Decentralized governance: inside Hong Kong’s open source revolution (LIHKG, Reddit, Pincong, GitHub)

Dear passengers, welcome to Hong Kong, Cypherpunk Harbour. Please wipe out your chat logs, photos, videos, browsing history, and put on a mask before proceeding to a counter. Enjoy your stay and be water.

Sam Aiken
Sam Aiken
Sep 11 · 21 min read

Disclaimer: in this article we focus on organization and tech, rather than politics. To Chinese nationalists: if you disagree with information below, feel free to participate in the discussion in a civil and polite way. Both sides have a right to speak out, that’s called freedom of speech. And if you think that I’m a pro-US shill, then read my article about US imperialism. To HK activists: the information is taken from open sources such as public tg groups, lihkg, reddit, so it won’t expose any secrets, but it will tackle “foreign interference” myth. I also own BTC, ETH, BCH, and other coins, but my portfolio is heavily diversified, so I don’t have financial incentives to shill for any particular coin. This article is brought to you by a privacy-oriented peer-to-peer marketplace LocalCryptos.

Unjust laws exist;

shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded,

or shall we transgress them at once?

© Henry David Thoreau

Intro

Many of us joined the crypto community because we were overwhelmed by the amount of libertarians, cypherpunks, and hacktivists, pursuing one simple goal — freedom. Now imagine that there is one more highly decentralized and highly resilient community, which is also evolving in an extremely adversary environment and pursuing the same goal — freedom. Would you be excited to learn more about this community and study its governance model?

Recent leaderless protests in Hong Kong are an amazing example of decentralized governance coupled together with the use of cutting edge privacy- and security-oriented technologies. This unique experience is extremely valuable beyond HK protests and should be studied by scholars and shared with activists, journalists, crypto enthusiasts and cypherpunks across the world.

The purpose of this article is to raise awareness about HK protests in the crypto space, introduce some HK activists to crypto, and exchange valuable experiences between different communities.

CCP — Chinese Communist Party.

Mainlander — citizen of mainland China, not Hong Kong. Sometimes referred simply as “Chinese”, because almost 97% of HK youngsters identify themselves as Hongkongers, rather than Chinese.

Red Media — state-backed news companies that push pro-Beijing narrative across the world (CCTV, CGTN, Global Times, People’s Daily, Xinhua, etc.) Sometimes this term also includes previously independent news outlets that were acquired by pro-CCP businessmen and slowly shifted towards pro-Beijing position, e.g. China Times (Taiwan) or SCMP (Hong Kong). In August, Twitter stopped accepting advertising from state-controlled news media due to a surge of disinformation about Hong Kong protests.

Wumao / 50 cent army / 0.5 — originally, it meant state-sponsored Chinese Internet commentators that were spreading CCP propaganda and disrupting activists similar to Russia’s troll army, but on a much larger scale. Nowadays, 50 cent army also includes 飯圈女孩 and young Chinese nationalists, who often study overseas and have an access to western social media platforms without a VPN. Additionally, commercial bots have been recently mobilized to tweet about Hong Kong. In August, Twitter and Facebook blocked more than 200,000 Chinese bots.

Side note: it’s important to distinguish between all mainland Chinese and aggressive Chinese nationalists. In the last few months there has been a growing anti-Chinese and anti-Hongkongers sentiment, which is very similar to what we see in the ongoing India/Pakistan conflict, or the Russia/Ukraine conflict. However, we should remember that there are many open-minded people on both sides, who either support or at least tolerate a pro-democracy movement in HK, so let’s be careful with generalizations.

The trolls and pseudo-journalists who waged a propaganda campaign against the United States were Russians, but so were the journalists who exposed them. © DFRLab

Governance

In order to understand why current protests are leaderless, we have to go back a few years ago to the Umbrella Revolution of 2014. That time the movement was more centralized and had leaders, but many of them were later sentenced to 8 to 13 months imprisonment and were barred from running for public office for five years. Nowadays, being a pro-democracy leader in HK is even more dangerous because high-profile activists are not only arrested, but also assaulted, and they constantly receive death threats.

