Cyberwarfare

06.18.14

Hackers Attack Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Websites

A number of distributed denial-of-service attacks took down the websites of several pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong, in an attack widely attributed to hackers backed by Beijing.

Several pro-democracy websites in Hong Kong were attacked this morning in a shadowy cyberblitz.

The website of Apple Daily, a tabloid-style newspaper with pro-democracy leanings, was shut down by a distributed denial-of-service attack. They continued to post updates on their Facebook page.

The website of the local Occupy movement—called Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which advocates for universal suffrage in upcoming elections for the city’s Chief Executive—was attacked less than a week ago, on June 14.

PopVote, an online mock election operated by The University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program, was also hit this morning, as was the website of the June 4 Museum, which houses an exhibit about the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Incidentally, these sites are all thorns in the side of Beijing.

There is no evidence that the distributed denial-of-service attacks were initiated by the same party, but it is widely believed that hackers backed by the Chinese government are behind the barrage that has overloaded servers and cut off these web connections.

For over a century, Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire. Sovereignty of the city was returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, but for years before the handover, Britain and China discussed the future of the Hong Kong. Deng Xiaoping proposed the principle of “one country, two systems”—that there would only be one China even though Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan could retain capitalist economic and political systems. The idea was written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which serves as the city’s constitutional document. The people of Hong Kong were legally guaranteed a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs.

But to many in Beijing, the line between “one country” and “one party” is blurred, and the Party has a history of shutting down those who challenge its rule.

It is widely believed that hackers backed by the Chinese government are behind the barrage that has overloaded servers and cut off these web connections.

Calls for greater freedom have emanated from Hong Kong for years. While a violent crackdown is highly unlikely, the tensions persist.

On June 9, Chinese troops garrisoned in Hong Kong’s central business district made an effort to join the world’s largest permanent light and sound show. One by one, the Chinese characters of “People’s Liberation Army” flashed on the side of their headquarters, at times incomplete. Helena Wong, a legislator from the Democratic Party, joked on Facebook that the PLA had already “Occupied Central.”

Days later, the Chinese government issued a 14,500-word document stressing that “the high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.” The paper went further to state that “many wrong views are currently rife in Hong Kong” regarding the “one country, two systems” principle.

Yet the white paper failed to spell out how Beijing currently interprets Deng Xiaoping’s radical idea. The Chinese government is, quite unsubtly, seeking control of the political and legal narratives in lieu of addressing—not necessarily giving in to —the demands of people in Hong Kong.

Hongkongers enjoy freedoms that are unimaginable in Mainland China. The Internet is not censored. Criticism of the Chinese government can appear in media (even though self-censorship is becoming increasingly common). Books are not arbitrarily banned. Life has a different rhythm.

A poll conducted by the Popular Opinion Program last year found that people in Hong Kong are increasingly detaching themselves from the ‘Chinese’ identity and referring to themselves solely as ‘Hongkongers.’

The distinction is evident in more practical terms. Hong Kong has a different culture, passport, writing system, and currency from Mainland China. Its language—Cantonese—is spoken only in neighboring Macau and Guangdong province. The city has its own Olympic team and competes as its own territory in international sporting events.

Unfortunately, frustration with the Chinese government has, at times, translated to vitriol toward mainland Chinese visitors in Hong Kong. Those who come as tourists from mainland China are called locusts. Cross-border traders are told to “scram back to China.” The same animosity is directed at pregnant mainland women who want to give birth in Hong Kong so that their children can receive better, less restricted educations.

July 1 will mark the 17th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. For the first few anniversaries after the transfer of sovereignty, there were marches organized by grassroots civil organizations and pro-democracy politicians. More recently, those marches have grown in size, and evolved into annual protests attended by tens of thousands of citizens. A small element within the protestors flies the British colonial flag and even requests the British to reclaim Hong Kong, but the loudest call is for universal suffrage in the next Chief Executive election, set in 2017, which will choose the city’s head of government.

Coincidentally,  a music concert was held on July 1 last year, and will reconvene on the same date this year. The low ticket price has led to speculation that the festival was organized to draw young people away from the pro-democracy protests. So far, no local singers or musicians have confirmed to be part of the lineup.

Under the current election system, the Chief Executive is chosen by a committee of 1,200 people, most of whom have economic or political ties to China. Politicians and activists in the pro-democracy camp criticize the selection process as a “small circle election,” and say that the Chief Executive is elected in the interests of Beijing, not Hong Kong.

The Basic Law does state that universal suffrage in the Chief Executive’s choosing is an eventual goal, but lacks a timetable. This has created a major controversy as promises for implementation are continually pushed further into the future.

In the mean time, Hongkongers can voice their thoughts through PopVote. It is more than a mock election or public survey. It is a strong statement made by the people about how they wish to be governed. Beijing has gone from placating them, to ignoring them, to telling them that democracy is not for them. In response, they will vote on plans submitted by three grassroots alliances that address the process of electing a Chief Executive. No matter which process receives the most recognition, one thing is clear: the people want their own votes to count, and the current wave of cyber attacks will not stop Hongkongers from casting their electronic votes.