Act Local, Share Global: Hong Kong protests go global despite Great Firewall of China

When thousands of pro-democracy student activists took to the streets of Hong Kong (HK) in September 2014 to protest against a proposed electoral rule change by Beijing, social media became the vehicle of choice for communication and solidarity (Smith IV 2014).

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Unlike the Ferguson riots, Arab Spring uprising and Ukraine occupycentral-hong-kong-yellow-ribbon-umbrella-revolution-copyrevolution whereby social media ignited and fuelled the protests, social media played a documenting function in HK’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’, bringing global attention to the movement and the harsh crackdown on protestors by the HK police (Hilburn 2014). Internet users around the world used social media to show sympathy with HK protestors while rallies of support were held in the US, Australia, Taiwan and Europe (Iyengar 2014).

Despite creating a sense of global solidarity, HK executive social-rev-header-img-fistscouncillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee argued the protestors extensive use of social media resulted in the movement being compromised by outside forces, leading to an increasing threat of “foreign interference” in HK’s politics (Ong 2014). The Chinese government was quick to understand the threat of social media, blocking Instagram on the mainland and removing posts from the Twitter-like service Weibo that showed support for the protest (Fandino 2014). In addition to online censorship, sophisticated malware targeting HK protestors’ iOS devices was speculated to be a state-supported attack against the pro-democracy demonstrators (Fandino 2014).

In this way, the HK protests not only highlight the evolving efficiency of China’s notorious firewall, but also reveal the potential impact of foreign observers on “local” protests. In the social-media age, the world is watching every moment. This, not the street protests themselves, will be the real challenge for China in years to come.

The following SoundCloud podcast I recorded further investigates this topic:

Reference List:

Fandino, D 2014, ‘Hong Kong and China: Two Systems of Social Media, One Country’, Digital America, vol.7, no.5, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://www.digitalamerica.org/hong-kong-and-china-two-systems-of-social-media-one-country-daniel-fandino/>.

Hilburn, M 2014, ‘Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests’, Voice of America, 1 October, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://www.voanews.com/content/social-media-documenting-not-driving-hong-kong-protests/2468696.html>.

Iyengar, R 2014, ‘Global Support Pours in for Hong Kong Democracy Protests’, Time, 29 September, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://time.com/3444225/hong-kong-democracy-protests-global-support/>.

Ong, L 2014, ‘Hong Kong Lawmaker: Occupy Central Protesters’ Use of Twitter, Google Maps Evidence of ‘Foreign Interference”, Epoch Times, 1 November, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1056411-hong-kong-lawmaker-occupy-central-protesters-use-of-twitter-google-maps-evidence-of-foreign-interference/>.

Smith IV, J 2014, ‘FireChat: The App That Fueled Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution’, Observer, 10 October, accessed 24 September 2015, <http://observer.com/2014/10/firechat-the-app-that-fueled-hong-kongs-umbrella-revolution/>.

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20 thoughts on “Act Local, Share Global: Hong Kong protests go global despite Great Firewall of China

  1. Hi Giverny,
    Great example! This real-life situation truly demonstrates the power of ‘China’s firewall’ and also the rigid and centralised control that is strictly enforce at all times. I really like how you have framed social media use in this context as the ‘social media revolution’. I completely agree that our increased social media use has in-fact ‘revolutionised’ the way we communicated and how we respond to real life events and situations. Social media platforms can operate as forums for support in times of crisis, much like the example that you have used, which reveals the positive nature of the real-time connection we share with other users throughout the world.

    • Hi Lara! Thank-you for your comment. I am glad my blog post has revealed to you the positive aspects of using social media for serious activism. I was quite intrigued by Maria Popova’s article on the capacity of social media to create the domino effect of awareness, empathy and action. I think this relates strongly to how people from around the world organised solidarity protests to support the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. There is certainly potential value for activism in creating real-time connections through social media.

