Hong Kong authorities have reportedly used new powers under the National Security Law to block a website that chronicled data about the 2019 Hong Kong protests. The unprecedented move has raised fears that, after decades of existing outside of China’s Great Firewall, Hong Kong may soon be facing political censorship on its internet.
Citing unnamed sources, the South China Morning Post’s Cannix Yau and Christy Leung reported that the Hong Kong police had asked multiple local internet service providers (ISPs) to prevent access to the website hkchronicles.com:
Hong Kong police have invoked the national security law for the first time to block a local website dedicated to publishing first-hand accounts of the anti-government protests in 2019 and the personal details of officers and pro-Beijing figures, the Post has learned.
Sources said the force had started asking internet service providers (ISPs) to halt access to the HKChronicles website citing Article 43 of the law and its implementation rules. Officers can order ISPs to block access to electronic information deemed likely to constitute a crime endangering national security.
The commissioner of police can authorise officers to do so upon the approval of the secretary for security. They both sit on the Committee for Safeguarding National Security, which is chaired by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. [Source]
What actually happened has been a mystery until @mingpaocom reported on sources that #HKChronicles is indeed the 1st case of internet access restriction by #HKPolice citing #NSL 43. iCable and @hk01official also reported the same line. 8/ https://t.co/yIl4paPhQ9
— Alex Lam 林偉聰 (@lwcalex) January 8, 2021
HKChronicles has collected and published an enormous archive of information related to the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Its database includes footage and accounts of police brutality against demonstrators, “yellow” and “blue” shops, and also sensitive and private information—including the personal particulars and family details of police officers and pro-Beijing figures—leading some to accuse it of being complicit in waves of doxxing and harassment.
While the blockage has not stopped users from accessing the website altogether, the site’s founder and chief editor Naomi Chan told Radio Free Asia that traffic from Hong Kong has decreased significantly.
For decades, Hong Kong has been exempt from the strict online censorship regime that mainland Chinese users are subject to. Just this week, for example, former journalist Zhang Jialong, who in 2014 urged then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to help “tear down the Great Firewall of censorship,” was jailed on the mainland for 18 months for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” In Hong Kong, pro-democracy supporters are wary and critical of internet censorship, a concern that has recently encouraged an increasing number to gravitate towards “uncensored” social media platforms, including platforms that have been popularized among far-right supporters in the United States.
The method of website blocking ordered by police against HKChronicles is also notably weaker than methods used to censor websites in China. The New York Times’ Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik reported that the blockages are fairly easy to circumvent, possibly signalling authorities intent not to clamp down too hard in this case:
With China Mobile, SmarTone and Hutchison, the process that links a website address to the series of numbers that a computer uses to look it up was disrupted. The practice would be akin to listing an incorrect number under someone’s name in a phone book. If you know that person’s correct number, you could still call them.
In mainland China, by contrast, the hardware of the Great Firewall — as Beijing’s system of filters and blocks is known — actively severs connections. In the phone book comparison, the call would not go through even if you have the right phone number.
The Hong Kong blockages are “really easy to circumvent and clumsy,” said [Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specializes in online communication]. Still, he said, the authorities may not want to control the internet as tightly as Beijing for fear of scaring off the global banks and international companies that have made the city their Asian headquarters.
“They want the city to be one that can make money and have the financial flows, and the internet is important for that, so they have to get the balance of censorship and surveillance right,” he said. [Source]
Since the 2019 protests, digital communication has increasingly become a new battleground between pro-democracy supporters and authorities. In August 2020, The New York Times’ Mozur reported on the increasingly aggressive tactics being employed by Hong Kong police to access the digital devices of activists and demonstrators:
Emboldened by that new law, Hong Kong security forces are turning to harsher tactics as they close a digital dragnet on activists, pro-democracy politicians and media leaders. Their approaches — which in the past month have included installing a camera outside the home of a prominent politician and breaking into the Facebook account of another — bear marked similarities to those long used by the fearsome domestic security forces in mainland China.
[…] The first coordinated sting under the new security law made [Tony] Chung an example of an offense new to Hong Kong but common in mainland China: an internet crime. The police accused him of writing a post calling for Hong Kong independence on the Facebook page of a newly formed political party and demanded he delete it. He denied writing it.
Enforcing internet laws meant gathering digital evidence, and the police pushed hard to gain access to Mr. Chung’s accounts. Though less than fully prepared for the arrest, Mr. Chung said, he was able to foil officers at each turn. In the stairwell when the police forced his head in front of his phone, he closed his eyes and scrunched his face, rendering useless his iPhone’s facial recognition software. He had long since disabled the fingerprint unlock on his other phone. For passwords, he told the police that he had forgotten them.
Even so, a few hours after he was detained, his friends noticed that his Facebook account was active, appearing as if he were online and using it. Mr. Chung believes that the security forces broke in, though he said he wasn’t sure how. When he was released and tried to sign back in, Facebook had frozen his account over a suspicious login. [Source]
More recently, following the arrest of 53 legislative candidates and primary election organizers last Wednesday, several were reported to have “joined” Telegram from jail—after police had confiscated their mobile devices.
Activist Tam Tak-chi joins Telegram from jail, as well as @ChuHoiDick who just got out of detention. Meanwhile, @ray_slowbeat says he keeps receiving Telegram login confirmation code today after his phone was confiscated by @hkpoliceforce.https://t.co/hRgSb0VYt8 pic.twitter.com/hz0aXpGxeO
— Kris Cheng (@krislc) January 8, 2021
Its publicizing of private data notwithstanding, the move to block a site that has extensively documented police brutality and key incidents from the 2019 protests has also fueled concerns over how that pivotal year of resistance will be documented in history books. Hong Kongers have expressed fears about censorship and revisionism, particularly after authorities were accused of rewriting the history of controversial events such as the 721 subway mob attack.
In December 2020, a think tank led by Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-Hwa, a current vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, announced it would spend $100 million on a 66 volume project titled “Chronicles of Hong Kong” (unrelated to HKChronicles) to document Hong Kong’s history. Tung said that the project aimed to “reconnect people with their Chinese roots.” South China Morning Post’s Ng Kang-chung, Jeffie Lam, and Robbie Hu, reported on the release of the Chronicles’ first volume, which organizers have denied is a politically motivated project:
“This is definitely not something politically driven. This is something we in the community have been longing for over many years,” said Executive Council member Bernard Chan, chairman of the executive committee of the Hong Kong Chronicles Institute.
“Hong Kong, together with Macau, are the only places in the whole of China that do not collect our own chronicles.”
[…] Tung praised the chronicles for documenting history in an “accurate” and “objective” way, while incumbent leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she hoped the project would help Hongkongers better understand their country and boost their national identity.
“Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times and its history is closely intertwined with the country’s development,” she said in a pre-recorded video. “I hope the chronicles will help one understand Hong Kong’s close ties with the mainland.” [Source]