Organizing a protest is a logistical nightmare, from decisions on signage to addressing fears of government surveillance. But as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong flowed through city’s streets over the weekend, one thing was clear: The effort did not lack for logistical support–or food.
“I got offered three different breakfasts this morning,” says Francisco Lo, 32, a social worker who has attended protests on Hong Kong Island as well as across the harbor in Kowloon. “We had bread from the local bakery. I had butter loaf and some baguette with cheese. I had to decline some fresh hot noodles. For those of us who are health-conscious, there were all kinds of fruits, including banana and kiwi.”
The feeding stations for protesters reflect local adaptations of a number of practices first seen at Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011. Lo says that when he first arrived in Mong Kok, the epicenter of the Kowloon protests, “there was no hierarchy.” “Everyone volunteered for various positions–first aid, crowd control, logistics. People are encouraged to take turns to use the microphone. We encouraged each other, shared food and water, picked up trash, organized recycling piles. We calm each other down when there are provocations,” he says.
What’s happening on the streets of Hong Kong is an outgrowth of organizing and vigorous debate taking place online. The Umbrella Revolution–as some are calling the effort, a reference to the umbrellas that by day shade protesters from the sun and by night shield against tear gas and pepper spray–has been an Internet-enabled movement, propelled by multiplatform networking in a city where even the ubiquitous double-decker buses have free Wi-Fi. While Twitter has helped reach English-speaking audiences beyond Hong Kong, most locals have been disseminating information and sharing intel elsewhere in Chinese. The key online organizing points:
Google Docs A publicly accessible, constantly updated spreadsheet lists the needs at each of the major protest locations–food, water, plastic wrap and goggles to protect the crowds from tear gas and pepper spray. By 11 p.m. Monday Hong Kong time, donations flooding in from the public had, at several locations, overwhelmed demand for supplies. At two protest sites in Kowloon–outside the Langham Place shopping center and the D1 entrance of the subway station–there was still a need for goggles. Protesters in the Wanchai district on Hong Kong island listed a simple request: more people.
Facebook and Whatsapp: Facebook has emerged as a nerve center for verified information. Protest organizers regularly post here and here, with information on everything from locations for protesters to rest safely to places to charge dying phones (a mobile-phone kiosk near the corner of Nathan Road and Mong Kok Road in Kowloon has become a community charging station). Whatsapp, the Facebook-owned messaging app that’s widely used in Hong Kong, has primarily been for communication among close friends and family.
- HKGolden.com: Golden, a forum that’s one of the most popular online gathering places for young Hong Kongers, can seem like a throwback to previous eras of the Internet. It’s essentially a message board where people geek out about new electronics–and the users tend to be anti-Communist. During Occupy Central, it has become a place to debate and share information about the ongoing protests. HKGolden’s user base is almost entirely from the post-1980s generation; “we witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre as children,” Lo says. “The seed of democracy was planted and laid dormant in us for years.”
- FireChat: FireChat, a messaging app from San Francisco-based Open Garden that relies on Bluetooth rather than Internet connectivity, has been downloaded more than 100,000 times in Hong Kong during the past several days. “FireChat wasn’t really necessary in the past,” says Thomas Tsoi, 32, a secondary-school teacher who is a veteran of past political protests in Hong Kong. “People started installing it after there was a rumor that police might cut all Internet signals in Admiralty and Central.” As thousands of people thronged these business districts, FireChat became more essential simply because mobile networks could not handle the data load. Says Tsoi: “Then it became a handy tool to use as more and more people joined the protest and consequently jammed the network.”
- Code4HK: An online collective called Code4HK has created a hub with livestreams, maps, and other resources related to the ongoing protests. They built on the work of the Sunflower Movement, which earlier this year occupied Taiwan’s legislature to protest a secretly negotiated trade deal with China. A sign of the group’s influence: Earlier in September, hackers targeted pro-democracy activists with a fake Code4HK/Occupy Central app, distributed via Whatsapp, that turned out to be spyware.
But just as these media are convenient for broadcasting pro-democracy messages quickly, they also speed the spread of misinformation. On Golden, a handful of pro-government commenters have repeatedly sought to hijack the forum with pointless posts–a practice known in colloquial Cantonese as “washing the boards.” For instance, one person kept posting: “Let’s have hot pot!!!” Also, “quite a lot of false messages circulated on Facebook and Whatsapp last night,” one protester says. “Mainly about the next actions the police were going to take, saying they might fire after a certain deadline and asking protesters to leave ASAP.” Many of the online rumors have cited highly placed “friends of friends,” say, a “senior officer” in law enforcement who heard “tanks would be sent out tonight. For your safety, please leave immediately.” This sparked mocking posts in reply, including one from FireChat that read: “My father’s son is a senior police officer. He received information that Iron Man and Captain America are coming to Admiralty. There is a chance that Spider-Man will also go to government headquarters on October 1.”
That reference to October 1–China’s National Day and a public holiday in Hong Kong–presages what will undoubtedly be a crucial moment in the protests. Already, both sides are anticipating record turnout–and nobody expects the tension to diminish in the next 48 hours. Some Hong Kongers have been infuriated by reports on the protests by mainland media, which have shown pictures of the crowds accompanied by commentary on the “celebrations” of the central government in China. The Hong Kong government has already called off the customary National Day fireworks over Victoria Harbour.
The Chinese government is worried about spillover from Hong Kong to the mainland. Already, it has banned Instagram, though rumors that the service had been cut off in Hong Kong were untrue. On FireChat, one mainlander in Hong Kong lamented the intensity of anti-China rhetoric, pleading with Hong Kongers to stop using derogatory terms like “Chinese dogs” and asking for time “to know the truth because we do not have the channels to truly understand what’s happening to our country.”
But Hong Kong has never been a particularly patient place, and protesters wonder whether there’s any willingness on the part of the local government or their overseers in Beijing to quickly placate the growing crowds. Thomas Tsoi, the teacher, says: “If Hong Kong can genuinely enjoy high autonomy and the people can truly keep their existing way of life, as promised under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, I think most Hong Kong people are quite happy to be on good terms with China.”
Francisco Lo thinks that’s a big “if” and cheekily thanks the Hong Kong police for galvanizing the protests with their use of pepper spray and tear gas. As he took a late-night meal break at a restaurant, he sent me a Facebook message musing, with satisfaction, about the embarrassment that major protests on National Day will bring for Beijing: “There won’t be any saving face for China.”