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Hong Kong: Tech Companies Face Serious Ethical Decisions

As Hong Kong is transformed into a police state, Western companies, faced with demands for snitching on users, are rethinking cozy relationships with China

The semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong is no longer semi-autonomous, at least in practice. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), circumventing Hong Kong’s parliament and courts, passed the Hong Kong National Security Law on June 30 that effectively abolishes the “one country, two systems” regime outlined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

The law was passed one day before the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China (July 1, 1997), in time to quash any pro-democracy candidates who would likely win in the September elections.

Although the CCP justifies its moves from the Hong Kong Basic Law and claims that Hong Kong will maintain autonomy, in practice, it has already arrested dissidents and formed a secretive agency called the Office for Safeguarding National Security.

The 2019 democracy protests in Hong Kong provided Beijing with an excuse and the pandemic provided the opportunity to fully take control. China’s international influence is marred now anyway and most countries are distracted by the need to contain the pandemic at home.

As some Hongkongers have said, Hong Kong is now no different from any other Chinese city. As with other Chinese cities, the CCP has been quick to remove the freedoms that Honkongers have enjoyed, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. School curriculum is being revised and religious groups are being dismantled.

However, there is a difference: One Chinese journalist commented that Hong Kong will not be like Shanghai or any other Chinese city. It will be a police state like the Uyghurs’ Xinjiang, where constant high-tech surveillance results in a great proportion of the population being sent to concentration camps for reeducation. The aim is total control:

Hong Kong police made their first arrests last week under a sweeping new security law imposed by China, taking 10 protesters into custody. Six men and four women, ages 15 to 67, were arrested due to acts of inciting or abetting subversion or secession, police said. At least six possessed pro-democracy and independence pamphlets and poster bills that have been distributed during past demonstrations without triggering arrests, according to lawyers representing the protesters.

Police collected DNA samples from them and searched their homes — both rare occurrences, if ever, in more than a year of pro-democracy demonstrations in the territory, according to Janet Pang, a lawyer for several of the protesters.

Jamie Tarabay, “Arrested under new law, Hong Kong protesters get swabbed for DNA” at Bloomberg

Hong Kong has long served as the West’s gateway to China because, unlike the mainland, Hong Kong is (or was) a democratically run autonomous region, allowing for businesses, universities, and religious institutions to thrive apart from the CCP’s strictures. It was attractive to many businesses because it followed international business norms, while the mainland does not. An important factor was that businesses, universities, and religious organizations could operate outside of the “Great Firewall”—China’s guarded internet that ensures no encroachment of Western ideas on the Chinese internet.

Tech Companies Try to Avoid Snitching on HongKongers

When the Hong Kong National Security Law was passed, many Hongkongers downloaded VPNs (virtual private networks), which allow a person to log into a remote server. VPNs are the only way that mainlanders can access parts of the internet forbidden by The Great Firewall, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Many also started deleting their social media profiles because, as they have seen on the mainland and among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, anything you say or do on social media will be used against you by Chinese officials.

Facebook and two of its companies, WhatsApp and Instagram, as well as Twitter, Telegram, and Microsoft halted any data acquisition requests from the Chinese government in light of the passage of the Hong Kong law. Zoom, which came under scrutiny for shutting down a meeting commemorating Tiananmen Square as per the CCP’s request, has joined the group and halted data requests from Hong Kong officials. Tik Tok, owned by Chinese company Bytedance, has decided to move its business from Hong Kong because the new law would require businesses in Hong Kong to provide data to the Chinese government. Tik Tok has an alternative short video platform, Douyin, which is used by mainlanders.

Telegram, an encrypted messaging app that many of the 2019 Hong Kong protesters used to communicate with each other, was particularly adamant about respecting users’ privacy. Spokesman Mike Ravdonikas told Associated Press,

Telegram has never shared any data with the Hong Kong authorities in the past and does not intend to process any data requests related to its Hong Kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.

Zen Soo, “Facebook, others block requests on Hong Kong user data” at Associated Press

Google, Twitter, and Facebook have all released statements expressing concern for the implications of the Hong Kong National Security Law. None of these platforms is permitted on the mainland. Zoom and Microsoft are used in mainland China, but have likewise issued statements of concern (BBC). As noted at Vox, it “represents a rare moment when American tech companies question China’s tight grip on information.”

Apple has not made an official statement except to say that it is assessing the law. But then Apple has long been a China-friendly company, with many of its cell phone parts coming from Chinese factories (BBC). Indeed, owning an Apple iPhone is a status symbol in China, just as it is in many other countries.

How the National Security Law affects the rest of us

The security law has implications for you and me. For example, China has wielded its economic clout to get companies and organizations, such as Disney and the NBA, to comply with its rules against criticizing Beijing. But as Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian points out in Axios, it is now law, not mere policy.

If you are not hearing criticism of the regime from American sources such as these, that is not because there is no basis for it. They have made choices.

Today, anyone worldwide who speaks out for Hong Kong democracy or criticizes the CCP can be arrested if they enter Hong Kong for violating the Hong Kong National Security Law:

One of the main purposes of having the national security law is to quash the international front of the movement,” said Nathan Law, a Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker, who spoke to Axios after he fled the city last week… “For Hong Kong, we have to understand that it is the foreground of a very global fight, authoritarianism versus democracy.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian , “With new security law, China outlaws global activism” at Axios

Professor Donald Clarke of George Washington University told Axios that “[t]he point of the law isn’t necessarily to immediately launch a sweeping global dragnet, but rather ‘to put the fear of God into all China critics the world over.’”

Perhaps many critics will need to decide whether to fear God more or less than China.


Further reading:

China’s health code app: One more way to track citizens For the Chinese Communist Party, SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus) has provided an opportunity to expand its massive surveillance system. (Heather Zeiger)

and

The Age of the Wolf Warrior: China’s post-pandemic strategy. The younger diplomats take their cue from a Chinese Rambo-style movie and the rewritten history they learned at school. (Heather Zeiger)


Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Hong Kong: Tech Companies Face Serious Ethical Decisions