China has been making headlines in the past few years.
China’s Great Firewall has been often mentioned online as the symbol of a modern-day dystopia and a self-sufficient censorship apparatus.
Few of us, outside of China, can really understand the intricacies of Chinese internet. But we do know that their network has developed into a significant spying and monitoring tool.
The digital totalitarian state now boasts more than 800 million internet users that it tightly holds under its control.
But this power might be spreading and impending freedom in Hong Kong as well.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s been happening in the area lately, and why it matters.
China: one country, two systems
To understand the relationship between China and Hong Kong, we need to start with their history.
It might sound peculiar, but Hong Kong has been a British colony for a long time.
The Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong to the British Empire in 1842, ending the First Opium War. So, from 1842 up until 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by a governor appointed by the monarchy of the United Kingdom.
In 1997, the UK agreed to let Hong Kong return to Chinese sovereignty. This didn’t happen willy-nilly; conditions have been clearly stipulated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The declaration ensured that Hong Kong would have its own “mini-constitution.” Its official name is the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Here are the most important points from it:
- Hong Kong is a special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic of China.
- Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy in the executive, legislative, and judicial sectors.
- Only permanent residents of Hong Kong have the right to vote on state matters.
- Hong Kong’s capitalist system as a UK colony will not be changed for 50 years.
- Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religious belief, and freedom of association will remain unimpeded as they were under British rule.
- Arbitrary or unlawful arrests, as well as torture, are prohibited.
- Citizens have the freedom to join trade unions and to strike.
These all sound pretty democratic, right?
Well, just to put things into perspective, think about this.
China’s Constitution describes the state as “a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship”. It also places great emphasis on socialist law as a regulator of political behavior, but not so much on individual rights and duties.
As you can imagine, there’s not a whole lot of compatibility between the two constitutions. And it shows.
The people of Hong Kong haven’t had much experience with the censorship and control that governs over China’s internet.
This has been a waking call for the people in Hong Kong since the protests have started.
China’s long surveillance history
In some parts of the world, we’re used to the news of an upcoming protest circulating online. A Facebook event, a trending hashtag on Twitter, or just an influx of memes on Reddit are now common ways of spreading and reacting to the news.
But some governments try to be one step ahead. And this is especially true for China.
China paved its way for surveillance acceptance way before many other countries.
Let’s take it back a notch.
How it all started
Going as far back as the Ming dynasty in 1069, Chinese people were well familiar with the Baojia system.
Baojia was a community-based system of law enforcement. Basically, your neighbors and friends kept a close eye on you. You, in turn, kept a close eye on them. Anything out of the ordinary was to be rattled out to the authorities.
In the 1940s, when Mao Zedong rose to power, he took advantage of this pre-existing surveillance mindset and established his system of informants that would be the ears and eyes of the Communist Party.
The Social Credit System
In modern-day China, surveillance has even been integrated into the digital world. Under Xi Jinping’s rule, the aim is to “purify” the country of any “disruptive behavior.”
Today, China seems to have aced keeping track of its citizens using behaviorist social science and the Social Credit System. This is the national reputation system developed by the Chinese government.
What’s scary about the Social Credit System is how well it works and how accurately it can classify an individual.
But this might not come as a surprise if you think about how much time and planning went into it.
In 2009, the Social Credit System began its trials.
Then, in 2014, it launched a national pilot, with eight credit scoring firms: Sesame Credit, Tencent, and Baihe.com were amongst them.
In 2018, efforts were centralized under the People’s Bank of China.
Initially, the aim was to keep track of people who were not “on time” with money. This criterion was to be used to establish a citizen’s trustworthiness. This was later paired with an extensive mass surveillance system.
With CCTV cameras decorating the streets nationwide, constant monitoring of social media accounts, and government spyware pre-installed on any commercial device; privacy is now something virtually inexistent in China.
For example, some things can get you in trouble and lower your Credit Score:
- eating while using public transport,
- not sorting waste,
- cheating in video games,
- drunk driving,
- failing to pay bills on time,
- identity theft,
- being religious.