Hongkongers also learned from the recent Catalan independence movement, which lost its momentum after its leader unilaterally decided to back down.

Current pro-democracy movement in HK is much more resilient due to high degree of decentralization, so let’s look at how activists propose ideas, discuss them, and turn them into real actions.

There are three major groups: Cantonese-speaking (official language in HK), Mandarin-speaking (official language in China) and English-speaking activists. It’s important to mention that many English-speaking digital activists are netizens from across the world, who decided to help Hongkongers in solidarity or in fear of growing Chinese nationalism abroad.

Side note: I guess, international netizens are the closest thing to what the Red Media calls as ‘foreign interference’, because they definitely have more influence on the movement than the CIA. To be fare, internet community was actively helping protesters around the globe for the long time already, one of the earliest examples was the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The most recent example is that Google and Mozilla have blocked Kazakhstan root CA certificate from Chrome and Firefox in order to protect users from having their online communications intercepted by the government. A state-issued Security Certificate was enforced on people by Kazakh government after pro-democracy protests broke out in the country.

Cantonese-speaking activists use a HK-based forum LIHKG as the main command center of the movement. This forum is very similar to Reddit, so the most engaged posts stick to the top under “hot” filter, increasing their exposure. When the forum is down because of huge DDoS attacks, LIHKGers move to r/LIHKG, Twitter, and Telegram groups, which increases resilience due to higher degree of decentralization.

LIHKG is hosted on US-based servers and the founders (連尼住, 望遠) hide their real identities, so it’s hard for HK police to get access to LIHKG’s database. This is very important because during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 activists used HKGolden forum, but its admins were pressured to reveal user’s IP to authorities, leading to his arrest.

LIHKG is used for proposing ideas, organizing events, discussing tactics and strategies, doxxing police and pro-Beijing thugs, crowdfunding ad campaigns, conducting investigations, sharing memes, posters, arts, videos, songs, and translating the content to reach an international audience.

The content is visible to the public, but to engage a user must have an account. Unlike Reddit, LIHKG requires a certain type of email addresses (e.g., provided by HK ISP or an institution of higher education located in Hong Kong), so it’s harder for outsiders to sign up or create fake accounts.

This is both a strong and weak side of the platform, because those email addresses can be potentially linked to users’ identities, which poses huge risks due to the white terror in HK. Of course, email addresses are hidden from public profiles, and IPs can be masked with VPN/Tor, but it’s still the matter of time when the police will get a full access to the database of LIHKG users either through coercion, or a hacker attack. Darknet markets are a good example of that.

LIHKG has cool features specifically for activists such as “MTR mode”, which allows users to browse a forum without loading images or videos, which is essential during massive events when the internet speed is very slow. Another privacy-oriented feature (soon to be deployed) “emergency password” allows a user to log out from the app by using the special password when the app is launched. This is very useful in case if an activist was forced by a potential adversary to unlock a phone and open an app. This approach has some downsides though, for example, a detainee can be heavily tortured after typing in an emergency password.

In crypto space this issue is solved in a different way with “25th word”. For example, if a detainee inputs a normal PIN code into his Ledger hardware wallet, then he opens an ordinary wallet without raising any suspicion, but if he types in a special PIN, then he opens a hidden wallet. Other features like Stealth Mode in Samourai Wallet hide app icon from a home screen and launcher, so a user has to dial a secret PIN in a phone dialer to open the app. The Scrambled PIN randomizes the layout of the PIN screen on every load to protect against keyloggers, screen recorders, and physical attacks.

pincong.rocks 品葱

Mandarin-speaking activists and Chinese dissidents use “outside the wall” 「牆外知乎」online forum pincong.rocks, which functions in a similar way to LIHKG. The platform is mostly used for spreading information and discussions between mainlanders and HKers, so some posts contain replies in both traditional and simplified Chinese.

