Do not miss the slideshow with commentary from our own reporter in Hong Kong – Johannes Kast.
This autumn, all eyes were on Hong Kong – a Chinese city with its own political and economical system after the “one country, two systems” principle was introduced following the reunification between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China. This september, after some initial mass protests that got out of control, students and activists blocked the main roads in Hong Kong’s central governmental and financial district on September 29th demanding full suffrage on choosing their cities leader. Since then – with varying numbers of support – the protesters have set up peaceful blockades both in Hong Kong central and in Mong Kok on the mainland, while having to defend themselves against attacks from police armed with tear gas and batons, triad interferences and sometimes even civilian anti-protest groups.
I visited the protest sites on October 16th and then again on October 20th, just before and after one of the most intense clashes between the police and protesters during the course of the blockade to get an impression of what is happening and to talk to some of the students and activists myself. Eyeing the blockades from a distance and stepping through them was like entering a parallel world. Hong Kong, a seven million metropolis that ran out of space and is building towards the sky, suddenly fell silent in the absolut center of its shopping, financial and governmental district. The core of the general movement, that of love, peace and respectful civil disobedience for universal suffrage, was made obvious through the countless posters, banners and sticky notes that the inner city was wallpapered with. Over a long stretch of two main roads, hundreds of tents were set up as students have been taking turns in camping and sleeping here for three weeks already. But anticipation was in the air and things could change quickly if police or other groups would attempt to clear the area and cause disruption.
Social Media and Social Movements
As with all social movements, media plays a central role. New information and communication technology is used to organise and inform in ways never before possible, transforming the landscape in which social movements can become organised and spread the word around the globe up to the point of taking on dictatorships. This is also true for the protests in Hong Kong. However the unique situation of Hong Kong, an open city and society, yet still under the indirect rule of China, a country often sharply criticised for its strong censorship both in print and online, demonstrate that use of social media can also be a double edged sword.
A notable advantage of the use of social media during protests is the detailed and virtually instant flow of information that makes it possible for everyone around the world with access to an internet capable devise to follow what is going on. This was especially true in Hong Kong, a technologically highly advanced city and these particular protests, carried out by mostly young university students that grew up in the digital age, each one of them equipped with smart phones and notebooks and the skills to make use of them. The Hong Kong based newspaper “Apple Daily” set up cameras overlooking the protest areas with live feeds freely accessible. With a slower broadband connection, Twitter was an ideal alternative to follow what’s going on via @OCLPHK and trending hashtags like #OccupyHK, #UmbrellaRevolution and #OccupyCentral. Of course Facebook pages, as well as many Flickr accounts are also ways to follow what’s happening.
When I asked what the best way to support the movement from outside of Hong Kong would be, the answer was pretty clear: “inform and spread the word amongst the general Chinese population.” Here also lies the most difficulty goal, as print media in China is strictly censored and many social media outlets are blocked, thus providing a very different version of what’s happening. Not only has any coverage been scarce during the first weeks, aggressive anti-occupation propaganda began to flood the news. Many seem to be unaware or unwilling to discuss the protests out for fear of political persecution and fellow students in Beijing seem to even disagree with the nature of civil disobedience.
Not only were social media sites like Flickr and Instagram and even the BBC added to the long list of banned websites, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Youtube and many Bloghosts, the local social media alternatives such as Weibo (comparable to Twitter) and WeChat are heavily screened and regulated, with automated censorship mechanisms in place blocking all content connected to the protests. But it goes even further – the so called “50 Cent Party” is a group of internet commentators paid per pro-Beijing post in an effort to shift public opinion. If the strict laws are circumvented, activists that share photos of the protests might face jail time, not uncommon in China.
September 28 made headlines as the most censored day of the year with restrictions only increasing from then on. As especially key words are targeted and images are more difficult to scan, often the message is written on posters and banners, which are then photographed and shared online. And the camps are just filled up with theses messages, providing a tremendous amount of physical data finding a use in the digital age. The Lennon Wall for example is a wall filled to the top with messages from the protesters and supporters. Public and commercial spaces are completely taken over by the signage in all major languages, turning the city in a giant social billboard and guaranteeing that everyone that comes by the site gets the message.