Hong Kong protesters get Bay Area tech, political assists

As one of the formerly jailed leaders of the bloody 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, Zhou Fengsou knows a few things about freedom and protest in mainland China. He needs that expertise more than ever now.

From his home in Hayward, Zhou is helping lead the local effort to get information into and out of mainland China about the protests that have brought tens of thousands of people into Hong Kong’s streets calling for free elections. His task is anything but easy.

The Chinese government blocks or heavily censors Instagram, Facebook and most other social media, as well as e-mail programs and Internet access to outside news sites. So what’s left are workarounds — furtive phone calls here and there, and off-and-on Twitter feeds.

Arrested for banner

Zhou, 47, displayed tweets from several of his 27,000 Twitter followers, indicating they had been arrested in China in recent days for showing solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters. One tweet, from a woman named Han Ying, said she had been arrested for holding a banner. Her tweet contained a photo of her and the banner, which read in Chinese and English, “Democracy in Taiwan, rule of law in Hong Kong, what does mainland have?”

“About two dozen people like this woman have been arrested on the mainland for supporting the people in Hong Kong, and not many people know about that,” Zhou said as he joined a crowd of 150 people who mounted a noisy support rally Wednesday in downtown San Francisco for the Hong Kong movement. “In China, to express anything is dangerous — but these brave demonstrations have to happen.

“To me, they and all the people in Hong Kong are carrying the torch of freedom from 25 years ago,” said Zhou, who helped lead the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that went on for weeks before the military cracked down. “We have to support them as much as we can.”

Zhou came to the United States in the mid-1990s after spending more than a year in a Chinese prison and has worked in finance since then.

Showing solidarity

For now, said Zhou and others rallying Wednesday, their support is confined to showing solidarity through demonstrations, petitions and postings on the social media networks that are still available in Hong Kong. The former British colony, turned over to Chinese rule in 1997, is free of censorship from the mainland, but Zhou and his other activists fear that may change if the protests don’t succeed.

Part of the agreement between China and Britain at the time of the handover was that Hong Kong residents would be able to freely elect their own chief executive in 2017. But the Beijing government said over the summer that only candidates approved by a nomination committee based on the mainland would be allowed on the ballot.

On Friday, crowds of students and young adults surged into the streets to demand a freer election, and over the weekend police used tear gas and batons to drive back the crowds. The protesters have remained in three major thoroughfares downtown, however, and after they used umbrellas to shield themselves from gas and pepper spray, some dubbed the movement the “Umbrella Revolution.”

‘Great Firewall’

The information blackout on the mainland is being called “the Great Firewall.” On Wednesday, the San Francisco protesters waved umbrellas as they marched to the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office on Montgomery Street.

Finding the office closed for the day — Wednesday was a national holiday in China in honor of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the communist state — they taped umbrellas and flyers to the wall and door.

Protesters said they are filling up Facebook pages such as United for Democracy: Global Solidarity With Hong Kong, and posting on sites such as Hongwrong.com to show backing for the overseas movement. They and others have also helped amass 196,000 signatures on the White House petition site urging President Obama to press China to accede to the protesters’ demands.

“It’s been pretty much a total social media blackout in mainland China, so we just have to keep signal blasting,” said Rhianydd Qing York Williams, 24, who grew up in Hong Kong and lives in San Francisco. “People in Hong Kong know what they want to see. We just have to keep turning up the volume over here.”

Charles Cheung, a tech manager in San Francisco, helped organize Wednesday’s march and said he and others plan to keep up the pressure.

“We need to condemn the use of force from Hong Kong policemen,” he said. “This is a peaceful demonstration there. We are monitoring it, and the tension has eased in the past day or so, but many people feel very pessimistic.”

Smartphone app

Also closely monitoring the protests are the managers of Firechat, a 7-month-old smartphone app created by San Francisco’s Open Garden tech firm.

The free app allows people to send texts to each other without Internet or cellular service if they are within about 70 yards of one another. Hong Kong’s protesters have been snapping it up as cell and Internet service becomes overwhelmed during the demonstrations.

“We’ve had 100,000 downloads a day in Hong Kong since last Saturday, so much that we are the No. 1 app there now,” said company manager Stanislav Shalunov.

Even more surprising: The app is being downloaded in mainland China, though Shalunov said he didn’t have figures for that.

Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: kfagan@sfchronicle.com

Article source: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Hong-Kong-protests-Bay-Area-tech-outreach-help-5795317.php

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