TL;DR: “There is usually never a line at the train ticketing machines,” journalist Mary Hui noticed recently at a Hong Kong station kiosk center. Protests have broken out in the city over a controversial piece of legislation. Those participating in mass action are avoiding the ease and convenience of a ubiquitous contactless smart card in favor of cash to purchase their transportation to and from demonstrations. It’s yet another seemingly small example of privacy’s value that comes with cash, and could provide insight into why cryptocurrencies touting relative anonymity, along with tools to support them, might be more than merely prudent or practical … but agents for social change.
Hong Kong Protesters Turn to Cash to Avoid Government Detection
It’s not unusual to read mainstream press lamenting cryptocurrency advocates near obsession with cash-like properties of relative anonymity. Cries of money laundering, terrorism, general criminal behavior follow, and even some enthusiasts themselves decry project roadmaps with an emphasis on privacy — what are you hiding? they accuse. And they often point to coin mixing tools as further evidence a vast dark web underbelly is growing in order to accomplish nefarious things.
But what about those who are trying to stay outside of a totalitarian government’s gaze? What if that seemingly benign purchase of a public transportation pass links a person to a time and place governments would rather not be well attended? As usual, anti-privacy advocates wither and collapse under the weight of their own poor logic. Arguably some of the greatest advances in human rights, social change, happen beyond official government sanction — perhaps all of them. In the digital age, privacy isn’t just about buying naughty goods and services, it’s critical to building freer societies.
“Judging from an overheard convo,” Hui, who is based in Hong Kong, explained, “it appears that people are reluctant to use their rechargeable Octopus cards for fear of leaving a paper trail of them having been present at the protest.” 八達通 is what a great many Hong Kongers use, and reuse, for making payments. It began as a contactless solution to long lines in train stations back shortly before the turn of the century, becoming one of the first payment technologies of its kind.
Octopus Used for Building Access, School Attendance
Versions of the Octopus card can now be found all over the world. In Hong Kong, it’s a go-to as well for fast food, supermarkets, retails stores and convenience markets. It’s so everywhere, fused with day-to-day culture, it’s also allowed for payments at gas stations, vending machines, and is often used to access buildings and to track school attendance.
“We’re afraid of having our data tracked,” Hui quotes a female protester. “She said that this ticket-buying was’t as prevalent during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Five years on, however, people are more wary & aware. This raises a lot of interesting questions about cash vs. cashless societies, and how in times of protest people may drastically adjust their usual economic behaviour,” and Hui further described the train station scene as “the line at every ticket machine stretched back 10+ meters.”
Westerners, perhaps exasperated by protest culture, which can often be petty and tantrum-like, should understand the case is very different for the Chinese street. Hong Kong, of course, is not mainland China, having been relatively recently returned to the communist government from the United Kingdom after a 100 year “lease.” The Chinese government has since struggled to keep balance: it at once doesn’t want to defang its economic engine, providing vast wealth, and at the same time cannot allow such willful, defiant expression of its authority. For people everywhere, however, the call to barricades, toward a kind of solidarity and social change which seeks on purpose to reset such power balances, even modestly, cash-like privacy features can mean all the difference in the world.
DISCLOSURE: The author holds cryptocurrency as part of his financial portfolio, including BCH.
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