The Fall of Hong Kong?

What is Article 23 and Three Implementation Scenarios

[note: I’ll continue my usual practice of publishing a serviceable draft first, then cleaning it up and adding links tomorrow.]

There was a brief moment that lasted about a month, from late January until the end of February, where it looked like COVID19 might be Xi’s “Chernobyl Moment.” They were caught red handed trying to suppress news of a new coronavirus which, again, predictably led to the virus running out of control. Xi was essentially unseen during that time. Then something surreal happened: by the end of March, COVID was clearly under control in China but had exploded in Western countries largely due to making the same mistakes China did in early/mid January. 

In whiplash-inducing speed, the CCP went from being on its knees with an epidemic and expecting to be blamed for the coverup by its own citizens to being the only country other than South Korea that contained a major outbreak. And the only nuclear-armed state not on track to wage a losing battle for the next year with this disease. Emboldened by the sudden change in fortunes, they started saber rattling against Taiwan and getting more aggressive with South China Sea neighbors again. They were going to do some kind of power grab while the world was distracted and sick.

In early May I was asked if I had heard any rumors that Beijing was planning to force Article 23 on Hong Kong during the June “Double Sessions.” I had not but thought it was plausible. Yet it didn't dawn on me then what was happening until weeks later: Hong Kong would be the Party’s pandemic power grab. They weren’t going to invade some disputed reef in the South China Sea, they were planning a kill shot on Hong Kong’s One Country, Two Systems…. and there would be virtually nothing anyone could do about it.

Article 23 had long seemed dead in the water here. Our first Chief Executive tried to pass it in LegCo in 2002-2003. Key members of his Executive Council resigned, an important pro-established party defected, and Tung himself ‘retired’ after the largest post-Handover march in Hong Kong until 2019. Because the wording of Article 23 says the Hong Kong government “shall, on its own” create this ‘National Security’ legislation, there was no chance of it passing LegCo without arresting virtually all of the opposition first. 

That would take time, a year or two at least. In the meantime, their front groups like the DAB would take a battering in this year’s LegCo elections if forced to campaign on Article 23. Surprising everyone, including their own allies, Beijing decided to do it in a transparently illegal way. Annex III of the Basic Law is set aside for Beijing to add laws to our Basic Law so long as they’re “confined to those relating to defence and foreign affairs as well as other matters outside the limits of the autonomy of the Region.” It’s where they posted the official date of National Day and policy arrangements for diplomats.

The plan was to sneak the most controversial legislation in Hong Kong’s history into an Annex of the Basic Law set aside for an entirely different, and very specifically outlined, purpose. So long as they consulted the relevant committee and Carrie Lam’s regime agreed to do their bidding, it would become law as soon as it was published in the Hong Kong SAR Government Gazette. Carrie Lam agreed despite having no idea what was in the legislation they’re now cooking up and no input.

… so here we are a little over a month later and the British government has already decided to allow almost half of the Hong Kong population to migrate to the UK as refugees. I am now very seriously considering leaving Hong Kong in the next few months.

What is Article 23?

The CCP added Article 23 to both the Basic Law of both Macau and Hong Kong, mandating that the SAR governments enact laws criminalizing treason, sedition, subversion, and secession. Each of the four categories is framed within a broader context of ‘national security,’ criminalizing attempts to overthrow or destabilize the Central People’s Government. Both the propaganda and surface readings of proposed and enacted legislation makes it seem like generic anti-terrorism laws found in most of the world. 

For example, it is already illegal to blow up a bridge in every country but the act is more harshly penalized if a political motive can be established versus, say, just finding the bridge ugly. Like anti-terror laws in the West, it criminalizes both the acts of terrorist violence and larger support networks, plots, and groups behind it. Beyond criminalization, both terrorism and China’s understanding of ‘national security’ militarizes the threat by carving out legal exemptions in making the tools of state surveillance broadly and easily available to the agencies countering the threat.

There would be little controversy about the National Security Law (NSL) if it was only designed to target people engaged in attempts to violently overthrow the CCP. Governments around the world would not be planning to accept huge numbers of Hong Kong refugees if the CCP merely meant to add tougher sentences to anyone caught attempting to bomb or shoot their way to Hong Kong independence. Nor would there be much complaint about enacting laws to uproot an imaginary network of CIA agents training and paying Hong Kong protesters to throw Molotov cocktails and set Chinese banks on fire.

There is a small chance that the paragraph above is as far as this legislation would go. But this is not what was proposed in Hong Kong during the failed 2003 legislation, it would likely get through LegCo easily if the scope were that limited, it is not what was passed in Macau; it is also not how Chinese propaganda, CCP cadres, and their local allies are talking about the NSL. What they describe sounds like they believe it to be a ‘final solution’ stamping out protests, activism, opposition parties, and wide swaths of political speech. Even more alarmingly, they are openly saying that Ministry of State Security agents - the people who disappear Chinese lawyers and kidnapped HK booksellers - will officially be setting up shop in Hong Kong after decades of operating in the shadows.

What really sets the origins and current rush to implement Article 23 apart from anti-terrorism laws in democratic countries is that liberal values like democracy, self-determination, freedom of speech and association, and globalized interconnectivity are the ‘national security’ threats. A recent speech by Wang Zhimin laid out the CCP’s rationale:

  • The only legitimate reason for opposition to the HKSAR govt and CCP are materialist conditions like extreme inequality and no upward mobility. Since this is not the case in Hong Kong, and was not a stated demand, ideological contention with the state can only be a larger plot to overthrow the CCP.

