Sixteen years after Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, public discontent with Beijing is swelling and protesters have been rallying around an unexpected symbol -- the British colonial flag.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in recent months in marches against Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who took over from Donald Tsang last July after being elected by a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee.
On several occasions the old blue flag, which incorporates the Union Flag, has been flown by protesters on the streets of what is becoming an increasingly divided Hong Kong, both embarrassing and infuriating Beijing.
While Leung's supporters say he is tackling pressing social issues such as affordable housing and the strain on public services, his critics see him as a stooge for Beijing and are angry over a widening poverty gap.
In September, he backed down from a plan to introduce Chinese patriotism classes in schools, which had incited mass protests and was viewed as an attempt to brainwash children into accepting doctrines taught on the mainland.
The founder of a group mobilising Hong Kongers to fly colonial flags said it did so because the city was worse off after 16 years of "encroachment" by Beijing, stressing it was not because of any desire to see Britain rule again.
"Our freedom and everything else has gone downhill since (the handover)" said 26-year-old Danny Chan from the "We're Hong Kongese, not Chinese" Facebook group, which has been "liked" by nearly 30,000 people.
Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status enshrines civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including the right to protest, until 2047 under the "One country, two systems" handover agreement.
Chan cited housing prices that stubbornly remained among the world's highest and the widening income gap between the rich and the poor as factors driving the increasingly frequent protests in the city.
Many Hong Kongers blame increased immigration from the mainland for high house prices and overcrowding in local hospitals.
Chan said that the flags symbolised anger and the perceived erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong since 1997.
"Hong Kong's core values and the rule of law have been gradually destroyed until there is almost nothing left," argued the computer engineer, who waved the flag at a mass rally on January 1 to demand Leung step down.
Dixon Sing, political analyst at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology, said the protesters "believe the Chinese Communist Party has been undermining those core values and reneging on the promise of giving Hong Kong 'two systems'".
-- "Misguided" notions --
The increased visibility of the old emblem has sparked tensions, at a time when China is ushering in a new batch of leaders who yearn for order and stability in the Asian financial hub.
The British Council, which promotes cultural and educational ties overseas, unwittingly became embroiled in the controversy recently when advertisements for an education fair bearing the Union Jack became the centre of attention.
Comments such as "Great Britain built Great Hong Kong!" were posted on the British consulate's Facebook page and linked to the posters.
The advertisements were hastily removed due to the possibility of "misinterpretation", a British Council spokeswoman said.
The waving of the old flag has drawn criticism from Chen Zuoer, the former No.2 mainland Chinese official in Hong Kong, who reportedly said last year that it "should be sent to history museums".
Other critics, including those from the city's pro-democracy political camp, said any "good old days" notion is largely misguided, as corruption and malpractice were once widespread before a major clean-up in the 1970s.
"During colonial times, there was no freedom and our rights were denied but in the late 1980s, the government won people's trust and it was seen as clean," said Avery Ng from maverick lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung's League of Social Democrats party.
The party has called for full democracy in Hong Kong to replace the current system.
"I understand the current sentiment but this is very sad for Hong Kong that people would rather look back at colonial times."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Sunday lashed out at Speaker Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) deal to raise the debt ceiling because it effectively cuts military spending.
During an interview on
Fox News Sunday, Graham told host Shannon Bream that he was unhappy with parts of the debt ceiling bill.
"You know, number one, I respect Kevin McCarthy," Graham said. "I want to raise the debt ceiling; it'd be irresponsible not to do it."
"And I know you can't get the perfect, but what I will not do is adopt the Biden defense budget and call it a success," he continued. "Kevin said that the defense is fully funded. If we adopt the Biden defense budget, it increases defense spending below inflation. 3.2% increase in defense is below inflation."
Graham accused supporters of the bill of "doing a great disservice to the party of Ronald Reagan."
"I like Kevin a lot, but don't tell me that the Biden defense budget fully funds the military," Graham snapped. "So I look forward to the details, but if you send me the Biden defense budget to the United States Senate and declare it to the people of the United States, you will have a hard time with me."
Graham suggested he would not vote for a bill unless funding for defense spending was increased.