The list of offenses is much longer and considers factors like age, location, employment status, and even pet ownership.
Other things can improve a Credit Score, such as donating blood, doing volunteer work, reading the teachings of the Communist Party, and so on.
One thing’s for sure: this score is affecting livelihoods, causing travel bans, reducing career perspectives, or the chance of finding love online.
According to the National Development and Reform Commission of China, 26.82 million air tickets and 5.96 million high-speed rail tickets have been denied to people who were deemed “untrustworthy” based on their score as of June 2019.
And this is only the beginning.
The Chinese government seems hell-bent to make sure nothing escapes their watchful eye.
Total digital Chinese surveillance
It’s not just real life that’s under intense scrutiny in China.
Nothing online is safe, either.
Behind the Great Firewall
In 1996, the Chinese government passed two online censorship bills.
The first bill requires all internet service providers in China to be approved by the government.
The second one regulates what can be labeled as “harmful content” and “malicious online activities.”
And no, it’s not about spreading ransomware or showcasing violent images. Instead, you are prohibited from harming the state or the party’s interests.
With such a broad definition, it’s no wonder the national internet infrastructure had to be contained within the government’s reach.
This is how the Great Firewall was born, featuring a complex system of blocking, filtering, and DNS poisoning in place. Now, all content that is deemed undesirable is blocked by default.
Any “mistakes” made on domestic websites are filtered and removed within hours.
Popular websites like Google, Facebook, and YouTube are replaced by their domestic counterparts, Weibo, WeChat, and Youku. These are constantly monitored and reviewed to make sure that the national regulations are well enforced.
Oh, and any international companies doing business in China also need to conform to these laws.
The golden age of WeChat
China passed its national security law in 2015. Now, all data collected on users is readily available to the authorities, at any time, for any reason.
This massive trove of data and government overreach shape the profile of each citizen. And that’s because the Chinese government took data mining to a whole different level.
You might already be familiar with the fact that corporations like Google or Facebook collect data on users and later turn into profit, with some disregard for personal digital privacy. But China managed to nationalize this business model.
Let’s take Tencent, for example.
The Chinese conglomerate holding company Tencent launched WeChat back in 2011.
The product started as a simple messaging app, much like WhatsApp. But it rapidly grew, adding more and more functionalities. Today it looks like the love child of Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Uber, Expedia, Venmo, Paypal, short-form podcasts, and even food delivery apps.
WeChat is now deeply embedded in everyday life. After all, it’s super convenient to have all your digital needs crafted into one single app.
But there is a price to be paid.
The CCP has access to all data generated through WeChat.
It all starts with a real name and phone number, both required for registering a WeChat account.
But then, if you order goods or food through WeChat, you’ll also give out your address. Hailing a cab means that you’re providing location data to the places you frequent. Any payment adds to your history of transactions and can help determine your habits, your interests, and your hobbies.
Yup, it’s exactly this type of data that decides your status and affects your chances of getting a job, a house, or a loan.
“But maybe, just like me, Chinese people have nothing to hide!” you might think. But you need to take context into account.
The digital systems governing lives are vulnerable to attacks and can become weaponized. And China is the country where even your complaints can get you into trouble.
This is what a Chinese man discovered for himself in 2019 when he was interrogated after complaining about police forces on QQ and WeChat.
So, now you might understand a bit better why the people of Hong Kong don’t want the CCP’s influence and policies shoved into their daily lives.
A recap of the Hong Kong protests
It all started in April 2019, with the introduction of a new bill. It would have led to criminals being deported to mainland China for conviction.
The official name was “The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill.” But that’s quite a mouthful, so we’ll just refer to it as the “extradition bill.”
The extradition bill
So, what’s the deal with this proposal?
Well, in early 2018, Chan Tong-kai, a 19-year-old Hong Kong resident, murdered his pregnant girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, while the two were staying in a hotel room in Taipei, Taiwan.
After getting back to Hong Kong, justice could not be served. Even if Chan confessed to the crime, there is no agreement between the two regions to facilitate extraditing or charging him.
