Hackers Strike Hong Kong Democracy and Media Websites

June 18, 2014 Updated: June 19, 2014

A website offering a poll for Hong Kong residents to express their views on universal suffrage in the region, and the website of a pro-democracy media company, were both temporarily brought down by computer network attacks in the last few days.

There is as yet no definitive information about the origin of the barrages, called Distributed Denial of Service attacks—but proponents of democracy in Hong Kong have little doubt that Beijing was behind it. DDoS attacks are mounted by hackers who can use a network of computers under their control, flooding the target with an overwhelming amount of traffic.

“We got smacked,” said Jimmy Lai, the chairman of Next Media, a newspaper that supports expanded democracy in Hong Kong, on a popular Cantonese radio program on June 18. Some websites were taken offline for three hours, the program said. “All Internet services of our group, everything was hacked last night,” he said, according to Kyodo News.

Tim Yiu, Next Media’s chief operating officer, told the New York Times that the commercial company they hired to block the attack was itself overwhelmed by the scale, pulling the flagship Apple Daily website in Hong Kong offline for 12 hours. As of 12:30 p.m. EDT, the website is still beleaguered.

A similar attack was also launched against the website popvote.hk, which is hosting an online referendum on behalf of the Occupy Central movement in which the people of Hong Kong can express their views on how Hong Kong’s chief executive should be elected.

Under the current system, the chief executive is elected through indirect election. 800 electors are chosen by special constituencies that comprise only a small part of Hong Kong’s population, and those 800 then elect the chief executive once every four years. This complicated system allows Beijing to determine who the chief executive will be.

This system, and the equally complicated method for electing Hong Kong’s legislative assembly, was called into question by a decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress that said Hong Kong elections could be held by universal suffrage as early as 2017.

In the referendum, participants can vote for one of three proposals for a new electoral method, and they can register their views on what Hong Kong’s legislative assembly should do if “the government proposal cannot satisfy international standards allowing genuine choices by electors.”

The Occupy Central movement aims to use civil disobedience, in the form of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong’s central business district, to push for universal suffrage—that all Hong Kongers would be able to vote for their legislature and chief executive.

The referendum, which is administered by the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, sought to gauge the level of public support that Occupy Central protests would enjoy.

Occupy Central organizers have said that if they did not receive one million votes supporting universal suffrage in Hong Kong, they would call off the planned demonstrations.

“This attack … is aimed at preventing large numbers of people from taking part in the vote,” said Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an organizer behind Occupy Central, and an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, in an interview with Radio Free Asia.

He added: “If there is a major power at work behind the scenes of this attack, then from an analysis of the interests involved, it is very likely connected to the Chinese government.”

Occupy Central organizers say that they have extended the poll to June 29, to prevent the attack from stifling public input.

The commotion comes less than a week after the Chinese propaganda authorities published a white paper setting forth what many in Hong Kong saw as a reinterpretation of the basic powers that the central government is able to exercise over the region.

Hong Kong is governed by a constitution called the Basic Law according to the principle of one country–two systems, which was established in the 1984 treaty regulating the 1997 handover of authority from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China.

Due to the one country–two systems principle, Hong Kong has enjoyed independent judicial institutions and basic protections for the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. That compact appears to be fraying, as the Chinese regime attempts to further assert control over Hong Kong, and democratically-minded citizens seek to fully and freely elect their own representatives.