  2. Hi Giverny! Loved this example, I find the future of China’s ‘Great Firewall’ to be both a fascinating and frightening prospect. Like social media itself, the Internet censorship methods employed by the Chinese government as constantly evolving and adapting to ensure that control over citizens is maintained. Although social media has undeniably revolutionised communication, I feel as though in this case the foreign intervention that resulted from the dissemination of protest-related information online actually caused more harm than good – it actually increased the degree of censorship! With the increasing trend of ‘slacktivism’ (eg. aligning oneself half-heartedly with a cause to gain social favour), I think that it is imperative that we as global citizens are aware of the fact that our intervention in foreign political movements can actually have undesirable consequences for local citizens.

    • Hi Claudia! I agree – it is quite frightening to consider China’s rigid Internet control. The point you made about the global dissemination of protest information resulting in increased censorship is very insightful and is definitely important to consider when evaluating the role of social media in activism movements.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi Giverny,
    Really incredible story and something I found really interesting in terms of using China as the country of focus in terms of social media. Their government controls so much in terms of their online doings so when reading this it wasn’t a surprise that they quickly got onto any form of protest towards their government. Their reasoning was questionable, in the “interference of other countries” when it would have clearly been about the image of the Chinese try to uphold. I have to admit I’ve never heard of this crisis, however your text post and the accompanying podcast lead me into researching the whole idea of the level of control the Chinese government boast over its citizens on the internet, and this particular source threw me straight into it with a PDF detailing how does China actually control its social media (http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/publication/how-does-chinese-government-manage-social-media) . Perhaps something worthy of reading to understand the movements and swiftness of the people in the argument you’re taking.
    Cheers,
    Sam

    • Hi Sam! I am glad my blog post has helped to inform you of this movement. Thank you for the PDF you have provided. It is interesting to consider the 6th point – the assimilation and domestication of Weibo as a tactic to controlling public opinion. It seems the Chinese government is trying to satisfy its citizens with a service that is very similar to Twitter but that allows for more direct control.

  4. Hi Giverny,

    I really enjoyed your SoudCloud podcast! When the Umbrella Revolution took place I was on exchange in England. I was actually quite confused when I seen a large group of Asians walking around Leeds University with yellow umbrellas. I then took to social media to research the issue and I realized what the whole event was about.

    I like your stance on social media platforms as a way to empower solidarity. When you mentioned that China will not be able to uphold this power forever it reminded me of the section in the lecture when Ted explained how the internet (Google and Twitter) reacted to the Egyptian government blocking of the internet.

    I found it so enlightening that there was a voice call service set up and the messages regenerated as text then to Tweets. This is a link to an article from 2011 explaining the launch service, http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/feb/01/google-twitter-egypt.

    Great work.
    Justine.

    • Hi Justine! That is such a fascinating story. Thank you for the article link. I think Google and Twitter’s service would have been very encouraging for local citizens, particularly to know that ‘the rest of the world’ is supporting them. Perhaps this reveals that foreign intervention in local protests can be advantageous for citizens.

  5. Wow what an amazing blog! Wonderful example of how social media can be used to bring people together for the good of everyone and as a show of compassion to others. It is true that when we are having a bad day people tend to turn to social media now before turning to their friends. And the same can be true for when someone is hoping to gain support for their cause. Social media has opened up the world to everyone and connected us in a way I never even considered until now. I know it’s the first place I go when I’ve had a bad day and I’m looking for sympathy instantly rather than calling someone first lol. Well done

  6. This podcast is particularly interesting given the strict Internet surveillance and control implemented in China. I think the point still stand although Hong Kong is in some ways separate from mainland China.

    The example you provide shows that social media is still an incredibly important tool for activism, even in countries that enact such strict controls upon peoples use of the Internet.

    HK executive councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee attempts to argue that social media activism was a hindrance given that it led to the movement being compromised by outside forces. While this may (or may not) have been the case, i would argue that social media activism is still an important aspect of the modern world, regardless of the potential dangers such as this. This is because social media has given the world an unprecedented level of connectivity which I believe leads to greater transparency and belongingness amongst the global community.

  7. Thank you for your comment Eddie. I agree completely – the fact that HK’s Occupy Central movement was ‘interfered’ by outside forces was its greatest strength, creating a shared sense of purpose and global solidarity that would not have been possible without social media. It is not surprising, however, that HK’s political leaders such as Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee think otherwise!

