‘Be Water’ was the tactical motto adopted by protesters during Hong Kong’s 2019 large scale pro-democracy protests. The phrase, originally attributed to Bruce Lee, was meant to remind protesters to be flexible and constantly adapt to their surroundings and circumstances. ‘Be Water’ was used as a guide for many of the protesters’ activities but perhaps none more so than the flexible and innovative use of everyday mobile phone technology to coordinate and communicate amongst a protest group that at times numbered in the tens of thousands.
The wide spread but novel use of mobile phone technology as an extremely effective communications, command and control (C3) tool is a reminder for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that in the highly networked mega cities that are now common across the Asia-Pacific region, the military does not have a monopoly on communications technology. This fact may have implications for the way we plan and execute operations in urban environments in Asia in the future.
The 2019 Protests
What started in July 2019 as a mass protest against a highly unpopular piece of extradition legislation, quickly morphed into a wider pro-democracy (or at least anti-government) protest which at its peak saw over a million protesters in the streets.
After the initial mass protests subsided, the protests morphed into a six-month running battle between tens of thousands of hard-core, yellow helmeted and umbrella wielding pro-democracy protesters and the police. Taking Bruce Lee’s mantra to heart, the protesters continually outmanoeuvred a heavily armed and well-equipped police force of over 35,000 officers that billed itself as ‘Asia’s finest’. The protesters would appear in one location, set up barricades, protest, set fires, fight with police and then melt away only to reappear at another location in the territory within a short space of time – to repeat the process again. This agility and constant movement seriously hampered the Police’s ability to cordon, arrest or control the protesters with the result being that after six months of near continual protests the police were unable to extinguish the movement. Only the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus has appeared to dampen the protesters determination.
There are many reasons for the relative success (or at least longevity) of the protests. Despite the police having overwhelming superiority in terms of equipment and force options (over 10,000 rounds of tear gas were used, many thousands of rounds of rubber bullets and bean bag rounds expended and employment of water cannons was routine), they were very often outclassed. The urban environment of closely packed streets, multiple physical layers including overpasses, underpasses and importantly an amazing MTR (underground) train system that could move large numbers of people around the territory in record time, worked to neutralize many of the police’s apparent advantages.
However, another key reason for the protesters continued tactical success was its decentralized command and control system enabled by a sophisticated but ubiquitous communications system – the mobile phone.
Communications, Command and Control (C3)
The standard equipment carried by most protesters is well-known. Consisting of all black clothing, a yellow construction helmet and an umbrella (the effectiveness of which against close range water cannons being questionable), this became the de-facto uniform of the protests. Nevertheless, the most important pieces of kit that all protesters had access to was their personal mobile phone. Like many urban areas in Asia, the mobile phone in Hong Kong is ubiquitous. Many people have more than one, the networks are cheap and high-speed coverage is found across the territory.
One of the reasons why the protest movement was able to continue so long and cause such havoc for the police was because of the apparent lack of a central, well-defined, leadership group. Despite allegations from the government that the protesters were being organized by some unspecified ‘foreign element’, the protesters decentralized control structure was a real strength as it meant that the police could not stop the movement by isolating and eliminating the ‘head’ of the movement.
The protesters used a wide variety of online tools and apps to communicate and this was a critical enabler of the protests. Generally, the protesters did not use well-known standard social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter but rather used more local platforms or ones that were regarded as having enhanced security features such as end-to-end encryption.
The LIHKG.COM website is a local Cantonese platform similar to Reddit and this was used mainly as an information exchange, idea generator and planning tool. Regular real-time posts would update protesters about the current status of events and possible future events. Users would submit various ideas as to where the next protest site should be and what they should do at that site. The updates were in real time and the most popular options would rise to the top of the list which was then often acted upon. This was a demonstration of crowd-sourced, dispersed, tactical planning.