If you’re into law, you can read the whole deal here.
John Lee, the Secretary for Security, proposed the bill. He was quickly met with resistance from Taiwan’s authorities. The Law Society of Hong Kong also questioned the bill favoring extradition over meeting proof requirements.
What’s more, the people of Hong Kong considered this to be too much Chinese influence and started fearing unfair trials for criminals.
Because China and Hong Kong have different definitions for “political criminals,” there was this suspicion that China might mistreat journalists and activists if they were to be extradited.
The same went for “dissent.” So, the bill could be abused to prosecute those who criticized or even questioned the CCP’s policies.
As a result, the people of Hong Kong were now making news all around the world.
Activity on community forums like r/HongKong soared. Memes and hashtags like #StandwithHongKong helped further spread information.
Coordinated social media efforts also shed light on police brutality, like when a nurse at an anti-government rally in Tsim Sha Tsui was shot with a beanbag round, which caused her a lose an eye.
And because social activism sometimes pays off, protesters managed to get the bill got suspended.
However, the people of Hong Kong still feared that the bill might be revived.
The protests escalated, now with a new set of demands attached.
Protesters called for “Five demands, not one less!“. They wanted:
- For the protests not to be characterized as a “riot;”
- Amnesty for arrested protesters;
- An independent inquiry into the alleged police brutality;
- The implementation of complete universal suffrage;
- A complete withdrawal of the extradition bill.
In September 2019, the bill was finally completely withdrawn.
But the citizens of Hong Kong kept protesting. After all, they had four more demands to be met.
At the same, the authorities started cracking down on the protesters in attempts to contain the situation.
A cat-and-mouse game
The more the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowds, the more people would take to the streets.
Minors also joined the protests, sparking controversies.
On the one hand, parents were criticized for letting teenagers attend potentially violent rallies.
But, on the other hand, the police were also accused of searching and arresting underage citizens. For more details, you can turn to this news about three teenagers who were taken by the police, leaving their parents with no way of getting in touch with them.
Even more violence in the streets
On October 1st, 2019, the PCC celebrated its 70th anniversary. In Hong Kong, that was one of the most brutal days of protest.
Protests reached a new level in November when the government banned protesters from wearing face masks.
The mask ban was a red flag for protesters. They toppled smart lamp posts, suspecting they might be used for spying, as the Chinese government continued to crack down on Hong Kong’s people.
The events also turned violent more often, with shots fired indiscriminately, targeting even foreign journalists.
Tear gas also became an often occurrence at the protests.
However, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, refused to call out the human rights abuses.
It’s uncertain what the future holds for Hong Kong.
It’s 2020, and the protesters are still in the street, fighting the authorities.
One thing’s for sure, though.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration designated 2047 as the date for the complete overtake of Hong Kong by China. This no longer appears to be a realistic deadline.
The people of Hong Kong have made it clear: they reject the nationalistic and dictatorial regime of the CCP, even if the Chinese government seems hell-bent on restoring what it perceives to be the one true country.
Lam’s extradition bill sparked the demonstrations. But now they’re a push for democracy.
Digital life in the times of the Hong Kong protests
As you can imagine, the CCP kept a close eye on the Hong Kong protests.
They tried to identify protestors.
At the same time, demonstrators were willing to find out the names of brutal police officers.
It was maybe the first time people here grasped the importance of anonymity and privacy.
A Telegram leak
Telegram, the cloud-based instant messaging and voice over IP service, played an essential role in helping organize and shape the protests.
However, things took a turn for the worst when a bug leaked users’ phone numbers.
Per reports, an attacker can add tens of thousands of sequential phone numbers to a phone’s address book. The attacker then connects to a Telegram channel where protests are being organized and syncs their contacts with the Telegram app. A state law enforcement agency, or intelligence service, can then force local mobile telcos to disclose the names of the persons behind those phone numbers. In the case of the Hong Kong protests, Chinese officials could get a list of people who organized or coordinated protests via Telegram.Catalin Cimpanu for Zero Day on August 23, 2019
Protesters now knew they had to be more careful in protecting their digital anonymity.
