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Hong Kong May Be the Battleground for a New Cyber Cold War

Hong Kong has become a test case for China’s efforts to shape cyberspace beyond the Great Firewall.

Earlier this month, Ip Kwok-him, a top adviser to Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam, mused about measures that, a few short months ago, would have been unthinkable. “The government,” he said, “will consider all legal means” of curtailing the monthslong protest movement. “We would not rule out restricting the internet.” On the world stage, Beijing has defended its domestic internet controls as critical to “stability maintenance” and demanded that other nations respect China’s “internet sovereignty”—a euphemism for the web of surveillance, censorship, and Chinese Communist Party policing of local tech firms. But Hong Kong—where Beijing officially has political sovereignty, but does not directly control the internet—is testing the World Wide Web’s original promise of cyberspace without borders.

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In 1997, when the British colony of Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese sovereignty, the internet was in its infancy. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement brokered between Beijing and London, Hong Kong preserved many of its institutions as a special administrative region: customs and immigration checkpoints on the old colonial border, independent courts, a separate system of currency, and civil liberties. Beijing pledged that Hong Kong’s freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years and promised a pathway to elected democratic representation to match the city’s freedoms of speech and assembly.

In the years since, Hong Kong’s cyberspace, outside Beijing’s “Great Firewall” of censorship and surveillance, has grown in line with those freedoms. It’s dominated by services that are blocked in mainland China: Facebook, Google, YouTube, WhatsApp, and others. Inside China, foreign competitors were squeezed out, and a suite of surveilled and censored homegrown tech firms and apps grew to dominate digital life; the Communist Party hopes that dazzling advances in consumer tech will guide China to greater prosperity while consolidating the government’s control. But, as China’s economy boomed through the 2000s, business ties drew Hong Kong closer to Beijing’s state-supervised system of “market socialism with Chinese characteristics”—capitalism kept on a leash by the Communist Party.

With Hong Kong’s once boisterous print and broadcast media falling increasingly under the ownership of firms with mainland business interests, traditional news outlets have softened their skeptical coverage of China. So when simmering discontent over fading promises of democracy bubbled over in 2014, the internet offered an unfettered platform for dissent. The result was a citizens’ “Occupy” movement with tent villages in Hong Kong thoroughfares, organized largely over Facebook and WhatsApp, symbolized by a Yellow Umbrella motif. “Occupy” fizzled a few months later in late 2014, its goals for political reform unmet.

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As it turned out, Hong Kong—and China—had seen nothing yet. In the spring, Hong Kong’s unelected chief executive proposed a controversial extradition law that risked sending Hong Kongers over the border to China’s murky and merciless legal system. The law looked likely to pass through Hong Kong’s local legislature, which is stacked with unelected loyalists sympathetic to Beijing. An explosion of citizen protest brought a harsher-than-expected police crackdown. In the ensuing cycle of escalations, millions of protesters returned to the streets, continuing their demonstrations and escalating their demands even after the extradition law was withdrawn. Clashes between police, protesters, and pro-Beijing crowds (including mobs believed to have links to organized crime) have spiraled into the worst civil unrest any part of China has witnessed since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing.

While the Beijing protests are remembered for the brutality with which they were suppressed, Hong Kong’s separate status limits the authoritarian toolbox that China can deploy to contain the unrest. (Another recent protest, in the mainland city of Wuhan, was swiftly extinguished thanks to the security services’ thorough penetration of the local internet and unfettered police powers.) In Hong Kong, where Beijing’s political sovereignty does not come with direct control over the internet or local police, Beijing is reluctant to active the most draconian option: deployment of the People’s Liberation Army to keep order in Hong Kong’s streets. While this could be done lawfully, it would be catastrophic—for global investor confidence, the regime’s credibility, and the assets of party elites and state-backed firms that rely on Hong Kong’s financial institutions.

Instead, Beijing is exploring other options. As protests continued to flare over the summer, various arms of China’s security and propaganda apparatus reached over the digital divide running along the former colonial border. Hong Kong has become a laboratory for China’s efforts to shape cyberspace beyond the Great Firewall. Within weeks of the movement’s resurgence, protesters had switched their main organizing from WhatsApp and Facebook to Telegram using a series of decentralized groups to direct demonstrations according to geographic location, profession, and other affiliations. China responded with a distributed denial of service attack on Telegram: a blunt-instrument method of overwhelming the app’s servers with bogus requests. (Telegram has suffered such disruptions before; this time, for the first time ever, the firm’s CEO Pavel Durov fingered China as the culprit.)

Another popular local organizing platform, LIHKG, is similar to Reddit, with a twist: Participants must have a Hong Kong IP address or other local digital link, such as an .hk email address from an educational institution, to participate—a safeguard which has diminished, but not eliminated, outside interference. Demonstrators have accused China of launching a disinformation war within Hong Kong, flooding their organizational platforms with false, misleading, or inflammatory information designed to confuse and defuse the protests.

The constant specter of surveillance that is a fact of life on the mainland has seeped into Hong Kong.

In official state media, after weeks of ignoring or downplaying the protests, Beijing began portraying the massive crowds as a small group of malcontents, guided by the “black hand” of foreign intelligence agencies, whose increasingly aggressive tactics are tantamount to terrorism. In the mainland’s closed media environment, where normal Chinese citizens are already disposed to regard Hong Kongers as spoiled children ungrateful for the motherland’s embrace, this narrative has resonated. In Hong Kong, protesters attempting to tell their side of the story to mainlanders arriving at border crossings have used Apple’s AirDrop to send digital leaflets pushing the demonstrators’ point of view. Mainland border agents have begun aggressively searching devices carried by citizens crossing the border from Hong Kong.

China’s digital spin doctors have also taken their media war to the global internet, aiming for audiences far beyond Hong Kong. Both paid and bot-based social media postings have circulated widely on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, forcing the companies to respond by deleting accounts and creating new policies on paid advertising from state-backed media outlets. The fight to shape events on the ground by controlling the online narrative may offer a preview of future disputes in a world where China ascends to the status of a technological superpower, reaching beyond the Great Firewall to counteract unwanted speech beyond its borders and shape events in Beijing’s favor. Governments and technology firms (and sports leagues) around the globe will face difficulty balancing business ties to China against the original idealism of the World Wide Web.

As the climate in Hong Kong becomes increasingly corrosive and both sides dig in for a long season of unrest, the constant specter of surveillance that is a fact of life on the mainland has seeped into Hong Kong. Protesters share tips on how to cover their digital tracks, and many who previously used Chinese-developed apps, such as the multifunction platform WeChat, have deleted them from their phones. Beijing’s efforts to shape Hong Kong’s patch of cyberspace may be a preview of the how trade and political tensions unfold across a Balkanized internet of the future.

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TikTok, which was developed in China, has been accused of censoring Hong Kong videos for users worldwide in accordance with the dictates of its home government. Apple has been criticized for pulling a protester-friendly app from its App store, and scrapped Taiwan’s flag emoji in the most recent Hong Kong version of its iOS operating system. Blizzard Entertainment banned a professional Hearthstone video game player who spoke out over Hong Kong, going as far as confiscating his winnings before partially backtracking after a backlash. If trade and tech tensions continue to jolt the World Wide Web, Hong Kong may be a fault line for months or years to come.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.