TELEGRAM was another important app frequently used by the protesters. It is an encrypted instant messaging system analogous to WhatsApp or Wechat. It was a preferred platform due to its perceived security features. At times, private chats involving several thousand members were being used to pass current information and coordinate all elements of the protests – from locations of protests to logistics. The protesters were able to put out requests for say water or first aid kits, and these were then rapidly delivered to area of need.
The protesters also had their own version of battlefield tracking software in the form of the HKmap.live. The app used a real-time updated map of Hong Kong which would then show the current locations of protesters, police, ambulance, special duties squads etc as a series of cute cartoon icons together with brief description as to the event, size of police presence, etc. Information was crowd sourced and constantly updated in real time. At the height of the protest movement it proved surprisingly accurate and the author frequently used it when navigating around Hong Kong to avoid areas of particular trouble. The app was so successful that the Hong Kong government lobbied Apple to have it removed from its App store in October 2019.
As the protests continued, protesters became even more concerned with protecting their communications and their identity. Even though protesters were not so naïve to imagine that their communications were totally secure from the Police, they nevertheless took steps to protect their communications and electronic presence. For example, users were encouraged to disable facial recognition and fingerprint unlocking features from their phones so that police could not force them to unlock their phones upon arrest. As the protests developed and concerns arose as to whether the government might even shut down the Internet, some protesters started using Bluetooth mesh network applications, such as Bridgefy, so that messages could be communicated by Bluetooth between protesters even if the Internet was not available.
Novel use of Civilian C3 will become the norm
The novel use of readily accessible civilian mobile phone technology to communicate, coordinate and control an adversary force in an urban environment is not new. In his excellent 2013 book, Out of the Mountains, David Kilcullen gives a detailed (and chilling) description of how in 2008 a team of ten Pakistan-based terrorists were able to plan and co-ordinate a three-day siege operation in Mumbai (which included the siege of the Taj hotel and widespread killings at the main railway station) largely through the use of Skype, Google Maps, SMS text messages and VOIP calls.
What the Hong Kong protests show however, is that the trend towards widespread use of such civilian C3 technology is continuing and rapidly increasing in scale. The protests were a clear demonstration that sophisticated C3 technology is no longer the preserve of the military (or para-military/ police forces). This has implications about how we plan and operate in such urban environments in the future.
I suggest that this trend should not be considered as just a ‘communications’, ‘technology’ or ‘electronic warfare’ problem. Just ‘shutting down the network’ may not be a workable solution and in any event, for every technical solution, there is often a new technology, App or work-around which may negate it. Unlike the military, adversaries are rarely wedded (or invested) to any one technical platform and will happily change to another technology as soon as the old is no longer useful. Further, the assumption that the military will always be able access or ‘crack’ such technology is (a) not a given and (b) is besides the point – cracking a network is only helpful if it can be done in real time and the information obtained disseminated rapidly to troops on the ground.
Rather, I suggest that we accept that such ubiquitous access to civilian but highly effective C3 technology is going to be a constant feature of the modern urban operating environment and adapt planning processes and tactics to take this into account. For example, planning at the tactical level may need to be faster, less deliberate and include many more ‘actions on’ to address a battlespace which is likely to evolve extremely quickly in response to an adversary’s use of technology.
Further, training should regularly incorporate an adversary actively using civilian C3 mobile phone technology in order that both commanders and soldiers become used to the pace at which an adversary can react by using such technology.
Heretically, there may even be times for the military to consider using such technology itself. While certainly not appropriate at all levels and for all types of communications, perhaps there are times when speed and access to information is more important than the potential security risk of using non mil-spec communications technology.
The 2019 Hong Kong protests were in many ways unique and obviously do not represent a ‘typical’ armed conflict situation. Nevertheless, it vividly illustrates that all future adversaries in the Asia Pacific region are likely to have access to a wide range of cheap, civilian but highly effective C3 technology that until recently was only available to the military. This will undoubtedly affect the way such adversaries plan and coordinate future operations.
As such, I suggest that it is the ADF who also needs to ‘Be Water’ and adapt itself in order to counter this growing trend.