//...Tech-savvy protesters didn’t wait for a leader to tell them how to respond. Instead, they flooded online forums with suggestions that could be voted up or down by their peers, who eventually agreed to overtake Hong Kong’s international airport.
Those discussion groups, like a free-wheeling digital town hall, serve as the backbone of a movement mounting an unprecedented challenge to China’s increased control over the financial hub. Denied full democracy by the Communist Party in Beijing, they’ve decided to create their own.
“When there’s no single individual decision maker, it’s hard for the government to predict what will happen and launch any kind of suppression,” said Joshua Wong, a main leader of the 2014 Occupy protests in Hong Kong who spent time in jail and now considers himself part of the rank and file. “We don’t have a leader this time, but we have a platform.”
The technology underpinning the movement is a big reason the protests have no end in sight: Authorities can’t simply lock up the masterminds and send everyone home. At the same time, no single leader has enough clout to call off the protests, cut a deal with Chief Executive Carrie Lam or even tell fellow demonstrators what to do next.
Wong himself is a case in point. Lionized in a 2017 documentary on Netflix titled Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, he’s now just one of thousands of voices discussing ideas on platforms such as LIHKG, a Hong Kong-based forum like Reddit that allows users to endorse posts they support, and Telegram, which allows anonymous users to broadcast messages, photos and videos to hundreds of thousands of people.
In the mainland, China can simply use its Great Firewall to shut down the online discussion. But in Hong Kong, doing so may damage the city’s autonomy as much as putting Chinese troops on every street corner.
Despite Beijing’s efforts to curtail free speech in Hong Kong, the ability to freely surf the web and exchange ideas remains a key attraction for foreign investors. As long as protesters can use online tools, including some banned in China like Google Drive, they will remain a threat to both Hong Kong’s government and Chinese President Xi Jinping. ...//