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Toilet Stops and Encrypted Apps: How Hong Kong’s Protests Are Coordinated

Protester Joshua Wong explains how hundreds of thousands of people are organised without central leadership.

by David Allegretti
21 August 2019, 10:55am

Photo by Flickr user Studio Incendo under a CC 2.0 licence

According to organisers, 1.7 million people rallied on the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, in the latest of what has now been 11 weeks of ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations.

Leading the charge at Sunday’s rally was 22-year-old student activist and secretary general of pro-democracy party Demosistō, Joshua Wong, who as a teenager became the public face of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Joshua continues to play an integral role in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement; a movement that has seen him imprisoned twice.

I spoke to Joshua over the phone to ask something I’ve been wondering for weeks, which is how exactly do 1.7 million people coordinate a protest with the Chinese Government breathing down their necks? How do they eat and go to the toilet? And what’s it like on the ground, being constantly around tear gas?

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Joshua Wong in the rain. Image supplied

VICE: Hey, let’s start with this idea that these protests are leadership-free. What does that mean exactly?
Joshua Wong: Exactly how it sounds. The Hong Kong people have learned from the Umbrella Movement. We know that if you have a specific individual leader, that leader just gets targeted, arrested, prosecuted, and jailed, so we have no single individual leader. Instead of having a single leader, we have more and more facilitators, hundreds, that take charge and take part in different campaigns of the movement—just like how Demosistō is in charge of preparing the class boycotts happening on early September, and I’m responsible for taking part in the international advocacy campaign. We just have a division of labour, but no single individual to lead the whole movement.

But without a leader, how do you decide where and when to take to the streets?
We use online discussion forums and opinion polls on different messaging applications. That way we can gain a consensus about when and where to protest.

What kind of apps are you using? What’s the primary mode of communication?
Telegram. That’s the main app we use to communicate. It has better security compared to WhatsApp, and it allows people to set up opinion polls and we can set up groups with more than 20,000 members.

The latest rally saw 1.7 million people turn out in the pouring rain. Something that struck me is where do all these people go to the toilet? It may be a silly question, but we’re talking millions of people on the streets for hours.
In Hong Kong’s central district, there are lots of shopping malls and restaurants nearby so it’s not really difficult for people to line up and find a restaurant nearby because, you know, Hong Kong is a really small place. And those shops and restaurants also have washrooms for us to use.

But are these restaurants happy for you to use their toilets?
Some welcome us, others don’t. But if we order afternoon tea, of course they allow us to use their facilities.

And what about food and drink? Is that distributed or is it every protestor for themselves?
Every protestor for themselves. Lots of protestors might have lunch nearby because Causeway Bay near Victoria Park is the most crowded district, which is similar to the Downtown area of New York or Soho of London, so of course there’s lots of restaurants where you can have lunch there.

What’s the protest schedule? Do you have one?
Yes. So, the routine is we have protests every weekend, and whether any action happens on the Monday depends on whether anybody was arrested on the Saturday or Sunday. For example, if someone is arrested and taken to a certain police station, people will go to that police station and protest outside that police station. But it’s lucky that no one was arrested on Sunday. The police didn’t storm the crowd, or use bullets or tear gas, which is why I can conduct this interview with you now.

Speaking of rubber bullets, I understand you’ve previously been shot. Can you tell me exactly where you were shot and what it felt like?
Yeah, so… it’s hard to describe. It’s lucky that the rubber bullets struck my feet, so my shoes protected me a bit. But I know one young lady who was shot in the eye who then suffered permanent blindness, so the situation I faced was comparatively a piece of cake. With these kinds of weapons it all depends on where they hit you. If they shoot you in the head, or your eye, or your feet… it’s all totally different. Some people have been shot in the head while wearing helmets, and without the helmets they would have been dead.

Apart from that young woman who lost her eye, have you seen any other major horrific injuries?
Yes, there was one young male high school teacher who also was shot in the eye by a rubber bullet. He’s now permanently blind.

I’ve heard that some injured protestors have been reluctant to go to hospital, just because they’re worried they’ll be arrested at the hospital. Is this true?
Yes. That high school teacher, the one who was shot in the eye: he was arrested in the hospital.

Have you been attacked by tear gas?
Of course. They just fill every protest zone with tear gas because they reason that: if the protestors can’t breathe can the protest really survive?

What does it feel like when you inhale tear gas? Does it sting? What does it smell like?
It’s quite hard to describe in English—it’s really hard to describe even in Chinese. It’s quite a unique thing; you will never experience this kind of smell or taste unless you experience [tear gas]. The worst part is the stomachache you get afterwards, and the way your throat and nose hurt over the next few days.

What has been the single scariest moment for you throughout this whole thing?
A few weeks ago, I was in an enclosed corner with other protestors, and police fired 10 tear gas canisters into the space in about 30 seconds. I could not breathe. I thought, will I survive? There was lots of pressure. I couldn’t see. We tried to walk, then run, but there was too many people, too many protestors. You have to stay calm in those situations and we survived.

There’s safety in numbers, but the reality is that some people are getting arrested. More than 700 people so far. What will happen to those people?
That is a crackdown on human rights. Whether they might be prosecuted or not is really uncertain. It depends on how we continue our movement.

What is the main thing you feel during these massive demonstrations? Is it fear? Pride? Anger?
I feel proud of the legacy of Hong Kong, and I feel the solidarity of the Hong Kong people.

Not all citizens of Hong Kong are on your side. Can you understand where the Beijing supporters are coming from?
I think they’re from mainland China.

You think that every Hong Kong citizen supports this movement?
Not every. About 80 percent—there is always a small minority who don’t.

Can true democracy in Hong Kong be achieved?
I hope for the best, but we’re preparing for the worst. We try our best. In this David versus Goliath battle, it’s hard to calculate the success rate. But if we do nothing, we will absolutely lose.

You said earlier in our conversation that these protests were “now or never.” What happens if you do nothing?
In the past five years we have seen activists being jailed, lawmakers being kicked out of office, foreign correspondents being expelled out of Hong Kong, and people being kidnapped into China. Because of this it’s clear that “one country, two systems” has already been eroded into “one country, one and a half systems.” So now is the only way out.

If you could speak to people who have no idea about what is going on in Hong Kong right now, what would you say?
The Hong Kong government is picked by Beijing to be a puppet, and proxy, instead of being elected by the people. The cause of the protests is free elections. Chinese troops are currently being moved to the border and we’re afraid of a Tiananmen Square-style massacre happening in Hong Kong. I think this can summarise the dynamics.

What can people who are not in Hong Kong do to support the pro-democracy movement?
Urge your leaders, or law-making representatives, to issue a statement on Hong Kong or endorse sanctions on government officials that suppress Hong Kong's human rights. I’m hoping that more attention on Hong Kong will safeguard us from a massacre.

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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.