  • Hong Kong activists calling for genuine universal suffrage are trying to establish an anti-Party Hong Kong government as a base within China’s borders that will be used by hostile foreign forces to launch astroturf ‘Color Revolution’ attempts within the Mainland. It is therefore subversion, if not borderline treason.

  • Localists, political parties, and activists calling for self-determination have always been a crypto-independence movement. Just as nationalist movements within the USSR led to it’s quick collapse, separatism is an existential threat to both the Party and sovereignty of the Chinese state.

What makes any analysis of the imminent National Security Law (NSL) so challenging is that no one knows what’s in it or even what has been written into it so far. Beijing’s proxies in Hong Kong claim not to have even known it would be on the National People’s Consultative Conference’s agenda until they arrived on May 21st. When asked for specific details like whether the law would be retroactive or whether those charged under the new NSL might be extradited to China, we are told either that they don’t know or not ‘worry about that... yet.’ No one even seems to know when the NSL will be promulgated into law. After the Two Sessions, the NPCC Observer website was confident that the process was already too rushed and the legislation wouldn’t be enacted until the end of July. With the world (and US in particular) so distracted now, conventional wisdom recently concluded it will arrive as early as the end of the month.

Given the current uncertainty, we can only contemplate a range of possible outcomes. I will describe them here from best- to worst- case scenario. Rather than trying to assign some quantitative probability to each scenario I will describe the contexts that make them either more or less likely than the alternatives.

Scenario 1

NSL will primarily be used as a deterrent to violent protests in the best case scenario and NPCC Observer is correct in predicting that only subversion and sessession laws will be implemented for now. It will not be retroactive, but will double or triple the sentences of anyone who would today be charged with ‘rioting.’ Currently, rioting charges carry a maximum ten year sentence but is often half that for those who plead guilty. Under NSL, the charges would be upgraded to subversion or secession. In the Macau version of NSL, sentences would range from 10-25 years. 

In this scenario the heaviest charges are aimed at any protester engaged in vandalism, arson, or throwing molotovs or bricks at police. Standards of proof would likely be substantially lowered to rope in anyone suspected of planning to do things like that or caught near those scenes. In this scenario MSS would be surveilling, detaining, interrogating, following, and harassing many of the nine thousand already arrested in 2019 to infiltrate Telegram groups and create an informant network.

Within this ‘best case’ scenario we should assume the CCP will give themselves enough legal flexibility to try to put high profile dissidents like Joshua Wong and Jimmy Lai in jail for decades. 

This is a “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys” scenario. For this scenario to be correct, it would require:

  • The CCP to believe that a few hundred draconian jail sentences to [real and alleged] violent protesters - likely pushed through court much quicker than riot cases are now - would sufficiently deter any repeat of the fiery scenes from 2019. Perhaps more broadly, they might believe that arresting presumed ‘leaders’ would be a sufficient ‘chill factor’ quieting dissent down more broadly.

  • The CCP to be comfortable continuing to allow as much respect for political speech, like waving Hong Kong independence flags, as exists now. Even handing out a pro-independence pamphlet would remain legal so long as it doesn’t advocate violence.

Scenario 2

This scenario includes all of Scenario 1, but adds three dynamics: (a) the law is retroactive and (b) includes sedition, and (c) foreign influence statutes are threatened but not yet enacted. Making the law retroactive would expose most of the 9,000 people already arrested at Hong Kong protests liable to heavier sentences and lower legal standards. The CCP has on multiple occasions expressed frustration with the Hong Kong legal system (its speed, conviction rates, bail, evidentiary standards, etc). They have also stated repeatedly they want to see more people jailed with heavier sentences.

In this scenario, those charged with ‘rioting’ would face the heavier sentences delivered more quickly described in Scenario 1. In addition, those charged or being investigated for non-violent crimes now could be exposed to sedition charges. To wit, someone thrown in jail for two days and released now or charged with illegal assembly (maximum one year sentence, often reduced to community service) could face two to five year prison sentences. Hong Kong Independence flags, speech, and written material are prosecutable.

That alone would open the possibility of having nearly ten thousand people associated with the protest in prison, perhaps as early as the end of the year. The number expands dramatically when you account for all the people stopped by HKPF who had their ID cards recorded but weren’t arrested. Within this scenario we should include old enemies being targeted as well: Falun Gong, Mainland dissidents hiding in Hong Kong, and anyone involved in Operation Yellowbird that evacuated Tiananmen survivors. 

In this scenario NGOs, activists and groups that take foreign donations, and foreign media are intimidated but not arrested. Laws criminalizing nearly any foreign help or assistance are threatened but not yet enacted. In the meantime MSS agents would be interrogating, surveilling, and investigating to build future cases on anyone who would be caught up in such a law. They avoid the diplomatic outrage over arrests and instead rely on harassment and fear to convince them to leave Hong Kong. Specifically, any opposition leaders who appealed to the American government for help would be high on this list.

For this scenario to be correct requires premises in Scenario 1 to be true, but adds a lot more political prisoners and a wider array of criminalized behavior. Assume something like ten to twenty thousand imprisoned within a year of being enacted. The participation risks for being caught at any protest would rise dramatically. In contrast with the next scenarios, which get progressively worse, the CCP would likely prefer refugees to prisoners. This is a scenario where people like me would likely actively plan to leave Hong Kong.

Scenario 3

In keeping with the theme, Scenario 3 adds to the scope of the previous scenario. In this version groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are deemed illegal. Foreign journalists in Hong Kong are subjected to the same pressures, surveillance, intimidation, and harassment as their colleagues across the border. A large array of activists, political groups, media groups, and expatriates would likely find themselves under investigation, including finances audited, as MSS tries to sniff out evidence of a Western plot that doesn’t exist. 

