Q&A on Hong Kong Protests

Andrew Antuna, a recent graduate from the school of Business at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, has covered the Hong Kong protests on social media from their onset. We discussed citizen journalism, private sector tools to counter censorship, and the future of the protests. Here’s what he had to say.


Q. What are the major challenges the protesters and activists in Hong Kong face?

A. Among the major challenges facing the protesters and activists here in Hong Kong are the police and city government. Activists and protesters have been constantly monitoring the actions of the police. In addition to the initial use of force and tear gas at the beginning of the protest, there is an increasing sense of mistrust in the police in light of the assaults made by pro-Beijing protesters.

Many protesters feel further betrayed by the police, as when they were attacked by pro-Beijing protesters, they mostly watched passively and seldom intervened. When the police did intervene, they would often arrest the victim along with the perpetrator of the attack. In some cases, the police just arrested the victim. There were also claimed instances where the police appeared to be taking attackers away but were actually escorting them away from the crowds and releasing them. There have been rumors of collaboration between police and Triads; however, it has also been rumored that local businessmen and shop owners have been paying Triads and other criminal elements to force out and intimidate the protesters.

Another big challenge since the conclusion of the first week has been maintaining numbers and momentum. As many have now reported, the once densely packed protest sites are now sparsely occupied. Many of the protesters had to endure the threat of police action as well as the following:

  • The stress of a possible military intervention (which seemed likely to some in the early days of the protest)
  • The threats and attacks of pro-Beijing protesters and criminal elements
  • Hot and humid weather along with several instances of heavy rain

It was easier to protest last week when there were two public holidays; many protesters have now returned to school and/or work. Also, many were disappointed that CY Leung did not resign from his position (one of their demands) and felt that the “talks” that the city agreed to have with the students were just a cheap ploy to buy time. Depending on the outcome, we may or may not see a call to return to the barricades.

Also, keeping the sympathy of the population is a major challenge. There are those, especially in the city’s business circles, who see the protests as a major threat to the local economy. The true economic impact of the protests is yet to be seen, but so far (at least at the time of this interview) the Hong Kong dollar has remained stable despite HSBC’s “doomsday” forecast regarding the protests. The protesters are also risking the anger of some of the city’s working poor who have either received shortened shifts or have not been called back to work since the protests began. Some organizers have called for protesters to withdraw from the Mong Kok (a working class neighborhood) and Causeway Bay (a shopping district) encampments so as to allow some relief, but at this time neither site has been abandoned.

Q. Are there issues with verification of citizen content? Is citizen content verified in any way? Is anyone checking and double-checking the facts? Do the citizen journalists have any training? Are they reporting or writing down what they see?

A. Of course. As with any unfolding situation, it can be difficult to verify what’s going on. This was especially problematic in the first few days of the protest with people alleging that they heard that the police had orders to “shoot to wound” or that the People’s Liberation Army was mobilizing Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) to crush the protests. Both, of course, were proven to not be true. The supposed “shoot to wound” order was based on a photograph of a police sign taken from behind the police line—not the simple warning to stand back that was facing the crowd. The photo of APCs in one of the cross harbor tunnels was taken back in mid-June. As always with citizen content, you want to be careful before taking it as gospel.

With regard to citizen journalists, yes, people have been making an effort to cross check each other and make sure that what’s being reported is as accurate as possible. It’s hard to fight the rush and desire to be the first to break a new development, but people are learning to exercise some restraint and at least attempt to cross-reference or verify that they actually understand what’s going on. Some citizen journalists do have a professional journalistic background and have been helpful in verifying information and being reliable sources of information. Others have just been writing what they’re seeing but are showing some restraint by saying “awaiting further details” and then updating or correcting their earlier reports.

Q. What role would outside actors have to play to have an impact?

A. There would have to be the serious threat of a mass exodus of foreign capital and investment, not only from Hong Kong but from the mainland as well. That’s the only scenario in which I can see Beijing possibly caving to outside pressure. Even then, that would probably not be enough. I don’t realistically see enough major foreign players in China that are likely to withdraw their investments either.

Beijing is in a tough position. If it grants Hong Kong even further autonomy, it not only risks a possible intensification of activity from Tibetan and Uighur separatists, it also risks the possible spread of further dissent within mainland cities. If it refuses to hear out the concerns of the people of Hong Kong, it risks pushing yet another region to the fringes. We’ve witnessed the political awakening of a new generation of Hong Kongers. For Beijing to take a hardline position or even worse, to impose martial law on the city, it would risk increasing the appeal of extremist ideologies and extralegal activities.

Q. Can you please describe how the protesters are utilizing tools such as FireChat?

A. FireChat has been used by the protesters for a variety of purposes. Activists will forward spreadsheets listing supplies needed at food and first aid stations at the various protest sites around Hong Kong (e.g., Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok). It can also serve as an alert system to warn protesters and protest encampments about police movement or the approach of pro-Beijing protesters or unruly characters attempting to threaten, assault, and/or grope protesters or attempting to tear down the barricades or supply stations. Also, protesters many times send messages of encouragement to each other through the app.

Q. How do you see this tool being used further throughout the protests?

A. It will definitely be the preferred communication app of protesters and activists alike. Also, I noticed that there were chat rooms around the world in various languages regarding a whole range of topics. So, it also presents an opportunity for activists around the world to network with each other. While it can survive efforts by the local and national governments to pull the Internet “kill switch,” they’re aware it’s not foolproof. While it doesn’t have to rely upon Wi-Fi or mobile data, it’s still easy for the authorities to monitor the chats. Often times activists reminded each other to be mindful of what they wrote and to “avoid possibly spreading misinformation” or saying anything to give the mainland justification to intervene.

Q. What impact is FireChat having on the protests’ observed success or lack thereof?

A. That I can’t exactly verify. I can only presume it has been helpful in keeping the protest sites well stocked and supplied, as well as helping to defend the barricades and helping protesters to protect each other in the event of a possible encroachment by police, pro-Beijing protesters.

Q. Are you using FireChat? What is your impression of its functionality?

A. I have downloaded the FireChat app. It has been very useful in getting the layout of the general situation at a protest site before entering it. It was also very helpful in identifying and being on the lookout for pro-Beijing protesters who had been going around for a time beating up anyone wearing a yellow ribbon (a symbol of the Occupy Central protest) or who they thought was a journalist/foreign intelligence agent. The app is very much in its infancy. Also, if you quit a chat room, it is difficult to rejoin the group as you cannot search for groups. It has to appear in the available list of FireChats, and it can be very frustrating to rejoin a group. Overall, it has fulfilled its purpose so far, but I think a search feature for chat rooms and individual users would be nice.

Q. How do you envision the protests will evolve given that the Chinese government has canceled negotiations with the protesters?

A. As for the rather recent news of the Hong Kong government canceling the talks, it’s too early to make a call. I know the organizers said if no progress were to be made, they’d call for protesters to return en masse. We’ll have to wait and see if … the protesters heed the call to return to the barricades.

Andrew Antuna is recent graduate from the school of Business at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is originally from Las Vegas, Nevada and has lived in the Hong Kong and Macau area for over one year.