On October 12, Yiu Man Chi, an 18-year-old engineering student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, posted in a live feed on Reddit about the protests in Hong Kong that he had burned out: “I will step away from this live thread for a few days to recover.”
Less than 24 hours later, he was back. While other young Hongkongers were building barricades, ran supply stations or plastered the streets with anti-government posters, Yiu dedicated all his energy to tell the world what was happening. He now has been covering the protests for over sixty days, but only visited the protest site once. “My family advised me not to go there,” he says.
Reddit, a mixture of a social networking and news website, sports a live feature to follow breaking news events. On September 28th, the protest in Hong Kong got its own feed. When the police used 87 tear gas containers to disperse the crowds, Yiu saw it on television. “I felt guilty not doing anything,” he says. “These young people are risking their lives and safety to fight for the betterment of Hong Kong, and I am sitting comfortably in the living room watching this?” Not being able to put feet on the ground, he went to work online.
Yiu is part a group of young Hong Kongers who have taken up the mission to translate what is happening in Hong Kong to an English speaking audience. They rely on social media, while criticising traditional news outlets for not painting a full picture and neglecting undercurrents, and have been crucial for the work of foreign journalists in Hong Kong.
At times, more than 2000 viewers were following the Reddit feed at the same time. The contributors translate and post selected information. It has never been inactive for more than half an hour. “I don’t know exactly why I suddenly felt the urge to translate all the news to foreigners,” says Yiu.
Two other students, 18-year-old Ryan, a freshman medical student at the University of Hong Kong, and 20-year-old Andrew, who studies computer science in Northern America, do not want their real names used in fear of repercussions from the Chinese government.
Andrew, a Hong Konger who left the city ten years ago, is mostly doing the night shifts. “We still seem to be able to provide near 24/7 coverage, which I find pretty impressive,” he says. Ryan lives in Hong Kong and visits the protest sites after school. “As a medical student we have a very high course load, I can’t go during the day,” he says. In the beginning, he was updating the feed up to ten hours each day. Now he is down to two hours daily.
More than a decade older than the students is contributor Yan Sham-Shackleton, who now resides in Los Angeles. She grew up in the Mid-Levels in Hong Kong but – with no plans to live and work in China – was happy to provide her full name. “I am so far away, but I can be on the internet,” she says. “It’s my way of contributing.” The protests have disrupted the life of the mother of a primary-school aged boy, even if there is an ocean in between. Until 2005, she had run a pro-democracy blog, which was banned in China.
Together with the above-mentioned students, Sham-Shackleton belongs to the core team behind the Reddit feed. There is no work plan. As Andrew explains, it all happens by 默契, a Chinese word to express coordination which happens naturally and spontaneously.
“Even though I will probably never meet them or know their name, it has meaning to me that we all work towards the same goal,” says Sham-Shackleton. “It’s special and we are bonded by a cause and our collective way of expressing it.”
Young Hong Kongers discuss the protests feverishly online. Famous for its outspokenness is the forum HKGolden, which had nearly 3 million daily views after September 28th. “HKGolden provides a very good platform for people to discuss the movement, because there is not much room in for that in real daily life,” says student leader Nathan Law. The recent arrest of an HKGolden forum member for “inciting others on an online forum to join an unlawful assembly” only proved that social media is shaping what happens on the ground.
During the two months of pro-democracy protests, many young Hong Kongers have become deeply distrustful of traditional media. Nathan Law regularly uses Facebook to voice his views. “Facebook is the most important way to spread information,” he says. “Basically all media report in favour of the establishment.” If the student unions post news and updates, the communication is instant, unfiltered and unprocessed.
In two months student leaders have gathered vibrant online communities around them, including rumours, gossip and fanpages. Media darling Joshua Wong has amassed over 245,000 followers on Facebook. Once, Nathan Law lost his glasses on the protest site. He posted a search request on Facebook, and instantly became known as “Mr Sunglasses”. Local popstar Denise Ho bought him new ones. “I will never know why the case of me losing the glasses is so popular on the internet,” Law says. “But it has become one of my identities.”
Stories like these do not leave the digital communities, because they all happen in Cantonese. Also, undercurrents emerging through online social media escape the attention of foreign-speaking observers, leaving them with a simplified and less nuanced view of the protests. Here is where the Reddit feed steps in.
Citizen journalists like Kris Cheng also try to fill the gap. He works as a fixer for the western media, but also covers the protests in his free time on Twitter. “The English speakers in Hong Kong don’t understand what is happening,” he says. “I made a conscious decision to inform the English audience back in 2007.” During the protests, his follower count rose from 1100 to 4400 in two months.
A former student leader himself, the people he covers are his friends and former classmates. “I love spending time here,” Cheng says. “Tweeting does not need a lot of energy. It is a way of expressing what I see and a waste of my time here if I don’t do it.”
An invaluable asset for foreign reporters in the beginning was a Facebook page called “Translating the Umbrella Movement”. It was set up by 20-year-old Arthur Lo, who studies neuroscience in the USA and is on a gap year. He was was taken aback by what he witnessed after September 28. “It struck me was how civil and peaceful it was”, he remembers. Inspired by other volunteers picking up trash, he thought of what he could do best, and as a bilingual, he set up a stand outside McDonalds, offering translations for foreign media. He ended up working for BBC and Al-Jazeera.
“I really like being involved in a bigger thing and being in news gives you that,” he says. While Cheng sees himself more as an objective bystander, Lo is openly supporting the movement and feels as he is a protester himself. His team grew to 15 members at its height, including high school students. Now he is alone again. The international media have largely lost interest.
The Reddit contributors also realised that, but are determined to carry on. Several hundred people are often logged on to the feed. On October 27th, Yiu made a post during a moment where no updates were available: “We can assure [you] that we will not abandon this thread until the movement has ended.”
Winner of the Zurich Journalism Prize in 2010, Lukas Messmer has been working in journalism for eight years. He is currently studying a Master of Journalism at the University of Hong Kong.