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Hong Kong is safe from China’s Great Firewall—for now

A recent court ruling shows how it’s trying to tread a fine line in terms of internet freedom.

May 15, 2024
View toward Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong from the peak, partially obscured
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This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

We finally know the result of a legal case I’ve been tracking in Hong Kong for almost a year. Last week, the Hong Kong Court of Appeal granted an injunction that permits the city government to go to Western platforms like YouTube and Spotify and demand they remove the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong,” because the government claims it has been used for sedition.

To read more about how this injunction is specifically designed for Western Big Tech platforms, and the impact it’s likely to have on internet freedom, you can read my story here.

Aside from the depressing implications for pro-democracy movements’ decline in Hong Kong, this lawsuit has also been an interesting case study of the local government’s complicated relationship with internet control and censorship.

I was following this case because it’s a perfect example of how censorship can be built brick by brick. Having reported on China for so long, I sometimes take for granted how powerful and all-encompassing its censorship regime is and need to be reminded that the same can’t be said for most other places in the world.

Hong Kong had a free internet in the past. And unlike mainland China, it remains relatively open: almost all Western platforms and services are still available there, and only a few websites have been censored in recent years. 

Since Hong Kong was returned to China from the UK in 1997, the Chinese central government has clashed several times with local pro-democracy movements asking for universal elections and less influence from Beijing. As a result, it started cementing tighter and tighter control over Hong Kong, and people have been worrying about whether its Great Firewall will eventually extend there. But actually, neither Beijing nor Hong Kong may want to see that happen. All the recent legal maneuverings are only necessary because the government doesn’t want a full-on ban of Western platforms.

When I visited Hong Kong last November, it was pretty clear that both Beijing and Hong Kong want to take advantage of the free flow of finance and business through the city. That’s why the Hong Kong government was given tacit permission in 2023 to explore government cryptocurrency projects, even though crypto trading and mining are illegal in China. Hong Kong officials have boasted on many occasions about the city’s value proposition: connecting untapped demand in the mainland to the wider crypto world by attracting mainland investors and crypto companies to set up shop in Hong Kong. 

But that wouldn’t be possible if Hong Kong closed off its internet. Imagine a “global” crypto industry that couldn’t access Twitter or Discord. Crypto is only one example, but the things that have made Hong Kong successful—the nonstop exchange of cargo, capital, ideas, and people—would cease to function if basic and universal tools like Google or Facebook became unavailable.

That’s why there are these calculated offenses on internet freedom in Hong Kong. It’s about seeking control but also leaving some breathing space; it’s as much about looking tough on the outside as negotiating with platforms down below; it’s about showing its determination to Beijing but also not showing too much aggression to the West. 

For example, the experts I’ve talked to don’t expect the government to request that YouTube remove the videos for everyone globally. More likely, they may ask for the content to be geo-blocked just for users in Hong Kong.

“As long as Hong Kong is still useful as a financial hub, I don’t think they would establish the Great Firewall [there],” says Chung Ching Kwong, a senior analyst at the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an advocacy organization that connects legislators from over 30 countries working on relations with China. 

It’s also the reason why the Hong Kong government has recently come out to say that it won’t outright ban platforms like Telegram and Signal, even though it said that it had received comments from the public asking it to do so.

But coming back to the court decision to restrict “Glory to Hong Kong,” even if the government doesn’t end up enforcing a full-blown ban of the song, as opposed to the more targeted injunction it’s imposed now, it may still result in significant harm to internet freedom.

We are still watching the responses roll in after the court decision last Wednesday. The Hong Kong government is anxiously waiting to hear how Google will react. Meanwhile, some videos have already been taken down, though it’s unclear whether they were pulled by the creators or by the platform. 

Michael Mo, a former district councilor in Hong Kong who’s now a postgraduate researcher at the University of Leeds in the UK, created a website right after the injunction was first initiated last June to embed all but one of the YouTube videos the government sought to ban. 

The domain name, “gloryto.hk,” was the first test of whether the Hong Kong domain registry would have trouble with it, but nothing has happened to it so far. The second test was seeing how soon the videos would be taken down on YouTube, which is now easy to tell by how many “video unavailable” gaps there are on the page. “Those videos were pretty much intact until the Court of Appeal overturned the rulings of the High Court. The first two have gone,” Mo says. 

The court case is having a chilling effect. Even entities that are not governed by the Hong Kong court are taking precautions. Some YouTube accounts owned by media based in Taiwan and the US proactively enabled geo-blocking to restrict people in Hong Kong from watching clips of the song they uploaded as soon as the injunction application was filed, Mo says. 

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of internet freedom in Hong Kong? Let me know what you think at zeyi@technologyreview.com.


Now read the rest of China Report

Catch up with China

1. The Biden administration plans to raise tariffs on Chinese-made EVs, from 25% to 100%. Since few Chinese cars are currently sold in the US, this is mostly a move to deter future imports of Chinese EVs. But it could slow down the decarbonization timeline in the US.  (ABC News)

2. Government officials from the US and China met in Geneva today to discuss how to mitigate the risks of AI. It’s a notable event, given how rare it is for the two sides to find common ground in the highly politicized field of technology. (Reuters $)

3. It will be more expensive soon to ride the bullet trains in China. A 20% to 39% fare increase is causing controversy among Chinese people. (New York Times $)

4. From executive leadership to workplace culture, TikTok has more in common with its Chinese sister app Douyin than the company wants to admit. (Rest of World)

5. China’s most indebted local governments have started claiming troves of data as “intangible assets” on their accounting books. Given the insatiable appetite for AI training data, they may have a point. (South China Morning Post $)

6. A crypto company with Chinese roots purchased a piece of land in Wyoming for crypto mining. Now the Biden administration is blocking the deal for national security reasons. (Associated Press)

Lost in translation

Recently, following an order made by the government, hotels in many major Chinese cities stopped asking guests to submit to facial recognition during check-in. 

According to the Chinese publication TechSina, this has had a devastating impact on the industry of facial recognition hardware. 

As hotels around the country retire their facial recognition kiosks en masse, equipment made by major tech companies has flooded online secondhand markets at steep discounts. What was sold for thousands of dollars is now resold for as little as 1% of the original price. Alipay, the Alibaba-affiliated payment app, once invested hundreds of millions of dollars to research and roll out these kiosks. Now it’s one of the companies being hit the hardest by the policy change.

One more thing

I had to double-check that this is not a joke. It turns out that for the past 10 years, the Louvre museum has been giving visitors a Nintendo 3DS—a popular handheld gaming console—as an audio and visual guide. 

It feels weird seeing people holding a 3DS up to the Mona Lisa as if they were in their own private Pokémon Go–style gaming world rather than just enjoying the museum. But apparently it doesn’t work very well anyway. Oops.

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