The Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus is driving protesters away from digital technologies while police activity ramps up in Hong Kong.
An estimated million demonstrators have gathered in recent days to peacefully protest against an extradition bill which they fear Beijing would use to attack political opponents.
The protests are the largest in Hong Kong since the former British colony’s handover to China in 1997 and turned violent on Wednesday as police used tear gas and rubber bullets on the crowds.
Journalist Mary Hui, of business news website Quartz, tweeted an image of long queues at train ticketing machines to buy paper tickets rather than use their smart cards.
Ms Hui reported that the demonstrators were attempting to avoid leaving digital records through the metro system, which Beijing could use to accuse them of attending the protests.
There is usually never a line at the train ticketing machines. Judging from an overheard convo, it appears that people are reluctant to use their rechargeable Octopus cards for fear of leaving a paper trail of them having been present at the protest. pic.twitter.com/s1rsgSnCqL
— Mary Hui (@maryhui) June 12, 2019
One 18-year-old protester who spoke to Sky News, only giving her name as Jacky, said: “We’re young but we know that if we don’t stand up for our rights, we might lose them.”
Some demonstrators are reluctant to be identified by their full names and professions, with many wearing surgical masks over fears of being identified from images of their faces.
They appear particularly mindful of Beijing’s growing use of facial recognition technology to build files on those it considers politically unreliable.
One of the most pervasive forms of surveillance which the Chinese government utilises is through social media and apps, notably WeChat – one of the largest social networks in the world.
Individuals who have been detected referencing censored topics on WeChat are forced to provide their facial image to the app in order to reactivate their accounts after the suspensions.
Among the most censored of topics in China is the anniversary of the Tiananman Square protests in which the Chinese army fired on unarmed student protesters.
Despite the protests in Hong Kong, which do not yet appear to have turned fatal, the region’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has vowed to press ahead with the legislation.
Ms Lam has insisted that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts and that, without the changes, Hong Kong could become a haven for criminals evading justice.
Many in Hong Kong fear that residents sent to China could face ambiguous national security charges and would not be given a fair trial.
They note that courts on the mainland are controlled by the Communist Party and have been accused of using torture, arbitrary detentions and forced confessions.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a lawyer and member of Ms Lam’s administration advisory committee, warned that Beijing’s patience for Hong Kong was limited.
He said: “We need to gain the trust and confidence of Beijing so they can allow us the freedom of political reform.
“They don’t want to see Hong Kong as a base of subversion. And I’m sorry – we’re doing exactly that.”
The legislature’s president, Andrew Leung, has scheduled a vote on the extradition law for 20 June, although it is not clear if this date will also be postponed.