One afternoon this past October, Nick, a university student in Hong Kong, unlocked his smartphone and logged into LIHKG, a website that looked like a Cantonese-language version of Reddit. Nothing about the site’s appearance suggested that it, along with the messaging app Telegram, had become the primary organizing center of protests that had been shaking the city for months. The protests began in the spring of 2019 over the Hong Kong government’s attempt to pass a law that would allow extraditions to mainland China. That fall, hundreds of thousands were demonstrating for a broader pro-democracy platform, including universal suffrage and an investigation into Hong Kong’s police force.
Looking at LIHKG that day, a casual reader would notice that the protests had become the main topic of conversation on the message board, just as they had across Hong Kong.
At 5:32 p.m., Nick tapped out a few characters.
Say it in one line: Are you going out to your own district at 8pm tonight?
Before the first of the larger protests erupted in June, Nick’s activity on LIHKG was mostly that of a lurker. He was there not to post calls to action but to read celebrity gossip and reviews of the latest computer hardware. To this day, much of the site’s content is seemingly apolitical. The “app” board, for example, recently sprouted a robust discussion of Pokémon Masters, a playful sidebar to what has become LIHKG’s principal obsession. As the demonstrations continued, Nick’s life, along with that of most every active user on LIHKG, became fully consumed by the movement. Online and off, he prodded his peers to do more.
“Going out,” was code for massing in the streets. Nick’s vagueness about what might happen next was intentional, a way for him to communicate across an ideological divide over whether there is a place for violent actions within the broader Hong Kong protest movement. On LIHKG, one can watch the two sides making their cases in real time.
Hong Kong has now experienced more than one full year of unrest, with the earliest protests dating back to March 2019. The movement is shaping up to be the most sustained display of resistance to the ruling Communist Party since the 1989 student protests that ended with a massacre at Tiananmen Square. Over the past year, more than 2,500 people have been injured in Hong Kong; around 8,000 have been arrested. Two have died — an elderly cleaning worker struck in the head by a brick and a college student who fell from a parking garage during a clash with police.
Amid the apparent chaos in the streets, there have been some astonishing moments of order, when groups of protesters have acted with flawless coordination. A crowd of thousands parted to let an ambulance pass; hundreds showed up to direct their laser pointers at a planetarium following the arrest of one laser-wielding protester for possessing an “offensive weapon.” These demonstrations of unity have taken place in the absence of any formal leadership, and they embody one of the protesters’ informal mottos — be water —borrowed from the Hong Kong film icon Bruce Lee. The protesters’ ability to act with precision despite the lack of any formal leadership structure is also a product of the protests’ online culture that includes Telegram channels, WhatsApp groups, and Facebook followings that allow the best ideas to quickly surface and achieve mass distribution. LIHKG, along with multiple Telegram channels, sits at the center of this network, operating as a kind of free-form online headquarters where concepts are floated, messaging is honed, and plans are made. Alexa ranks LIHKG as one of the most visited sites in Hong Kong, but even this understates its influence. The deliberations that take place 24 hours a day on LIHKG’s boards form much of the hub of the movement’s electronic infrastructure.
King-wa Fu, a journalism professor at The University of Hong Kong, describes LIHKG as an “idea generator” and the most active users as “agenda setters.” The use of other social media platforms to spread LIHKG-formulated plans, he said, means that the site “basically cuts across all generations and different classes in Hong Kong.” Fu estimates the number of registered users at around 300,000 but said he believes the number of consistently active users is far lower, in the tens of thousands. A single Telegram group, by comparison, can reach as many as 200,000 people.
“Most new actions that are coming up, it all starts from LIHKG,” said Charles Mok, a pro-democracy lawmaker and internet entrepreneur who represents the IT sector, one of the functional constituencies in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. “It’s like the ground zero of actions.” The site is a big enough headache for Beijing that it was reportedly the victim of a sophisticated distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattack by a Chinese government hacking tool called the “Great Cannon.” During one 16-hour period, the site said that it had been hit with more than 1.5 billion requests.
The gap between LIHKG’s visibility among the protesters themselves as compared with the authorities who are suffering them was apparent in September 2019, when Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s 62-year-old chief executive, took questions for more than two hours in a packed sports venue. She said that the town hall–style event was intended “to deepen the understanding and forgiveness in society.” Inside, a young man in a suit told Lam, “If you want to know what young people think, go to your mobile phone and install an app called LIHKG,” he said. “You don’t need to spend a single dollar or the manpower of 3,000 police officers. You can just go into the app on your mobile phone and check it out.”
The origins of LIHKG are thoroughly nonpolitical. It was inspired by an older site, HKGolden, which was named after the Golden Computer Arcade, a maze of electronic stalls in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood. The site was launched by a group of six consumer tech enthusiasts, coworkers at a bank, who wanted to build a site that featured unbiased reviews and pricing guides of the latest gear. “Everything was DIY,” said one of the founders. “We did all the programming, all the graphics, all the content by ourselves. So this is quite challenging, but quite fun.”