"If you ask me now to swallow it because of the debt ceiling, you can forget it," he remarked. "In 2011, my good friend Mitch McConnell negotiated to deal with Joe Biden that virtually destroyed the Defense Department in the name of raising the debt ceiling. Another round of sequestration, not only will I vote no, I will not be intimidated by June 5th."
Appearing on MSNBC's "The Katie Phang Show," Guardian reporter Hugo Lowell claimed Donald Trump might have avoided being hit with violations of the Espionage Act if it had not been reported that he shared highly sensitive government documents with friends at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
According to Lowell, who has been reporting that the documents may have been hidden from Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran, a new report that Trump left documents laying about and might have shown them to others makes it more likely he'll face more severe charges if that is true.
"The Washington Post reported this week about how prosecutors seem to have evidence that Trump was showing highly sensitive documents to other people," Lowell began. "That's really interesting because that's the kind of aggravating move that a prosecutor looks for when they're trying to prosecute Section 93e of Title 18 which is the Espionage Act."
"There's two parts," he continued. "The first part is willful retention. Willful retention alone is very rarely charged, and I think in the case with the former president, with prosecutors, that was the only thing they might consider not charging."
"But if they have evidence that Trump was showing people and they have the second part of that clause, which is willful transmission and dissemination, that changes the game entirely," he added. "That is the sort of thing that they would charge. That is really concrete evidence that Trump has a lot of problems."
Bogus but hyper-realistic videos of Donald Trump secretly plotting with Russian President Vladimir Putin or President Joe Biden in a secret White House confab with antifa activists? Entirely fake speeches delivered by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) or Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)?
All possible now. Just watch the wouldn’t-have-been-possible-in-2020 deepfake video starring a computer generated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s depicted as desperately trying to convince his colleagues in “The Office” that he’s not wearing women’s clothes. Donald Trump Jr. is among the people who've shared it on social media in recent days.
Among the most unprepared for AI-infused election shenanigans: members of Congress themselves.
“I haven't heard it talked about here,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) told Raw Story when asked about deepfakes and AI impacting Election 2024.
It’s not that the the Capitol isn’t buzzing with AI regulatory chatter since OpenAI CEO Sam Altman testified before lawmakerslast Tuesday — including telling Hawley that even he is “nervous” about large language learning platforms, such as his company’s ChatGPT, being used to manipulate voters. The problem: this was news to many at the Capitol.
That’s why experts are nervous, too, especially since AI technology is evolving at warp speed.
“Congress should have been proactive yesterday — decades ago,” Woodrow Hartzog, professor of Law at Boston University, told Raw Story.
Congress has a ton of catching up to do, mainly because U.S. policymakers — at the behest of Silicon Valley’steams of Washington lobbyists — have dithered for years in writing rules for the digital road, more or less allowing tech companies to police themselves.
“At the very least, it needs to think about the fact that this is not just a technology and deepfakes problem, that the problem of deepfakes in our democracy is rooted in significantly broader structural concerns around tech accountability, generally, mixed with our laws surrounding privacy, surveillance, free expression, copyright law, equality and anti-discrimination,” Hartzog continued. “All of those seemingly disparate areas — and the cracks that have been growing in our protections around them — are part of this story.”
How dangerous, really?
Artificial intelligence offers great promise of taking humanity to new technological heights.
But the ability to create increasingly realistic fake media is getting easier by the nanosecond, too. What formerly required specialized expertise — not to mention days and weeks worth of time; thus dedication — only to concoct clunky deepfakes is now available to all. The democratization of fakes has many experts freaked out.
It’s easy to see how AI-based deceptions, propaganda and scams could damage an election’s status as truly free and fair, even if just a small fraction of voters are affected.
Consider that the 2016 election was decided by some 80,000 votes across three states. Countless bots and Russian intelligence officers involved themselves (if Senate Republicans are to be believed). Campaign operatives — domestic and foreign, and as bad as they can be — have nothing on AI’s powers (if its creators are to be believed). Especially when combined with today’s always-improving deepfake technology, the ability to dupe is almost easy.
“Think about this as nuclear technology,” Siwei Lyu, a SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University at Buffalo, told Raw Story. “Right now, instead of just the U.S. government and a few governments in the world knowing the techniques for making atomic bombs, like everybody now can have a toolkit off of Amazon to make their own atomic bombs. How dangerous that could be, right?”