For local protesters and activists, the entire 2019 movement is declared subversive and/or seperatist. Chants, artwork, slogans, and songs glorifying the ‘The Revolution of Our Times’ would be declared seditious. In this scenario, someone arrested for singing Glory to Hong Kong risks years in prison. The same would go for posting protest-themed artwork on social media. However, the law is mostly not applied retroactively for those who haven’t openly espoused pro-independence views.

Nearly every politician in the opposition is imprisoned or has already fled Hong Kong in this scenario. Though many face various charges already, none of them will be out on bail while their cases are pending. Apple Daily is shuttered and the remaining media heavily self-censor. Because of the real name requirement, pro-protest Facebook posts and groups disappear. Hong Kong Twitter quiets down and self-censors. Even a retweet or like could bring criminal charges. 

For this scenario to come true, the CCP must be willing to face the diplomatic fallout of eradicating Hong Kong civil society and all organized opposition, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and potentially tens of thousands of political prisoners charged with crimes previously only seen in the Mainland. Yet they will likely accomplish just that: their vision of a ‘pacified’ Hong Kong. 

Wrapping Up

Anything worse than Scenario 3 is marching Hong Kong closer on a path towards Xinjiang and Tibet. Were I to guess, right now I think the scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive and would likely arrive sequentially. This is to say Scenario 3 is coming on an uncertain timeline, but it might start as Scenario 1 in August. Wang Zhimin’s descriptions of what the CCP expects from this law sounds closer to Scenario 3 than 1, but perhaps even he realizes Hong Kong does not have the prison capacity for tens of thousands of political prisoners. 

Any rush to Scenario 3 (or worse) would likely lead to one of the worst outcomes short of internment camps: installing Chinese judges in new National Security Courts to radically speed things up. Even worse would be sending prisoners to the Mainland after prisons here reach capacity. All of these things are not just possible, but have been either hinted at or not ruled out. 

An important context to note is that trust is increasingly eroded as these scenarios get worse. As more people are exposed to draconian sentences for activities now considered mundane, so grows the incentives to escape the crackdown’s dragnet via collaboration, infiltration, and generally pointing fingers at other colleagues, friends, or family. This is a world where a teenage ‘rioter’ facing a twenty year jail sentence goes home if only they identify which teacher ‘brainwashed’ them.

At present, there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel. This is really happening.

COVID19: The Outlook from Hong Kong

This is Bad

OSINT HK organically transformed into a COVID19 monitoring group in late January, as soon as the number of infected shot up in Wuhan. It had been on Hong Konger’s radars since January 1st. As someone selling subscriptions to what I half-jokingly call ‘a Bloomberg Terminal for Plague Updates’ and running a group asked to verify a lot of multimedia and data, I’ve had a front-row seat to nearly every twist in this outbreak story. And writing from Hong Kong, where it seems we truly dodged an outbreak bullet, I think I have some perspectives on what’s coming to the rest of the world.

It’s surreal watching the rest of the world going through the same thing we just went through. It’s terrifying seeing many places repeating the same mistakes.

  1. How Hong Kong Dodged the COVID19 Bullet… for now.

  2. A General Model of COVID19

  3. What’s Next

How Hong Kong Dodged the COVID19 Bullet… for now.

One thing China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Singapore share is a collective experience of being hit with an outbreak from China in the recent past (SARS). In 2020 they all shared the experience of containing COVID19 early enough to prevent most community infections. I can’t speak for the other locales, but nearly everyone in Hong Kong thought the disease was already here and spreading by the time Wuhan went on lockdown (January 23th).

A ‘leader’ whose approval rating was already in the single digits, Carrie Lam refused to return early from hosting dim sum summits in Davos in these critical days. While bullet trains from Wuhan were still coming in from all over China, our Acting Chief Executive told the media the government wasn’t even keeping track of Wuhan arrivals. Demands to close the border with China were endorsed by our newly unionized Hospital Authority doctors and nurses, who went on strike on February 1st demanding as much (and more resources).

All of this is just a setup for what happened: convinced our government was failing at a time of crisis, as it had since June 2019, most Hong Kongers acted as if the virus was already here and raging undetected. Nearly everyone wore masks when they went outside, even though they were sold out. Everyone washed their hands frequently. Without being asked or ordered to, most businesses told workers to work remotely when that was an option. Everyone tried to stay inside. Malls, buses, trains, and restaurants were nearly empty for two months. 

With Hong Kong now ranked below 50 on the outbreak dashboards, there’s a prevailing sense in Hong Kong that we saved ourselves. Because we didn’t trust our government, we followed the situation closely and took every precaution. The result was something like herd immunity. We were so good at this that we ground a bad flu season to a halt too. Every infectious disease has nearly flat-lined too, in fact.

The complete story would add two more variables. First, the public health system in Hong Kong did hold up more than Hong Kongers give it credit for. We’ve been quarantining suspected cases since December, we don’t have the problems with testing plaguing other locales, and they’ve done a phenomenal job at tracking case histories.

Second, the situation was more contained in Guangdong than we thought at the time. This to say the wealthiest province in China, with one of the most substantial number of migrant laborers, had the means and motivation to ensure they were tracking, testing, monitoring, and quarantining anyone they needed to. Despite Hong Kong’s lax cross-border restrictions, I think it’s the case that Guangdong officials ensured no one infected on their side boarded a train or coach to Hong Kong - or anywhere, for that matter. The flip side of this is that I think the situation here would be much more dire had there been an undetected outbreak in Shenzhen or Guangzhou. There wasn’t.

