France, Spain, Chile, Lebanon, Venezuela, Iraq, Ecuador, Algeria, Sudan, Bolivia and Hong Kong. The subsequent "pandemic pause" does not at all mean a curtailing of the trend . This, in particular, is evidenced by the protests in Hong Kong resumed in April 2020 despite the quarantine and which lasting with intervals for more than a year.

The 2019 Hong Kong protest has become one of the most high-tech protests of recent years

Hong Kong, the financial center of Asia, has become almost a stronghold of the global protest of the so-called creative class. The reason for the political contradictions were the attempts of the Hong Kong city authorities to conduct a legal merger with mainland China, which turned into consecutive multi-million demonstrations. The catalyst for public opinion explosion was the law that allowed the extradition of criminals to Chinese prisons.

According to many experts, it was the high level of economic development and technical infrastructure of Hong Kong that allowed creating an ideal environment for experimenting with new information and communication technologies and propaganda techniques

It was the digital environment that became the main space for working with the political agenda, and Telegram channels (used by 1.7 million people - 23 percent of the city's residents) were able to mobilize the community and manage street actions, replace traditional media and become an aggregator of news and necessary theses. As noted in the analytical report of the Center for the Study of New Communications expert Malek Dudakov, it was social media that became the guiding tool of the emotional wave in Hong Kong protests.

At the same time, compared to the 2014 Hong Kong "umbrella revolution", social media tools have changed: instead of Twitter and Facebook, messengers (Internet instant messaging applications) came to the fore. This is primarily due to the fact that they use the encryption function and their users are more difficult to identify

Привкус цветных революций: Гонконг-2019 — один из самых цифровизированных протестов последних лет

Mesh, stream and digital boycott

The greatest use for coordinating protest activity, apart from mentioned Telegram, was FireChat, which operates on the principle of a mesh networking, which enables interconnection with each other even in case of mobile communications, Internet or Wi-Fi outage.

A special role in the large-scale involvement of new participants in the protest activity in Hong Kong was played by AirDrop, Apple technology for files transfer via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This technology is positioned by Apple as an easy way to transfer files without any pre-configuration. It is enough to connect to one Wi-Fi network to establish communication between Mac computers. Bluetooth connection enables to receive or transfer files from iOS devices.

The simplicity of the technology in use, which does not require installing and configuring any third-party services, allowed sending messages to random people in real time in crowded places without the need to establish any previous virtual contact with them (email, subscriptions, adding friends and participating in groups in social networks). According to practice, about a quarter of people who received such random messages on the phone agreed to read them.

The effectiveness of AirDrop was most evident when it was necessary to synchronize collective actions of a crowd of protesters. Using this tool, the Hong Kong protesters simultaneously stepped aside giving way to the ambulance. Thus, they sought to drop possible charges of the authorities for obstructing public services.

For the rapid capture of events with simultaneous involvement of as many observers as possible, Internet streaming (live broadcast) was actively used to achieve the effect of presence and get the necessary time interval prior to possible content blocking.

As a new, successfully tested protest technology, a digital economic boycott was used, according to which cryptocurrencies were used not only for mutual settlements between agents launching protest events, but also as a financial instrument into which the protesters urged citizens to transfer their funds. As a result, the BTC prices on the local market at that time were 3-5 percent higher than its global average value

At the same time, the most confidential variants of cryptocurrencies were used to finance protest activity, in which information about transactions is not disclosed. In particular, cryptocurrencies such as Monero and Zcash allow achieving a high degree of confidentiality of financial management.

At the time of the active phase of the protest actions, more than 92 percent of Hong Kongers had a permanent Internet connection, more than 80 percent considered themselves active users of social media (a type of mass communication via the Internet using social networks, messengers, YouTube channels). The most popular social networks among the Hong Kong population included Facebook (45 percent), Instagram (45), Whatsapp (44), YouТube (44), Tencent-Wechat (44), Telegram (23).