reddit.com/r/HongKong/

English-speaking activists reside at r/HongKong subreddit, which serves as a bridge between Hongkongers and netizens across the world. (Not to be confused with a recently created pro-CCP copycat clone r/Hong_Kong).

r/HongKong subreddit is mostly used to spread the information and onboard newcomers, but sometimes international netizens propose tactics, discuss different strategies, give PR suggestions, organize solidarity rallies across the world, expose CCP propaganda, create memes & arts, share ideas how to bypass censorship filters, explain how to support HKers from abroad, and provide practical suggestions for the frontline (e.g. first aid on cyanide poisoning due to high level of hydrogen cyanide from expired tear gas canisters still used by the HK police).

In late August, r/HongKong was trending for a few consecutive days in, but then suddenly disappeared from the 1,000 top growing communities list, which spiked debates whether it was connected to $150 million investment from Chinese Tencent. Later there were more accusations of a hidden censorship imposed by Reddit admins on r/HongKong, but it might also be explained by a coincidence or a poorly coded algorithm, because r/HongKong eventually reappeared in trending list in September.

Source: subredditstats

In August, there was a surge of pictures about Hong Kong and China on r/pics, and many of them got millions of views, but then all China/Hong Kong images were “censored” out from r/pics feed into one megathread, so many content creators started posting these images in r/HongKong. That attracted new subscribers and made content more entertaining, but it also flooded the subreddit with memes, so some important posts got lost in the noise.

Reddit has been heavily targeted by Chinese bots, as well as all other social media platforms.

github.com

There is literally a github page, where you can create issues and submit pull requests with suggestions and recommendations. There is not much discussion going on there, but it’s a good example that literally anybody can participate and influence the movement.


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The decision-making process in HK protests is the opposite of what we’ve seen in the most other centralized protests movements. For example, events can be proposed by some organizations such as CHRF and Demosistō, or purely by netizens. The process of organizing events is often very similar to improvement proposals in crypto space:

  • It normally starts with the discussion in Telegram groups or during real life brainstorming meetings (similar to Bitcoin/Ethereum mailing lists).
  • Then activists create a post on LIHKG (similar to BIP or EIP in crypto).
  • If the proposal gets enough community support, people start discussing the details such as date, time, agenda, purpose, route, dress-code, gear, etc.
  • Then somebody combines all the info together, attaches some posters and creates a post with a final information.
  • After that artists create lots of call-to-action arts and posters with the info about the event.
  • Eventually, people start spreading the message on social media, distribute leaflets on the streets and stick posters on the walls across the city.

Literally anybody can submit a proposal for an event, suggest some tactics, start a crowdfunding campaign, and share tips from their fields of expertise. Since August, when HK protests hit the mainstream media, we’ve seen a surge of netizen’s activity on reddit with lots of great ideas entering the space. The beauty of reddit, is that it allows a pseudonymous interaction without any link to a real identity (R.I.P. Aaron Swartz), so if people are afraid to use regular accounts, they simply create one-time ‘throwaway’ accounts to share their ideas. It’s fair to mention that CCP bought a share in reddit and there was recently a scandal with censoring a photo from Tienanmen Square massacre, so the usage of VPN and privacy-oriented email services is highly recommended.

From r/HongKong mods:

There is a spam filter and an automod in place in our subreddit to filter out spammers and trolls. There is a minimum account age and karma requirement to post/comment in our sub. If your don’t see your post in new, please use the ‘message the mod’ function and link to it, we will look into it.

OK, but what if a proposal didn’t get enough support? Well, if BIP/EIP didn’t get the public support in the crypto space, then it will not be implement. The same is happening in the HK protests movement. If a certain event didn’t get enough public support, then activists will just cancel it. Sometimes the date and time of the protest is announced prior to the event, but the actual action will be discussed by protesters right on the spot, depending on how many people will attend the event.