A General Model of COVID19

It was difficult to grasp the general statistical characteristics of COVID19 from January through February. The first-order problem is that the Chinese data varied in credibility chronologically and geographically. Chronologically, we still don’t have a full picture of who knew what and when and where the initial cover-up order came from. What we can say for sure right now is that Wuhan doctors knew COVID19 was person-to-person by December 30th, they were silenced, and the CCP didn’t admit this reality for another 21 days (January 20th). 

I don’t trust any stat before January 20th, but I do for roughly the next two or three weeks following Wuhan going on lockdown on January 23rd. There were several weeks where I think the CCP was providing the world with roughly the same information they had, but they were severely hampered by a lack of testing and false negatives. I’m generally confident that the numbers that came out of Wuhan are more-or-less accurate, but I think it’s likely that COVID19 deaths were covered-up or intentionally untested to keep the numbers down in other provinces. For instance, last time I did the math, this disease was more lethal in Australia than Hebei. 

The most important thing we learned from Wuhan is playing out right now in Lombardy, Italy. It’s easier to understand what epidemiologists mean by ‘flattening the epidemic curve’ when we looked at the opposite: hospitals essentially getting DDOS’d by patients with upper respiratory infections seeking tests and care. You can see it clearly here in this video that we were asked to confirm. About a day later, we were asked to verify a video showing bodies piling up on hospital floors next to patients inside hospitals.

There are different estimates about what the baseline CFR of COVID19 is. About an hour ago, I heard Dr. Fauci tell a Congressional hearing that he believes it’s about 1% if you account for all the asymptomatic cases that likely aren’t being tested. A recent age and time adjusted case study of the Diamond Princess put it above 2.5%. I want to suggest that this baseline number doesn’t matter. It was nearly 7% in Wuhan according to official stats when those videos were shot. It’s now 8.6% in Lombardy. For those most worried about fatality, overwhelmed healthcare systems is the primary threat vector.

What’s Next

Neither Europeans or Americans have the collective memory of SARS to work from. What I see in social media and news reports are populations completely unprepared to do what most of Asia just went through to get this thing contained. And it is contained in Hong Kong, Macau, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea. There are concerns that the Japanese are bungling their response, if not doing a soft cover-up by not testing enough because they don’t want the Tokyo Summer Olympics canceled. There are serious concerns about Indonesia and the Philippines right now looks like a smaller-scale version of what’s playing out in the United States.

Beijing authorities announced today that all international travelers flying into the city must go into 14-day quarantine. As ‘ironic’ as that is given their own history with travel restrictions, I think we should assume this will be the norm across Asia very soon. We just got this thing under control and our primary threat vector for a second wave arriving from Europe and the United States. To wit: anticipate that the same travel restrictions and quarantines placed on us are about to be reversed. 

Depending on how bad it is in the US and Europe (and for how long), this may or may not work. There might well be community infections across Asia in places that think they have this under control because they never thought to screen German or British travelers. It’s still very uncertain whether, or if, asymptomatic people are infectious. Assume the worse if they are. It’s well beyond my expertise or knowledge to know how that’s going to affect the markets and economy writ large. 

Finally, I would take very seriously Merkel’s recent statement that German epidemiologists think this will infect up to 70% of the global population. With WHO having lost all credibility, we’re going to be getting important updates like this from reputable governments.

That’s all for now. I’ll try to send a less ‘big picture’ COVID19 update soon.

A Calm After The Storm

A few theories about why Hong Kong is so 'quiet' lately

Something changed, but no one knows quite what happened. Things are ‘quiet’ in the sense that we just had a march that equaled, or exceeded, the headcount for the 2003 anti-Article 23 protests that ended with the law being shelved and our first Chief Executive fired a few months later. What made it ‘quiet’ was that police only pepper-sprayed people instead of gassing another authorized march as they had a week earlier.

It was also quiet because, unlike November 18th, entire sidewalks weren’t ripped up for bricks, and the streets weren’t literally on fire from “napalm-ish” Molotovs. Let me state at the outset that I don’t think this movement is over - far from it. I know what the end of 2014’s Umbrella Movement felt like, and this isn’t it. Instead, it feels like things are transitioning into a new phase, or perhaps the movement is taking something like a restive nap.

Recap of the Siege of PolyU and Kowloon Uprising

I should recap what happened on November 18th. In short, it was by far the most insane day of this entire movement. It started on November 17th when police laid siege to Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). A week after CUHK, they showed up unwilling to retreat this time. They came out with MP-5’s, AR-15’s, SIG516’s for the first time. There were snipers on the roof of a nearby hotel. At some indeterminate point that night, police sealed the campus off entirely. An HKPF Unimog was ablaze during the assault over a bridge over the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. It wasn’t until the next morning that the people inside PolyU (of which only half of the protesters were students) realized they were trapped.

Starting at around noon, and then picking up substantially in the evening, there was essentially a district-wide uprising to reach PolyU and break the police siege. In other words, the plan was to approach the campus from multiple directions to break through police cordon lines with fire and bricks. There was, at one point, a human chain with middle-class professional types passing kerosene to the frontline and they got within 300 meters before turning back. Several Unimogs and a water cannon were temporarily taken out of action with flat tires and [likely] broken axles.

We don’t have exact numbers, but something like 1200-1400 people were arrested in those two days (including first aiders and freelance journalists). There were several attempts to break out of PolyU, one of which involved about a hundred people running into an unseen water cannon. Three hundred fifty-four people were injured, including someone listed as “<1 year old.” Among the injured were more than 30 protesters sent to hospitals after a stampede and eight-person deep crush in Yau Ma Tei. OSINT HK has spent weeks reconstructing this horrific incident that police still deny happened. Among other incidents were almost a dozen people tied up on a Tsim Sha Tsui rooftop at 4 am. Someone inside HKPF leaked a video, but we have no idea what happened or why they were on a roof.