Turning to Bridgefy
After the Telegram issues, the people of Hong Kong turned to mesh messaging apps to bypass China’s deep surveillance network tracking.
As the threat of an internet shutdown grew, people chose Bridgefy, a developer-friendly SDK that can be easily integrated into Android and iOS mobile apps to make them work without the internet. It renders China’s online tracking systems useless.
Barring human rights
In the meantime, Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog received more than 4,700 complaints about doxxing since the social unrest began in June. According to a report, about 30% of the cases concerned government and police supporters, and 10% were filed by the anti-government protesters.
Even the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, was also denied entry to Hong Kong, despite having visited freely beforehand. But this time, he wanted to present a report on how the Chinese government is trying to undermine the international human rights system.
Fake news on the rise
As a state with a functioning and well-funded propaganda apparatus, the CCP was quick to push their version of the events.
A good way to tell if the news piece you’re watching if influenced by the Chinese authorities is to pay attention to the vocabulary used:
- Protestors are referred to as “rioters.”
- Tourists in Hong Kong are often described as foreign spies.
- There is often the mention of “US influence” or “US actors.”
- There is more focus on the police and the People’s Liberation Army.
The bigger picture
In November 2019, US President Donald Trump made a political statement by signing into law an act supporting the protests in Hong Kong. The “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” passed in Congress with bipartisan support.
This was a critical stance to take against Chinese interference and dominance.
But, the truth is a lot of governments have been inspired by China’s Great Firewall.
The Russians are experimenting with their own alternative to the global internet.
China has also massively invested in Uzbekistan’s network infrastructure. Let’s just say, people doubt it’s for a purely philanthropic reason.
Ecuador is a developing country that felt mass surveillance technology would help propel them socially. China’s CCTV network has been named as the main inspiration for this project.
Also, let’s not forget that Xi Jinping showed interest in oil-rich Venezuela. Beijing publicly stood by Maduro’s government, even after suffering financial losses.
This made many question China’s motives. While speculations range from oil to merely being a nuisance to the US, the Venezuelan opposition also claims that China might be aiding Maduro in cutting off internet access.
The race of digital supremacy
China’s rapid tech development in the tech industry didn’t go unnoticed by foreign investors.
Major Chinese tech companies, among which Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE, proposed to supply artificial intelligence surveillance technology in Western countries, helping the creation of smart cities. Germany, Spain, and France have already signed deals.
But privacy activists are worried all data this technology generates will end up straight into the hands of Beijing officials.
And if you are quick to dismiss these claims, you should know that China invests heavily to expand the CCP influence abroad. For example, Freedom House published a research paper on how Chinese propaganda, content curation, and censorship has spread beyond East Asia.
Here’s what China is doing:
- Chinese state media outlets like People’s Daily, CGTN, and China Daily, are active global social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram and often use misleading taglines and partake in deceptive promotional ads
- In countries like Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, TV packages that include international options like the BBC World Service cost more than basic packages with local channels and Chinese state media.
- In 2017, Chinese tech giant ZTE signed an agreement with state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) to expand digital television services, particularly to rural and remote regions.
- Huawei is the company that led the transition from analog to digital television in Cuba.
- WeChat is expanding in much of Asia, attracting non-Chinese speakers in countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, and India.
- In Canada, WeChat censors deleted a member of Parliament’s message to constituents praising Hong Kong’s protesters.
- In Peru, there has been little to no serious media coverage related to environmental and labor controversies that have periodically affected Chinese operations in the country’s extractive industries.
- In Australia, most Chinese publications are pro-Beijing. Likewise, in New Zealand, a long-term effort by the CCP to influence Chinese media coverage and local communities have had a profound impact on the local 2017 elections.
- When Xi Jinping visited Papua New Guinea in 2018, local and international journalists were barred from covering his meeting with eight regional leaders. They were told instead to use reporting by Xinhua or video from CCTV as the basis for their coverage.
- The satellite firm Eutelsat of France cut its transmission of NTDTV to China, apparently in exchange for the opportunity to broadcast Xinhua’s English news channel in Europe.
