Hong Kong's #612strike protest movement: a million strong, leaderless, wireless and smart as hell

Hong Kong's previous mass-protest uprisings -- 2014's Occupy Central, 2016's Umbrella Revolution -- were ultimately smashed by the state through a combination of violent suppression and electronic surveillance, greatly aided by the hierarchical structure of the protest movements (which made it possible to decapitate them by arresting their leaders) and their internal divisions and infighting.

But the latest eruption -- more than a million strong and gaining -- has learned from the mistakes of the past. The #612strike movement has a flat, self-organizing structure that emerges deputies who take on functional roles (like keeping lookouts for cops planning kettling operations, which surround protesters with fencing and keep them locked down while they are identified and/or arrested), that is augmented by the use of encrypted Telegram chats (the Umbrella Revolution also made heavy use of encrypted chats, with some P2P mesh apps emerging as the Hong Kong government shut off the internet).

The cultural shift is also marked by a spirit of cooperation, which is making it easier to resolve tactical disagreements -- where to put barriers, whether to risk storming key buildings -- in a collegial fashion, despite the high tensions, physical risk and punishing physical conditions (being on the streets for hours in Hong Kong June weather presents real risks of heat exhaustion, to say nothing of regular soakings in the torrential rains).

This third wave of networked protests seem close to realizing the promise of Occupy: a collaborative, networked protest movement devoted to mutual aid, where a protester can call out a request for an asthma inhaler, have that call amplified through the crowd, and then get the inhaler they need, followed by a round of applause from the crowd, justifiably pleased with itself.

The Hong Kong authorities are pulling out all the stops to shut down the protests, including the indiscriminate use of pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas and smoke bombs. It's a sure bet that they're also using electronic countermeasures against the protesters, and the protesters have tightened up their operational security in response: the subway stations have long lines in front of the cash-for-ticket machines as protesters eschew the use of their electronic payment cards.

Telegram has been under sustained DDOS attack, and the company has officially attributed the attack to the Chinese state; given that the protesters are making extensive use of Telegram, the connection seems likely.

(I worry that using mobile phones at all makes the protesters vulnerable to Stingrays and other mobile surveillance tools)

(I'm also excited to see them using mobile devices to accomplish something similar to Sukey, which I've been fascinated by for years)

The protests are motivated by the latest move in China's encroachment into Hong Kong's cherished independence: after Beijing's consolidation of control over the city council and kidnappings and forced televised confessions of pro-democracy booksellers, the council is now set to allow for extraditions to the mainland for people accused of political crimes.

Harcourt Road and Lung Wo Road were successfully taken over at around 8am by protesters with barricades, while at least six private cars blocked Queensway by stopping in different locations – strategies executed smoothly after being discussed in the encrypted channel.

Protesters also appeared to have a clear understanding of division of labour. At least one person would always be spotted standing on a barricade at each junction to monitor police officers’ latest movements, as others ran supplies booths and manned first aid stations.

“There were some hiccups at the beginning but we soon knew how to play our own roles,” Lo, who works in the events industry, said.

“Everyone somehow wants a leader, but there are just so many different opinions, stances and approaches among ourselves.”

Hong Kong protests against extradition bill may look like Occupy – but young, leaderless demonstrators have learned lessons from the past [Jeffie Lam/South China Morning Post]

(Image: Seth Chiu)