In the next article we will discuss in details how protesters communicate on the ground using Telegram, FireChat, AirDrop, and Walkie-talkie.

History crash course: Hong Kong used to be a British colony for 150 years, but due to the pressure from China it never gained independence as other British colonies did after the Second World War. Instead, Hong Kong was ruled by Britain till 1997 and then was handed back to communist China with a completely different legal and political system. In order to save an important role of HK in China’s growing economy, HK was granted with a status of Special Administrative Region under ‘1 country, 2 systems’ principle for 50 years till 2047. That turned out to be very useful for CCP because China was isolated internationally after the Tienanmen Square massacre, so HK acted as a bridge. HKers were promised with genuine universal suffrage, but it was never delivered, which angered the populace. Here is a recap of HK protests from June to August.

Fun fact: in 1980s Britain tried to renew a 99-year lease for a part of HK called New Territories, but Beijing rejected an offer and threatened to cut off the water supply and deploy PLA, so Britain was pressured to handover not only New Territories, but the whole Hong Kong, including Kowloon and HK island. There are still many debates whether it was ethical to handover millions of people with western values to communist China.

There was an interesting study that analyzed hundreds of major protests over the 20th century for the overthrow of the government or territorial liberation. According to the results, all campaigns achieved significant changes after protesters have gained the active participation of just 3.5% of the population. And lots of them succeeded with far fewer than that. In Hong Kong there were multiple protests with more than 1 million participants, and the biggest peaceful march on June 16 gathered almost 2 million people, which is astonishing 27% of Hong Kong population. Critics say that the real number of participants might be less, but even if we assume 1 million people, it’s still 13.5% of the population.

With such a huge public support and unity Hongkongers should have achieved some significant political changes, right? Well, after three months of protests, Chief Executive of HK finally announced that she will propose withdrawing of the controversial extradition bill in October when the legislature reconvenes, but none of other demands has been met.

Beijing keeps repeating that HK protests are purely ‘internal affairs’, but as we can see, Hongkongers absolutely cannot succeed without a help of international community. Protesters in other countries usually have an option to either overthrow their government, or achieve a significant political change, but in HK it’s not an option, because HK government is controlled by the central government in Beijing. Side note: it took Ukrainians 3 months to overthrow their government during Euromaidan in 2014.

Red Media constantly blame ‘foreign interference’ for massive protests in HK, claiming that Hongkongers are unable to organize such a movement by themselves, so many Chinese, even in crypto space, believe so.

Surprisingly, even some independent journalists buy this story, calling protesters ‘US-backed rioters’.

Side note: here are reddit posts (one, two) with a context of that detention, which most protesters didn’t support, but rather tried to stop it, and publicly apologized the next day.

Don’t get me wrong, American corporate media is biased, and the CIA (NED) is definitely meddling as they always do, but 2 million protesters on June 16 and 1.7 million protesters 2 months later on August 18 clearly showed us that pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has a huge public support, and it’s very different from US-backed regime-change attempts in other countries like Venezuela.

To debunk the ‘foreign interference’ myth even further let’s look at a few examples of how this highly decentralized movement naturally evolved due to constant pressure, and how protesters managed to reach such a huge international exposure, much more than recent anti-government protests in France, Algeria, Sudan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Russia, West Papua, Puerto Rico, and Kashmir.

Hongkongers learned a lot from the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 and many other smaller protests over the last few decades, so all logistical practices of collecting & bringing supplies and setting up medical & donation stations were already in-built and didn’t need any additional organization from ‘foreign powers’. Interestingly, some tactics were even brought to HK by foreign protesters a long time ago, e.g. there were 2,000 South Korean farmers during anti-WTO protests in 2005, who showed the importance of constructing barricades in a triangle-shape, so police cannot simply push it down. Side note: all South Korean men have to serve in army.

The Umbrella Revolution of 2014 was mostly focused on occupying certain city areas (Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok), so in early June 2019 activists chose the same tactic and most protests were held on the Hong Kong island, which is the main business and government center.

