As China masses armoured personnel carriers on its border with Hong Kong, the democracy movement, which has rocked the former British colony in the past three weeks, stands at a crossroads. I spoke to two of its activists, who insisted on anonymity, via the encrypted call service Telegram – which is not only a mode of secure communication for them, but one of their primary organising tools.
“The main activity for me is actually the Telegram groups” says Sarah, a female student in her 20s. “People make images, posters, timetables of what’s going to happen and they do AirDrops. It’s a very interesting use of the technology: on the railway, you just AirDrop images to everybody in the carriage, anonymously”.
Sarah is not one of the frontline fighters in the Hong Kong democracy protest, but operates in a space largely unobserved by China’s security service: at her computer, servicing the vast network of secure messaging groups through which the young people have organised.
AirDrop, a standard file transfer tool on an iPhone, is used to spread propaganda; Telegram is used to hold impromptu votes; laser pens are deployed to fool the facial recognition technologies that the students believe the state is using.
But the core technology is simply unpredictability. “That’s the beauty of our slogan ‘Be Water’,” says Chris, a young man who’s been highly active in the movement. “You will never see a certain plan or decision before it’s triggered – this is what made the protests really hard to clamp down on. If we don’t have accurate intel, then the police can’t have accurate intel. Most decisions are just made on the spot.”
With Chinese tanks on the border, how scared were they of a military intervention by the People’s Republic? “I do not fear it – not a bit” says Sarah. “If they did send PLA [People’s Liberation Army] then it would lead to international outcry – so we don’t believe they will. But it’s their choice: if they want to destroy the place that’s up to them”.
Chris agrees. “To be frank they have cried wolf too many times. It’s not the first time we saw people panicking – the first time I heard this rhetoric that the PRC [China] was about to invade was on 1 July, when people stormed the legislature”.
But the activists believe the UK has a crucial role in making sure the crisis is resolved peacefully. Chris says:
“There are two things people in the UK can do. The first is to demand a legal analysis of the UK’s role in upholding the Joint Declaration, made at the time of the handover to China in 1997. Boris Johnson needs to morally and legally defend the joint declaration, to state it’s not a historical document, which is what the Chinese insist. We think the UK is in a unique position of all powers of the world to have a say in the future of HK.”
“The other thing is to raise awareness of what’s happening – this has now gone past a political or democracy issue, it’s morphed closer and closer to a humanitarian issue. So we want the UK government to speak out against human rights violations and police brutality”
The police have fired tear gas, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets at protesters, who in turn have thrown bricks and firebombs. I asked what’s caused the violence to escalate. Sarah believes that for the protesters it’s become impossible to back down – because the strategy adopted by Carrie Lam and the pro-China authorities in Hong Kong relies on exactly that.
“I can’t stand by and watch the border between Hong Kong and China become blurred. I need definite protection from the actions of Big Brother up there. The promotion of the extradition law makes me feel like we are becoming directly controlled and watched by the Chinese government. If it’s passed they will be able to use any reason, for example a false criminal charge, to take you back to China and do whatever they want.”
Hong Kong’s chief executive has not definitively withdrawn the law, but the protesters say even if she did that, after the escalation in police violence against them, it would not be enough. What started as a protest movement against an extradition bill has since become something more existential, around Hong Kong’s identity.
“Pulling the law might have worked a month ago,” says Chris. “But people have since realised the systematic problem. Even if she withdraws the bill the system of Beijing control will be intact – another bill will come up and we will fight all over again – this has morphed into a protest for our own freedom, our own rights, democracy
“This is now both a democratic movement and an awakening of the HK people. As we participate or watch, we discover for ourselves what does it mean to be a Hong Konger– different people reach different conclusions but I do sense an atmosphere of unity under the banner of being a Hong Konger, whatever that means for each person.”
This is bad news for Xi Jinping. Under the Joint Declaration, Hong Kong reverts completely to China in 2047, well within the lifetimes of these young people. Instead of converging Hong Kong’s culture with that of Guangdong province, just across the border, the crackdown has exacerbated the differences.
What both protesters want now is universal suffrage: the right to elect a democratic government for the territory free of Chinese interference. And it’s no longer just the young who are involved.
“The government has incited groups that were originally neutral or even loyal to them, to join the protest,” says Chris.“When you shoot a first aider you are asking for the medics to come out. When you shoot a journalist you are asking for the whole journalist fraternity to come out.”
Sarah describes the effective division of labour during this summer of discontent, between the students and the rest of Hong Kong society.
“It’s mainly young people in the streets but there are a lot of professionals who in their own way play their part. For example, in the first aid teams you always see somebody who is way older, you also see lawyers voicing their concerns over civil liberties. You see the hospital staff protest but they can’t go to the streets because [of their] jobs, so they assemble in the hospitals. And whenever we call for funds, we achieve it in a few hours – and that’s where the rest of civil society is playing its part.”
The political dynamics of the movement reflect divisions which emerged during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The Hong Kong nationalist current, which is influenced by the right, has criticised the passivity and non-violence of the more left-leaning “pan-democrats” who see the possibility of increased democracy while maintaining the relationship with China.
As the police response escalated, however, the old arguments – summed up in the slogans “courageous battle” versus “intelligent battle” – became less relevant. Even the horizontalist and peaceful protests are getting attacked, the cultural identity of Hong Kongers seems to be solidifying in a way that will benefit those advocating a breakaway city-state.
When I ask them what can be realistically achieved, Sarah answers: “I really don’t know. In the past two months we’ve achieved many things that we didn’t think we could achieve. For example we shut down the airport for a few hours. If you asked me could we do that two months ago I could not have foreseen it – but that’s what the movement became. People are prepared to try everything and see how it goes”.
For now, the consensus among the activists is that Beijing’s military show of force was a sign of weakness: it put the armoured vehicles on state media as a warning, but it is not yet prepared to go in – so long as it can contain the unrest in Hong Kong.
Last time around, however, the echoes of the Umbrella Movement were quickly felt across the universities and industrial districts of southern China. The result was an intensification of Xi’s crackdown on the unofficial workers groups and the NGOs who help them.
This time, says Chris, “the Chinese authorities know the Great Firewall is not fool proof. Some photos, distorted to evade censorship, and some encoded messages are getting through. They are being shared among some groups of people in mainland China. One of the authorities’ big fears is that this will become a spark”.