Fighting For Democracy in a Techno-Authoritarian State

Since this spring, Hong Kong’s residents have been demonstrating against a new law allowing extradition to mainland China. What started as a circumscribed demand aimed at a specific reform has, in the face of uncompromising public authorities, escalated to a broader pro-democracy movement, with protesters now asking for increased police accountability and universal suffrage. While these demands are aimed at the Hong Kong authorities, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is extremely concerned that democratic ideas could make their way into the mainland. The CCP’s reliance on high-tech surveillance tools in Hong Kong and the information operations it conducts to shape perceptions of the protests, both inside and outside of China, show the challenges democracy now faces from increasingly tech-savvy authoritarian regimes.

The CCP manipulates the information space at home…

When an estimated one million people marched in Hong Kong to protest the extradition bill in June, the CCP initially tried to suppress the news in mainland China and censors scrubbed any mention of the protests from popular social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo. What little coverage was afforded to the demonstrations emphasized simply that a majority of the city’s population supported the bill or focused on purported acts of violence by the protestors. As the demonstrations continued unabated, the coverage it received in Chinese state-media steadily increased, but systematically represented the protesters as rioters funded by foreign powers. This rhetoric peaked when Chinese officials condemned the protests as “near-terrorist acts” in mid-August. On Chinese social media, Beijing ensures that incidents such as the capture of an employee of the state-backed Global Times propaganda outlet by protestors blocking the Hong Kong airport are widely disseminated while censors erase any attempt by the protestors to justify their actions. With any dissident opinion promptly silenced, Chinese social media is now de facto dominated by an exacerbated nationalism accusing the protestors of, at best, foolishness or, more frequently, sedition.

… and abroad

Chinese celebrities and state media outlets have also been active on social media platforms that are otherwise banned on the mainland in order to influence a foreign audience. The messages they relay to foreigners re-use the narratives state media aims at a Chinese audience, including by drawing attention to the protesters’ acts of violence. For instance, the editor in chief of the Global Times called on “West reporters [sic]” on Twitter to help secure the release of his captured employee. This contributed to heightened coverage outside of China of an event that showed the protestors in the worst possible light.

Most significantly,  it has now surfaced that the CCP is orchestrating a sophisticated information operation on non-Chinese social media platforms aimed at discrediting the protests abroad. Chinese state media have taken out ads on these platforms depicting the Hong Kong protesters as rioters (and others extolling the virtues of internment camps in Xinjiang). This has prompted Twitter to stop promoting content produced by state media. On August 19, Twitter and Facebook announced that they removed several accounts and pages, many of which were associated with the Chinese government and were involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” propagating state-driven messages pertaining to Hong Kong. These takedowns potentially signal that Beijing’s information operations are shifting from information denial to active disinformation, adopting a modus operandi that Moscow has been using to great effect for years in the transatlantic space.

Fighting for democracy in a techno-authoritarian state

In response to the CCP’s control over Chinese social media platforms, protesters have been coordinating via the Russian app Telegram. The app’s servers were hit by a Chinese DDoS attack a few days after the demonstrations began in June. Following the cyberattack, Chinese authorities arrested the administrator of a Telegram chat group with 20,000 members. Nevertheless, protesters have strived to keep their leadership structure decentralized and secret to prevent specific targeting by the authorities.

On the ground, demonstrators have been using laser pens, facemasks and umbrellas to counter the widespread use of facial-recognition technology by the authorities. Meanwhile, Hong Kong police have reportedly been shining flashlights toward journalists to prevent them from filming the protests, while Chinese authorities have been searching through the phones of people travelling between the city and the mainland for photos and texts about protests.

Hong Kong is not an isolated case. From information operations to cyberattacks, the methods deployed by the CCP to suppress the protesters are analogous to those it and other authoritarian states use to interfere in democracies around the world. Democracies have the means to fight back but must be prepared to make some hard choices. Twitter’s decision to forgo revenue from state-sponsored content is a brave move others in this space should emulate. Cancelling research or business partnerships that enable authoritarian regimes to develop new methods of control would be another step in the right direction. Hong Kong citizens have taken to the streets to preserve their freedom; democratic societies owe it to them not to abet their oppressor.

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