Lyu continued: “Of course, somebody may use that as a generator to power up my house and then I don't need to be on the electricity grid anymore, but there are people for sure who will misuse it — and those are the things we have very little control over. So that's really where the problem is.”
The fear for Election 2024 isn’t, necessarily, one big, earth-altering digital atomic explosion; the fear is dozens, hundreds or even thousands of personal smart bombs — polished, powered and propelled by generative AI — being quietly dropped on susceptible-to-vulnerable populations in swing states.
They might originate from domestic sources: say, unscrupulous super PACs or lone-wolf political agitators unconcerned about the nation’s largely antiquated election laws and regulations that, in some cases, haven’t been updated since the dawn of the World Wide Web. If that.
Worse, they could come from foreign actors — think Russia, or perhaps Iran and North Korea — who’ve already demonstrated an insatiable appetite for sowing chaos in U.S. elections.
“The makers of deepfakes will create those fake media to reinforce, strengthen your belief, and then the recommendation algorithm will actually push that to you as a user so you will start to see more of this stuff,” Lyu said.
This will all be guided by the private data of millions of Americans, which Silicon Valley firms already have access to because of congressional inaction. When fed into generative AI platforms like ChatGPT the algorithmic loop of fear-drenched, truthy sounding falsehoods and fakes could prove infinite.
'Got to move fast'
Back on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is now a part of bipartisan negotiations – along with Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Todd Young (R-IN) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) – focused on legislating artificial intelligence.
“We can’t move so fast that we do flawed legislation, but there is no time for waste, or delay, or sitting back,” Schumer told his colleagues on the Senate floor after Altman testified. “We got to move fast."
There’s only a short window to act, because generative AI is becoming ubiquitous – more than 100 million people have already signed up for ChatGPT alone.
“And so while it is important for Congress to act, I hope that they realize that can't just pass one anti-deepfake law of 2023 and dust their hands and call it a day, because this problem is one that is significantly larger than just a few algorithmic tools,” Hartzog, the BU law professor and co-author of Breached: Why Data Security Law Fails and How to Improve It, told Raw Story. “It's fundamental to our whole sort of media information distribution networks and free expression and consumer protection laws.”
Other lawmakers don’t feel the same pressure. Many assume America’s safer than other nations when it comes to AI-powered deepfakes.
“I think in a more advanced ecosystem, like our new system, it's probably easier for campaigns to jump on it pretty quickly and knock it down. I think in the developing world it could start riots and civil wars,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently told Raw Story.
Others in Congress – including party leaders – think the government is largely helpless when it comes to preventing the deepfake-ification of American elections.
“All we can do is tell the truth and appeal to the public not to believe everything they hear and see,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate majority whip, told Raw Story.
While 2020 was the "alternative fact” election, 2024 is primed to be the alternative reality election. “Fake news” isn’t just a bumper sticker anymore; it’s now reality.
“We’re in it,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) told Raw Story, “and AI is making it exponentially easier to create a false narrative, to project that false narrative worldwide, to make the false narrative believable by creating much more detailed and thorough content and it will be very hard to take something that’s disseminated worldwide and knock it down as false.”
Gillibrand has been calling for the creation of a new federal Data Protection Agency for years now, arguing the Federal Trade Commission is toothless when it comes to regulating big tech. The Federal Election Commission, meanwhile, often takes years to reach any agreement on even the most modest updates to its political advertising regulations.
“I think we have to keep focusing on the truth and making sure we have levers of government and a legal system to create accountability and oversight to make sure the truth is protected,” Gillibrand said.
Legislating "truth" in a post-truth political universe may prove impossible, but we really won’t know until the dust settles after Election 2024. That’s why many lawmakers, experts and privacy advocates are bracing for an election like no other in U.S. history.
“Every anti-democratic trick in the book will be played in 2024. No doubt,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) – a Trump impeachment manager and member of the select Jan. 6 committee – recently told Raw Story. “The guy dines with racists and anti-Semites, Trump seems determined to prove that he can do anything he wants, including shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and his cult following will not budge. So this is where we are in the 21st century.”