The battle last week over Hong Kong’s extradition law, fought between citizens and government, has proved to be remarkably different from the protests that were central to 2014’s Umbrella Movement.

Hong Kong has formally been a part of China since 1997 and has been governed under the “one country, two systems” principle which was supposed to ensure that citizens of the former British colony would enjoy, for 50 years, freedoms and rights unavailable in mainland China.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement grew from discontent about Beijing’s involvement in the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive but soon became, to a large extent, an existential protest about Hong Kong’s democratic future.

The  protesters of five years ago occupied the city’s main business district for almost three months. In the eyes of many, they outstayed their welcome. This led to them losing a significant amount of support, even from within the pro-democracy camp. 

The protests this time have generated colossal support over a specific issue. Focusing on a piece of planned legislation that would controversially allow the extradition of criminals from the city to mainland China, Hong Kong’s conservatives and radicals have come together under a single banner. 

The protests’ sharper focus last week was founded on fears that the bill would leave people in Hong Kong exposed to China’s judicial system – often accused of being deeply flawed – while further eroding the city’s own judicial independence.

While both these two points could turn out to be key to Hong Kong’s immediate future, there was something else seen at last week’s protests that could have a wider global significance. 

Tech-enabled, leaderless protests

The leader-driven direction of 2014’s Umbrella Movement has gone. In its place is something that is decentralized but, at the same time, has a high degree of organization. 

So do these demonstrations, driven by a “leaderless” movement, reflect the global zeitgeist of a new era – where millennials who are used to a tech-dominated, decentralized world are setting the milieu?

As tear gas and rubber bullets flew in the city’s Admiralty district on June 12, videos shot at the scene revealed a polished level of organization and co-operation, that saw supply chains of people move face masks, eye goggles, inhalers and water up to front line protesters.

While these were partially driven by an especially developed system of hand signals, the key tool was messaging apps, especially the Russia-linked, crypto-friendly Telegram app that promises a higher degree of security and protection.

Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram had been the tools of choice for generating sentiment against the extradition law. Telegram, just like in 2014, became the protesters’ walkie talkie network. 

Big Brother strikes back

But authorities soon found methods of high-tech infiltration. Last week there was confusion about which Telegram groups had been infiltrated by authorities seeking to track the movements of protesters. A series of passwords were reportedly developed to fight back against undercover surveillance.

On June 12, a city-wide strike went into action. As demonstrators came under a barrage of police baton charges, rubber bullets and tear gas, Telegram experienced a cyber-attack. The app’s founder, Pavel Durov, claimed that this “state actor-sized” distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack “originated from China.” Local activists who used Telegram were also arrested and pushed by police to divulge information from chat groups.

Where the Umbrella Movement sought expression and urged public debate, front line protesters today have rejected photos and interviews, covered their faces, disabled location-tracking. They have not used mobile payments or credit cards for telecommunication purchases, instead buying pre-paid SIM cards and even using good, old-fashioned cash to buy metro train tickets instead of purchasing stored value cards which can record passenger movement.

When the Hong Kong Hospital Authority was accused of leaking patient data to the police, concerns were raised that the protest was now under deep analytical surveillance. Many in Hong Kong voiced concerns about how police and the government record and share photos, data and the biometric information that is stored in every Hong Kong resident’s mandatory identity card.

The historic Sunday protests on June 15 and 22 brought huge numbers on to the streets, with some estimates claiming that more than two million marched. If correct, that is more than one in four of Hong Kong’s population.  

Many of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement ended being sent to jail. So what next for this so-called leaderless movement? And what role will mass surveillance play? 

As many in Hong Kong – and probably Beijing – will now be asking: How much use is AI against a movement of millions that has no leader?