Why Did it Go Quiet After 11/18?

And then… almost nothing happened for two weeks. As I wrote at the time, “this simply isn’t sustainable.” It wasn’t.

The calm was part of a temporary ‘ceasefire’ or truce to deprive the Hong Kong government of any reason to cancel the District Council elections on the weekend after PolyU. It was followed by opposition candidates winning in a landslide flipping seats across Hong Kong. The DAB hadn’t been meaningfully challenged in a District Council race in almost a decade where I live, but this time their candidate won by just over thirty votes. Many people wanted to savor a ‘win’ for as long as possible before gearing back up in masks and balaclavas.

This was followed by two authorized marches, both of which were peaceful until one was [accidentally?] tear-gassed. I find myself rotating competing theories for this relative calm in my head. At first, it just felt like everyone was just exhausted, especially after the insane first half of November. Both the police and protesters seemed to need a break, and everyone seems to enjoy the ‘normality’ of schools being re-opened and not being worried about getting caught in HKPF crossfire.

A theory I’m not persuaded to yet is that the police more-or-less achieved their goal at PolyU. The reason for the weeks-long siege was that they believed they had hundreds, if not thousands, of the most ‘hardcore’ frontliners surrounded and could wait them out to surrender. The government and police always assumed they could mass arrest their way out of this, back when they thought 1500-2000 was the magic number. Now they have nearly 6,000.

It’s difficult to reconcile this theory that the protests are running out of frontliners because so many were caught at PolyU with the pyrotechnic scenes outside PolyU the day after the siege began. Yet six thousand arrests have undoubtedly taken a cumulative toll on the movement. So too have the uncounted injuries, some quite severe, treated in the Hidden Clinic network.

At the same time, this would be the second or third frontline replacement cycle. September 1st seems to have been a critical date for when a significant number of the June through August frontliners got caught with ‘gear’ in police search cordons throughout the city during the escape from the airport. We started seeing a lot more teenagers on the frontline after that. Now they’re mostly older.

The theory that fits mine and other’s observation the most, however, is that we’re witnessing a deliberate de-escalation by HKPF. It started just before the District Council elections when police suddenly became chatty during the ‘Lunch With You’ flashmobs in Central instead of clubbing people over the head or gassing the financial district again. Then they stopped issuing letters of objection and started allowing massive marches again after months of banning them. It seems pretty clear that the new Commissioner of HKPF has given something of a de-escalation order.

There are a few reasons why that might be the case. First, they’ve successfully broken the ‘outrage cycles’ that kept fueling this movement. It's not that widespread and deeply felt anger has abated - far from it - but they’ve stopped providing new reasons every week to hit the streets and throw bricks and molotovs at them. Another possible explanation is that he’s trying to re-establish a chain of command discipline over a police force his predecessor transformed into a lawless feral paramilitary. There’s evidence that the Battle of CUHK was the work of rogue officers. It also seems Special Divisions Unit distributed assault rifles to PTU and STS on November 18-19th against orders.

A third reason is that I think HKPF was already scared of the public, but November 18th terrified them. They had been fortifying their police stations against bricks before the southern half of the Kowloon Peninsula was turned into an urban battlefield. I say ‘we’ collectively despite rarely being more than an observer, but after six months of tit-for-tat escalation, we’ve brought HKPF to a stalemate.

I think they’ve wisely concluded they can’t put this movement down with live ammo without risking being burned alive in police vans.

With every frontline officer now issued a shotgun or riot gun, they’re running out of tactical ‘less-than-lethal’ options. Strategically, they have tried everything: ‘strategic incapacitation’ by shutting the entire MTR network down several times; ‘command and control’ via injunctions, public assembly bans, and anti-mask fiats struck down by courts; escalation of force that led to an uprising. As if trying to return to the mid-June status quo, now they’re back to ‘negotiated management’ by working with organizers to find acceptable march routes.

In Search of a Metaphor

A recent Steven Vines opinion piece makes me think that there might be something bigger afoot. Vines argued that DAB leader Starry Lee’s very public (and scathing) critique of Lam’s performance was ‘writing on the wall’ that Lam’s days as Chief Executive are numbered. This view aligns with my thinking since June that Beijing would ditch Lam as soon as things ‘quieted down.’ No matter how poorly she was performing or reasonable the demands, Beijing’s recent modus operandi in Hong Kong (and nearly everywhere else) is to never back down under pressure.

For more than a month, I’ve tried to think of the right metaphor to explain how protesters have used this to their advantage as an unspoken reason for keeping protests going. The profane version goes like this: Beijing is holding a radioactive bag of dog shit. Another metaphor might be having a terrible hand at the poker table, refusing to fold, putting more chips on the table, and bluffing a losing hand until the other player folds. While less profane, the problem with the poker analogy is that this isn’t a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers at the end.

The ‘bag of dogshit’ is their HK Chief Executive whose approval numbers keep dropping to the point of nearly scraping the floor, embrace of police brutality, continued propping up of failed politicians, and degradation of their diplomacy and propaganda. All of which couldn’t be less popular with most Hong Kongers, so much so that even office workers in Central were coming out to be gassed in solidarity with teenagers throwing molotovs on MTR train tracks at the same time. It’s ‘radioactive’ because it’s worse for them the longer they’re forced to hold this baggage.

