From website blocking to SIM card registration to bail denial and a major shakeup at the public broadcaster, more signs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s political, legal, and media controls have appeared in Hong Kong over the past month. The encroaching hand of Beijing was especially noticeable in three crucial areas: internet controls, criminal prosecutions, and public broadcasting.
Internet controls restricting free speech and anonymity, which recall those in mainland China, had not previously been evident in Hong Kong. But such controls are starting to emerge in the territory. On February 12, internet service providers blocked access to the Taiwan Transitional Justice Commission website, according to internet users and reporters who said they could only access the site through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). The latest block comes a month after authorities ordered a block on the activist website HKChronicles, a platform that had been used by activists to dox police officers (among them, those involved in attacking protesters) and expose pro-Beijing businesses.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong authorities proposed real-name registration for SIM cards, a common feature in mainland China and one method of surveillance over users’ telecommunication activities. The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau announced on January 29 it was launching a one-month public consultation on requiring real-name registration for prepaid SIM cards, due to the cards being “exploited by criminals in undertaking illegal activities.” While many countries around the world also require some form of registration, activists and protesters in Hong Kong commonly use prepaid SIM cards due to privacy concerns.
This may not be the only forthcoming legislation with media and internet freedom implications. During a February 4 address at the Legislative Council, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to introduce new laws on doxing, fake news, and hate speech. The Hong Kong Journalists Association immediately expressed concerns about some of the proposals, and noted that the doxing laws could be used to restrict legitimate reporting on individuals.
Hong Kong’s legal system continues to face significant pressure from the Beijing-imposed National Security Law as judges have started to hear freedom of expression cases connected to the law’s enforcement. On February 9, the city’s top court issued a landmark ruling creating a precedent against presumption of bail in national security cases. Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal judgment denied bail to media tycoon Jimmy Lai in connection with his arrest in 2020 for “colluding with foreign forces” under the National Security Law, including on the basis of his Twitter posts. The Court ruled that new, more narrow conditions in the National Security Law governing when bail may be granted superseded the existing Hong Kong bail rules. The judgment comes after the Hong Kong government appealed a High Court decision to grant Lai bail in December, and after Lam had appointed three judges to the court to hear national security cases. The ruling marks a significant shift in Hong Kong’s legal system that brings it closer to the mainland system, where bail is regularly denied.
Two days before the Court of Final Appeal ruling, Hong Kong national security officers arrested D100 Radio host Edmund Wan Yiu-sing on February 7 on four counts of committing an act with seditious intent under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance, over comments critical of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments that he made on four of his shows last year. On February 10, a chief magistrate rejected his application for bail after prosecutors argued that the National Security Law’s new bail standards applied because his case “involved behavior endangering national security,” citing the Court of Final Appeal’s judgment in the Jimmy Lai case. Wan faces a sentence of up to two years and fine of HK$5,000 ($650) if convicted. He was also arrested separately last year under the National Security Law on suspicion of aiding secession, among other charges.
These two cases come after the news that Hong Kong’s first National Security Law trial will not have a jury, a departure from Hong Kong’s long-standing common law legal system. In early February, Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng invoked Article 46 of the National Security Law to deny Tong Ying-kit, the first person to face trial under the law, the right to a trial by jury, according to media sources. Tong is charged with “terrorism” and “inciting secession” for driving his motorbike into a crowd of police officers while waving a flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.” Tong faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. Article 46 outlines instances where national security trials may go forward without a jury.
There was further erosion in Hong Kong’s media freedom following two major developments at public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). On February 19, Hong Kong’s government appointed a bureaucrat with no broadcasting experience to head RTHK, just ahead of the publication of a government report that said RTHK lacked “clear editorial accountability.” The RTHK staff union decried the move, saying RTHK has lost its editorial independence.
The shakeup occurred days after RTHK followed Chinese regulators’ move to ban the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) World Service on February 12. The then-RTHK head said he had ordered the move in line with Beijing’s ban, which followed a BBC report on sexual abuse of Uyghur women (and may have been made in retaliation for the revocation of Chinese state broadcaster CGTN’s license by the United Kingdom’s media regulator). While the BBC was previously accessible to only a small number of viewers in China, in Hong Kong, BBC World Service broadcasts were widely available on RTHK daily from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and in a weekly Cantonese-language radio show.
These developments in Hong Kong’s internet and telecommunication controls, legal system, and media landscape all indicate that features of the CCP’s system on the mainland are creeping into the territory. The Hong Kong government is slowly but systematically attempting to remove the separate mechanisms protecting the free flow of information and due process rights that Hong Kongers have enjoyed for years. With Hong Kong authorities firmly following Beijing’s lead, 2021 is certain to see further erosions in freedom of expression and human rights in Hong Kong.
Angeli Datt is a senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House.