Even in its infancy, it attracted superusers with a fanatical dedication to posting content. What started as discussion boards strictly on computer hardware, expanded to other topics, including politics.
“I couldn’t control them,” the founder of HKGolden, who asked to stay anonymous because he no longer wishes to be associated with the site, told Rest of World. “They thought Hong Kong Golden was great because we don’t have any rules. They can talk about anything they want to.”
In 2008, the founders sold the site to a Hong Kong media company called Fevaworks. By 2014, with the rise of the largely peaceful Umbrella Movement, which made an unsuccessful push for electoral reforms, it had evolved into a hub for political dissent. According to Joe Lam Cho-shun, the site’s CEO, HKGolden gave the authorities the IP address of one user who had gone online to urge the 2014 protesters to block subway tracks. He was arrested and released on bail. HKGolden posted a notice asking users to refrain from inciting protesters; users involved in the protest began using code words.
It’s a big (online) world.
After HKGolden began limiting political content, users began migrating to a new site that was easier to read on mobile devices. The site’s founder, Lineage Hui, was a publicity-shy techie who had first worked on a third-party app to improve HKGolden’s reading experience.
This was LIHKG. The “LI” came from Hui’s first name; “HKG” paid homage to its predecessor. There is no record of Hui’s political beliefs, not on LIHKG or elsewhere. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
There is, however, little question which side LIHKG serves. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts that appear linked to the site regularly post messages supportive of the protest movement. Users believe Hui to be one of their own. Hui “won’t snitch on us,” Nick said. Hui doesn’t appear to see it as his role to control the conversation. In 2016, he wrote a post explaining a decision to take down two threads having to do with doxing and one with suicide. Since then, LIHKG has been almost entirely self-governing, for better and occasionally for worse. Users have tried to play detective, assembling conspiracy theories regarding suicides and protester deaths. In another thread, users expressed morbid glee when 39 corpses found in a truck in Britain were falsely reported to be Chinese. Throughout it all, Hui has maintained his silence.
Beneath LIHKG’s forgettable aesthetics are some clever design choices. A button in the settings window allows users to turn the entire site into a fake Excel sheet to browse at work, similar to the “boss key” in old PC games, except the site can still be browsed and read within the spreadsheet’s individual cells. Other design elements create a high barrier to entry, which helps insulate the site from trolls.
Like most message boards, LIHKG users post under pseudonyms, but only those who have an email address from a Hong Kong–based internet service provider or a Hong Kong school or university are eligible to create an account, a constraint that reportedly protected the site over the summer when users from a pro-China forum tried and failed to infiltrate LIHKG. Almost every post is in Cantonese, which is spoken by fewer than one in 10 people in China’s mainland. Far fewer mainlanders understand the Hong Kong dialect favored by LIHKG users. Identities are persistent; any user can click on another user’s name and see their previous posts and replies. New users on the platform are flagged with a “P-plate” sticker that appears beside all their comments and atop any threads they start for a period of three months, notifying others of their probationary status. As of June 2019, LIHKG moderators informed new users that their P-plate stickers would remain indefinitely.
“Obviously, a lot of police and pro-Communist people try to influence the overall direction of the platform,” Nick said. “With the P-plate system, we are able to know who started their account in recent days.” So far, these features have been enough to keep authentic Hong Kong–based users at the center of LIHKG’s threads.
According to Simon Shen, a social science professor at City University of Hong Kong, part of the trust in LIHKG also comes from the way the site is run, with administrators not being allowed to promote posts themselves. This creates a “bottom-up mechanism,” he said, where a post gaining traction is “is actually a referendum of the next move.”
Ultimately, however, Shen says that LIHKG is more of a reflection of the protesters’ code of solidarity than its source. “The technology itself is quite simple,” he said. “The irreplaceable part is the culture, not the technology.”
Beneath LIHKG’s internal flame wars is a shared understanding that the noise and disagreements are all in the family and that, ultimately, no subgroup is going to turn its back on the movement. A popular protest slogan captures this ethos: “Together we climb the mountain, each in our own way.”
After Nick made his post on LIHKG back in October, he wanted to quantify the response. As LIHKG lacks a Twitter-style “poll” option, he used a popular makeshift alternative:
Going out (upvote)
Not going out (downvote)
The post started drawing upvotes and replies almost instantly. Soon, Nick’s post had been promoted to LIHKG’s “Popular” front page, where it amassed more than 2,000 upvotes.
What else can we do in Tseung Kwan O? Everything has been renovated
Maybe the building near the hospital?
what’s the point of coming out? Let’s rest and play again when business resumes
Fuck you “resters”. I don’t think real frontliners will dare to talk about getting a rest.
LIHKG is more than just a war room and a megaphone. It is also an open forum where protesters publicly hash out their disagreements. But despite the general agreement over its aims, there is an internal rift over violence — both its tactical value and its moral permissibility.