This has been a terrible look for them on the international stage too. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would have died [another] quiet death had they resolved Hong Kong earlier. Instead, it passed with near-unanimous bipartisan support, and the State Department recently announced that Global Magninsky Act sanctions for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Campuses and cities around the world have now seen toxic Chinese nationalism first-hand. Chinese influence and espionage operations are getting renewed attention as well. The trajectory was all there before June, but Hong Kong’s protests and the ensuing crackdown lit the fuse.

I’ve long said that the “if we burn, you burn with us” chant should be taken both literally and seriously. I now think it had two meanings, only one of which was a pyrotechnic escalation on the protester side. The other meaning was more general: trying to crush this movement by brute force was going to be made extremely painful for all involved. It wasn’t just Bank of China branch offices that got trashed when you take stock of how much the world’s image of China has changed in the last six months.

Connecting the Dots [or Dreaming]

I find it tempting to think that the police de-escalation order might have come from very high up, to give Beijing a month or two of ‘quiet’ to marginally pivot and get on with a long-delayed rolling of heads. Lam’s isn’t the only head that needs to roll. Wang Zhimin’s Liaison Office had one job in Hong Kong - getting Beijing’s candidates into elected office, marginalize the opposition, and provide reliable intelligence to Beijing. He couldn’t have failed worse.

I only half-joke that Lam would have been jailed on fabricated charges in June had she failed this badly in a Mainland city. The only reason Lam, her Executive Council, and Hong Kong-Macau Affairs Office leadership still have their jobs is ‘face’ and a juvenile conception of power. This entire thing started because the people responsible for all this thought it would make them look 'weak’ (and send the wrong message) to back down in the face of massive public opposition.

Whatever the moral hazard risks were in June are trivial compared to backing down after turning a once boring city so upside down that kindergartens were closed for a week and a half. I don’t expect meaningful concessions soon. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used this period of relative calm to fold their hand of current leadership to come back for Round II with a new deck that’s slightly less radioactive and embarrassing.

I’d act fast if this is actually their plan. Things can blow up again any minute.

Conspiracy Theories and OSINT HK

A longform Q&A about the information environment in Hong Kong

A few days ago Adam Ni asked me to write something for his new Neican project. I politely informed him that I was very busy, far behind in adding updates here and that it would be best to narrow down the scope by asking questions. He asked me about my new-ish project, OSINT HK, and it took me several days and seven pages to answer his seven questions. This seems to be a good place as any to share my full answers.

Are there a lot of rumors and untruth flying around?

Let's start by breaking this down into what I've seen with polling numbers. You've got about 10-15% hardcore support on the 'Blue Ribbon' pro-govt side and about 65-70% hardcore anti-police and anti-govt. I don't follow Team Blue propaganda too much because it makes Breitbart look sophisticated, to be honest. Team Blue keeps changing their story, but every version is essentially an exploration of the darkest depths of traitorous hedonism. 

It started as "CIA is supplying, training, and paying off protesters" before taking a weird exotic turn with "teenage girls are offering their bodies as rewards to the bravest' yungmo / brave' frontliners." A friend found my name-dropped in a 'tankie' YouTube video laying out the case that my neighbor was a Super Spy. As a 'doxxing' attempt, the information on both of us was widely inaccurate. But creepy. A variant of this is that surely it must be 'bad teachers' brainwashing or encouraging students to protest.

Anti-government ‘Team Yellow' took a much, much darker turn on August 31st. Let me just lay out what happened because the contexts exploded and fractal out from there. Getting past the MTR turnstiles before 8/31 was more-or-less a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card but on the night of 8/31 police crossed that physical and psychological barrier for the first time at the Prince Edward MTR Station. What followed was some of the most horrific videos of police brutality even up to now. 

They beat a young man so hard that he goes unconscious and starts foaming at the mouth (indicating a spinal injury, we were told). This is just the most accessible footage point in the entire station for media. Downstairs they're beating more people and pepper-spraying frightened couples holding each other while they scream. They're beating everyone. Suddenly, and unexpectedly for a world-reliable public transport service, they slam the gates shut and closed the MTR station. 

No one is brought to the nearly two dozen ambulances waiting outside. No one comes out of the station. Police say they used the MTR to transfer detainees and the wounded out to other stations. MTR refuses to release the CCTV footage of that night. FSD changed the number of victims (and their condition) several times in the next few hours. We still don't know the name of that beaten boy to know his current medical condition. All the answers and processes disappeared behind a 'black box' of governance. 

In the following days, two death notices were sent out at two schools saying that students had committed suicide (a routine practice to notify teachers and parents). This instantly set off a new and ever-expanding conspiracy theory that cops killed someone(s) that night and covered it up with 'fake' suicides. Social media and Telegram channels have been awash in gore pictures as almost every single suicide deemed 'suspicious' - which is to say every corpse HKPF finds and designates non-suspicious.

For a non-trivial number of people, half or more of these suicides are thought to be arrested protesters murdered by police after being taken into custody. Many believe hundreds - if not thousands - of protesters have been murdered. Rumors of detainee rapes and sexual assault have been circling for months (almost the same week we learned about San Uk Ling was used as a detention center), some of which are now confirmed-ish. They think cops are raping young women and disposing of their bodies in the sea or throwing them off rooftops:

  • A naked 15 y/o girl was found naked in the sea after going missing, and police deemed it 'non-suspicious.'

  • The body of a woman dressed exactly like a 'frontliner' was pulled out of the sea in one video. 

  • A 17 y/o girl fell into an estate courtyard topless with her jeans partly taken off. Also deemed 'unsuspicious.'

  • A body pulled out of the water in Tsuen Wan with arms in a rigor mortis position that looked like they had been handcuffed. Someone reported police dumping a body in the sea the night before it happened.

