A vast sea of protesters has repeatedly brought the busy city of Hong Kong to a standstill (June 20). The world has a question for us: how do we mobilise 2m people to participate in the world’s most orderly protest?
From the Arab spring to France’s gilets jaunes and recent protests in Hong Kong, leaderless movement is a new approach to activism. Charles Kao, the father of fibre-optics, would be amazed at how the people in his hometown leverage the internet’s ubiquity. Protesters crowdsource strategy on online forums, where everyone is equal and everything is transparent. Young people, those in work and stay-at-home mums, and even the police are free to read and reply. Netizens then gather in Telegram groups, which is regarded as being more secure than WhatsApp, to undertake their next steps. When data services are less reliant on the ground, protesters turn to Firechat. Protests are live-streamed on Twitch, giving real-time updates to forums. Bilingual maps and infographics are created with a turnover time of minutes and then circulated via Airdrop to commuters on busy metro trains. These efforts make every move in the protest open and engaging.
But technology has done more than facilitate decisions and actions. Creative young people found a new way to engage with those who were relatively remote from political discussions. It also swiftly turned a local issue into a global topic. Protesters appealed to foreign media and organisations in emails and tweets, while people across 29 global cities organised protests. Livestreams of the violent actions of the police directly drew domestic and international attention to the protesters’ advantage. Witnessing the scenes in Hong Kong, the popularity of Tsai Ing-wen may be boosted in Taiwan’s upcoming elections.
China uses technology to reinforce its rule, while Hong Kong people use technology to strive for freedom and equality among themselves. Could this leaderless movement, facilitated by technology, be the key to preserving the many differences between Hong Kong and a rising China?
Linden Chai and Ko-ng Lui