Привкус цветных революций: Гонконг-2019 — один из самых цифровизированных протестов последних лет

Non-child games: the algorithm of revolt

1. First, ideas were around on forums (for example, LIHKG), where anonymous bloggers try to introduce them into the minds of forum participants.

2. The proposal was picked up by the opposing Telegram channels, arranging a mass repost of the call to go to the action and involving designers drawing booklets for the event.

3.Administrators of these Telegram channels promptly included information on the new action in the schedules of rallies in the city. The schedules were distributed through the AirDrop service or posted in forms on the Tinder dating service.

4.On the action day, moderation in the virtual space allowed participants to choose their favorite point through a form in Google Docs used to count the number and rational distribution of demonstrators in different locations.

5. In the course of the campaign, some of the participants used stream services to publish content, and some uploaded all photos and videos to the public directory of the Dropbox cloud service. From here, these materials were distributed via Telegram channels, social networks and the media.

Apart from technical tools, modern political techniques also played a special role. Among the main ones, performances, happenings and flash mobs were noted, which are quite difficult to regulate at the legislative level due to the complexity of incriminating them of a violent nature.

With the help of performance, the protesters tried to bring into the plane of political discourse the elements of the play and ritual, activating the subconscious mechanisms of encoding the psyche

Привкус цветных революций: Гонконг-2019 — один из самых цифровизированных протестов последних лет

With the help of happening ("events that take place with the participation of the artist"), they tried to use game models of behavior abstracted from direct protest, forming excitement and cohesion of participants. Using flash mobs, pre-planned actions were endowed with a form of synchronous execution of certain actions that evoke the emotions and ideas planned by the organizers. For instance, to consolidate around the sacrificial image, the protesters used "An Eye for Hong Kong" flash mob. The symbol of the "sacred sacrifice" was a young first-aider girl who lost her right eye from a rubber bullet. Following the flash mob technology, the protesters synchronously covered their right eye with their hands, or applied a bandage on it.

Another example was a peaceful "sitting" flash mob at Hong Kong airport, held amidst active clashes with the police in the city in order to attract the attention of the international community. There was also a song performance "Glory to Hong Kong".

The "war" of computer games that unfolded in the virtual space brought elements of happenings to the square actions, becoming a driving incentive for many participants

In particular, there was a confrontation of the Liberate Hong Kong protesters' game, where users had to dodge bullets and tear gas spray, fight with law representatives and shout slogans against the "pro-Chinese game" "Fight the Traitors Together" in which users, on the contrary, had to beat Hong Kong protesters and well-known activists.

These political techniques successfully resulted in high audience involvement — both direct participants and spectators, their engagement in demonstrated events.

In fact, the digital environment has become an effective tool for scaling political technologies and the main environment for promoting the political agenda

New communication techniques allowed to replace traditional media, were able to become an aggregator of news and political demands. As a result, these technologies and political techniques made it possible, according to BBC News, to involve more than two million people in individual protest actions (the most massive occurred on June 16), to realize, despite the number, unprecedented manageability.

Привкус цветных революций: Гонконг-2019 — один из самых цифровизированных протестов последних лет

The antidote to digital lawlessness

Since the protesters used the above services for streams promotion, the Chinese authorities were carefully watching the activity of promoting stream channels and how opposition figures were spending funds on it. The authorities understood that such surveillance would allow them to predict possible directions of an information attack.

Constant DDOS attacks (attacks from numerous sources preventing users from accessing the attacked site) on Telegram servers were noted as countermeasures. It should also be noted that Telegram settings allows the users independently manage their privacy by specifying who exactly can see their phone numbers. Once selected "nobody", the phone number will be hidden, but not from everyone: those having this phone number in their contact list will still see it. Given this option, the Chinese counterattack was implemented in the form of an original way of hacking private groups and Telegram channels. The attacking hacker, who had the goal of identifying the group members, entered tens of thousands of phone numbers into his notebook, then logged into Telegram, synchronized contacts and joined the protest group. Since the messenger automatically shows the attacker who of his "friends" is in the same group, then the protesters were identified and invited to interrogations. At the same time, the process of collecting phone numbers in Telegram can be automated itself with bots and other computer systems. In this case, you can protect yourself from being identified only by using a SIM card issued to a dummy. It is obvious though, that this is quite difficult to organize on a massive scale.