The second most prevalent conspiracy theory is that the PLA or PAP is already here - wearing HKPF uniforms. Attempts to catch them speaking Mandarin are either duds or taken out of context. We're also in the midst of a raging moral panic about the new Made in China tear gas being 'toxic.' That's long and complicated and our OSINT HK group is trying to recruit an expert so we can issue a statement that people will believe.

... why is that? 

For the average pro-government person, they see people doing things they can't understand and ascribe their own crass hedonistic/materialistic motivations to it. For the government, they latch on to any theory or explanation for the protests that does not start and stop "because the HKSAR government is criminally incompetent, HKPF is out of control terrorizing the city, and 85% of the city primarily blames the govt for the escalation of violence."

As many others have noted, this entire movement began with overtures of death — white clothing funeral for the 6/09 match, the 返送中 ‘funeral' pun, etc. There was a search for martyrs after 6/12 since no one had died from this yet - so they picked a guy who 'accidentally' fell hanging anti-ELAB signs (who also had a suicide note in his pocket). A giant shrine was built and became almost long as Pacific Place Mall on 6/16.

As to the rest: it's a mix of strong privacy laws, institutional opacity, and lack of trust. We don't know the names for most of the 4500 nearly that have been arrested and even getting numbers from police can be difficult. You need a name to look for death records, and the names of the 'floaters' and 'fallers' aren't publicly announced. There's no list of arrestees with suicide victims to look for matches. 

In the past two weeks, I think I've seen at least three arrested people beaten or manhandled so severely that the scene ends with cops dragging a limp body across the street (letting a head smash into a concrete barricade in one instance). We usually have no idea who these people are, what happened to them, or the extent of their injuries. Even for a natural skeptic like me, it’s difficult to believe there’s only been one confirmed death so far when they’re acting like this on the streets. What would they do if they accidentally killed someone? They even taunt about the allegations on the streets.

In private debates and discussions over this topic, my position for a while has been something like this: we see how police treat people on the streets with cameras rolling - it often stops only when they realize they're being filmed. I heard third hand of young men being raped while in detention before women started coming forward with accusations. Many detainees are getting injuries that doctors describe as post-arrest beatings or torture. It's becoming increasingly difficult to believe nobody has died in six months of this (except Alex Chow, whose death can't be linked directly to any police action). 

Do they hurt the movement, and if so, how?

In my opinion, pro-government misinformation and conspiracy theories have hurt them a lot. Today, for instance, James Palmer had a great piece on how Beijing completely misread the District Council elections so much so that state media hadn't even prepared stories for the landslide loss. Perhaps both sides, in fact, because failing to address the legitimacy crisis of the HKSAR government head-on. The only people who can stop all this, by which I mean Hong Kong's tiny political elite class, by reaching a political solution have their heads in the sand about why all of this has happened. They're always catching up to reality weeks or months late. Notice how the 'CIA backhands' conspiracy theory slowly dropped off? 

On the protesters' side, the widespread belief that HKPF is covering up murders and rape is 100% distilled agit-prop fuel. We've seen a transition from shouting 黑警 to adding 黑社会 after 7/21, and "殺人犯 / 強姦犯" combos (black/corrupt cops, Triads, murderers and rapists!). Many people I've spoken with about the ongoing Siege of PolyU think that it's fear of what happens during arrest (severe injuries) and what happens when they enter the 48-hour habeas corpus period than the possibility of serving ten years in prison for riot charges. It's increasingly common for people being arrested to shout their names at passers-by and cameras and add "I am not suicidal!" In other words, they're saying it won’t be suicide if their body is found floating in the sea or fallen off a balcony a few days later - it was murder.

Whether or not it 'hurts' the movement or not, I don't know, but the search for answers amidst institutional distrust and opacity has led to increasingly convoluted conspiracy theories. Even the most credible people also misinterpret things very quickly. For instance, on Sunday (election day), multiple pictures and videos were going around alleging to show election irregularities. One of the most viral was a woman handing "lai see" to people getting off a bus. It was a funeral, which our new group OSINT HK more-or-less verified and had the videos removed from Twitter.

It's often frustrating how difficult it is to get less alarmist material to spread vs. alarmist misreadings and even 'fake news'. Our OSINT HK Twitter account just shared the findings of a literature review on tear gas and dioxin that finds that this new Chinese-made tear gas can't produce anything more than trace dioxin. That might get ten retweets. Last night I got angry at people spreading a doctored video of a 'ghost train' taking arrestees to China and asked why they weren't focusing on real things like the 5-body high stampede that sent 31 people to the hospital last week.

How does one go about addressing this? 

For things like rumors/conspiracies of detainee deaths, there's virtually no leads for a journalist to work on to investigate any of these suspicious deaths. Not without names, anyways. We don't even really have a good count of how many people have been injured or how badly because protesters use the Secret Clinic network instead of the Hospital Authority, where HKPF has access to the HA patient record database. It is rumored that Blue Silk hospital employees (doctors, nurses, clerks) are reporting injuries to the police if they look like an injury seems protest-related.

The only real solution is in the Five Demands: an independent investigation of HKPF. Furthermore, any reform towards democratization and putting HKPF back under civilian control would make it possible for otherwise silent people to speak out. Recall Simon Cheng stayed silent for eight weeks and fled Hong Kong to tell his story of being kidnapped at Kowloon XRL, renditioned to Shenzhen, and tortured.

What is the role of OSINT? 

