When a dozen Hong Kong demonstrators gathered in downtown Toronto during a recent evening rush hour, they suspected they could be joined by unwelcome visitors.
The activists passed out flyers that read “stand with Hong Kong.” Some wore face masks.
Although the small rally appeared low-tech, organizing it involved cunning use of technology. And both Hong Kong people demonstrating for greater democracy, and China, which wants the protests to stop, have been deploying advanced methods to spread their messages.
In Toronto, many commuters walked by without even a glance, but one person seemed particularly interested in the group’s campaign. Wearing a green shirt and a ball cap, the man stood at a busy street corner with a smartphone in his hand.
Demonstrators said he had recorded video of them, illustrating the fear the campaigners have been living with for months.
They suspect he had been monitoring them on behalf of Chinese authorities in Canada.
Chinese embassy officials in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.
The demonstrators are suspicious because of the Chinese government’s domestic mass surveillance campaign, which opponents say extends to citizens and dissidents abroad.
In Hong Kong, protesters have been using laser pointers to scramble China’s widely used facial identification cameras. But the government’s surveillance program extends far beyond the streets.
Critics say Beijing’s efforts to monitor and restrict internet use have only increased in the wake of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong and solidarity rallies abroad.
Hong Kong residents have freer access to the internet than users in mainland China, who face restrictions under the country’s so-called Great Firewall. The unfettered access in the Chinese-ruled region has been key in the protesters’ ability to mobilize.
Jim Tam, a Hong Kong-born information technology management professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, told CBC demonstrators have “efficiently” used technology “as a communication tool to mobilize the masses.”
“It has been very effective.”
But there are signs Beijing could move to curtail that freedom. Hong Kong internet service providers have warned the government against blocking certain apps, and LIHKG, a popular online forum known as “Hong Kong’s Reddit” crashed after an apparent attack at the start of a pivotal weekend for protests. Demonstrators had been known to use it to organize their efforts.
The movement began as a way to fight a now-suspended extradition bill, but demonstrators maintain a list of five key demands, including an expansion of democratic freedoms. As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong already enjoys autonomy from the mainland, under a principle known as “one country, two systems.”
“It’s the final battle,” said demonstrator Mimi Lee at the recent rally in Toronto. “If we lose this battle, ‘one country, two systems’ is gone.”
‘We have to be very careful’
With little means and without clear leadership, demonstrators have been using online tools to co-ordinate and encourage each other. And they’ve been going to great lengths to avoid potential attempts at spying by authorities.
“We have to be very careful how we share our phone numbers and names,” said another activist. CBC agreed to conceal the man’s name. He fears for the safety of his family in Hong Kong.
Like cohorts in Hong Kong, he uses Telegram to communicate and coordinate with fellow activists. The app encrypts messages and allows users to hide their real names and phone numbers. Demonstrators see it as their best shot at keeping their electronic communications away from the prying eyes of Beijing.
Telegram’s privacy features stirred early controversy by apparently allowing ISIS militants to spread propaganda. But the app has experienced a recent surge in use, spurred by Hong Kong’s widespread protests — and demonstrators’ use of the platform.
In Hong Kong alone, Telegram added 110,000 new users in July — three times more than during the same period last year — according to the app market analysis service Sensor Tower.
China’s mega app
Conversely, pro-Beijing activists are drawn to WeChat. With more than one billion active monthly users, it’s hugely popular in mainland China and among the country’s overseas diaspora, including in Canada.
The app offers a range of features, including an electronic payment function and news feeds, connecting Chinese speakers with Beijing’s state-controlled media. Without end-to-end encryption, it’s considered a component in China’s surveillance program and allows Beijing to stir nationalist sentiment abroad.
A WeChat discussion among pro-Beijing nationalists about how to counter a recent Vancouver demonstration in support of Hong Kong quickly attracted 2,000 users, said Victor Feng, a Chinese-born Burnaby, B.C., man.
WeChat is “suited to our habits and our culture,” said Feng. “That’s why it’s more popular in the Chinese community.”
A Hong Kong activist in Toronto told CBC News he avoids WeChat for fear Beijing will use it to view his message and access his contact list.
“It’s a very dangerous app,” he said.
The Canadian House of Commons’ cybersecurity team even warned MPs and staff against conducting business over the software, pointing to “potential cybersecurity risks,” iPolitics reported.
Keeping off WeChat isn’t the only way Hong Kong demonstrators avoid Chinese surveillance.
Activists have been reported to mix Cantonese (transcribed in the Roman alphabet) and English in online messages as a way to avoid detection by Chinese filters. (The blend of languages even has a name: Kongish.)
China has used its state media to undermine the credibility of protesters and turned to Western platforms Twitter and Facebook to disseminate its information campaign abroad. The government’s critics have bypassed Chinese media in their bid for international support.
A GoFundMe page raised more than $2.4 million Cdn. Crowdfunded full-page ads ran in foreign newspapers, including The Globe and Mail and The New York Times, in an effort to rally support abroad.