In one camp are the more peaceful protesters. Those who adhere to the tradition of “rational and peaceful and nonviolent” demonstrations, known as woh-leih-fei in Cantonese, have long been the bedrock of Hong Kong’s robust protest culture. In 2003, these tactics succeeded in prodding the government to abandon a controversial national security law. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers gather each year for a peaceful candlelight vigil in memory of the Tiananmen Square killings.
The violent-versus-nonviolent debate was one of the main wedges that eventually broke up 2014’s Umbrella Movement. Those protests fell short of changing Hong Kong’s electoral system to a direct democracy. Today, a 1,200-member committee stacked with Beijing loyalists remains the only group that can cast a vote for the city’s chief executive. In the 2019 protests, a younger group of protesters appeared. They called themselves the “frontliners” or “braves” and were willing to engage in property destruction and more.
When frontliners on LIHKG talk about “renovating” subway stations and businesses, what they mean is smashing their windows and sometimes setting them on fire. When they talk about “dogs,” they mean police. There are also task-based subgroups: “Scouts” monitor police locations with binoculars. “Wizards” mix and throw Molotov cocktails. “Firefighters” chase down and extinguish flaming canisters of teargas. Others specialize in barricades, bows and arrows, and catapults.
There have been a handful of moments when the protests’ violence has gotten indiscriminate enough to stoke fears that it could divide the movement. In November, an officer was struck in the leg by an arrow fired during a chaotic multiday standoff at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Beneath an image of the wounded leg on LIHKG, users engaged in their own rhetorical crossfire:
Shoot the head next time
Apparently for dogs, the first thing to do when your colleague got shot by an arrow is to take pictures
Please, everyone don’t do this. This is really violent
Others called for unity:
Please don’t cut ties with comrades
It has been five months, please do not dismiss our comrades’ hard work
One might expect that the airing of internal gripes would turn LIHKG into an echo chamber of polarized antagonism and deepen divisions within the movement. It’s true that the debates there often get heated, and profane. But throughout the Hong Kong protests, it’s become clear that the daily venting on LIHKG has helped sustain the movement by putting parties with differing views on tactics into the same conversation.
The crowds at the Hong Kong street protests can draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of demonstrators — many of whom use LIHKG. Bridging the gap between the activities of the fast-moving site and the larger movement is a job taken up by Nat, another university student, who is part of the protests’ self-described “publicity department.” At one point, she spent as much as two hours a day scrolling through LIHKG, looking for trending themes and topics to be converted into a stream of digital posters. Most of her communication with other members of the publicity department happens on Telegram, where she is one of the administrators of a group with more than 50 active members. Some of the posters the group produces promote events; others complain about the police or ridicule pro-Beijing politicians with humorous memes.
The movement’s creative work goes well beyond posters. LIHKG birthed “Glory to Hong Kong,” an alternative national anthem that has become a popular stand-in for the much maligned Chinese anthem and is belted out at the start of protests and sporting events. The site’s popular stickers have achieved fame in their own right. The most famous among the crew of cartoon mascots is LinPig, a mischievous pig with its trotters raised in defiance.
These pro-democracy promotional materials are sent out through Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook and AirDropped in subway stations during rush hour onto the phones of unsuspecting commuters. The work of these publicity units is a self-propagating street campaign that updates itself nearly as quickly as the message board that helps to control it. In February, Nat was working with Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority Employees Alliance to organize strikes protesting the government’s slow response to the COVID-19. “They will send us some news, and we will make a poster from there,” she said. “This all goes back to how corrupt our government is, because they wouldn’t close the border at first.”
In January, after pro-democracy candidates backed by the protest movement won majorities in 17 of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils, a crowd of more than a million people — nearly one out of every seven Hong Kongers — assembled for one of the largest demonstrations since the movement began. The mood on LIHKG was defiant:
The first battle of 2020 rang the bell with 1.03 million people
Public opinion hasn’t reversed, fuck your mother.
By late January, the protests had seized upon a second crisis, the coronavirus, as further proof that Beijing wasn’t up to the task of governing Hong Kong. By mid-March, more than 3,000 had died in China, and three had died in Hong Kong. Schools and offices closed down, and the streets began to empty. But the frontliners were not done. After the government floated a plan to convert a newly constructed public apartment building, still empty, into a quarantine center, black-clad protesters showed up and set fire to the lobby. On LIHKG, the conversation shifted to the virus and critiques of Carrie Lam’s response. Users complained about shortages of hand sanitizer and face masks. They demanded that the border with China be closed. The publicity department circulated posters, detailing which surgical masks to wear and how Hong Kongers could protect themselves from getting sick. The same digital infrastructure that had risen up to overthrow the government had now shifted to filling those gaps where the official systems were falling short.
Lam, who had once tried to outlaw face masks, now appeared in public wearing one for health reasons, though its protective qualities were compromised briefly when it slipped off her nose. One LIHKG user commented on her reversal with a popular protest slogan, one that seemed to dare Lam to follow what had been her own advice:
If we burn, you burn with us.