China Shutting Down Internet In Hong Kong? No Problem – FireChat To The Rescue

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Oct 01 2014
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Ahead of Hong Kong’s national holiday tomorrow, Wednesday, there’re still thousands of Hong Kongers on the street; camping and sleeping in the middle of the road. Here’s the problem – Hong Kong is ready for democracy but China isn’t. And Beijing’s stone age mentality is such that Hong Kong is another mischievous kid, just like Taiwan, who is throwing tantrums because China wouldn’t give Hong Kong lollipop – democracy.

Hong Kong Demonstrations - Hands Up Dont' Shoot

Hong Kong’s democracy protest is now known as “Umbrella Revolution”, in referring to thousands of umbrella used in respond to the unexpected Hong Kong police’ brutal attack of pepper spraying, before the baton charging and tear gassing the peaceful protesters over the weekend. The demonstrators were also using the same “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture used in Ferguson, Missouri protest last month in United States.


Countdown to 1st October and beyond, basically two things could happen. First, Beijing could decide enough is enough and unleash its powerful military to crush the stubborn protesters. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) armoured personnel carriers were seen travelling near the busy Jordan and Yau Ma Tei regions of the city as early as last Friday. The Chinese army and navy have bases in Hong Kong but have generally kept a low profile ever since the former colony was handed over to China in 1997.  

Hong Kong Demonstrations - China Army SpottedHong Kong Demonstrations - China Army Standing Guard 

Second, Beijing could decide to pull the plug and transform Hong Kong back to the dark age, without internet access, let alone Weibo, Whatsapp, SMS or any social media communication platforms. Beijing realises how the powerful Twitter helped supercharged the Arab Spring in 2012 and will not allow the same tool to be used in Hong Kong. But even without internet access via Wifi or 3G, the highly determined Hongkies have found a new weapon.


Enter FireChat, a mobile app that was downloaded more than 100,000 times in Hong Kong within 24 hours. FireChat, which works on both Apple iOS and Android devices. It allows you to “Chat” with everyone around you, even when there’s no Internet connection available. And it’s free, of course (*grin*). FireChat has proven to be a useful tool during such critical moment because it works in “Mesh Networks” model.

Hong Kong Demonstrations - FireChat screen

Built by San-Francisco-based company Open Garden, FireChat uses “Bluetooth” to connect one device with another. They only need another person with the same app within a 70-meter (200-feet) radius, and in the process creates a daisy chain connection to link people using it. The only way to break the connection from FireChat users is to turn off Bluetooth on every phone, which we doubt the protesters are willing to do that.


Hence, FireChat was designed and created to work in a very crowded place, such as in a concert where its community exchange messages and pictures, like most chat and social networking apps. You can join different chat groups called “firechats”, or create your own firechats about the topics, people or communities that interest you. The only problem with FireChat is that all messages posted are public.

Hong Kong Demonstrations - FireChat Mesh NetworkHong Kong Demonstrations - group sleeping on street chatting on mobile

While FireChat is working on adding encryption, FireChat could either help or break the protesters community, simply because Beijing could read all their messages and strategize accordingly to frustrate the peaceful protesters. Nevertheless, the promise of chatting without internet access is mouth watering enough to leapfrog FireChat to the No. 1 app in Hong Kong, with about 97,000 local chat rooms on Monday alone.

Hong Kong Demonstrations - FireChat Occupy Central - Cute Kid

Not bad for an app that was used extensively to share pornography (*tongue-in-cheek*). Perhaps the next explosion of FireChat download could come from Malaysia, if Bersih 4.0 is to take place soon. During the Bersih 3.0 in 2012, there was evidence jammers from telecommunication companies were deployed to “interrupt receptions” to the Malaysian peaceful demonstrators. But this time, superhero FireChat will be standing by.


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