In the latest example of shrinking space for free expression in Hong Kong, authorities there have formally sought an injunction against “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of Hong Kong’s 2019-2020 protest movement. The tune, which surged in popularity after the government announced plans to ban it, abruptly disappeared from music streaming sites this week. While the injunction application makes its way through the judicial system, its potential acceptance puts foreign tech companies under new legal pressure to become complicit in government censorship. Meanwhile, recent reports point to the blurring of boundaries between mainland and Hong Kong approaches to security maintenance, with the instrumentalization of social media accounts to spy on Hongkongers and the implementation of “deradicalization” programs to reform young people incarcerated for participating in the protests.
On Wednesday, Jessie Pang from Reuters reported that “Glory to Hong Kong” was no longer visible on music streaming and social media platforms:
Various versions of the pro-democracy protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” were unavailable on Apple’s iTunes Store, Spotify, KKBOX, Facebook and Instagram’s Reels on Wednesday after the government sought an injunction banning the song outright.
[…] Various versions of the song released by the creator “ThomasDGX & HongKongers” on Spotify were no longer available.
DGX Music, the music group behind the song, said on their Facebook page that they “are dealing with some technical issues unrelated to the streaming platform”. [Source]
At the time of writing, it is unclear what caused the technical issues. As awareness of an impending ban spread, the song topped the iTunes charts in Hong Kong. “I want to keep a record,” said a local resident in her 20s who downloaded the song last week following news of the government’s court request. “I’m more concerned if the big companies would kowtow to this.” The song was banned from Hong Kong schools in 2020. Last September the government arrested a man for sedition after he played the song on a harmonica, and in November arrested another man for sedition after he shared an online video of the song being played at a sports event.
The injunction application was submitted by Hong Kong’s Department of Justice. In a hearing of the case on Monday, the department stated that it did not intend to target “the world at large,” but rather people who “are conducting or intending to conduct” the distribution of the song with the intention of inciting secession, sedition, or to violate the national anthem law, as well as those who facilitate such acts.
Judge Wilson Chan, a handpicked national security judge presiding over the hearing, decided to adjourn the hearing until July 21. He also ordered that anyone seeking to oppose the injunction in court register at the Hong Kong police force headquarters by providing their name, address, telephone number, and ID card. On Wednesday, Chan received a “serious reprimand” from the chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal after it was revealed that he had plagiarized 98 percent of his written judgment for another case from the plaintiff’s written submission.
Since the National Security Law was enacted in June of 2020, online content removal requests by Hong Kong’s government have soared. Officials sought the removal of 183 items from YouTube and Google search in the second half of 2022, marking a ten-year peak. Google complied with about half of those requests. George Chen, former head of public policy for Greater China at Facebook parent Meta Platforms, told The Wall Street Journal that if the injunction to block the song were granted, it could amount to the “opening of floodgates” of legal action against U.S. tech giants. Hillary Leung from the Hong Kong Free Press described the potential implications of the injunction on tech firms such as Google:
On Google, Glory to Hong Kong is among the top results when the term “Hong Kong national anthem” is searched. The tech firm has not acted on authorities’ calls to change search results to reflect March of the Volunteers as the rightful anthem.
The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) told Young Post last Friday that the responsibility of enforcing the ban could fall on service providers, and since it was hard for providers to block specific content, the result might be a blanket block on some or all of Google’s services.
A director at US-based consultancy Eurasia Group, meanwhile, said in an interview with Bloomberg on Monday that pressure on tech firms could lead to companies withdrawing services from the market, much like the Google search engine’s exit from mainland China in 2010. [Source]
Last week, evidence emerged of another example of authorities attempting to instrumentalize tech companies for what appear to be national-security objectives in Hong Kong. As Georgia Wells reported for The Wall Street Journal, a former ByteDance executive claimed in a suit against his previous employer that the CCP accessed Hongkongers’ data via ByteDance’s subsidiary, TikTok:
The former executive claims the committee members [of the CCP] focused on civil rights activists and protesters in Hong Kong during  and accessed TikTok data that included their network information, SIM card identifications and IP addresses, in an effort to identify and locate the users. The former executive of the Beijing-based company said the data also included the users’ communications on TikTok.
[…] In his filing, Yu says that at ByteDance, members of a Communist Party committee inside the company had access to a “superuser” credential, also known as a “god credential,” to view all data collected by ByteDance. Additionally, ByteDance maintained a “backdoor channel” for China’s Communist Party to access U.S. user data, the suit says.
[…] For the Hong Kong users, Yu said in the filing that he saw the logs that showed the committee accessed the user data of protesters, civil rights activists and their supporters, including users who had been identified from prior protests. The filing also said the committee monitored Hong Kong users who uploaded protest-related content on TikTok. [Source]
Some young protesters who were arrested and imprisoned for participating in the 2019-2020 pro-democracy movement have been placed in “deradicalization” programs aimed at suppressing their political ideals. In a new investigation for The Washington Post, Shibani Mahtani interviewed a dozen former prisoners and employees of the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department (CSD) to shed light on the inner workings of the program. As one prison guard said, “[B]y the end of their sentence, the goal is to ensure the desire of these inmates to continue doing political stuff is less and less, and that they instead look for ways to leave Hong Kong.” Mahtani outlined the scope of the program and the extreme measures used to “deradicalize” those subjected to it:
The deradicalization program includes pro-China propaganda lectures and psychological counseling that leads to detainees confessing to holding extreme views, and it is accompanied by a system of close monitoring and punishment, including solitary confinement, inside the juvenile facilities, former prisoners and guards said. As of April 30, 871 juvenile inmates had participated in the program, the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department (CSD) said, about 70 percent of them charged in connection with the 2019 protests. Some are as young as 14.
[…] Inmates were made to watch Chinese propaganda films later that year, including “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” released in 2021.
[…] Some said they watched the film multiple times over the course of weeks and had to fill out worksheets to say who their favorite character was.
The CSD has also launched what it describes as an “educational program,” titled “Understanding History is the Beginning of Knowledge.” The program, according to the department, is meant to “assist the young people in custody to learn Chinese history, enhance their sense of national identity … and get back on the right track.” Since July 2022, prisons have also started playing videos each day promoting the national security law. [Source]
Many Hongkongers and rights activists have drawn parallels between Hong Kong’s deradicalization programs and Xinjiang’s “re-education” centers in terms of methods used, although not in terms of scale. There is evidence that Hong Kong officials overseeing the program may also have taken inspiration from Xinjiang officials’ methods of handling those deemed “extremists.” In December 2018, a delegation from Hong Kong’s antiterrorism task force traveled to Xinjiang to study methods to combat terrorism and extremism. The task force included at least one official from the CSD. At that time, Major General Peng Jingtang was a top counterterrorism official in Xinjiang, serving as the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Armed Police. In January 2022, Peng became the commander of Hong Kong’s PLA garrison, and three months later, the CSD publicly revealed the existence of the deradicalization programs.