Between global authoritarianism, technology, and people power | Internet fragmentation | DW | 05.12.2023
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Hong Kong

Between global authoritarianism, technology, and people power

Hong Kong faces government oppression and tech influence. Lokman Tsui explores its shifting role to China and proposes resistance against creeping authoritarianism.

This summer, I had a coffee with a Dutch journalist who wanted my help on an investigative story about the ongoing repression in Hong Kong. Even though she spoke Mandarin and was familiar with the situation in China, it was surprisingly difficult for her to grasp what’s been happening in Hong Kong over recent years. China is often difficult for outsiders to understand, but Hong Kong?

We need to be able to understand Hong Kong if we want even a chance at understanding an increasingly authoritarian China under Xi Jinping. How can we meaningfully engage with Beijing, if we cannot even handle Hong Kong? For several decades, Hong Kong has played a critical bridging role between China and the rest of the world. How is this role changing? With the introduction of the National Security Law in 2020, Hong Kong itself has become increasingly authoritarian. Authorities have forced the closure of the few remaining critical and independent news organisations, gutted civil society, and arrested members of the political opposition or forced them into exile. And what about the Internet? Will Hong Kong become part of the great firewall of China?


Internet censorship is a secondary factor in limiting free speech

At first glance, it might seem that the Internet in Hong Kong is still relatively open. While the Hong Kong authorities have introduced some restrictions on the internet, these are much milder than the social and political measures. For example, only a few websites are currently blocked in Hong Kong. And while some feared that the major tech platforms would leave Hong Kong, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media are still accessible on the island.

However, the reality is that the authorities do not have to block websites in order to control and censor speech. To begin with, the Hong Kong authorities do not need to censor news organisations such as Apple Daily or Stand Newsbecause they have already raided their offices, frozen their bank accounts, and charged the owners and editors under the National Security Law, forcing them to shut down entirely, including their websites and news archives. Similarly, the authorities do not need to censor the website of the public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), because the government has completely transformed the culture and values of the organisation. RTHK has ended up cancelling shows, including political satire shows, and deleting the majority of its online presence, including its archives on YouTube and twitter.

Moreover, Hong Kong authorities have less need to censor websites if they can increase the capacity for online surveillance. To that end, they have introduced legislation mandating real name registration for sim cards, so it is no longer possible to use burner phones to register anonymous accounts. The authorities have also proposed legislation to regulate and control crowdfunding, which played an important role in the 2019 protests. The proposed law includes a requirement that anyone who wants to start a crowdfunding activity has to register their personal data and contact details with the government.


How are the tech giants reacting?

How are the Hong Kong authorities handling big tech? After the National Security Law came into force, all major tech companies announced they would suspend user data requests from the Hong Kong authorities. While the Hong Kong authorities continue to arrest legislators, activists, and protesters, at least no major international tech company has been complicit in these arrests. That’s the good news so far. But government pressure on the platforms is increasing. For example, Apple has startedcensoring political speech on their products in Hong Kong. Apple also has a history of removing apps from its app store that were popular among Hong Kong protesters.

And then there is Twitter, which also played a key role in the 2019 protests, helping the world understand what was going on in Hong Kong. Under Elon Musk, this has changed, for the worse. After Musk fired the entire trust and safety team,critics of Beijing are getting harassed and spammed, and Chinese government propaganda accounts are enjoying much greater engagement.

Last but not least, Google is dealing with requests from the government to amend or remove search results to a protest song, as well as to remove videos of the song from YouTube. So far, Google has refused such requests. In response, the authorities have filed an injunction making it illegal for anyone to play or distribute the song, including enabling someone to do this, which would make the platforms liable. The court overruled this initial injunction, but the Hong Kong Department of Justice has been granted an appeal. to be determined.

So what can we do? On a practical level, I believe we should help journalists working on Hong Kong and China issues to improve their understanding and practice of digital security, so they can better protect not only their sources, but also themselves and their news organizations. And we should continue to monitor and nudge the major platforms to resist pressure from the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities, and instead urge them to continue to protect their users. Last but not least, and however challenging this might be, I believe we should maintain hope for Hong Kong. There might be a general sense or even resignation that the script for Hong Kong has been written, that its shift towards authoritarianism is inevitable and only a matter of time. Yet to believe this is to believe what the authorities want you to believe. To have hope is thus to be subversive, to have not just the courage to imagine a future, but to also actively work towards it.