The Washington Post - 24.10.2019

(Nancy Kaufman) #1

A14 EZ SU T H E  W A S H I N G T O N  P O S T.T H U R S D A Y , O C T O B E R  2 4,  2 0 1 9


hong kong — In big red letters,
“WANTED” cut across a collage of
photos. One picture showed the
Chinese national emblem de-
faced. Another showed a Hong
Kong protester preparing to toss
a Chinese flag into the harbor.
The flier called for information
about Hong Kong’s “radical pro-
testers.” The request, however,
was made in Bahasa Indonesia,
the main language spoken across
the vast Indonesian archipelago
— and among tens of thousands
of domestic workers in Hong
The reward for being an in-
formant: $25,500 to $127,500, a
staggering sum for a domestic
worker whose legal minimum
wage is $590 a month.
It’s not certain whether the
tips-for-money offer was genuine
or simply a new type of anti-
protester screed. This much is
clear: The bitter information
wars in Hong Kong keep taking
new turns since pro-democracy
demonstrators took to the streets
in June.
This time it is Hong Kong’s
domestic workers being drawn
into the political tensions. The
leaflets, which first appeared last
month, did not specifically call
out domestic workers. But the
use of Bahasa made their target
The fliers — whether real or
not — have accomplished at least
some disruptions and indicate an
intent to sow distrust and para-
noia among Hong Kongers.
Suddenly, domestic workers
feel under more scrutiny. Mean-
while, their employers — mainly
expatriate workers and well-off
Hong Kong families — are left
wondering whether they might
be watched in their own homes.

Information war

“Information war is a psycho-
logical warfare. Divide and con-
quer is a proven strategy,” said
Masato Kajimoto, a disinforma-
tion expert and assistant profes-

sor at the University of Hong
Kong’s Journalism and Media
Studies Center. “It is hard to go on
protesting if one cannot trust the
people who live with him or her
at home.”
Hong Kong’s nearly 400,
domestic workers — about half
from Indonesia — have largely
been on the sidelines in the
unrest. The community has come
into sharper focus since police
shot an Indonesian journalist,
Veby Mega Indah, with a projec-
tile on Sept. 29, blinding her right
Hong Kong’s Muslim commu-
nity — which includes many from
Indonesia — also came into focus
on Sunday after a police water
cannon sprayed the entrance
of the city’s largest mosque with
blue dye while clearing an
anti-government protest. Hong
Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, visited
the mosque on Monday to apolo-
Targeting domestic helpers as
potential informants carries an

eerie resonance with China’s Cul-
tural Revolution, a decade of
political upheaval that began in
the mid-1960s and included pub-
lic denunciations of those consid-
ered at odds with the state.
It also highlights one of the
central fears of protesters: that
China will systematically erode
the freedoms granted to Hong
Kong under the “one country, two
systems” policy promised when
Beijing took control of the former
British colony in 1997.
“Cultural Revolution again!
For consideration of safety,
please don’t let your domestic
helper know if you participate in
the protest or not!” said one
Facebook message about the
fliers. The post had more than
Nuraini Hasan, 27, a domestic
worker from Indonesia’s Lombok
island, called the leaflet danger-
ous. She also said he believed it
was fake, intended only to ripple
fear through communities of do-
mestic workers in Hong Kong led

by Indonesians and Filipinos.
“We Indonesians don’t believe
this,” Hasan said.

‘Throwing a bunch of seeds’
The flier’s architect remains
unknown. It lists a website,, with a domain registered
under the name of Leung Chun-
ying, a former leader of Hong
Kong who is considered support-
ive of Beijing.
The site was launched after
protesters threw a Chinese flag
into Hong Kong’s harbor on
Aug. 3 and offers rewards for
information. Leung advertised
the site multiple times on his
Facebook page. In another post,
he called on “drivers, maids, fast-
food store staff, convenience
store staff ” to be whistleblowers.
The hotline linked to
did not return messages for com-
ment left by The Washington
Post. Leung’s office did not reply
to requests for comment.
The challenge in quashing
dissent in Hong Kong is pinpoint-

ing it.
With all protest activity or-
chestrated anonymously online,
the movement is largely leader-
less. This leaves pro-government
groups without an “obvious place
to look” for targets, said Jeffrey
Wasserstrom, a historian of mod-
ern China at the University of
California at Irvine.
“The power of that means it’s
much harder to break the back of
the movement,” Wasserstrom
said. “But from the side of oppres-
sion, it seems to have led to the
idea of using any means to find
who’s participating.”
Puja Kapai, a law professor at
the University of Hong Kong and
expert on minority rights, called
the fliers “a call to essentially
participate in covert spying activ-
“Maybe [the creators of the
flier] are just throwing a bunch of
seeds out there to see which one
shows the sign of blossoming,”
said Kajimoto, the disinforma-
tion expert.

Despite the brief social media
frenzy it sparked, the flier, with
its sloppy translation and sketchy
presentation, failed to woo do-
mestic workers.
Among dozens of Indonesian
migrant workers approached by
The Post, few recognized the leaf-
let. Those who did called it fake
and said they would never jeopar-
dize their job. By and large, indif-
ference was the prevailing senti-
Hong Kong is home to more
than 174,000 Indonesians, 95 per-
cent of whom are domestic work-
ers, according to 2018 immigra-
tion figures provided by the Indo-
nesian Consulate in Hong Kong.
“Some Facebook posts are not
real. I don’t care about that,” said
an Indonesian domestic worker,
Rina, 33, when shown the flier.
“I come here just as a domestic
helper. I just want to work,” said
Rina, who asked that only her
first name be used to avoid poten-
tial problems with authorities.
In August, Facebook, Twitter
and YouTube identified more
than 200,000 China-based ac-
counts linked to what Twitter
described as a “significant state-
backed information operation...
deliberately and specifically at-
tempting to sow political discord
in Hong Kong.”
The Indonesian Consulate had
no information pertaining to the
flier, calling it “quite unprec-
“During this social and politi-
cal crisis in Hong Kong, we have
encountered a lot of unconfirmed
or even false information... that
are circulated among Indone-
sians living in Hong Kong,” Erwin
M. Akbar, consul for Consular
Affairs, wrote in a statement to
The Post. “Our effort in the Con-
sulate is focused on ensuring that
the Indonesian Migrant Workers
are not involved in the current
situation in Hong Kong.” This
includes not sharing any views on
social media.
“Some care, some don’t know,”
said Hasan, the worker from
Lombok. “We don’t want to be
very close, but need to know what
is [happening]. This our work-

Shibani Mahtani and Tiffany Liang
contributed to this report.

Trying to enlist migrants in Hong Kong’s information war

Fliers in Indonesian
language seek tips on
‘radical protesters’

Indonesian workers gather this month on their day off at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. The city is home to more than 174,000 Indonesians,
most of them domestic workers, their consulate says. Many seem unmoved by the fliers: “We Indonesians don’t believe this,” said one.

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