Let me start by describing the limitations of traditional journalism. Reporters are bound by sources of 'objective truth' that usually mean relying on official statements by the government or 'credible' people/orgs, easily verified facts, and eyewitness accounts. The government is outright lying about many things (like HKPF claiming no stampede happened), ‘hard’ facts can be challenging to establish in this environment, and our group has repeatedly found eyewitness accounts contradicted by video footage. 

We're in an environment where people are searching for truth and reliable information amid a deluge of information, but the 'official' information brokers are either untrusted (the HKSAR govt) or overwhelmed with the task of reconstructing events and making definitive conclusions. OSINT research is also a different skill set than what journalists are familiar with or trained in, nor is it entirely 'fact-checking' as I see practiced in Hong Kong right now.

Our OSINT HK project is about getting better resolutions or parameters of truth. Sometimes we can establish that something did or didn't happen, but more often, we're giving interpretive explanations after merging all the available evidence. Where journalists would repeat police statements that they weren't in the garage when Alex Chow fell, we can say: 

  • The CCTV footage doesn't look doctored to us

  • Tear gas was likely not a factor in his fall, though it was fired into the floor of the garage he was on when he fell minutes later.

  • Riot police were entering the ground floor about the time he fell but were nowhere near him

  • We don't see any evidence that he was stalked or pushed.

  • Many video clips purporting to be Alex Chow are not, in fact, him

  • He was likely a 'scout' (a cop spotter for a Telegram channel) and fell off rather than jumped over the wall

  • There's a plausible scenario wherein he was shot from outside and fell forward, and plus scout reports from Telegram channels helped us conclude police would have been in front of him outside the garage.

We were able to reach these conclusions by placing maps with all of the video footage we could find, timestamping footage and events, geolocating everything, and then syncing it all together for interpretation. Eyewitness accounts helped us look in the right places at the right time, but their sequence of events was pretty off. Our work over the past week focused on the stampedes last Tuesday. We discovered a second stampede and found that both press and opposition party politicians are getting the events in question wrong. There's a prevailing assumption that the 'three white vans' incident caused the stampede, but it was 90 minutes later somewhere else.

We're also agile enough to be able to quickly determine that the sounds & flashes seen last Tuesday were almost certainly flashbang grenades (rather than AR-15 gunfire, as most social media captioned video clips when they came out) long before media was able to say the same thing when HKPF announced it the next afternoon. By that point, however, we had already identified the model of flashbang used about six hours earlier.

The challenge for us right now is becoming recognized as an 'official' or reliable source of information. We have multiple journalists lurking in our Working Group channel, but none have cited us by name. The best way we're able to get our message out is having OSINT prodigy Nathan Ruser, who I would consider a co-founder of this project, tweet out his results. 

How does it empower individuals?

There's something about the 'Revolution of Our Times' that makes people want to help any way they can. This kind of work appeals to a nerdier and highly educated group of people who like establishing fact patterns and discovering new things. We have a larger OSINT HK Chat group where several people volunteer as translators for us. By working in private encrypted channels on Telegram, people are also able to participate anonymously - which is a ‘must’ for a lot of people in 2019.

There's also a crowdsourcing aspect of this work that makes our work faster and more efficient than I would have expected. There have been times when I've asked a speculative question I intend to look at myself, and two people answer before I even take a look. We were able to conclude, for instance, that a video allegedly showing police arresting people on a rooftop last week at 4 am in Tsim Sha Tsui was real after I asked: "do the clothes match?" Within a minute or two, an answer came back that not only did the clothes match, the spacing between the people matched. We were looking at a video leaked out of HKPF.

There's also very appealing flexibility and scalability of the model we stumbled upon. A group of about ten people wanted to monitor reports of District Council election irregularities. We set up a separate OSINT HK channel for them to work with, and they borrowed the same methods and tools they see us use in the primary Working Group (geolocation, time stamping, and centralizing data on a Trello board). They plan to write up their report in the next few days.

Why correcting the record matters in the long run?

I would dispute that we're correcting the record - we're often creating the record. So many things get lost in the 'memory hole' because so much is happening. Given the limitations of journalism and lack of an official investigation of the events happening in Hong Kong, we're filling in a niche role that I think some people have been looking for. In the short-term, I think my goal is calming some of the emerging moral panics happening in Hong Kong. 

We've been trying to recruit a tear gas and toxicology expert because everyone - everyone - is convinced that the new Chinese-made tear gas is producing dangerous toxins. The truth is a lot more complicated. Other panics are just outside our abilities that we'd like to push back on but can't due to a lack of documentary evidence. For instance, people want us to answer where the arrested people filmed outside PolyU being packed into MTR trains went. We're almost sure it wasn't China, but we'd likely be able to confirm it was Mong Kok East MTR station if we had a picture of them arriving.

AMA about Hong Kong Protests and Politics

Except for the Ongoing Siege of PolyU, The Rest Seemed Normal

I’m still writing a ‘recap’ to describe the insane week that’s happened since the last update. I can’t deliver anything of quality tonight. While I work on that, I want to try a new format: ask me anything about Hong Kong, protester vs HKPF strategies and tactics, public mood, Beijing-HK policy/politics/history, etc.

I’ll pick the best questions and answer by tomorrow night. Either email me or leave your question as a comment (preferred).

In the meantime:

  • Read Woliff’s real-time thread following the uprising in Kowloon to free the protesters and students besieged in PolyU. It started with middle-class professionals making human chains to pass kerosene and other supplies to frontliners and ended with TST East being gassed for nearly 12 hours, various frontlines merging within 300m of PolyU, and 11 people found tied up on a rooftop at 4am [+ first known HKPF leak].

  • NYT’s Tiffany May found and interviewed ‘Eye Girl.’

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