  8. Hi Giverny,

    I really enjoyed ready your blog and sound cloud. You information was structured well and easy to follow. I would agree with your comment that the protest did have positive impacts in some way. Social media is a fantastic way of making people aware of important, global concerns such as this one.

    I remember looking at this movement in another subject, and it was interesting to see how China had censored our many of the mainstream social media sites we had, and had created their own. I have provided a link of these here for you to have a look at http://www.synthesio.com/blog/10-chinese-social-media-sites-you-should-be-following/.

    I also cannot believe that the very word, ‘umbrella’ was censored by China – it seems as though they were willing to do anything to prevent their citizens from seeing certain information which I personally thing is extremely unfair.

    • Hi Charlotte! Thank you for your comment. The website you linked to is very interesting – I was not previously aware of the extent to which China has developed alternate social media networks. The size and popularity of these sites makes them highly relevant and interesting for any business trying to reach Chinese citizens.

      It is, indeed, startling to consider China’s strict censorship policies. However, Internet users were able to get around these automatic filters by purposefully misspelling words or writing in code. For example, instead of writing ‘June 4’, the date of the Tiananmen crackdown, people wrote ‘May 35’. This just goes to show that China’s censorship is never completely effective. In fact, blocking social media platforms probably motivates people even more to get around the Great Firewall of China.

  9. It does seem in a way, the Chinese government trying to censor the growing unrest, much like in the Egyptian protests, that by trying to snuff out the flame the blaze only burns brighter as word of this censorship gets out. Without the incorporation of social media activism and ‘outside forces’, could the Hong Kong protesters still have been completely silenced? It’s possible their flame would have burnt out without social media intervening and keeping the discourse flowing on the issue. I heard about the protests through Facebook well after the fact, If it hadn’t gone global on digital sites like that, me and many others would never know about it. And as Ted always says, information wants to be free. Wait…is that what he always says? (10pm brain sets in)

    • Hi Isabel! Thank you for your comment. I agree – I think social media did play an instrumental role in keeping the Umbrella Revolution alive. While social media did not prevent Beijing from cracking down on the protestors, if a violent repression did occur, the world would be watching in real time. The sense of being part of a global online community also encouraged the protest movement and had a powerful psychological effect on protestors who felt happy that they were not alone in fighting for Hong Kong’s democracy.

  10. Hi Giverny. This was a really good post. You might be interested in the great wall of fire website. You type in whatever website you want to see if it has been banned in china. Its really interesting and just helps to get you head around how vast the censorship actually is.http://www.greatfirewallofchina.org/

    The only suggestion I would have is that your sound cloud kind of repeated some of what you had already written. Rather than just continuing on, maybe it could have been on a related topic, just something to add a bit of variety. Great post!

    • Hi Jacqueline. Thank you for your feedback – I will definitely keep that in mind for next time. This is such a great site! The link to my Twitter account failed, though I am glad to know that my blog is not censored in China 🙂

  11. It is funny how a government think that by blocking and controlling social media platform will solve the problem since people eventually will find another one to continue expressing their thoughts, searching for news and information from different social networking sites, etc. When there is a will there is a way. To some extent, I feel like we are quite fortunate since we are able to access to various websites, and we have the chance to view things from a different perspective by reading people comments or articles, etc. It is important because we are not only listening to one sided story, also we are not shaped and manipulated by the government. I am not saying that people in China do not have the ability to determine and differentiate the accuracy of news of an event; somehow, blocking social media platforms might make them curious whilst it becomes a motivation for them to “climb over the wall” of China. Love your post! (=

  12. Hi EmiLee! Thank you for your insightful comment. The growing desire of Chinese citizens to circumvent the Great Firewall is indeed a problem for the Chinese government. The Internet has given rise to a new class of tech-savvy, cosmopolitan world citizens who want to communicate, interact, congregate and share information online. China’s internet policies need to evolve and adapt to the expectations of these citizens. Rather than restricting Internet access, China should look at how the Internet can be used to empower and inform people. Censorship is a knee-jerk response to the emergence of the Internet that is unreasonable to maintain in the long term as citizens become more highly educated, politically active and aware of their rights to freedom of expression.

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