- TikTok, another app from China, emerged as one of the most downloaded applications worldwide in 2019. About 60 percent of the app’s monthly active users reportedly reside in the United States.
Mobile is eating the world
China is also one of the most important players in the smartphone market.
Among the seven most sold smartphone brands globally in the past two years, five of them are produced by the Chinese tech companies Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo, vivo, and Realme.
ZTE has also sold tens of millions of smartphones around the world over the past years.
Since most of these are significantly cheaper than their Apple and Samsung counterparts, it’s no wonder that their popularity and demand increased.
However, many have questioned China’s involvement in the mobile technology sector. The main concern is whether these devices can be used for surveillance and data mining.
In early 2018, six US intelligence agencies issued a warning, urging US citizens not to use commercial products offered by Huawei and ZTE. Lawmakers also considered a bill that would ban government employees from using Huawei and ZTE phones altogether, in the name of national security.
UK’s National Cyber Security Centre also had similar findings and advised telecommunication companies in the country to avoid products and services offered by ZTE.
Samantha Hoffman is an analyst of Chinese security issues at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In her paper, Engineering Global Consent: The Chinese Communist Party’s Data-Driven Power Expansion, she explains how data can easily be misused by the CCP.
If you go back to even the late 1970s and early 80s, the way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talks about technology is as a tool of social management. It’s a way of not only coercive control, but also sort of cooperative control where you participate in your own management. It’s this idea of shaping the environment, shaping how people think, how they’re willing to act before they even know they’re making a choice. That’s the party’s idea.Samantha Hoffman in an interview with The Guardian
So, digital data is important to the CCP. Your digital data is important to the CCP.
A checklist for your digital privacy today
Since you can never really know who is trying to sell your data and which platform is owned by a Chinese company, it’s essential to protect your digital life.
Online threats are always lurking, but if you are currently in Hong Kong, you’ll also have the CCP’s tactics to worry about.
Here’s where you should begin:
- Use a VPN to protect your online anonymity and to stay safe of government surveillance.
- Safeguard all your accounts with complex passwords. You can use a password manager. This will also make it easier to change your password frequently.
- Use two-factor authentication whenever it’s available.
- Always use https:// connections. Some security apps like VPNs have this feature, but extensions like HTTPS Everywhere are also available.
- Keep your OS and software updated. Make sure always to install security patches.
- Avoid social media channels that collect your data and sell it to third parties, since they could easily compromise you.
- Be careful to check out tracking cookies featured on websites and delete them regularly.
- Read the Terms & Conditions of any service, app, or site you are using to check what you are getting into.
- Pay attention to what permissions your apps request. Keep an eye out for any suspicious permission.
- Be cautious about what you share online. Don’t post personal information.
- Don’t open suspicious email. If you do so by accident, make sure not to click on any links or download any attachments.
- Use an antivirus.
- Pay attention to any misspelled URLs. This is called typosquatting and is often used by scammers who are trying to impersonate a legitimate company.
- Never give credit card details or passwords. No reputable company will ask for these as proof of your identity.
- Check shortened links to see where they are leading you to.
- Use an ad-blocker to avoid clicking on suspicious ads.
While these actions might not keep you 100% safe from malicious intent, they will keep most threats at bay.
Even if you’ve heard of calls to boycotting Chinese products, you might not be able to avoid them completely especially since it takes a lot of digging to find out which Chinese companies masquerade behind shady ownerships with loose privacy policies.
So, make sure you do your due diligence to protect your data online.
Don’t give up hope
The abuses of the Chinese authorities might seem like something out of a movie, but they’re a reality the people of Hong Kong got a taste of.
But they’re choosing to fight and try to uphold democratic values.
Freedom of expression lies at the core of a free and open society. And privacy is key in preventing government overreach.
Whether you’re a tourist in Hong Kong or a local, make sure you take care of yourself. Keep your private life out of the CCP’s hands and be mindful of how your online activity could be traced back to you.
Stay safe, Ghostie!