Crypto’s role in Hong Kong’s fight for democracy
Schooled by Breach is a weekly newsletter where Breach writer, Adetomiwa talks to people with experience about pressing crypto questions, learns a lesson and shares the findings with you. Crypto can be easy, so let’s figure it out together. Out every Friday!
This is the fourth of a five-part series on Schooled by Breach where we explore how people in various countries are using or have used crypto in their quest for civil liberation. This week’s episode covers how protesters in Hong Kong are using crypto and blockchain tech to preserve their history amid government threats.
The first time I heard of the protests in Hong Kong was in August of 2019. I remember seeing protesters fill the Hong Kong International Airport. Many of them had bandages taped to their eyes to represent a protester who reportedly lost an eye after being hit by a police-fired rubber bullet during one of the many violent law enforcement raids.
What started as a peaceful demonstration 5 months prior had become a mass demonstration against China’s alleged attempts to take away the freedoms people in Hong Kong enjoyed.
To fully understand any of the previous paragraphs, we’ll need a bit of background:
The deal with Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China. It’s located on the southern coast and borders the Chinese province of Guangdong, by flight, it is about 3 hours away from China’s capital city (Beijing).
Special administrative region means that Hong Kong is technically a part of China, but Hong Kong’s governing style favours more democratic choices — like elections, freedom of speech, etc. — than people in Mainland China.
Hong Kong was colonised by the British in the 1840s. But in the 1890s, the British agreed to leave Hong Kong to China on the condition that they didn’t change the policies and they “preserve Hong Kong’s familiar legal system and rights”.
However, reporters say, China has been chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedom since Britain’s handover. As a result, over the years, Hong Kong’s citizens have staged multiple demonstrations to protest China’s attempts to impose more control over the city. Some have been successful, but they’ve mostly led the Chinese government to crack down further.
What happened this time?
The Chinese government attempted a rule that would extradite people in Hong Kong prisons to mainland China but citizens were not having it. In September 2019, the Chinese government withdrew the bill, but by that time, the list of demands from the Hong Kong people had expanded. They didn’t just want this one thing anymore, they now wanted the Chinese government to back off completely and allow full democracy.
The chants went from asking the government to meet a specific demand to broader anti-oppression slogans like “liberate Hong Kong’’. The bigger the protests got, the more violent they became.
When they weren’t shooting plastic and real bullets at protesters, police were ramming their cars into protesters or using dangerously unsafe measures to disperse or arrest protesters.
A 17-year-old protester, one of over 300 reported violent cases, says he now has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from getting beat up by the police. “I would have anxiety, I would want to throw up, I would have dizziness. Mostly because I thought about what happened before”, he said.
Protesters also got violent. They threw homemade bombs, started fires and got physically violent with law enforcement. This was all reportedly in response to police aggression and to also strongarm the government.
Crypto’s role in the chaos
In November 2019, months into the protests, International bank HSBC shut down a Hong Kong-based corporate account that was being used to fund the protests. The bank claimed that the activities on the account didn’t match why it was opened so they had to review its activities. In response, disappointed protesters turned to crypto.
Unlike Nigeria where word about crypto donation strategies was mostly spread on social media, Hong Kong’s strategy was more discreet.
It started with efforts from Crypto workspace, Genesis Block, which installed 14 cryptocurrency automated teller machines (ATMs) throughout the country. The organisation then distributed free bottles of water and umbrellas at the protests, all of which had a QR code containing a link to details on how to financially support the protests. Reports say the link detailed how to access cryptocurrency Bitcoin Cash and donate to nonprofits and how these organisations could access the donations.
Genesis Block’s efforts supported non-profits like Snowden’s Guardian Angels — a collection of anti-government people in Hong Kong — which provided shelter for people hiding from the government. The organisation, with the help of Genesis Block, was able to gather more support and easily access funds to amplify its efforts during the protests.
Another group that used Bitcoin Cash donations was the non-profit organisation Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP). The group, run by independent journalists, worked to tell unbiased versions of the events unfolding in the country. These journalists became particularly important once the government started coming for the free press.
In May of 2021, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong announced that it would begin erasing content over a year old. This meant that they would delete all content covering the protests and the events leading up to them. The authorities also started shutting down independent news outlets and arresting journalists who told anti-government stories.
Hong Kongers are worried that this is the government’s way of gradually re-writing their history and they are doing everything they can to back up events they consider important. One example is Kin Ko, a game developer and crypto enthusiast, who built a blockchain content backup.
As a response to the threat of erased history, Kin Ko created LikeCoin, a decentralised publishing infrastructure. Ko explains that LikeCoin metadata — like author, title, publication date and location, as well as a distinctive fingerprint — is generated the first time any content is published.
LikeCoin stores these details on the blockchain, and allows readers to see if the details have been tampered with. “If I watch this video 10 years later and the fingerprint has changed, we know that the content has changed”, he said.
The Hong Kong protests seemed to be achieving some success until they came to an abrupt end in 2020, partly due to the coronavirus crisis. The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PIRO) reports that in June 2020, the Chinese government outlawed protests in Hong Kong by creating a controversial law that criminalises any act that is perceived to “endanger national security”.
It’s not clear yet how Hong Kongers will get the democracy they’re fighting for, but we can see that they will work together to create what they need, and as blockchain and technology expand, so will the tools they use to demand what they deserve.
Now you know how people around the world use Blockchain beyond financial independence. This is the final episode of this special Schooled by Breach series. I hope you learnt as much from it as I have. See you next week!
Now you know how people around the world use Blockchain beyond financial independence. If you’ve missed any of the previous episodes, check out last week’s recap here. See you next week!