After two million people took to the streets, Hongkongers understood that the HK government is fully controlled by CCP and will not give them any freedom regardless of how many people demand for it, so activists started brainstorming the strategies. The only way to survive the white terror, put the pressure on the officials, and prevent a brutal crackdown, was to bring more international attention and raise awareness of mainland Chinese.

To bring more international attention, Hongkongers fund-raised $0.8 million US dollars for a huge ads campaign prior to G20 summit in Osaka. It increased international coverage, so HKers repeated the same tactic again and again, placing ads in different newspapers across the world.

Protesters also visited foreign consulates multiple times to deliver petitions, and HK students abroad organized solidarity rallies in different countries. One more way to bring the attention of a foreign media was waving foreign flags, especially UK and US flags. That decision spiked lots of debates among protesters, but we will focus on how activists achieve consensus in the next articles.

Finally, activists started visiting famous tourist destinations across the world such as Mont Blanc, Mount Fuji, Horseshoe Bend, holding a flag with a slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; Revolution of Our Times”, which was introduced by pro-independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei in 2016.

Left: Mont Blanc (credits: 山中遊子), center: Mount Fuji, right: Horseshoe Bend

Penetrating the Great Firewall was a hard task, because in June 2019 CCP was heavily censoring any mentioning of HK protests on Chinese social media platforms, since that could poses a threat to the central government (e.g., environmental protests broke out in Wuhan in the end of June, but were later suppressed with the force).

Image: RebelPepperWang — “Quite! Don’t wake them up…”

After countless discussions, protesters decided to focus on thousands of mainland tourists that visit HK everyday, so those tourists can later spread the message back in China. To do that activists proposed different tactics such as Lennon walls, airport sit-ins, and protests in areas with high tourists density.

Images: Lai Man Nung

As a result, many Lennon walls spawned across the city, protesters moved from Admiralty to other locations, and netizens organized an event dedicated to raising awareness of mainland Chinese in Kowloon by distributing booklets in simplified Chinese, sharing posters via AirDrop, chanting in Mandarin, and talking to tourists about different censored topics such as human rights abuses, political kidnapping, enforced disappearance, widespread torture, oppression of Tibetans, detention of one million Uighurs in internment camps, forced organ harvesting, persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and other religious groups, crackdown on human rights lawyers, creation of a surveillance state, and suppression of dissidents across the globe.

This strategy gave certain results, so in mid-July CCP was forced to change the tactics by suddenly allowing and even encouraging HK-related discussions on Chinese social media, but only if they follow the Party line, which denounces the protesters as “violent separatists and terrorists”, who are backed by foreign powers and lost the public support.

Side note: 1.7 million Hongkongers took to the streets on August 18 despite heavy rain, showing that community still strongly supports the pro-democracy movement even after 10 weeks of protests.

Once protesters became more mobile, netizens proposed guerilla tactics that were previously used in other countries such as flash mob-style actions without clashing with the police (this tactic proved to be effective during the 2018 Armenian peaceful revolution, and was later implemented in Russian decentralized protests movement Bessrochka, but didn’t get the momentum yet). In the end of July 2019, HK protesters have successfully adopted this hit-and-run strategy that can be best described as: occupy, disrupt, disperse, repeat.

After police started using tear gas, pepper spray and batons literally everywhere, including shopping malls and metro stations, protesters moved to an airport for sit-ins and posters distribution.

Every night at 10pm Hongkongers shout out slogans from their apartments or from wherever they are with turned on phone flash lights, which is similar to an event from Russian Digital Resistance movement of 2018, when people were flying paper planes out of their windows at a certain time as a protest against government’s now-failed attempt to block Telegram app.

As we see, the movement was not organized by some centralized ‘foreign power’, but rather evolved naturally due to ongoing cat-and-mouse game with police, and with a help of netizens around the world, who shared their experience via social media platforms.