The Chinese authorities also gave an adequate response to the widespread use of social media in the context of protest activity

For instance, according to major Western media publications The Guardian and The New Yorker, which possessed secret instructions for moderators of the Chinese social network TikTok, algorithms and moderation are arranged in such a way as to achieve maximum promotion of a positive agenda for the Chinese authorities with parallel blocking or restriction in disseminating any mention of protests in Hong Kong.

To effectively deter the digital pressure, Beijing had to trigger, among other things, a financial and economic mechanism. First of all, the authorities struck the funding source for the protesters. A number of the largest banks in Hong Kong were provided with a long list of American organizations that finance protest activity through these banks.

The trends in the labor market also changed: foreign specialists in Hong Kong faced mass layoffs from major international banks and firms. In particular, Deutsche Bank and Nomura Holdings Inc. announced the cuts. In that situation, financiers moved to lower positions with other employers, agreed to a lower salary or a related field of activity, such as consulting and cryptocurrencies. New trends induced financial companies to search for specialists with knowledge of the Chinese language who understand the principles of working with mainland China.

Therefore, the Chinese leaders clearly marked the red lines and noted that Hong Kong should remain a special territory with its own lifestyle and regulatory features. Such lines included the requirement to ban incitement to hatred against China and prohibition of non-implementing basic Chinese laws

Привкус цветных революций: Гонконг-2019 — один из самых цифровизированных протестов последних лет

Hong Kong-2019 effects

In general, it can be said that the protest has significantly affected the legal framework of China. There appeared a new law on state security, which came into force just over a year ago.

The electoral law in the Chinese autonomy has also changed. In fact, the legal opportunities of Hong Kong opposition to participate in political life were minimized. Based on the norms reform of the annex to the Basic Law of Hong Kong (the so-called mini-Constitution), the already complicated procedure for electing both the head of the autonomy and the parliament is changing. The definition of who, in principle, is legible to run for deputies has been assigned to a special body, and the decision of the qualification commission to refuse admission to the elections cannot be appealed even in court. In other words, the attempt to achieve the "expansion of democracy" with the help of external resources was counterproductive to the opposition.

At the same time, it became obvious that the current situation, given the change in humanitarian and socio-economic conditions, leads to the fact that traditional forms of protest — rallies, strikes, pickets and demonstrations — are supplemented with new forms. The main condition for their active growth is the high development of information and communication technologies and social networks, which, amid high concentration of the population and the share of younger generation, can act as a serious catalyst for protest activity

The high-tech nature of the protests allows them to be implemented in the form of a decentralized and self-organizing structure. This protest structure overshadows the need for charismatic leaders and opposing political leaders. The effect of decentralization is spontaneity and a wide geography of protests. In particular, the high coordination of small protest groups in different parts of the city and several towns is much more effective than one large demonstration on the main square, since spontaneous and scattered actions stretch police reserves and allow to gradually block key infrastructure facilities: state institutions, police buildings, courts, key enterprises, airports, metro, railways and highways. All these actions paralyze the work of the state machine, the authorities suffer huge losses.

Summarizing, it should be noted that protests in Hong Kong have led to a clear split in society, which means that there is still a potential to continue and intensify the conflict. At the same time, despite the fact that Hong Kong is much away from our region and significantly differs from us in terms of socio-economic model and mental-behavioral map, the technical and political techniques of protest activity applied there can become a tool and a template for launching similar processes in the post-Soviet space.