Angela and I will be presenting our work on Bringing Digital Protests to Life: How Hong Kong Protestors Bridge the Gap Between Technology and Civil Disobedience on the Group for Successful Action as part of The Digital Barricades: Digital Protest, Power, and Repression panel for the State Violence Research Network Conference. Originally to be held at the University of Manchester, this event will take place via Zoom.
The talk's abstract: The Hong Kong Government’s proposal of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, aimed at facilitating extraditions to Taiwan, Macau, and Mainland China, sparked dozens of city-wide protests as demonstrators feared it would erode Hong Kong’s legal system under the Hong Kong Basic Law. The subsequent police brutality encountered by protestors has turned the movement into a broader anti-authoritarian one, against this brutality, the lack of full democracy in Hong Kong, and the perceived encroachment by Mainland China into Hong Kong people’s civil rights and liberties.
Facilitated, but also oppressed by, technology, the leaderless, decentralised demonstrations furthered the anti-extradition bill protests by establishing legitimacy, trust, and privacy between Hong Kong citizens under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework. Hong Kong protesters found novel uses of technologies and turned digital, online modes of protest into real-life tactics and forms of civil disobedience, including against the government’s own use of surveillance technology.
Through the frame of ‘privacy vigilantism’ (Oswald 2014), our paper examines how information is disseminated, how events are streamed for accuracy and transparency, and the techniques used to dismantle longstanding surveillance practices and technologies throughout the Hong Kong protests, in both physical and virtual spaces. Tools such as the online LIHKG Forum allows protesters to mask their identity while allowing them to meaningfully engage with discussions on protest tactics to be implemented offline. Livestreaming and HKmap.live enable protestors and citizens to follow the protests in real- time, protect themselves, and verify events as they happen. Hong Kong protesters also directly challenge the implementation of surveillance tools by using masks to cover their faces, buying paper metro tickets instead of using the Octopus card, disabling and even tearing down smart lampposts with tracking technologies, and influencing platform policies on state- sponsored disinformation and privacy.
The Hong Kong protests happened because of the accumulation of socio-political frustrations that the Hong Kong people could not hold the unelected Government accountable for, a Government which also deploys digital technologies to monitor and control citizens. However, by embedding technology into civil disobedience and manifesting online decisions into real- life protest actions, the movement can maintain its momentum through public demonstrations of collective action. Learning from the city’s past protests, our paper illustrates how Hong Kong protesters transformed their use of technology as a means to protect their personal identities, preserve their rights enshrined under the law, and strive for democratic freedoms.