For many years international business communities were afraid to discuss China’s sensitive topics because of potential economic repercussions and cyber bullying by the 50 cent army. On the other side, businesses and famous people were often endorsing CCP’s domestic and foreign policy without any fear of a backlash from the western world. Interestingly, famous people on the West sometimes do use their influence to support and raise awareness about pro-democracy protests, e.g. Rihanna’s post about the Sudan massacre, but when it comes to the world’s superpower China, most people prefer to keep silence.

However, this trend is changing rapidly as more people start exercising their freedom of speech everyday. The boycott of a Disney movie Mulan is an unprecedented example of a backlash caused by supporting Beijing’s position.

As for crypto community, it was interesting to see how some influencers jumped in from the start fully supporting HK activists, which was a very bold move, especially for an owner of bitcoin.com domain name. Side note: even though there is a growing pro-independence movement, most HK protesters don’t seek any independence at this moment, but rather demand a genuine universal suffrage within ‘1 country, 2 systems’ principle.

Other crypto influencers took safer approaches to show their support for HK and raise awareness within the crypto community.

Some crypto influencers are less vocal, but they still show support by setting up pro-HK profile pictures, which is a regular strategy in crypto space for supporting a common cause (#WeAreAllHodlonaut).

Side note: Pepe the Frog is a pro-democracy freedom fighter in Hong Kong and it’s not associated with America’s alt-right. Journalists are often being attacked by HK police since June 12.

However, it’s worth mentioning that independent donation-based news outlet Hong Kong Free Press recently had problems with receiving donations held by BitPay. Hopefully, the issue will be resolved ASAP and it’s not politically-motivated as when Coinbase suspended an account of WikiLeaks shop without any notice or explanation.

The Chinese government thinks that it is teaching Hong Kongers and the rest of the world a lesson. Only we can prove the opposite to be true: that it is actually Hong Kongers teaching the world right now, showing us how the future is already here and how to face that future head-on, hand in hand. © HKFP

How things end with Hong Kong will set the precedent not only for Taiwan and the Philippines, but far beyond that. There are different attempts in crypto community to start a libertarian country with a highly decentralized governance model. However, this country won’t have a regular army, at least in the nearest future, so how can people protect their freedoms if big aggressive governments will decide to interfere?

Civil disobedience, peaceful protests, digital resistance, and global solidarity seems like a good non-violent way to protect freedoms, so Hong Kong is a great example of a battle between people and an authoritarian state. If Hongkongers survive this battle, then their experience will be used as a guidebook how to protect civil rights. Their success will also inspire other communities across the world to demand more freedoms the same as the Ukraine’s fight for freedom inspired Hongkongers.

In the next articles we will look at how Hong Kong activists solve disputes, achieve consensus, and what are the centralization risks of the movement. We will also talk about digital resistance, coordination on the ground, and the use of security- and privacy-oriented technologies.

Now, when somebody says that protests are organized by ‘foreign powers’, you can always refer them to this article, which explains in details the decentralized nature of the movement.

If you want to see more candid articles about Hong Kong and crypto, please share this article, retweet, donate crypto, or simply sign up at LocalCryptos with this referral link.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed financial advisor, and this article is not a financial advice. The information presented here is for educational purpose only, it represents my personal opinion, and is not purported to be fact. Cryptocurrencies are very volatile and can move quickly in any direction. I’m not responsible, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any content, goods, services or companies mentioned in this article. Seek a duly licensed professional for an investment advice.


Read this article to learn how the modern financial system evolved from commodity money to absolutely unbacked fiat money, how the US dollar became the world’s dominant currency due to the petrodollar warfare, how the aggressive US foreign policy accelerates the de-dollarization process, how many countries (China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, etc.) lean towards cryptocurrencies in order to bypass US economic sanctions, and how China expands its empire via Belt and Road initiative, challenging the US dollar’s domination with petroyuan.

If you’re an activist, then check out an open source project decentralized-activism, which shares the best practices from different decentralized movements across the globe.

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