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Communicating and Reporting on Protests in Hong Kong

Seventeen years ago, when Hong Kong was established as a special administrative region of China following its sovereignty transfer from the United Kingdom, the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” was proposed and later implemented. This stipulated that the city-state would retain its existing level of autonomy for at least 50 years. This past summer, administration officials in Beijing issued a white paper asserting its authority over the region, which sparked widespread anger over what was said to be a disregard for the principle. Of particular issue is suffrage and political freedom within the region – officials in Beijing want to vet candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive through a select committee. Protests ensued to demand full democracy for the region.

The Occupy Central campaign that’s made international news was initiated in 2013 by Occupy Central with Love and Peace, an organization founded by University of Hong Kong associate professor of law Benny Tai and aimed at electoral reform. Ironically, it was the organization’s perceived inaction that led to action by others.

“The organizers are academics, not activists,” noted Jason Ng, a Hong Kong-based social activist, author and writer of the As I See It blog. “They came up with idea, but dodged questions on when they’d start, and supporters got impatient. It was the student groups who decided to launch a city-wide, cross-platform protest for five days. Students started taunting the organizers on the lack of action, which prompted the launch on September 28. Once tear gas was deployed, the campaign became city-wide.”

Robin Hicks, editor of the media and marketing news site Mumbrella Asia, also described the dual messaging within the protests.

“What has complicated matters is that Occupy Central is not the only driver of the pro-democracy protests. The main thrust of the protests comes from a student lobby group that began protesting before Occupy Central,” Hicks said. “Both have the same aims, but are communicating at different times from different places and with different messages. But essentially the movement is leaderless, which makes it difficult to accurately assess the sentiment on the ground. You can’t interview everyone.”

Unsurprisingly, social media has been a key to spreading information and updates on the campaign. Hong Kong is exempt from the social media restrictions enacted in mainland China, thus Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags helped bring the movement to the forefront. And even in China, where Occupy posts on popular social platforms such as Weibo and WeChat are censored, information still flows by way of creativity.

“Information is getting through as users find oblique ways to refer to the protests without using keywords that will easily be tracked by sensors,” Hicks said.

“It is correct that in China, if I were to go on a business trip to Shanghai or Beijing, I wouldn’t be able to access the Internet and check the news when I arrive at the airport,” Ng noted. “But it’s not a big deal in China, because everyone’s used to it, and they have WeChat and Weibo. For a lot of people in China, their connections are all onshore, so as long as there’s some form of communication to relay.”

One new app has skyrocketed in popularity during the protests. Launched in March 2014 by software company Open Garden, Firechat operates off mesh networking, a system in which phones serve as individual routers to form an Internet connection that’s easily extended, eliminating the need for wi-fi access or cell phone towers. While there has been no blackout of mobile communications, students eagerly recommended downloading the app to prepare for the possibility, and the recommendation reverberated. Within one 24-hour period, 100,000 users downloaded the app.

At least for now, Ng sees Firechat as a promising work in progress.

“I’ve never heard about Firechat before the protests, but now everybody has it on their phones. The app is great for posting news, but it can be quite limiting. You can only join chat rooms, and I don’t believe you can do one-on-one chats. Also there’s no way to authenticate information, so you don’t know if it’s your opponent infiltrating the app and posting false information.”

The need for social media in Hong Kong stems from what many believe to be a stifled media market. According to Ng, of the more than 20 newspapers published in the region, only two are regularly purchased due to its independent voices. “If you go to say a 7-11 and look at the news racks, the newspapers that are not pro-Beijing will be sold out, and the rest will just be sitting there,” he said.

Hicks has seen press freedom precede the protests for some time. He recalled the controversial removal last year of Ming Pao’s chief editor Kevin Lau, who was replaced with a Malaysian journalist who is considered to be more supportive of the administration in Beijing. This led to street protests demanding more press freedom in Hong Kong. A few months after his removal, Lau was stabbed in an attack believed to have been retribution for his investigations into the business dealings of senior officials on the mainland.

“There is a sense that self-censorship is creeping ever deeper into newspapers, and Hong Kong has steadily slipped down the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, now in 61st place,” he explained. “The reporting of Occupy Central has been mixed and very divided. While Western international media has been pro-Occupy, on the ground there are camps fighting both corners. There are mainland papers that support and oppose the movement, and papers like the South China Morning Post, which are more neutral.”

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s most popular English-language paper, has seen traffic surge on its site after dropping its paywall for Occupy-related articles, to the extent of several site crashes.

From an advertising and marketing perspective, Occupy Central is already making an impact. Hicks said that there’s a sense among advertising executives that a decline in the industry is inevitable if the protests continue long-term. The retail sector has taken a HK$2.2 billion hit already, and he spoke of one business owner who likened the movement’s potential impact on business to that of the SARS epidemic that hit Asia’s economy a decade ago.

David Ko of The Daylight Partnership, a digital marketing company, told Hicks that “the major damage for the year has already been done.” That said, Ko sees Hong Kong as a “resilient place” and no major advertising campaigns have been cancelled since the movement sprang into life. According to Ko, “If Chief Executive Leung resigns or concessions are made, Hong Kong will bounce back very quickly.”

Speaking to the resilience of Hong Kong, it’s the kind and polite manner displayed by protesters, particularly students, that has struck both Ng and Hicks as a standout quality. Ng sees a particular mature bearing demonstrated, and he explained his changed perception of the young pro-democracy activists.

“Two weeks ago, if you asked a lot of people, including myself, what we thought of students in Hong, you’d hear that they’re lazy, spoiled by their domestic helpers, only play video games and have no ambition,” he reflected. “I see now that they are extremely organized and strategic and very disciplined. They are the worst enemy, so to speak, because they’re media savvy and kind, so no fault can be found with them and they can’t be instigated.”

Hicks said that reporting on the movement became more difficult as the week wore on. A seemingly straightforward report on a sit-in might be dragged into escalated tensions as those opposed to the movement are frustrated with the inconvenience caused by road blockages and the disruption of business. Yet he was still impressed by the manner of the protests.

“The sense I got from the protesters themselves was a group of people who were determined to protest in a polite, civil manner, which was part of their brand of, quite literally, civil disobedience,” Hicks added. “I would say that Hong Kongers are a polite bunch, but I have never experienced the same level of politeness as in the middle of a human scrum surrounded by 180,000 protesters. People helping each other pass by, saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’ – not common phrases you usually hear on the subway at rush hour.”

About Allison Richard

Allison Richard writes features and leads international content for Cision Blog. She oversees east Asian media for the research department, which suits her perfectly as she loves languages and culture. She also likes yoga, useless trivia, painting and comedy, in no particular order. Follow her on Twitter at @AllieTimes.

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