The Beijing / Hong Kong conundrum


The near-daily demonstrations in Hong Kong are now in their third month and there seems to be no end in sight. The protests are rooted in the Chinese government’s attempt to amend an extradition law so prisoners could be transferred to mainland China. This though, is just the tip of the iceberg. At the heart of the protests lies Hong Kong’s fear of an oppressive Chinese state coming for its democracy.

It’s a long webbed prickly history lesson. Hong Kong is obviously, geographically in the area we call China, but it had been a British colony since after the First Opium War of 1841. The war broke out after Qing-dynasty in China attempted to stop the illegal opium trade as it was causing widespread addiction in China. The dynasty was defeated and in 1842, China agreed to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity through the Treaty of Nanjing.

When China became a Communist country in 1949, many fled to Hong Kong. Capitalist Hong Kong soon experienced an economic boom, becoming home to a multicultural, international community. In 1984, as the treaty’s expiration loomed, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and China’s premier Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreeing that China would give Hong Kong some political and social autonomy after it was reunified with the rest of China through a “one country, two systems” policy. This would last for 50-years until 2047.

The Hong Kong protesters see Beijing’s attempt to amend an extradition law as a direct insult to the “one country, two systems” policy. They feel the law could be used to legalize the kidnapping of people, including tourists and visitors, who express views that contradict the Chinese government

China is now the largest power in the world. It cannot be seen to let this tiny outpost threaten its power and control on the world stage. Protesters want the bill scrapped. For now, debate of the legislation has been postponed.

Since this is 2019, public opinion is swayed on social media. As the protesters take to the streets and social media to highlight their marches, and police brutality, the Chinese censorship and propaganda machine at first ignored the protests. Now though, a smear campaign has started where the demonstrations are branded terrorists and thugs on Chinese state media.

Protesters use new technologies to organize. Social media platforms are used to share information and messaging apps are essential for coordinating with other protesters.

In choosing a messaging app, organisers swept to Telegram to avoid surveillance as it has standard end-to-end encryption for its chats. But when the administrator of a 30,000-member Telegram chat group, which was used to organise the protests, was arrested in June and it became clear Telegram was compromised by malicious software, the app has been losing its appeal.

Telegram said its servers were flooded with junk communications at rate of 200-400 gigabits per second, slowing functioning of the service until it was ineffective or unusable.

Based on past trends, this size of an attack is likely to have been carried out by a state actor. Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov said source IP addresses indicated the geographic location of the attacks were mainly originating in China.

By making Telegram unusable, the cyber attack redirects the communications of organisers onto less secure platforms, where vulnerabilities can be exploited.

However, there are other secure messenger and file sharing apps that offer complete privacy and anonymity, and are cost free and ad free.

For example, with get2Clouds, users can register a 555 numbers to protect their SIM number. Every action is encrypted with advanced encryption and cannot be intercepted. No metadata and location information are available to anyone trying to snoop.

The power of governments to attack and disrupt the communications of protesting citizens has a chilling effect on the right to protest. Social media hacking tools, which are sold to repressive governments to spy on their own citizens, spit in the face of the right to free speech and to organize political activity.

In this environment, secure social media apps are needed as a basic necessity to break free from surveillance, and for protection against authoritative regimes around the world.